Best NAS Hard Drives: Seagate vs Western Digital

Keep your data spinning flawlessly and fast through your network with the best NAS drives.

Credit: Western Digital

Populating your NAS with drives could be as simple as dropping in the cheapest drives that meet your capacity needs, but that's a path fraught with peril.

While just about any NAS will take a standard 3.5 inch or 2.5 inch drive, the reality is that NAS use introduces some very particular strains on hard drives that make it a much smarter move to buy drives built for that purpose. Regular old hard drives will work for sure, but they'll also typically fail within a NAS enclosure  at a much faster rate. Did you really buy a NAS to lose all your data? Chances are you didn't.

Even within a properly configured RAID array, where the failure of a single disk might not take out all your data, the cost and time of replacing a disk isn't insubstantial. If you've invested in a NAS, whether it's as a home server or to store and run your business documents

Testing NAS drives is a less than precise process. Realistically the only way to do so would involve potentially years of testing over hundreds of drives to eliminate small scale batch issues and ensure identical usage patterns. Even then, variability could lead figures astray.

We're not presenting this list as a grouping of tested drives, but more an informed look at the drives and technologies you should consider when buying drives to populate a NAS -- or replace drives that have recently failed.

Seagate IronWolf

Credit: Seagate

Capacities: 1TB-16TB

Expect to pay: $100-$800

Seagate's base line NAS-capable drives sell with IronWolf branding, and they're built with specific technologies on board to maximise their effective lifespan.

These include vibration sensors -- Seagate dubs them "AgileArray" that minimise vibration, which is important if you're putting them into a NAS with multiple drive heads. They're sealed drives that use helium internally to reduce friction on drive plates for even more durability over the (hopefully) long life of each drive.

Buy it now via Amazon

Seagate IronWolf Pro

Credit: Seagate

Capacities: 2TB-16TB

Expect to pay: $200-$950

Seagate's Pro line of drives includes a range of features -- and some storage capacities -- that you don't find on the regular IronWolf drives. For a start, they're all 7,200RPM drives, where that speed is only found on the higher capacity models of the regular IronWolf drives.

Warranty time is also extended to 5 years, and for drives of 4TB or more, you also get 2 years of access to data recovery services if your IronWolf Pro drive does fail. IronWolf Pro drives are engineered to work in larger drive arrays than the regular IronWolf drives, but that does mean that they might be overkill if you're working with, say, a 4-drive NAS bay.

Buy it now via Amazon.

Seagate IronWolf SSD

Credit: Seagate

Capacities: 240GB-3.8TB

Expect to pay: $140-$1300

SSDs aren't typically recommended for NAS use because very few of them are built with 24/7 runtime in mind, and failure states on SSDs are usually immediately terminal rather than an issue of developing faults as you'd find on a traditional mechanical SSD. Seagate's SSD-variant of its IronWolf line of drives bucks that trend, with a claimed mean time before failure (MTBF) of 2,000,000 hours, along with the speedy access you'd expect from an SSD drive. They are -- as you might expect -- a little more expensive on a per-TB basis, and they don't scale up in size to the same extent as its regular or Pro edition mechanical drives.

Buy it now via Amazon.

Western Digital Red

Credit: Seagate
Credit: Western Digital

Capacities: 1TB-14TB

Expect to pay: $100-$800

Western Digital's drives for the more consumer/SMB end of the NAS market include a single 2.5 inch model at 1TB, and a variety of sizes for more standard 3.5 inch drives. They're often very competitively priced, although it's worth noting that the regular Red drives are all 5,400RPM models, so they're not quite as quick as some competing drives. If you want that kind of speed out of WD, you'll need to step up to the Red Pro drives instead.

Buy it now via Amazon.

