CAUTION: When dealing with adding, removing or replacing hard drives you should make sure that you have proper complete backup copies of all your files including the Operating System, Program Files, Your Data, Your Photo Library and your Photo Database.
As photography gains popularity and as photographers continue to shoot with ever increasing sizes of sensors creating larger and larger files, there is a point at which all hell breaks loose. At some point, if it hasn't already it will soon, your computer will run out of hard drive space.
What do you do when this happens? There are several basic options that most photographers turn to. But are these options the best choices? Let's look at some of these options, their strengths and weaknesses and lets then investigate yet another solution. Some of these options are better than others depending on your system, whether its expandable or perhaps a laptop. Note I will give some cautions along the way.
1 - The External Drive
The first and most obvious option is to simply add an external drive. At first thought this may be the easiest solution. Head to your local store, buy a cheap external USB drive, plug it in. done!
Well, not so fast. How does this solve your problem? Your main drive is full. All your images are on your main drive. Your photo editing software, let’s say Adobe Lightroom, is installed on your main drive but more importantly its pointing or is configured to look at your main drive. If you import new files from a memory card they will be copied to your main drive by default. It’s full. One can change the defaults so that new images are copied to the new drive.
This causes several problems. The first is that you will end up with images on your main drive AND on your external drive. This not only gets cumbersome but how do you then backup both of these drives? This make the whole process much more complex.
The bigger problem comes from the fact that your Database (yes the Lightroom Library is a Database) is a large file and along with created previews it will continue to grow as you add more images. Your main drive is full, so your Lightroom Library will not be able to grow.
Of course you can create more room on the main drive by moving all your images from your main drive to the new larger external drive. Not too difficult and not too messy to deal with in Lightroom as synchronizing images and folders is an easy task.
But, moving everything to an external drive has its own problems. External drives tend to be slow. Even USB 3 drives are slow in comparison to internal SATA drives. Other external drive options like FireWire400/800 or eSATA are also slow compared to full internal speeds. The new Thunderbolt connectors on Apple computers are screaming fast and work well. Thunderbolt connectors are now available on the newest high-end PC motherboards if you want a new custom PC built. However, Thunderbolt enabled external drives tend to cost a lot more than USB3 external drives. A new USB standard is on the way that will make NEW USB devices as fast if not faster than Thunderbolt but it is not available yet.
Another issue with external drives is backup. Backing up a slow external drive to another slow external drive is excruciatingly slow when you have a full Terabyte drive. Also, some laptops may only have one external USB connector and so copying will require an external USB hub which will further reduce speeds.
Lastly, most external drives are not very good. Many external drives fail because of cheap external power supplies, cheap internal electronics and worse, very cheap drives within the drive enclosures. I have even seen companies use cheaper drives from other manufacturers in their external drives! Some of us would consider this fraud and the manufacturers see this as a way of making more money. Another issue is that external drive enclosures capture the heat generated from the drive. This heat, is bad for the drive and thus reduces its expected life span.
Every year I have several club members and clients that have dead external hard drives. Often, they are relatively new as in just over 1 year to 2 years old, just out of warranty!
2 - Replace Your Main Hard Drive
Replacing your existing drive may be a good option. Not only will it give you more space if you upgrade to a much larger drive capacity like a 2 Terabyte drive or a 3 or 4 Terabyte drive. (Note not all older systems are capable of accepting 3 or 4 TB drives.) So doubling or quadrupling your drive space could potentially give you two to four years of extra photo capacity.
Replacing your main internal drive gives you a great added benefit. Most drives have a limited life span. Most manufacturers warranty their drives for only 1 year and a few specific more expensive models may have up to 3 years warranty. Manufacturers do this knowing that drives often start to fail in the 4th year. By replacing your main drive 'before' it fails, not only will it extend the life of your computer, but it will save you a ton of headaches if your drive had crashed.
By replacing your main drive and merely imaging your existing drive onto the new one (your OS, programs and data) it’s a quick and simple process. Once complete, if done correctly, you have nothing to change. No new drive letters, nothing to move, no settings to change. You just end up with a bigger drive.
