The storage space race

Adam Turner
21 May, 2012
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Remember when a gigabyte was considered virtually limitless storage? Then the magical terabyte was more space than you’d ever need. These days, an explosion in digital content means you’d struggle to squeeze all the data in your average tech-savvy home on to a single terabyte drive.

It’s amazing how much data the modern home generates each year. Once upon a time we only needed to store a few business reports and school assignments. Now we need to make room for burgeoning music and video libraries, ripped from disc or downloaded from the internet. Just one movie alone can take up several gigabytes.

Added to this are our ever-growing albums of family photos and home movies, which are rapidly expanding thanks to the spread of iGadgets and the high-def revolution. Every time you upgrade your phone, tablet, camera or camcorder it probably spits out bigger photos and movies than ever.

You need to keep all these precious memories somewhere safe, where you can easily access them when you need them.

Solid-State Drives (SSDs) such as Western Digital’s SiliconDrive A100 offer faster access speeds and draw less power than traditional Hard Disk Drives.

Apart from movies and music, your iTunes app folder probably chews through a few gigabytes. Revamped apps designed to support the new iPad’s Retina display will see these files get bigger. You’ll need even more storage space if you’re using virtualisation tools such as Parallels or VMWare to run Windows on a Mac, storing entire operating systems as massive data files. It seems our appetite for storage is insatiable.

This explosion in home data means not only finding somewhere to store all these hefty files, but also ways to access them from afar and keep them safe should disaster strike. It’s tempting to just blindly throw more gigabytes at the problem, but it’s better to sit down and plan your storage requirements and backup regime before it’s too late.

Every hard drive fails eventually – it’s simply a question of when. Years from now, there’ll be plenty of people without baby photos to show at their 21st birthday after their parents lost everything in a high- tech disaster.

It’s important to appreciate that there are different types of storage designed to meet different needs. To some people storage is simply a place to dump big files, or a way to easily transport files between devices. For others, storage is a place to keep their music, movie and photo library, with the ability to stream it around the home or across the web on demand. Storage can also be a place to keep recent backups or an archive of old files. You’ll probably need a mix of these to store and protect your data, which could entail a combination of storage devices and services.


The obvious way to ease the storage squeeze is to drop a bigger hard drive into your Mac, but it’s not always a simple process.

The difficulty in upgrading the hard drive on a Mac depends on the model. Your first step should be to visit to check the upgrade instructions for your Mac and see whether Apple classifies the hard drive ‘user serviceable’. Apple recommends you use an Apple-certified technician when upgrading components.

A Phillips-head screwdriver should do the trick when upgrading the hard drive in a Mac Pro, while you’ll also need a special set of Torx screwdrivers when working with a MacBook or MacBook Pro.

Things get more complicated if you’re trying to access the drive inside an iMac or MacBook Air, as Apple doesn’t classify their hard drives as user serviceable. You’ll find online guides for switching the hard drives in these Macs, but proceed at your own risk. To further complicate things, you may find the drives use non-standard connectors. Whichever Mac you’re upgrading, you need to take care when it comes to static shocks damaging components. If you’re not confident poking around inside your Mac, you should consider paying a Mac dealer to install the new drive. Make sure you always back up all your important files before you hand your Mac over to anyone for a service or repair.

A simple drive dock such as Newer Tecñology’s Voyager S3 can be used when cloning an old drive – and can also give it a new life as an external drive.

Keep in mind that desktop machines tend to use 3.5in drives while notebooks rely on smaller 2.5in drives. In terms of value for money, the sweet spot is 2TB for 3.5in drives and 500GB for 2.5in drives. Modern Macs use SATA drive connectors, rather than the old P-ATA connectors. It pays to do your research to see if your Mac will benefit from the faster transfer speeds of a SATA-II drive.

Also pay attention to a hard drive’s RPM (Revolutions Per Minute) rating, which determines how fast the platters spin and thus how fast your computer can access the data. It’s worth paying extra for the performance boost of a 7200RPM drive over a 4200RPM or 5400RPM drive, but faster than 7200RPM is probably overkill unless you’re building a high-end video editing rig. Keep in mind that a higher RPM drive might reduce your battery life.

The big advancement with hard drives in recent times is the introduction of Solid-State Drives (SSDs) with no moving parts. They offer faster access speeds and draw less power than traditional Hard Disk Drives, potentially offering your Mac a significant performance boost. SSDs are still expensive, but thankfully the latest Mac Pro lets you use a mix of hard disk and solid-state drives.

Remember that you can still use your old internal drives for storage if you drop them into a drive enclosure or dock. These then connect to your Mac just like any external hard drive.


