In our series of Hard Disk Drive guides, here’s the latest update to our list of recommended HDDs. All numbers in the text are updated to reflect pricing at the time of writing.

Best Consumer Hard Drives: February 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. Since the release of the fall HDD guide coinciding with Seagate's launch of the Ironwolf Pro and Exos 18TB drives, and Western Digital's introduction of the 16TB and 18TB WD Red Pro models, we have seen the availability of the high-capacity drives improving. The Seagate Exos series again presents compelling price points across almost all capacity points. Synology recently 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.


Seagate and Western Digital's Latest 18TB Hard Drives

From a gaming perspective, install sizes of 100s 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. Our guide has an explicit suggested option for that scenario also.

February 2021 HDD Recommendations
Drive Segment Recommendations
High-Capacity Desktop 14TB Seagate BarraCuda Pro $549
14TB Toshiba X300 $463
Mid-Capacity Desktop 10TB Seagate BarraCuda Pro $340
High-Capacity NAS 18TB Seagate Exos Enterprise $454
Cost-Effective High-Capacity NAS 14TB Seagate Exos X16 $269
Mid-Capacity NAS 8TB WD Red Plus $227
8TB Seagate IronWolf $200
Power-Efficient, Low-Noise, High-Capacity 14 TB WD Red Plus $387

There are three active vendors in the consumer hard drive space - Seagate, Toshiba, and Western Digital. Seagate and Western Digital offerings top out at 18TB for the SMB market, while Toshiba has capacities of up to 16TB.

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.

  1. Seagate BarraCuda Pro
  2. Seagate IronWolf NAS
  3. Seagate IronWolf Pro NAS
  4. Seagate Exos Enterprise
  5. Toshiba N300
  6. Toshiba X300
  7. Western Digital Gold
  8. Western Digital Red
  9. Western Digital Red Plus
  10. Western Digital Red Pro

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. That said, the specifications are very similar, as we noted in the launch article.

Metrics that Matter

One of the easiest ways to narrow down the search for a suitable hard drive is to look at the target market of each family. The table below lists the suggested target market for each hard drive family we are considering today.

Hard Drive Families - Target Markets
Drive Family Target Markets
Seagate BarraCuda Pro Desktops and All-in-Ones
Home Servers
Creative Professionals Workstations
Entry-Level Direct-Attached-Storage (DAS) Units
Seagate IronWolf NAS NAS Units up to 8 bays
(Home, SOHO, and Small Business)
Seagate IronWolf Pro NAS NAS Units up to 24 bays
(Creative Pros, SOHO, and Small to Medium Enterprises)
Seagate Exos Enterprise Datacenter and Bulk Cloud Storage
Toshiba N300 NAS Units up to 8 bays
Toshiba X300 Professional Desktops, Home Media or Gaming PCs
WD Gold Datacenter and Bulk Cloud Storage
WD Red NAS Units up to 8 bays, Read-Intensive and Archival Workloads
WD Red Plus NAS Units up to 8 bays
WD Red Pro NAS Units up to 24 bays

After filtering out models that don't apply to your use-case (as an example, for usage in a 4-bay NAS enclosure, one could rule out the Toshiba X300 straight away), we can then take a look at how the specifications of various drive families compare.

Hard Drive Families - Metrics of Interest
Drive Family Rated Workload (TB/yr) Rated Load / Unload Cycles Unrecoverable Read Errors MTBF (Hours) Warranty (Years)
Seagate BarraCuda Pro 300 300K 1 in 10E15 1.0M 5
Seagate IronWolf NAS 180 600K 1 in 10E15 1.0M 3
Seagate IronWolf Pro NAS 300 600K 1 in 10E15 1.2M 5
Seagate Exos Enterprise 550 600K 1 in 10E15 2.5M 5
Toshiba N300 180 300K 1 in 10E14 1.0M 3
Toshiba X300 N/A (72?) 300K 1 in 10E14 0.6M 2
WD Gold 550 600K 1 in 10E15 2.5M 5
WD Red 180 600K 1 in 10E14 1.0M 3
WD Red Plus 180 600K 1 in 10E14 1.0M 3
WD Red Pro 300 600K 1 in 10E14 1.0M 5

Based on these metrics, it is clear that the enterprise drives (Seagate Exos Enterprise and WD Gold) are rated to be more reliable in the long run over a big sample set. However, most consumer use-cases do not need a 550 TB/yr workload rating. 180 - 300 TB/yr workload rating is plenty reasonable for most users when the drives are going to be used as part of RAID arrays.

