If you’re constantly running out of space for your projects or backups, now is a great time to buy an external hard drive system. Prices are low, capacities are high and there’s a great choice of models on the market. Devices have evolved hugely since the days when we all had identical blue LaCie drives on top of our Power Mac G4s. Now there are affordable models tailored to the type of work you do, to your backup needs, and even to match the design of your computer, monitor or studio space.

Beyond your need to have a storage system that coordinates with your curtains, the first question is whether you’re after a fast media drive to work on media directly from, or a secure backup drive, or both. After this, there are three key considerations when choosing a desktop storage device: connectivity, drive arrangement, and unique functionality.

Models reviewed

Buffalo DriveStation 2Share
Data Robotics Drobo
G-Technology G-RAID 3
Iomega UltraMax Plus
LaCie Hard Disk Max
Seagate FreeAgent XTreme
Sonnet Fusion F2

The most common standard for connecting storage devices to computers is the ubiquitous USB 2.0, which has a maximum data transfer rate of 480Mbps. A PC or Mac without USB 2.0 ports is unheard of these days, but it’s the slowest of the common standards. FireWire has a transfer rate of 400Mbps, which is technically slower than USB 2.0 – but it’s actually faster in practice.

FireWire 800 offers twice the speed of standard FireWire – 800Mbps – but few computers outside of Apple’s Mac Pro workstations and MacBook Pro laptops offer it. This is because not many PCs offer FireWire 800 as standard, and if you’re going to add an interface board for faster connection, you’re better served by eSATA. This has a transfer rate of 1.5Gbps (or1,500Mbps) or 3Gbps, depending on the version.

All the hard drives we’ve looked at here with eSATA port offer the 3Gbps versions, but many older drives use the slower standard.

Devices with eSATA or FireWire 800 are essential if you want a media drive and work with motion media. Units with USB 2.0 or FireWire provide enough speed for backup drives, and some designers and illustrators will find performance using such drives good enough to use them as media drives.

To take full advantage of the faster transfer rates of FireWire 800 or eSATA, you need a drive system with fast access to your data – which requires a multi-drive device. These usually contain two or four hard drives. Models with three or five drives are available, but they’re rare. Models with six or more drives inside them also exist, but due to high cost are generally used only with high-end video-editing or VFX suites.

Most desktop devices use 7,200rpm hard drives for a balance of speed and price – though there’s a lot of variance in quality between the drives used in different models. Higher quality drives are faster, in part due to having larger caches for quickly accessing recently used data. The drives used in the models we’ve looked at here range from 320GB to 1TB, though expect to see more capacious devices launched later this year following recent launches of a 1.5TB drive from Seagate and a 2TB drive from Western Digital.