If you’re thinking about jumping into the NAS game and are shopping around for high-capacity hard drives, not just any hard drive will do. Here’s what you need to know.
It’s easy to think that all hard drives are equal, save for the form factor and connection type. However, there’s a difference between the work your hard drive does in your computer versus the workload of a NAS hard drive. A drive in your computer may only read and write data for a couple hours at a time, while a NAS drive may read and write data for weeks on end, or even longer. This is why it’s important that you get the right hard drive for the job, and that goes doubly for drives you stick in a NAS. Let’s a take a deeper dive.
NAS Hard Drives Are Built Specifically for a NAS Environment
The environment inside of a NAS box is much different than a typical desktop or laptop computer. When you pack in a handful of sweaty hard drives close together, several things happen: there’s more vibration, more heat, and a lot more action going on in general.
To cope with this, NAS hard drives usually have better vibration tolerance and produce less heat than regular hard drives, thanks to slightly-slower spindle speeds and reduced seek noise.
Furthermore, NAS hard drives come with specialized firmware that’s specific for use in a Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID) setup. RAID allows you to spread out data across multiple drives (depending on which RAID setup you go with), while your NAS see all these drives as just a single storage pool.
In short, the firmware on a regular desktop hard drive will force it to continuously try and recover a piece of data if a sector on that drive goes bad, which can result in timeouts. A NAS hard drive, on the other hand, won’t keep trying and trying. Instead, it simply reports an error so that the RAID controller can get the needed data from a different hard drive in the RAID setup.
Can I Still Use a Regular Hard Drive in a NAS, Though?
One big factor that people can notice right away about NAS hard drives is that they’re slightly pricier than their standard, non-NAS counterparts. This is thanks to the special features we just mentioned, as well as a beefier warranty that some manufacturers provide for NAS-specific drives (although you can score NAS hard drives for cheaper by “shucking” external hard drives). This may lead you to using regular hard drives for your NAS if you’re on a budget, which is completely understandable.
We’ll say this: hard drives made specifically for NAS boxes are still relatively new to the market, and they really didn’t become a thing until maybe five or six years ago. Before then, people just used regular hard drives in their NAS setups.
However, NAS hard drives are a real improvement. While you can technically use regular hard drives in a NAS setup if you really want to, you won’t get the same level of reliability and performance that you would when using hard drives specifically made for a NAS.
How Do I Spot a NAS Hard Drive?
So now that you know the differences between a regular hard drive and one that’s meant for a NAS, how exactly do you know which is which when you’re out shopping for drives?
Most of the time, manufacturers put the word “NAS” somewhere on the packaging and on the hard drive itself, but usually the model name will get higher preferential treatment, and it’ll be something unique to the manufacturer. Here are the model names from a few of the top hard drive manufacturers:
If you’re buying used, you might come across older models from the above companies with different names. Seagate’s older NAS hard drives, for example, just went by the name “NAS HDD” instead of IronWolf. Western Digital also had some older NAS drives that went by “Caviar RAID Edition” and “WD RE.”
As far as which model is the best, you honestly can just play a game of Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe to pick one. However, it’s at least worth knowing the failure rates of each hard drive manufacturer. BackBlaze kept track of their own hard drive failure rates and showed that Seagate was the worst offender. Of course, no matter the brand, any hard drive can fail at any moment for any number of reasons. I’ve personally never had a Seagate drive fail on me, whereas I have had a Western Digital drive fail.
Your mileage will vary as well, which is why your NAS should run in a RAID setup to keep things up and running should a drive fail at any point. Oh, and of course, you should still keep things backed up.