A note on hard drives: most manufactures including the two largest (and best) manufactures Western Digital and Seagate, make consumer grade drives, mid-grade drives and enterprise grade drives. Obviously all at increasing costs.
These better quality drives are worth every extra penny. Some of these more expensive drives also give you the longer extended warranties. Note these same manufacturers also make 'green' energy efficient drives that consume much less power. These green drives also tend to be much slower and are not suited to main drives in a photographer’s computer. However they do make great in-expensive backup drives.
Its worth mentioning that these warranties only cover the cost of replacing the drive and not the cost of ANY data loss. Nothing beats having good backups!
Note with laptops that laptop drives are not available in large 2, 3 and 4 TB versions. Currently HGST (Hitachi) makes the largest drive in the TravelStar 1.5 TB. But changing from a 250 MB or 500 MB drive to a full 1 TB drive is a great option. Cease this opportunity to upgrade to a faster AND larger drive. Seagate makes a great 1 TB Hybrid drive that is part Hard Drive and part Solid State Drive that is an excellent fast option. The Seagate SSHD drive is available in both 2.5" Laptop and 3.5" workstation models.
A more recent problem re larger drives is that many of the newer ultra-portable ultra-slim laptops have SSD Drives (Solid State Drives) soldered directly on to the motherboard. These drives cannot be replace or upgraded.
Replacing a single main drive requires you to 'image' your existing drive onto the new drive. Basically this entails making an exact copy of your existing drive and copying all the information on it to a new larger drive. This can be done using specialized hardware or via software. Again, consult with your computer professional for help with this.
3 - Add a Second Drive
So another option and frankly a better option is to add another, a second, 'internal' drive. A word of caution here, adding another drive requires more power and some workstation computers have barely adequate power supplies in them to begin with, even if it’s a new computer. Make sure your power supply is capable of supplying good clean power to all your devices including your new added hard drive. Bad, and underpowered power supplies are the leading cause of computer lockups and system crashes! Adding a hard drive could create more problems and cause the power supply to fail completely. Consult with your computer professional before adding a second drive.
Having said that, a new high end higher powered power supply is not that expensive and could prolong the life of your computer. Adding a new Internal hard drive will add a ton of fast access space to your computer. But like in option one, you will need to deal with consolidating all your images into this new drive and then pointing Lightroom to the new location of your images.
The benefit here is that it gives you all the added space of the new drive and clears up all the space on your main drive that was previously taken up by images. Cleaning up your main drive and running a defrag utility could help speed up your system. Having dual drives, one for the OS and Programs and one for Data or Images will speed up your editing as both drives can run at the same time. Many good benefits here including the fact that you would not need to 'image' your main drive. The downside is that your older main drive would still be older and depending on how much it has been used and how old it is, it could fail soon if your system is 4 years or older.
Note that very few laptops are dual drive capable. Some of the larger 17" models and some of the business class 15" models have space for 2 drives. Check with your computer professional to see if your laptop is dual drive capable or check your laptop manufacturer’s website.
4 - Replace Your Computer
No matter which option you choose there will be some costs and some headaches. Again, no matter which option you use you will still have an older slower computer even if it does have more drive space. Perhaps this may be the time to replace your computer. If you are OK with the speed of your existing computer, and if it’s not too old, say no more than 4 years, then replacing or adding a second drive may be a good option that will see you through a few more years.
5 – Other Options
Two other options include using an external NAS (Network Attached Storage) device or using Cloud Based storage. But of these solutions have speed limitations that make working with images very cumbersome. These options are best suited for Backups.
In my next post we will look at what are the best options in the way of system configurations for creating value priced systems that work very well for photographers. So if your building or ordering a new computer, how should it be configured!
What's your take on this? Have you had internal or external drives fail? Have you gone through adding or replacing a drive? Did you run into problems? Please share with us.
© 2014 Francois Cleroux
Version 1.00 - January 2014
43° Mist and Fog - Vancouver, BC, Canada