Western Digital Red SA500 SSD

Capacities: 500GB-4TB

Expect to pay: $127-$990

The SSD version of Western Digital's Red drives brings with it the expected speed boosts you can get out of solid state storage in either a 2.5 inch or M.2 form factor, although predictably they don't boost up to the kinds of storage sizes you can get in a mechanical drive. Additionally, the top tier 4TB drive is only sold in a 2.5 inch enclosure. Still, with read speeds of up to 560 MB/s, and a claimed MTBF of up to 2,000,000 hours, they're a good alternative if you're after the maximum speed in a smaller form factor.

Buy it now via Western Digital.

Western Digital Red Pro

Credit: Western Digital

Capacities: 2TB-14TB

Expect to pay: $190-$800

WD's more enterprise-centric NAS drives add a number of features for your buying dollar that bring them above the regular Red drives. For a start, they're all 7,200RPM drives, and the warranty period bumps up by two years with five years of total coverage. The Red Pro disks do use a little more power to spin up, but they're also equipped with better vibration protection -- WD's fancy term for this is "3D Active Balance" -- which again is more important if you're throwing a large number of these drives together. At the time of writing, however, the top-end 14TB drives are a little tricky to come by.

Buy it now via Amazon.

Why should you buy a NAS-specific hard drive?

There's no doubting that hard drive manufacturers charge a premium for their NAS-ready drives, which might make you tempted to save a few bucks, or score a few more TB of storage by opting for a group of standard desktop drives.

Credit: Seagate

They'll work, but that's not a wise plan. Standard desktop drives aren't built to run 24/7, so putting them into a NAS is like giving them the worst possible stress test, only it's your data that's at risk. At best, you're likely to be replacing those desktop drives sooner than a comparable NAS-ready hard drive, wiping out any cost saving you might have made. At worst, if you had a multi-disk failure across multiple desktop drives, you could end up losing your vital data entirely.

That's also leaving aside the specific differences that NAS-ready drives include, most of which are designed to maximise drive life. There's an awareness that a NAS drive is probably going to sit in a hot environment -- the inside of a NAS bay is rarely all that cool -- and one with substantial micro vibration, thanks to all those other drives around it. They're typically built and balanced to survive a little better than your everyday standard drive.

So what should you look for in a NAS drive? 

Rotational speed of the drive is one factor. Some drives will operate at only 5,400RPM, while higher-end models may offer 7,200 RPM speeds. The relative level of cache on the drive will also affect performance, with 64MB a bare minimum you should look for. 

Storage capacity is also obviously key, but the setup of your NAS RAID array can affect the overall storage size you'll actually see. The very top end of NAS drives right now tops out at around 16TB, although if you want a NAS-ready SSD, you'll top out around 8TB, and typically at a much higher price point.

Then there's the question of noise and power. Drives built for NAS use are typically balanced to minimise noise, but the larger the array of disks you've got sitting and whirring away, the more noise you can expect. If you're placing a NAS in a family area or in the middle of a small office, having a quieter system can be a real boon. One easy way to combat the noise issue is to opt for NAS-capable SSD drives, because there are no moving parts in play there.

The power usage of a drive should also be considered, especially if you're using a NAS bay with more than 4 drives. The cost of your NAS isn't just in the price of the enclosure and the drives, but also how much it's going to add to your power bill. There's a generally direct correlation here to the speed of your drives and their power usage, however, so you need to balance your needs and budget carefully.

Credit: Synology

One of the major benefits of opting for a NAS-specific drive is that they usually carry longer warranty periods than standard desktop drives. For ordinary NAS drives 3 years is common, with the pro and enterprise-grade models often providing 5 years of warranty coverage. 

However, it's worth knowing that while you're covered under warranty for NAS drives, in many cases that warranty only covers the regular performance of the drive, not the data that you store on it. If the drive fails within warranty, you're entitled to a new, blank drive, but not the cost of your data recovery if that's important to you. A NAS can be part of a backup strategy -- but it shouldn't be your only backup!

Some enterprise-level drives do include access to data recovery services if there is a failure event within the warranty period, but if that's important to you, you'll need to choose your drives carefully.

Credit: Synology

Still can't decide between Seagate and Western Digital, check out this comparison of the two brands storage products here.

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Alex Kidman

PC World
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