Before you open up your Mac, you’ll need to decide the best way to transfer your data from the old hard drive to the new one.

The easiest option is to make a perfect copy, known as cloning. You can’t do this by simply dragging and dropping all the files from one drive to another; you need special software. You might consider third-party software such as Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper!, but you can also use a Time Machine backup or Mac OS X’s built-in Disk Utility.

If you’re cloning your old drive using Disk Utility, you’ll need an external hard drive enclosure or dock. Slip your new drive into the enclosure and it becomes an external drive which can connect to your Mac via USB or FireWire. You’ll find one from the likes of Shintaro, Zalman, Astone and Newer Technology.

Check that it supports SATA or P-ATA, depending on your new drive, along with USB and/or FireWire depending on how you want to connect the enclosure to your Mac.

Once your new hard drive is in the enclosure or dock and connected to your Mac, you’ll need to restart the computer. You can’t boot from your old drive if you want to clone it. Instead you’ll need to boot from a Mac OS Install DVD or USB drive.

Rather than install Mac OS, launch Disk Utility and use it to ‘restore’ the old drive in the computer to the new drive in the external enclosure. You can now shut down your Mac, pop the bonnet and swap over the drives.

Cloning your old drive to your new drive sounds complicated but you’ll find handy step-by-step guides online. Cloning tends to produce more complete results than dropping in the blank new drive and restoring from a Time Machine backup.

Instead of cloning your old drive, upgrading your hard drive might present a good opportunity to do a fresh install of Mac OS or upgrade to a new version. One option is to swap the old drive for the new, install Mac OS X, put the old drive in an external enclosure and copy your files back. But a safer option might be to backup all the important files from your User folder to an external source such as a USB drive.

When looking for a backup device, you’ll find a wide range of external USB drives from the likes of Western Digital, Seagate, LaCie and Rocstor. If you’re looking for something portable, consider the Seagate GoFlex Ultra-portable, Western Digital Passport Essentials or OWC Mercury On-The-Go Pro.

If you’re backing up your data don’t just focus on your Documents folder. You’ll also want to consider your Desktop, Movies, Pictures and Music folders. After that you’ll need to dig around in your Library folder (which might be hidden – see www.macworld. for files such as your email inbox.

If you move your data between drives rather than cloning, you’ll still need to reinstall your applications and reconfigure a lot of your settings. You also might run into permissions issues when opening files.

Regardless of how you upgrade to a new drive, it’s a good idea to make a backup of all your important files first. Even then, don’t wipe your old drive until you’re sure the upgrade and data transfer has gone smoothly. You might even want to keep the operating system and data intact on the old drive as a fallback option should your new drive fail.


The Mac Pro has four SATA II drive slots, which you can use to create a RAID array.

Sometimes even one hefty internal drive just isn’t big enough for the job. That’s when you might consider joining several together in a RAID.

A Redundant Array of Independent Disks is a method of combining drives to boost performance and/or protect against drive failure – depending on how it’s configured. You can combine drives to create one extra-large virtual drive with fast read/write times, or mirror them for redundancy should one or more drives fail.

The Mac Pro is the only current Mac to officially support more than one internal hard drive, although you’ll find third-party kits for replacing the optical drive in some Mac notebooks with a second hard drive.

The Mac Pro features four SATA II drive slots – designed to hold four 1TB or 2TB 7200RPM hard disk drives, four 512GB solid-state drives or a combination of the two. You might opt to install Mac OS and your apps on a solid-state drive for the performance boost but move your User folder to a hard disk drive for the extra capacity.

You can use Mac OS’ Disk Utility to combine multiple drives into a RAID. If you’re after a performance boost you might consider Apple’s $799 Mac Pro RAID Card, although it’s probably overkill for your average user and it doesn’t support solid-state drives.


If all this talk of swapping hard drives and RAIDs makes you nervous, perhaps it’s easier just to clear some space on your existing drive.

The easiest way to make space on your Macs’ internal hard drive is to move some files to another storage area. Where you put them depends on what they are and how often you’ll need to access them.

If you want to burn data to an optical disc and have a MacBook Air, you’ll need an external burner such as Apple’s MacBook Air SuperDrive.

Probably the simplest and cheapest option is to burn files to blank DVDs, which hold 4.3GB of data. If you’re using a MacBook Air without an optical drive, you can burn discs over your home network using Remote Disc, but it’s slow. It’s often faster to copy the files to the remote computer first, or just bite the bullet and buy a USB DVD burner for your MacBook Air. Apple makes one called the MacBook Air SuperDrive ($89), and there are also plenty of third-party options as well.

