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Holiday Gift Guide: External Disk Drives

Welcome to TUAW's 2011 Holiday Gift Guide! We're here to help you choose the best gifts this holiday season, and once you've received your gifts we'll tell you what apps and accessories we think are best for your new Apple gear. Stay tuned every weekday from now until the end of the year for our picks and helpful guides and check our Gift Guide hub to see our guides as they become available. For even more holiday fun, check out sister site Engadget's gift guide.

One of the most popular accessories for any Mac is an external disk drive. Whether you're using a Mac Pro to edit video professionally or a MacBook Air as an email and web-browsing tool, an external drive is useful for backups or providing additional storage for files that would overwhelm the internal drive in your Mac. In this edition of the Holiday Gift Guide, I'll describe some of the choices you may wish to consider when thinking about purchasing an external drive.

Sizing An External Drive

If you're using an external drive for Time Machine backups, you need at least 1.2 times the maximum amount of space on your primary drive for Time Machine to work. As a rule of thumb, I've always recommended buying a drive at least twice the size of your primary drive. If your primary disk drive can provide up to 1 TB of storage, get a 2 TB external disk drive. That will be large enough to store a bootable clone of your drive plus a good number of Time Machine backups.

My personal rule of thumb is to get us as much hard drive as you can afford, and the recent bump in drive prices due to the Thai floods means that you're going to pay more for the capacity you need. What this means is that a 2 TB drive that was available for about US$60 back in the summer of 2011 is now pushing $170. Be sure to check the prices for any drive before you make your purchase, as pricing is very volatile at this time.

Portable Drives

Owners of MacBooks -- Airs, Pros, and the regular old garden variety MacBook -- are probably more in need of external drives than desktop owners. Laptops have a higher probability of being dropped or stolen, so keeping them backed up is important. If you happen to buy the low-end MacBook Air with a built-in SSD, you only have 64 GB of storage, so an external drive might be a necessity to store media files.

Portable drives should be light, durable, and bus-powered to be truly useful to the MacBook owner. The last thing you want to have to do is carry around an AC power adapter for your hard disk drive; you should be able to just plug it in and use it. Fortunately, most of these drives are bus-powered USB 2.0 or FireWire 400/800 models, so you're in luck.


Some of my personal favorites at this time include the Iomega eGo Helium Portable Hard Drive ($149.99 for 1 TB, $99.99 for 500 GB), the OWC Mercury Elite Pro mini ($265 for 1.5 TB, $119.99 for 320 GB), and the LaCie Rugged Hard Disk ($159.99 for 500 GB).

Desktop Drives

Have an iMac or a Mac mini? A desktop disk drive is the answer for your storage and external backup needs. Desktop drives are characterized by larger physical size, external power requirements, and generally lower prices than portable drives.

The least-expensive desktop drives are connected to your Mac through a USB 2.0 cable, while more expensive drives will also include a FireWire 400 or 800 port. You can also purchase Thunderbolt-equipped desktop drives, which are included in the next section of this gift guide and work with most new Macs.

For iMacs, one of the best-looking and relatively fast drives is the Iomega Mac Companion ($239.99 for 2 TB, $369.99 for 3 TB). Western Digital's MyBook Studio is another large-capacity drive at a bargain price -- the drives originally retailed for $249.99 for 3 TB of storage, although the hard disk shortage at this time is driving prices much higher.

Performance Desktop Drives and RAID

For those who are using their Macs for video editing or who need mass amounts of storage, performance desktop drives and RAID arrays are a good idea. When I'm referring to performance desktop drives, I'm talking about those that are generally fast drives with a fast interface. Solid State Drives (SSDs) are in this category, as are Thunderbolt drives. RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives) uses two or more drives to provide either speed or redundant mass storage that can withstand the loss of a drive.

Solid State Drives are getting bigger and faster, and for many newer Macs, they're a built-in feature or configure-to-order option. External SSDs are silent and fast, making them popular with a growing number of Mac users. OWC's Mercury Elite Pro mini drive can be configured with a 480 GB for $899.99 -- expensive, but very fast.

Drives using the fast new Thunderbolt interface are still rare, but are starting to appear from many mainstream drive manufacturers. LaCie's Little Big Disk Thunderbolt series comes in 1 TB ($449.95), 2 TB ($549.95) and 240 GB SSD ($899.95) editions to fill your need for speed.

Two RAID drives that I tested in 2011 were the WiebeTech RTX220-QR ($499 with no drives, $1099 with two 3 TB drives installed) and the CRU-DataPort ToughTech Duo QR ($429.99 with no drives from some retailers, price varies on size and use of HDD or SSD in the array). The latter drive is quite portable. The RAID products from Drobo remain popular despite being somewhat slower than traditional arrays, with the traditional FireWire 800 / USB 2.0 4-bay Drobo available empty (bring your own drives) for $399 and the 8-bay DroboPro for $1,499 (empty, supply your own drives as needed).

The Cloud Alternative

If your needs for backup space and storage aren't huge, and if you have a relatively fast broadband connection, then maybe you should consider the cloud alternative. There's no need for a physical external drive; you're just sending bits to a drive somewhere on the Internet.

For backups, there are several very good services that work seamlessly with Mac OS X. Some of my personal favorites are Backblaze ($50 a year for unlimited storage), Dolly Drive ($96/year for 250 GB of Time Machine-compatible cloud storage), and Carbonite ($59 annually for unlimited storage).

I like to work with documents in the cloud, since it's easy to collaborate with co-workers and also use files between devices. Apple's iCloud (free for 5 GB of storage, $100 a year for 50 GB), Dropbox (free for 2 GB of storage, $99 a year for 50 GB), and Box (free for 5 GB of storage, 50 GB for $19.99 per month) are all well-known and respected cloud services for Mac and iOS.

Conclusion

An external disk drive is a gift that remains useful for a long time. Although prices are a bit higher this year than before, there are still some bargains to be had if you shop around. In this gift guide, I've just named a few drives that I'm familiar with, but you can find many other models by perusing the websites of the manufacturers.



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Accessories

In this edition of the Holiday Gift Guide, I'll describe some of the choices you may wish to consider when thinking about purchasing an external drive