The BarraCuda Pro strikes a nice balance across many metrics, but it is rated only for 300K load / unload cycles. It also doesn't have the RV sensors present in the rest of the drives (other than the Toshiba X300).

In considering the non-enterprise drives, we note that the 'Unrecoverable Read Errors' metric is 10x worse for the WD and Toshiba drives compared to the Seagate ones. The MTTF metric for the IronWolf Pro is slightly better than the other drives (at 1.2M vs. 1M hours).

One of the aspects not mentioned in the above table is that the WD Red and Red Plus drives are in the 5400 RPM class, while the rest are all 7200 RPM. From a raw performance perspective at equivalent capacity points, these might not win on benchmarks, but, it is likely to be the most power efficient and have the best noise profile of the lot. Another aspect to be kept in mind is that the WD Red line is now exclusively SMR-based, with the CMR drives moving to the WD Red Plus line. Unless the consumer is technically savvy enough to understand the pitfalls of SMR and its applicability to the desired use-case, the SMR-based WD Red line is best avoided.

Pricing Matrix and Concluding Remarks

The matrix below shows the current pricing for each available capacity point in all the considered hard drive families.

HDD Pricing Matrix (as of February 3, 2021)
Cheapest Drives for NAS in Bold, AT-recommended Drives In Green
Drive Family 18TB 16TB 14TB 12TB 10TB 8TB 6TB
Seagate BarraCuda Pro - - $549 $407 $340 $155 $133
Seagate IronWolf NAS - $470 $409 $310 $269 $200 $163
Seagate IronWolf Pro NAS $576 $503 $460 $373 $290 $252 $200
Seagate Exos Enterprise $454 $335 $269 $460 $223 $176 $170
Toshiba N300 - - $450 $320 $270 $178 $163
Toshiba X300 - - $463 $330 $265 $165 $146
WD Gold $580
($540 promo) (Newegg)
$515 $451 $387 (Newegg) $290 $265 $190
WD Red - - - - - - $146*
WD Red Plus - - $387 $310 $259 $227 -
WD Red Pro $609 $505 $458 $409 $321 $274 $195

The desktop storage market is a straight shoot-out between the Seagate BarraCuda Pro and the Toshiba X300. The capacity for this market segment tops out at 14TB. Toshiba consistently beats Seagate's pricing at every capacity point. That said, the higher capacity versions of the Toshiba X300 use 9 platters, and consume more power compared to the corresponding BarraCuda Pro. The Seagate pricing also includes data recovery service during the warranty period. For the extra cost, we get a much higher workload rating, better reliability, and three extra years of warranty. So, this is a case where the benefits outweigh the cost, and our recommendation goes to the costlier of the two drives – the Seagate BarraCuda Pro, though the X300 might also be considered if one has hard budget limitations.

 

Prior to commenting on the other possible use-cases, one thing is clear from the above pricing matrix - if you absolutely require 18TB per disk, the WD Gold, WD Red Pro, Seagate IronWolf Pro, and the Seagate Exos Enterprise are your only choices for purchase in the retail market currently. The Exos Enterprise 18TB drive had seen a significant price increase from $496 back in October 2020 to $600 at the time of writing the last guide. However, we see it even cheaper at $454 now. Despite the $40 dicount for the WD Gold 18TB at Newegg, the Exos X18 turns out to be $86 cheaper. The IronWolf Pro variant of the same capacity is holding close to its launch price of $575.

On the SOHO / SMB NAS front, the Seagate Exos series, despite its enterprise background, continues to make a strong case across multiple capacity points. The only places where the WD Red Plus could edge out as a better choice are scenarios where the power consumption needs to be kept low. The 6TB WD Red is also the lowest-priced 6TB currently in the table, but it is a SMR drive and is not recommended for most use-cases. The IronWolf NAS models deliver slightly better performance compared to the WD Red due to the 7200RPM nature, but, have correspondingly higher power consumption numbers. On the SMB / SME NAS front, the WD Red Pro has started reaching better price points compared to previous quarters. However, the IronWolf Pro significantly undercuts it across a majority of the capacity points.

Based on the above analysis, the recommendations for the NAS drives are clear - for the absolute highest capacity drive currently in the market - Seagate IronWolf Pro, WD Red Plus when performance is not as important as overall power consumption and low noise profile, and the Seagate Exos Enterprise drives otherwise. This is assuming that the user has adopted the 3-2-1 backup rule and doesn't foresee the need for a data recovery service (DRS). The IronWolf Pro NAS and the BarraCuda Pro both bundle the DRS. This needs to be taken into account while considering the pricing difference against other drives in the same capacity class.

