End of the line for portable hard drives? - TechCentral

End of the line for portable hard drives?

James-Francis-180A few years ago, I needed a new hard drive for my media centre. It became an agonising ordeal. Storage was expensive, but eventually a 1TB hard drive started costing only around R2 000. I jumped in, bought the drive and never looked back. It was my last personal storage purchase — the need for more storage has never arrived again, other than shuffling things around on USB sticks.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, 1TB is a lot. Unless you are a compulsive hoarder or insist all your — erm — acquired movies must be in 1080p resolution, there hardly exists a need to have a personal external that is larger. Note my language: “personal external”. Internal hard drives, especially in desktops, can still be large and there is a lot of scope for size in parts of the professional world.

On the other hand, external drives are almost certainly losing appeal in business circles, if only because keeping company data on a portable drive is foolish. Never mind how much cloud has eroded that part of the market. In South Africa the only real bulwark to large-scale cloud adoption remains the cost of broadband.

But drive manufacturers are fighting back. This week’s press release is from Western Digital (WD), arguably the best — or at least best-known — hard drive brand. It is one of the market stalwarts alongside Seagate, and both companies have been trying to carve new niches for their devices. In this release, WD touts its wireless-enabled My Passport portable drives, which allow other devices to connect easily to them through Wi-Fi. The new perks of these external drives are great: a wireless hard drive will definitely make my life more convenient. On the other hand, they appear to cost about twice as much as regular externals.

In addition, WD also markets an app that will make it easy to shift files from your wireless drive to a cloud service. This is obviously to meet a customer need: cloud is increasingly the home of storage for mobile device users. But it also seems a bit counterintuitive. If your customers move everything to the cloud, won’t they eventually stop buying your hardware?

Are we seeing the end of external hard drives for personal use? As mentioned at the start of this column, I haven’t bought a new drive in years and I don’t need to until my current data workhorse goes belly-up. At most I might have to get a second drive as a backup. But all my critical backups live on Amazon’s cloud service, which has just launched an unlimited storage option.

Hard drive manufacturers aren’t going extinct: the world needs more and more storage and they are the guys to provide that. But most of that storage is going online. Personal devices are on the decline. A 2013 report by Futuresource Consulting shows that sales in Europe have been declining since 2010. I think that is because the main game for storage — capacity — had stalled. Hoarding habits are not what they used to be and mainstream consumers increasingly store their content in the cloud or simply stream it.

The personal portable drive market is caught in a catch-22 situation. External drive prices are clearly stuck in a rut. Today you can expect to pay less than R1 000/TB and the most recent broadsheets from my local newspaper are even advertising 4TB capacities for less than R3 000. It has become so cheap to make hard drives that the profit is in selling capacity, but capacity is no longer a serious sales feature.

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Pushing premium devices like the My Passport Wireless would normally be a smart move, but the thing about a premium item is there needs to be real demand for its lucrative qualities. Does paying double just to get wireless access really solve any serious problems in our lives?

But let’s not be too sad about this. The reality is that personal portable storage was a brief golden age for the hard drive world, one that had its main run in the last 15 years or so. For a decade and a bit, WD, Seagate and their peers became household names, not obscure gear inside intimidating computers.

Solid-state drives (SSDs) are sometimes touted as storage’s second coming, but a lot of what that market can muster goes into phones or high-end servers, not consumer portables. SSDs aren’t even standard on most laptops.

So what is a hard drive manufacturer to do? While adding new features like wireless is a smart play, it’s not the long game. WD has more traction through its successful media centre family and that could serve it well. But for the hard drive, perhaps the giddy days of courting the casual consumer are fading.

I could be wrong, but adding features that double the price of your product in a depressed market is not going to make a difference. Not when you are already practically giving it away.

  • James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications
  • Read previous columns by Francis

9 Comments

  1. It’s definitely on the decline. Cloud storage and streaming of media is the future, but how secure and trustable is cloud storage? How much of your personal info and media are you willing to place in the hands of a foreign company, governed by foreign laws, and infested by the claws of foreign spy agencies?

    And don’t discount SSDs so quickly. As prices drop further, I reckon it WILL be the second coming. Once you go SSD, you can never go back. The performance gains over regular HDs are enormous.

