Reviews

External Hard drives and Next-Gen – how the WD My Book makes for better gameplay

4GB, 8GB, 16GB, 250GB, and now 500GB.  Let’s be honest here, game consoles are very, very far behind the PC in terms of storage capacity.  When games like The Last of Us Remastered take up 50GB of space, it’s very easy to see how far behind our consoles have lagged.  When these same boxes self-advertise as an all-in-one entertainment destination you can see how just a handful of games, movies, and music can consume the entirety of your limited space in a big fat hurry.  Being able to upload your save files to the clois a weak nod towards the power of cloud storage, but when you tick past your 500th or so song in Rock Band 3, and you toss in a few hundred more in Rocksmith, you’ve got a problem.   Your only solution is external storage.

About half way through the lifespan of the Xbox 360, Microsoft heard consumers cry out against their incredibly expensive hard drive solution, allowing users to utilize thumbdrives for storage on their flagship console.  This enabled a whole new generation of gamers to enjoy the experience of losing all of their save files when the cheap flash drives failed.  Same problem, new device.

Western Digital has been a longtime player in the storage world, and you are likely using their drives in more consumer devices than you might think.  My TiVo has Western Digital drives, and I’m using a TiVo-approved My Book to solve the same storage problem on that device.  Why couldn’t the same be true for my game consoles?   I picked up a Western Digital 2 Terabyte My Book and decided to see if I could stop worrying about the space available and just get back to enjoying my games.

wd_box

I knew I couldn’t review this hard drive without comparing it to other devices I use in my normal day-to-day.  To get a good feel for the pros and cons of external storage I stacked up the transfer speeds of a few devices – the aforementioned My Book, a Buffalo Ministation 3.0, and a 16GB Lexar thumb drive I had hanging around.  These would provide what is likely the most common user experience around the same price range.  Using CrystalDiskMark 3.0 (64-bit) and a stopwatch for measuring load times, I tried to wrap tangible real-world use cases around synthetic benchmarking to come up with the most quantifiable review possible.  I also loaded them with a bit of data to better show a real-world use case instead of testing their speeds against a completely empty drive.  Without further ado, let’s get into some graphs, anecdotal observations, and a sobering look at warranties.

First Impressions:

2TB Western Digital My Book
If there is one thing I’ve noticed about this drive it’s that I’ve not noticed this drive.  It is absolutely and entirely silent.  Using passive cooling the device remains as cold as the moment I took it out of the box without the use of noisy fans.  The drive platters don’t make an audible sound.  The only way you can tell that this device is hard at work is the single flashing status light that lets you know that it’s in use.  The device is tethered to a power cord, so it’s not as portable as the other two drives in our comparison, but since we are using this on a game console, portability isn’t a huge issue.  It runs at USB 3.0.

WD_mybook_angle

16GB Lexar Thumb Drive
It’s a thumb drive.  No power cord, tiny enough to fit in your pocket, and completely silent.  We’ve been using these for years, so you don’t need me to explain it to you.  It uses USB 3.0 as its interface method.

Lexar

2.0TB Buffalo MiniStation 3.0
Roughly the size of a deck of playing cards, this device is USB 3.0 and does not use an external power supply.  It’s nearly as quiet as the My Book, but the faint ticking of the hard drive can be heard when in use.  It remains relatively cool over extended use, but it does vibrate a bit.  The ticking and vibrating are only really heard and felt when you focus on it, so these are pretty trivial and certainly should not impact your buying decision.  An eyebrow raising problem with this 2TB drive, however, is that when formatted NTFS it only registered 1.5TBs of space.  We’ll talk about how that support call went when I cover warranties.

