Best Mac RAID drive 2013: 6 reviewed and rated
6th May 2013 | 07:00
Keep your data safe with a RAID drive
Backing up your data every now and again is not enough. Using an online back-up service such as Crash Plan or Mozy isn't enough (although off-site back-up should be part of your overall strategy).
If your internet connection goes down at the same time as your hard drive fails or you inadvertently wipe that important file, no online back-up will save you.
A scheduled local back-up routine is critical. And for that, you'll need a backup destination you can trust to look after your data. You could use any old hard drive, but in the unlikely event the drive fails just when you need to restore from it, you'll have a problem.
A mirrored RAID drive massively reduces that problem. These drives, which house multiple disks, copy your data in its entirety to more than one disk. In the case of the drives we have tested here, each has two disks and each disk has identical data. Thus, if one disk fails, your data is safely stored on the other.
What's more, on most of the drives on test, you can easily whip out the failed disk, pop in a new one, and the RAID array will re-build itself. That configuration is known as RAID 1.
The drives here can also be configured as RAID 0, which stripes data across the disks, allowing your Mac to copy data to two disks simultaneously and thus significantly speed up the process - though in this case if one drive fails, you lose the entire array.
In both systems however, the drive appears as a single volume in the Finder, to keep everything simple. We've put six RAID drives through their paces to find out which is best. Two of them can only be connected to a Mac with Thunderbolt, but the other four can be hooked up to any Mac with USB 2, and two of those support the latest, ultra-fast USB 3. The others can connect using FireWire 800.
We put each through our battery of tests and benchmarked each one for speed. And from the results, we'll tell you which one will do the best job of looking after your data.
Test one: Build quality
How robust are the units holding your data?
The primary purpose of the drives on test is to provide a destination for data back-up. That means you need to be able to trust that the chassis in which each is housed is robust.
While both the Buffalo and Western Digital drives have plastic cases, both look and feel tough enough to inspire confidence. But the LaCie, CRU-DataPort and G-Tech drives look and feel like they could survive fire, flood and a hefty earthquake and still keep your files safe.
There really is no substitute for a metal case when it comes to protecting a hard drive, and the brushed aluminium finish of the LaCie and G-Tech units means they manage to look stylish too.
Choosing between the four drives is as tough as the units themselves, but in this instance the LaCie drives' single weak spot, a plastic switch, is enough to squeeze it out. And while the CRU-DataPort unit looks like you could hit it with a hammer and the hammer would come off worst, it has plastic buttons and a screen, which could be vulnerable.
Test two: Ease of set-up
Is it really as simple as plug and play?
All the drives on test came configured as RAID 0, except for the CRU-DataPort, which was helpfully configured as RAID 1. Had we needed to change the configuration on that box, however, it would have proved much easier than any of the others, thanks to its hardware RAID controller, LCD and front-mounted buttons.
The only other drive on test that supported hardware configuration was the LaCie 2big Quadra. That has inset switches on the back and comes with a special tool that allows you to press them. However, it is a little fiddly, and you need to make sure you read the instructions particularly carefully beforehand.
Of the others, the WD and Buffalo have proprietary RAID management tools, while both the Thunderbolt drives rely on OS X's Disk Utility in order to change the RAID settings. That's okay, but Disk Utility is not the friendliest tool to use. LaCie provides some detailed instructions, whereas G-Tech simply points you to Apple's support website.
Test three: Extra features
Little extras can make all the difference
The Buffalo and LaCie 2big USB 3 both have USB 3 connectors. While only the most recent Macs support this version of USB, it offers significant speed improvements over USB 2 and FireWire 800.
Both LaCie drives also come with Intego Back Up Manager Pro, while the WD My Studio II has a proprietary set of software tools on CD. The My Book Studio II also has a useful capacity gauge on the front and offers USB 2, FireWire 800, and eSATA connectors.
The G-Tech G-Raid has the same connectors as the My Book Studio II and includes a FireWire 800 to FireWire 400 cable in the box, as well as a standard FireWire 800 cable; useful if you have an older Mac or want to daisy-chain older FireWire peripherals.
The CRU-DataPort also has a FireWire 800 to 400 cable, and includes a copy of ProSoft's Data Backup. LaCie deserve special praise for including a Thunderbolt cable in the box with its drive. There's no cable with the G-Tech G-Raid with Thunderbolt. A narrow win for the My Book Studio Pro II in this test.
Test four: The drives in use
How do the drives perform day-to-day?
Once you've set up your RAID drive and scheduled backups, you should be able to forget it. But there are a couple of issues worth considering.
The first is heat generation. These drives may well be running 24/7 so reducing the amount of heat they produce is important. The My Book Studio is the only drive on test that doesn't have a fan, relying instead on a 'chimney' convection cooling system.
The Buffalo, CRU-DataPort and G-Tech units all have fans that blow air out the back. But the LaCie drives have fans and a chassis designed to dissipate heat, in the same way as a CPU heatsink does. Also, the Buffalo is very noisy in use.
The other issue is the ease with which a drive can be replaced; the point of RAID 1 is redundancy. The G-Tech doesn't offer that at all, and while the WD does, it's fiddly. The Buffalo is better, while both the LaCie and CRU-DataPort have lever-based systems for sliding drives out without opening the case. The CRU-DataPort offers extra security, allowing you to lock the bays.
The winner: Lacie 2Big Quadra 4TB
Choosing a back-up destination is one of those rare occasions when the differences in price between the drives on test is relatively unimportant. Will you care that you saved yourself £50 if the drive you buy fails when you need it most?
Nevertheless, the price of the CRU-DataPort drive compared to the other non-Thunderbolt drives is just too high to name it as winner. Likewise, neither Thunderbolt drive offers enough to justify the premium price.
Of the three that are left, two have plastic cases making them less robust than their metal-enclosed competitors. For that reason, along with the ease with which failed disks can be replaced, and the inclusion of USB 3 and FireWire 800, the LaCie 2big Quadra USB 3 is our winner this time around.