 
 

Finally, a note on shucking – buying a relatively cheap external hard disk (such as the 14TB Western Digital Elements with a re-labeled / firmware-modified WD / HGST Ultrastar HC530 DC for $259), removing the internal drive, and using it in a NAS or as an internal desktop drive in the place of a more costly drive ($387). While this is easy enough to do, the user experience might not be optimal - obtaining warranty services is pretty much ruled out, the default TLER settings might need alteration (which is not always possible with commercial off-the-shelf NAS units) and so on. We believe this is not worth the trouble for most readers unless the money spent is to be treated as sunk cost, and the drive is going to be used in non-critical scenarios.

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  • schujj07 - Thursday, February 4, 2021 - link

    The recommendation of the Seagate BarraCuda Pro & Toshiba X300 for a 14TB drive in a high capacity desktop makes absolutely no sense. Both the WD Gold & Seagate Exos Enterprise come in SATA drives which will work fine for the desktop. Not to mention they are cheaper than the consumer drives. On top of that the WD Gold is essentially an Ultrastar HC530 which would have the HGST media cache which increases the write IOPS of the drive. When the Ultrastar HE8 came out, that 7200RPM drive had write IOPS of a 2.5" 10k drive due to this caching. I believe that technology has stayed in the drives. Reply
  • eastcoast_pete - Thursday, February 4, 2021 - link

    Agree! Just like in the last "consumer hard drives" recommendations, I don't think that list makes much sense. Unless the 14TB Exos is unusually slow or noisy, it is clearly the better choice over the other "recommended" drives here, and gives a lot more storage for the money. So, question: what are the downsides of the Exos if used in a NAS or even just desktop? Reply
  • heffeque - Thursday, February 4, 2021 - link

    Just as a heads up, NAS do need (or it is highly recommended to use) NAS specific drives.
    Why?
    Because error correction is handled in a totally different way.
    A consumer HDD will make RAID rebuilding a total nightmare.
    Also a large amount of consumer HDD are SMR instead of CMR, so that's also a huge no-no on a NAS.
    Reply
  • PaulHoule - Thursday, February 4, 2021 - link

    I think there is a problem with way too many SKU's for HDD's. Why is there both IronWolf and Exos? Would people feel their life was meaningless if they couldn't get a NAS drive for their NAS and had to settle for an enterprise drive instead?

    When you give people too many choices they shut down. They decide to store their files in S3, get an SSD, or just delete the junk from their NAS rather than enlarge it.
    Reply
  • schujj07 - Thursday, February 4, 2021 - link

    In this case the Seagate Exos Enterprise is a full on Data Center drive designed to be used in SANs. Our backup NAS where I work uses WD Ultrastar HC530s, basically the wholesale version of the WD Gold mentioned here. The Data Center drives are designed for even heavier usage than NAS drives and are a lot faster overall. Reply
  • rkagerer - Thursday, February 18, 2021 - link

    I bought 13 Seagate Exos 16TB drives (ST16000NM001G). The price is great, but be forewarned they are NOISY as heck. They thunk like HDD's from 20 years ago. Reply
  • rkagerer - Thursday, February 18, 2021 - link

    Clarification: The noise is while they're active. When idling they aren't much louder than typical HDD's. (You can google "Exos noise" for more detail) Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, February 4, 2021 - link

    Do note that the Barracuda Pro comes with 'data recovery service' at no extra cost. For desktop usage as single drives, this DRS is a value addition that makes sense. In addition, NAS drives (particularly enterprise) are tuned for performance, while desktop drives also take noise into consideration. (For example, IIRC, WD Gold is around 31-36 dB, while Barracuda Pro is between 28-34 dB).

    Of course, for advanced users the suggestion of the Gold and Exos Enterprise makes sense, particularly if the workloads are expected to be heavy.
    Reply
  • Gothmoth - Thursday, February 4, 2021 - link

    best is to shuck drives out of wd elements.

    i have bought 10 helium filled 12TB drives over the last 12 month and it saved me a ton of money.
    190 euro instead of 300 euro per drive.

    i do that for a decade now and never had issues with shucked drives.
    Reply
  • Gothmoth - Thursday, February 4, 2021 - link

    ps: warranty. no problem at all. many tech YT have send shucked drives to WD and got them replaced. i keep the cases stored away. in case a drive fails it is reassembled in 4 minutes. Reply

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