If you need more space than a 4.3GB disc offers, consider using dual-layer DVDs or perhaps investing in an external Blu-ray burner. Mac OS doesn’t support playing Blu-ray movies, but you can still burn files to blank Blu-ray discs.

Remember, if you burn files to a disc and then delete them from your computer, that disc contains the only remaining copy of those files. If they’re something precious like family photos, you’ll want to make more than one copy and store a copy offsite to protect against fire, flood and theft.

Don’t be fooled into a false sense of security – hard drives and optical discs don’t last forever. Even Verbatim’s Gold Archival Grade DVDs are only designed to last ‘up to 100 years when properly stored’. That’s assuming we even have DVD readers in the 22nd century.

If you really want documents and images to last you should consider printing them on paper. Choosing the right inks and paper will help extend their lifespan.

Store your prints in dark, cool and dry place, separated by acid-free paper. If you’re putting your prints in an album, choose one that uses acid- free materials. Avoid albums containing self-stick pages coated with an adhesive as it can damage your photos.


The Seagate GoFlex Thunderbolt Adaptor lets you connect any GoFlex drive to your Mac’s Thunderbolt port.

The problem with archiving files to paper or optical disc is that they’re not immediately at hand when you need them. Thankfully, there are other ways to move files off your computer but still keep them within easy reach.

The simplest option here is to invest in a desktop drive which attaches to your computer via USB, FireWire, eSATA or the new super-fast Thunderbolt. This way you can add terabytes of storage to your Mac while keeping your existing internal drive, so you don’t need to pop the bonnet and mess around with disk cloning. Your attached desktop drive shows up in the Finder as an extra drive.

You’ll find USB 2.0 ports on every recent Mac but Apple has held off on embracing USB 3.0. That’s OK because new USB 3.0 drives are backwards compatible with USB 2.0. Apple hasn’t backed external SATA either, which is becoming common in the Windows world, but if you’ve got a Mac Pro you can add eSATA and USB 3.0 expansion cards if you feel the need.

FireWire 800 is missing from the MacBook Air but you’ll still find it on other new Macs.

The sweet spot for desktop drives is around $100 for 1TB of storage and you’ll find offerings from the usual suspects such as Western Digital, Seagate, LaCie, Rocstor, Buffalo, ioSafe, Freecom and OWC.

In the past few years Apple has embraced a new high-speed connector known as Thunderbolt, offering data speeds up to 10 Gigabits per second. Thunderbolt is based on PCI Express and DisplayPort, offering support for both high- resolution displays and high-speed data transfers. We’re finally starting to see Thunderbolt-compatible desktop drives emerging from the likes of LaCie and Western Digital.

Thunderbolt is clearly the future of Mac connectivity and it’s built into every new Mac except the Mac Pro, which is well overdue for a hardware refresh as it hasn’t been updated since July 2010. The lack of a Thunderbolt update has driven rumours that Apple may plan to phase out the Mac Pro.


Desktop RAIDS such as the Drobo 4-Bay Direct-Attached Storage are about speed and availability.

If you’re after extra external storage and perhaps a performance boost, you might be tempted by a desktop RAID drive.

Desktop RAIDs such as the Drobo or Rocstor Arcticroc are overkill for your average person, but they might catch the eye of power users, professional video editors and the like. They’re about fast data speeds and high availability.

Pull a hard drive out of a five-bay Drobo and it won’t miss a beat, whereas most other RAID drives would still protect your data but need downtime to rebuild the RAID. The Drobo also lets you mix and match drive sizes while sacrificing less storage space in the name of redundancy.

If you need that kind of data protection while on the move, you can even find tiny two-drive RAIDs to take on the road such as OWC’s Mercury Elite-AL Pro Dual mini and NewerTech’s Guardian MAXimus mini.


Desktop drives and hefty RAIDs might be handy for Macs which don’t go anywhere, but they’re not all that practical when it comes to Mac notebooks.

The easiest way to expand the storage on your portable Mac is with a USB stick. These days you’ll pick up a 32GB model for less than $50, which should be more than enough room if you’re looking to lug around large files and perhaps backup important documents.

You’ll also find tiny USB sticks which only extend a few millimetres from your computer, such as the Lexar Echo ZE, which are perfect for leaving permanently attached to your desktop or notebook. Alternatively you’ll find SDXC card slots in the new MacBook Pros and an SD card slot on the 13in MacBook Air.

The sweet spot for SD cards is around $30 for 16GB. You’ll pay more for cards with faster read/write speeds such as the SanDisk Ultra and Extreme cards.

