What hard drive to buy at the Apple Store

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’Twas the week before Christmas, and you’ve decided to give your loved ones the gift of data security or capacity — a hard drive for extra storage or backup. There’s no time to order something online, so you’re going to head down to the Apple Store. But looking for storage in the Apple Store can be daunting. When you step into the store, the smiling color-coordinated Apple employees will want to answer your questions about the iPhone and new iMacs. They want to interest you in the new MacBook Pro. They don’t, however, have a great deal of knowledge about storage.

When visiting the Apple Store, you’ll likely be confronted with a wall of drives, and picking among the brightly colored boxes is no easy task. In San Francisco’s two-story Stockton Street Apple Store, external hard drives are in a small corner of the second floor, right next to games. (It’s nice to know my two areas of expertise are stashed way in the back. Sigh.) At this store, Apple stocked products from a small selection of companies, mainly the big dogs: Western Digital, LaCie, Iomega, G-Technology (now owned by Hitachi), and Verbatim.

First, you need to establish what you want to get out of the drive. A good place to look is our data backup buying guide and storage buying guide.

Portable drives.: If you’ve decided on a portable drive, you have a plethora of bus-powered options. Verbatim’s SureFire, LaCie’s Rugged and Starck Mobiles, Western Digital My Passport Studio and My Passport for Mac, Iomega eGo and eGo helium, and G-Technology’s G-Drive Mini were all available at my Apple Store. They vary in price, from the relatively cheap WD models to the pricey G-Drive. All of these received good to great scores in our reviews.

If you’re looking for a great all-around portable drive, I’d go with the Iomega eGo line (Get Best Current Price). The eGo offers FireWire’s speed (it produced some of the best read/write scores in our lab tests) with USB’s versatility, ensuring virtually any machine can run the hard drive.

But if the intended recipient of the drive plans on tossing the device into a backpack or is perhaps a bit clumsy, then you’ll want more durability in your portable drive. The LaCie Rugged All-Terrain hard drive (Get Best Current Price) is a great option, offering more shock resistance than the Iomega eGo but sacrificing the speedier FireWire connection ports.

If you’re just looking for a solid portable drive that is more stylish than the rest, the USB-only LaCie Starck Mobile drive (Get Best Current Price) was my personal favorite at the Apple Store. Our lab tests found it to be one of the fastest USB-only drives on the market and it has a thick exterior shell that provides more protection than the average drive. Its built-in USB cable is also a pretty clever feature.

Most users want the ability to use an external hard drive as a backup source for Time Machine. Almost all USB or FireWire external hard drives are compatible with Time Machine, as long as the drive is HFS+ formatted. Depending on your computer’s hard drive and your storage needs, 320GB drives and higher should be sufficient for Time Machine backups. If you want more than 500GB, you’ll usually have to purchase a desktop hard drive.

Desktop drives: With laptops Macs being Apple’s biggest sellers, it’s not surprising that the Apple Store only has a few desktop drives in stock. Desktop drives, with their higher capacities, might be pricier overall (typically in the range of $150 to $600), but they often have a lower price per gigabyte. They also often have faster connection types, and cater to a crowd demanding of more high-end features. At my Apple Store, The Western Digital My Book Studio, the LaCie d2 Quadra, the Western Digital My Book Studio II, the G-Technology G-Drive, and the G-Technology G-RAID were all available to purchase. On the surface, there’s not much separating these drives. All offer large capacities (1TB-4TB) and four connectivity options. Each of these drives has its detractors and supporters as each is produced by one of the major storage companies.

Failures happen: Before asking advice at any Apple Store regarding which company’s drive you should buy, you should recognize that every drive will eventually fail. Some, of course, fail sooner than others. At any Apple Store (or Macworld editorial meeting) you’ll likely overhear a conversation like this: Person A claims they owned a hard drive made by X brand, and since it failed, they will never, ever buy another drive made by that company. Person B then says that they bought a drive from company Y and will never do so again because the drive failed, ruining their thesis/career/life.

But a drive with a RAID 1 mirrored array provides protection against data failure. If one drive fails, mirrored arrays ensure you still have the data by keeping a copy of it. Of the desktop drives in my Apple Store, only the Western Digital My Book Studio II (Get Best Current Price) offered the ability to configure the drive into RAID 1 array. With its two drives and a capacity of 4TB, the unit provides data protection and a large storage capacity—perfect for someone on your wish list who is swimming in media files.

A trip to the Apple Store shouldn’t be a headache. Most Apple stores will carry a decent (if not fantastic at smaller stores) selection of storage options. And most of these drives have been reviewed at Macworld.com—so browse our storage reviews before heading to the store.

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