Hard drives aren’t the catchall storage solution they once were. For most general PC users, we’d recommend you use an SSD for your boot and game drives, while only using hard drives for mass, longer-term storage of family photos and videos, and work document backups. That doesn’t mean you should be haphazard with how you choose your hard drive, though, as there are very real differences between different models and very real reasons why you might pick one over another.
Although different hard drive models have different specifications, and in some cases, features, they do all share an underlying technological base. All hard disk drives (HDDs) use spinning magnetic platters to store data, paired with a magnetic head attached to an actuator arm that read and writes the data to the platter as it rotates.
Some drives have more than one platter, some have different size platters, and some even fill the drives with different gases to affect performance, storage size, and durability, but at their heart, all hard drives are built on the same spinning platter technology.
Internal hard drives are the most common mass storage drives available today, and are sold in either 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch form factors. The larger size drives are available in the greater capacities, since they have greater space for more and larger platters, while the smaller drives tend to come in smaller capacities and are typically designed with laptops or small form-factor systems in mind.
Internal drives are connected to the PC using an L-shaped SATA cable, and are powered by a secondary L-shaped SATA 15-pin power connector. Both are necessary for the drive to function and be detected by the host system.
External hard drives are based on a mixture of bespoke hard drive enclosures with a hardwired drive inside, operating like a larger USB thumb drive, and external hard drive enclosures, which you can manually install internal hard drives in. The former tend to be leaner, and designed more for travel, making use of USB to power the drive while in use, whereas the latter are more like smaller networked attached storage (NAS) drive alternatives, and will typically require external power.
The term, “External hard drives,” can also colloquially be used as an umbrella term for any sort of external storage device that isn’t a USB flash drive. That can include both external hard drives and external SSDs, the latter of which are faster, but more expensive, than their mechanical hard drive counterparts.
The big difference between most hard drives is capacity. As hard drives are best suited for larger storage solutions, the amount they can actually store is usually their biggest selling point. Drives are available in capacities from 500GB, all the way up to 20TB at the top end, providing even those with the most enormous of game or media libraries all the space they need.
There are specific drives aimed at servers that can deliver speeds close to that of SATA hard drives, but those aren’t really geared towards general consumers, and in many cases use the SAS, rather than SATA interface, making them difficult to incorporate into standard desktop PCs.
For the most hard-drive uses, there isn’t much difference in the way of hard drive performance, between even the best and the more humble models. However, there is some major differences in how those hard drives approach storage. Notably durability, and features. Seagate offers a wide range of different hard drives, with some designed with specific use cases in mind.
The Seagate BarraCuda drives offer affordable performance for everyday use, and come in a wide range of capacities up to 8TB in 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch sizes. Seagate SkyHawk hard drives are designed for video surveillance systems, with clever AI technologies designed to minimize dropped frames and downtime in video recording or live viewing. They aren’t as fast as other hard drives, but they’re incredibly reliable and consume very little power.
IronWolf and IronWolf Pro drives are designed for NAS enclosures and arrays and offer industry-leading reliability and longevity. Standard IronWolf drives are available in capacities up to 12TB, while the Pro variants offer 14TB, 16TB, 18TB, and 20TB models for even larger storage arrays. They’re also designed to work 24/7, with anti-vibration dampening which makes them less susceptible to damage from working in close proximity to a larger number of similar drives.
These drives also come with free Seagate data recovery services, so if your data was lost in some surprise event in that drive’s first few years of life, Seagate would help you recover that data for free. This can be extended into the future with a subscription service.
Another popular hard drive manufacturer with an array of different HDD options, is Western Digital, or WD. Its range includes popular options like the affordable and popular WD Blue range of hard drives, which, like Seagate’s BarraCuda drives, are aimed squarely at the consumer market. It also offers WD Black drives which are aimed more at gamers for use as larger game drives – it even offers some bespoke external hard drives aimed at console gamers.
WD Red drives are Western Digital’s NAS range of drives, and offer greater reliability and come with noise and vibration protection, while WD Purple hard drives are marketed towards surveillance systems and are designed to improve video playback within a range of security solutions.
Although less common now than they were, there is also another class of hard drive known as a hybrid drive. These drives come complete with a few gigabytes of solid state storage bolted on to use as a cache. In the same way as high-speed SSDs use faster memory chips as a cache for improved performance, so do hybrid drives use SSDs. This results in drives that are faster than hard drives, while still being cheaper per gigabyte than SSDs.
In my experience you’re still better off having a separate SSD for your boot drive and game library, and a secondary hard drive to store photos, work documents, and family videos. But if your system won’t fit multiple drives, or you want the simplicity of a single drive with better performance than a traditional hard drive, hybrid drives are a viable alternative.
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