Unfortunately, the tiny 11in MacBook Air lacks an SD card slot, even though it’s the model which could most do with a storage boost. Thankfully, you’ll find that many USB mobile broadband sticks and Wi-Fi hotspots feature a microSD card slot, letting them double as a storage device while you’re on the road. Once again the microSD sweet spot is around $30 for 16GB.


If you need more storage in your travel bag, consider a portable hard drive.

Keep in mind you’re paying extra for portability, compared to desktop drives, as the sweet spot for portable drives is around $100 for 500GB models. You’ll also find 750GB and 1TB models. Check for connectors such as USB and FireWire depending on your needs.

Portable drives are generally smaller and lighter than desktop drives because they contain 2.5in hard drives rather than 3.5in ones. Another advantage is that they’re usually powered from your Mac rather than requiring a separate power supply like most desktop drives.

The trade-off is that portable drives contain moving parts, so they’re more fragile than USB sticks and SD cards. As such, portable drives obviously don’t respond as well to drops or extreme temperature fluctuations.


Many NAS drives, such as D-Link’s Sharecenter Pulse, offer remote access.

When it comes to home storage, a handy alternative to external drives is a central Network Attached Storage drive. A NAS is basically an external drive with an Ethernet port instead of (or as well as) a USB port. This Ethernet port makes a NAS a sensible way to consolidate your storage space while making it accessible to all the devices connected to your home network via Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Just like with an external drive, your files are still at your fingertips via the Finder on your Mac.

A NAS is a handy storage location for automatically backing up files from your notebook and desktop computers, although transfer speeds aren’t as fast as internal and external drives. Your portable devices also lose access to the NAS once you’re beyond the range of your Wi-Fi network, although a growing number of NAS drives also offer remote access such as Apple’s Time Capsule and D-Link’s Sharecenter Pulse.

Once connected to your network, a NAS should show up in the Mac OS X Finder as a shared drive. Along with holding backups it can also act as general storage space and a home for your music and video library.

Many NAS drives support DLNA for streaming music and video to a wide range of devices around your house. Some devices will also play music and video via Samba networking, which doesn’t require the storage device to be a DLNA server.

Some NAS drives can also act as an iTunes server for streaming content to a computer, but keep in mind the Apple TV generally refuses to play content from an iTunes-enabled NAS. The Apple TV only plays files from a computer running iTunes or from an iGadget using Home Sharing (unless you hack the Apple TV to add extra features – see

You could sync your music and video collection from iTunes on a computer to the original Apple TV’s hard drive, for playback while your computer is shut down. Such functionality has been lost with the newer, hard-drive-less Apple TVs.

The 5.0 software update for the second and new third-generation Apple TVs lets them stream music from the cloud using iTunes Match, but the option for streaming previously purchased movies doesn’t work for the Australian iTunes store.

If you’re looking for a basic NAS drive consider a QNAP’s TS-112, Buffalo’s LinkStation, Western Digital’s My Book Live or Apple’s Time Capsule. Alternatively D-Link’s DNS-313 Sharecenter is a hard drive enclosure with an Ethernet port for connecting to your home network and a USB port for connecting to your computer.

If you’re on a tight budget, it’s also possible to make your computer’s hard drive visible to other devices on your home network. On a Mac, look under Sharing in System Preferences.

This can make a viable alternative to a dedicated NAS if you leave your computer running 24/7, such as a media centre in the lounge room or a dedicated media server tucked away in the study.

One advantage of using a computer is that you can run a wider range of media downloading and serving software, although some NAS drives can also run extra software such as BitTorrent clients.

Another cheap network storage option is to hang USB storage off your networking gear, a feature supported by a wide range of third-party home routers. Some also offer remote access to this storage space via the internet. You can attach USB storage to Apple’s Airport Extreme or Time Capsule and access it via the Finder or Back To My Mac, but not the Airport Express.


The QNAP TS-219P is a Network Attached Storage drive that is RAID-enabled.

If you’re after extra storage space and advanced features, consider using a RAID-enabled NAS
drive at the heart of your home network.

The key advantage of a RAID- enabled NAS is the extra data protection of redundant drives should one drive fail. These high- end network drives are also more likely to offer advanced features such as iTunes, DLNA and FTP

servers along with other remote access options. If you’re after a RAID-enabled NAS, consider a QNAP TS-219P, Netgear ReadyNAS, Thecus, Drobo, Iomega Storecentre, Seagate BlackArmor, Synology DiskStation, OWC Mercury Elite-AL or Rocstor Guardian.