  2. I agree on SSDs being a huge performance jump. But how many end users even care that much? Perhaps they are more likely to buy a notebook with an SSD, but will they cough up for a portable SSD? Perhaps SSD will one day cost the same for a TB as a regular HDD, but my point is whether portable drives will remain relevant enough for that to have an impact.

    As for cloud, yeah maybe where the data is will be a concern. But the main problem with local storage is redundancy. Drives break and you lose your data. Second is relevance: if I can’t find it, it may as well not exist. Cloud solves both those problems. I suspect the odds of Amazon or Google losing my data due to hardware failure is much lower than my own.

  3. The high capacity, high speed flash drives you can carry around on your key-chains are fast approaching the point where it will make very little sense to carry a harddrive around anymore. Back it up with a beefy harddrive in your pc at home and that’s all you need.

    I’ve actually already made the move. Almost as fast as my portable used to be and more than enough space to carry some stuff around.

  4. Agreed. In my comment I missed the “portable” angle you were getting at in the article.

    To drive your point home even further, I reckon that USB 3/3.1 drives will soon reach capacities, pricing and speeds to make portable hard drives obsolete. You already get very small mSATA SSDs (in comparison to regular 2.5″ drives) that would soon be able to fit into a thumbdrive enclosure. And with the higher power ratings of USB 3.1, there should be few obstacles left to get rid of external hard drives altogether.

    “Second is relevance: if I can’t find it, it may as well not exist.”

    The same applies to cloud storage, if you don’t have an internet connection, or a decent enough one to get your files down in time, or you can’t afford the cost of mobile data to download your large media/files while on the move/when you need it, then it might as well not exist. Of course, there is local caching of “some” of your online content when in range of a faster and cheaper WiFi/ADSL/fibre connection, but it isn’t as simple, accessible and reliable as a portable drive.

    Then you also need to consider that 1080p devices and content will become much more prolific than it currently is. After that will be 4k, 8k and who knows what. Youtube already offers 1080p 360 degree videos which allows you to rotate the view in any direction. This streams at close to what 4k streams require. All this bandwidth intensive streaming is going to need blisteringly fast and affordable internet connections. Or more portable drives / portable storage.

    So in conclusion, I think there are lot more issues to consider before proposing that the end-of-the-line is near. I can’t yet decide either way.

  5. One problem I have with flash drives is there is no standard to dictate speed. Unlike SD cards, which use a class rating, flash comes in all forms. Another is resilience – there is a limited amount of writes a flash drive can handle. The rate is very high – it can take several years to make a thumb drive defunct. But if you were to use a flash drive for something like booting an OS, it can degrade very quickly. This quality difference is not yet evident to end-users, but eventually we’ll need some sort of universal rating scale if they are to fully replace portables.

  6. I would not boot off a usb flash drive. I would also not use it for paging or any application that leads to many rewrites. I was simply referring to portable storage.

    For me looking at the advertised transfer rates and reviews is enough to make a decision.

  7. RegsWatcher on

    I’m afraid that I find myself crying Crocodile Tears. These are the same guys that hoodwinked the IEC into redefining the MB as 10^6 bytes instead of 2^10 bytes – a 7% rip-off.

  8. > Back it up with a beefy harddrive in your pc at home and that’s all you need.
    Er, no. Those things die, too, as I can assure you from bitter experience. And for those of us who no longer even have a PC at home, but rely on a laptop, the same issues arise.
    You have three choices:
    1 Local portable drives – use at least two, to back each other up, because they also die, often. You also need to be quite disciplined to do regular backups;
    2 Use the Cloud – if you not only have a fast enough connection, but one you can rely on to be available wherever you are;
    3 Spend the bucks for a multi-disk RAID (5, preferably) drive on some sort of local device on your home / office network
    I agree that memory sticks are great for carrying a few GB around with you, but they’re horribly unreliable – and frequently get lost 😉

  9. As long as South Africa’s ADSL condition remains as it is (that is, only slow speeds are viable for most South Africans) the external hard drive will be the de facto backup standard. This implies your standard platter-based 7200rpm/10000rpm stuff, just because price per GB is decent. I mean, if you’ve got cash to drop on a (admittedly far superior) SSD, you’d likely only need a small one because you can afford it (and the fast internet connection to go along with it).

    Try backing up large amounts of data to the cloud, and your internet connection will max the upload sync rate and still take a good few days. I agree though, cloud storage is the way, but the state of connectivity here is the same reason why Chromebooks aren’t all the rage either.