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Posted on Dec 16, 2021

Data storage requirements have kept increasing over the last several years. While SSDs have taken over the role of the primary drive in most computing systems, hard drives continue to be the storage media of choice in areas dealing with large amount of relatively cold data. Hard drives are also suitable for workloads that are largely sequential and not performance sensitive. The $/GB metric for SSDs (particularly with QLC in the picture) is showing a downward trend, but it is still not low enough to match HDDs in that market segment.

In terms of recent product introductions, we have retail availability of Western Digital's OptiNAND-equipped 20TB drives. Toshiba's 18TB drives using FC-MAMR, as well as Seagate's Exos 20TB and IronWolf Pro 20TB are also scheduled to make a retail appearance soon. With the HDD supply chain seeing some improvements, prices have largely stabilized. Some high-capacity models such as the Seagate IronWolf Pro line are currently running 15-20% lower than launch MSRPs.

Synology has introduced 8, 12, and 16TB enterprise hard drives (rebranded Toshiba Enterprise HDDs with custom firmware), but they are meant specifically for Synology NAS units (no warranties if used in other systems) and are not part of this buyer's guide. Toshiba's MG09 18TB HDDs based on FC-MAMR are yet to get retail availability, and are also not part of this buyer's guide

From a gaming perspective, install sizes of hundreds of GBs are not uncommon for modern games. Long-term backup storage and high-capacity NAS units for consumer use are also ideal use-cases for hard drives. The challenge in picking any hard drive, of course, is balancing workload needs with total drive costs. Most consumers in a non-business settings also require low-power and low-noise, yet, high capacity drives, which we're including as an explicit category as well.

In the current market, the WD Gold is the only available 20TB option. However, for consumers needing absolute lowest cost at other capacities, the Seagate Exos series fits the bill, with unbelievably low prices compared to other 'consumer' HDDs at similar capacity points. At other capacity points, the most cost-effective drives vary even when similar workload ratings are considered. It must be noted that the Exos series drives are relatively noisy and consume much more power compared to other drives tuned for specific use cases - such as the Barracuda Pro and Toshiba X300 for desktop usage, or the WD Red SMR drives for read-heavy / sparing writes scenarios.

There are three active vendors in the consumer hard drive space - Seagate, Toshiba, and Western Digital. Their retail offerings currently top out at 18TB, 16TB, and 20TB respectively.

Consumers looking to purchase hard-drives need to have a rough idea of the use-cases they are going to subject the drives to. Based on that, a specific set of metrics needs to be considered. We first take a look at the different metrics that matter, and how various hard drives stack up against each other. Since many hard drive families from different vendors can satisfy the requirements, it may all come down to the pricing. We will present a pricing matrix for various hard drive families against the available capacities.

For our guide, we're narrowing down the vast field of hard drives to the following models/families. In particular, we are excluding surveillance-focused drives such as the WD Purple or Seagate SkyHawk, since these drives are based on the same technology, but often carry a price premium. Meanwhile, we're also making sure to include some of the enterprise / datacenter SATA drives that are available for purchase from e-tailers, as these sometimes offer some great deals in terms of capacity-per-dollar. We have stopped considering the SMR-based WD Red in the guide - with capacities topping out at 6TB and being ill-suited for most NAS use-cases, it is a drive family that is best avoided for general usage.

A few notes are in order - the WD Ultrastar DC lineup which used to be in our earlier guides is not widely available in the North American retail market. We have replaced it with the WD Gold series. Toshiba's MG08 series includes a 9-platter 16TB CMR model. However, it is again enterprise-focused, and the retail market has to make do with the N300 and X300 drives for NAS and desktop systems. 

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