Network Attached Storage offers a storage boost and a backup repository, but it’s not a foolproof data protection strategy.

A NAS drive protects your files against hard drive failure and perhaps theft, depending on where you hide it around the house. But you’re still in trouble in the event of fire, flood or a major power spike which fries all your electrical gear. It’s still vital to keep an offsite copy of your really important files.

One option is to copy important files to external media and store them offsite, but you might also consider the automation and convenience of an online storage service.

In the past few years we’ve seen a boom in online storage services such as DropboxJungle Disk, CrashPlan, Carbonite and Mozy. They all work basically the same way, installing software on your computer which automatically checks for new or changed files and uploads them to the cloud. The key differences are the desktop operating systems they support, the remote access options and the pricing structures.

Most services offer you a few gigabytes for free and then offer several tiers of pricing, charging a fixed rate per month for a fixed amount of storage. A few, such as Jungle Disk, charge only a few dollars per month and then a few cents per gigabyte with no storage limit. Jungle Disk also lets you use several computers with the one account. You need to crunch the numbers to see which service is most cost-effective for you depending on the amount
of data you want to backup and the number of computers you want to protect.

CrashPlan is interesting in that, along with online storage, it also lets you automatically back up files to your friends’ computers and vice-versa. Dropbox offers similar features, although it’s primarily designed to sync folders between your own devices.


Meanwhile, Apple has revamped its online storage options with the launch of iCloud. Apple’s old iDisk storage service will be discontinued on 30 June 2012, when MobileMe is decommissioned. Files stored on iDisk will not be automatically migrated to the new service and will be lost come July if you don’t make other arrangements.

iCloud lets you retain your email account along with MobileMe’s sync features for calendars and contacts. It has also added new cloud- based features, such as Photo Stream which can automatically upload photos from your iGadgets so they appear in the cloud, on your other iOS devices and on your Mac (in iPhoto or Aperture). Photo Stream only syncs via Wi-Fi to avoid the risk of 3G bill shock.

These desktop syncing features require you to upgrade your Mac to Lion.

At first glance iCloud might seem like the perfect backup and storage environment, but it has significant limitations compared to other cloud storage/sync services. While iDisk was designed for Macs, iCloud is primarily targeted at iOS devices such as iPhones and iPads.

iCloud lets you sync iWork documents between devices, but unfortunately these features are very iOS-centric. New Pages, Numbers and Keynote files created on iOS5 devices can be automatically synced to iCloud, with the option to disable 3G syncing and limit it to Wi-Fi. These documents are automatically updated on other iOS5 devices.

You can also set your iOS5 devices to automatically backup photos, accounts, documents and settings to iCloud, as well as sync purchases between devices. Unfortunately, these iWork documents aren’t automatically downloaded to your Mac, not even if you’re running Lion and the latest upgrades for iWork 09.

The only way to work on iCloud documents on your Mac is to open iCloud in your browser, drag and drop a file to your desktop and then open it with an iWorks program. Once you’ve finished editing the document, you need to drag and drop it back into iCloud using your browser.

Apple’s iCloud gives you some online syncing features, but has many flaws.

Thankfully, these drag-and-drop features aren’t reliant on Lion, so you can use them with Windows or earlier versions of Mac OS. There is a partial syncing workaround on Lion using a hidden Mobile Documents folder, but the results are hit and miss and it’s still not seamless.

The lack of iWork desktop integration with iCloud is a very disappointing arrangement considering the flexibility that third-party sync and backup services offer. Many Mac users understandably expected more. It remains to be seen if the next version of iWorks and Mac OS will let you edit documents directly in iCloud.

iCloud’s focus on iOS comes at the expense of other desktop features. Unlike iDisk, iCloud doesn’t show up as a Shared drive in the Finder on your Mac. As such you can no longer use standard backup software, such as Apple’s Backup or third-party applications, to backup all the important files from folders on your Mac. Nor can you point iCloud at a desktop folder and automatically back it up to the cloud, as you can with most third-party services.

Unless you live an incredibly iOS-centric life, Apple’s iCloud is unlikely to meet all your offsite storage, backup and syncing needs. That’s why it’s important to sit down and consider your needs rather than putting all your eggs in one basket. The perfect storage solution for your home will most likely be a mix of external and network storage combined with the cloud.

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  1. Trevor says:

    Drobo doesn’t run as fast as one would think.
    OK for a backup drive no good as a video editing drive in it’s current state.
    I believe it may have something to do with the drivers for Lion.
    I get better throughput with a single FW800 drive, however this means no redundancy.

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