Buffalo

Warranty and Support:

Buffalo MiniStation 3.0
Obviously the case of the missing half terabyte of space caused me some serious concern.  I paid for 2TB, I wanted 2TB.  I noticed this issue on a weekend, but tech support is only open on week days from 8:30am to 5:00pm, CST – when most of us are at work.  Once I got somebody on the phone, the first thing I was asked for was proof of purchase.  The only saving grace I had was that I purchased the device on Amazon so I was able to pull my invoice, otherwise I was told that without it I’d receive no warranty support of any kind.  Additionally, once the call was over, the tech determined that the device was either mislabeled or a platter was damaged – either way the shipping costs to send it back was on me, and they would not cross-ship.  The device carries a 2 year warranty, but after this fairly negative phone call I shudder to think of actually exercising that option.  Buffalo gets an F for their support thanks to terrible hold times (in excess of 10 minutes), shoddy customer service agent attitude, no cross-ship options, and a shorter warranty across all of their device offerings than all three devices we tested.

fail

Lexar thumb drive
I’ve used Lexar for my digital cameras for a long while.  Having never had an issue with their SD cards, I’ve never used their technical support.  I was happy to see that they offer 24/7 support via phone or chat, 365 days a year.  Their thumbdrives offer a 3 year warranty (and I also learned they support their SD cards for 10 years!), though they also require a proof of purchase up front.   When I couldn’t locate it, they were able to look it up for me with the serial number on the device – handy!   How long did it take at 1pm on a Saturday?  In just 15 seconds I was speaking with “Robert” about their warranty procedures and policies.  Like Buffalo, they do not offer cross shipping, and they require the end user ship their device back at their expense.  I’ll give the technical support a solid A for speed, attitude, and availability, a B for a three year warranty, and a C for no cross-ship and making me pay for return shipping on a defective product.  They did offer that they might make exceptions, but wouldn’t expound on what would trigger that exemption.

Western Digital My Book
The Western Digital page for support requires you to register before you can do anything, but I noticed that the website had a status page to check your device warranty by serial number, so I gave that a quick test.  Punching in my serial number on this brand new device I was told that it was already out of warranty.  I now had a reason to contact technical support.  I was surprised to see that, while the device carries a 2 year warranty, just 30 days after you’ve made your first call to technical support you’ll be charged a $14.95 fee for every call thereafter.  After that you can extend the warranty for $9.95 per year, though you’ll still be hit with the $14.95 per-incident call fee.   Heading to email (which seemingly carries none of the charges above that I can see) I registered the device and submitted a ticket.   The registration and ticket submission was a breeze, as was the ticket creation.  I received an email immediately confirming my ticket would be handled in 1 day, or possibly longer based on their current queue.  I traded emails back and forth with support for several days and ended up being told that because I couldn’t produce a receipt I’d receive no warranty whatsoever.  I’d give technical support a B for answering fairly quickly, an F for the pricing model, and a C for the two year warranty.  I’ll give them an A+ for “happily” offering cross-ship RMAs in the case of a failure, but if you happen to have lost your receipt, you’ll get little help here. A mixed experience and a stern warning came from this experience; register your devices immediately and scan your receipts.

Time for pretty graphs

I used a variety of hard drive testing utilities including industry standard HD Tach and Crystal Disk Mark.  These tests were all run from the same USB 3.0 input after a clean reboot and with no other programs running to tax the drive.  I ran the Quickbench mode with 8mb blocks for HD Tach, and 50mb blocks for Crystal Disk Mark’s first round of tests.  For reference, the USB 3.0 theoretical throughput is 5 gbps, which translates to 640 MBps when referring to the graphs below.

First up, the smallest of the bunch – the Lexar thumbdrive. As you can see below, the speed on the thumbdrive was hardly USB 2.0, and a significantly slower solution than anticipated.  I think this drive, despite being relatively new, is destined for the trash bin.

Thumbdrive

The next drive up for grabs is a more viable solution – the highly-portable Buffalo MiniStation 3.0.

Buffalo

The drive performed well enough, but still fell far short of the 640 MB/s theoretical speeds of USB 3.0.   To get a three-way reference I fired up the final candidate – the Western Digital My Book.

MyBook

It’s easy to see that the My Book absolutely crushed the other two drives.  Not by a little, but a whole hell of a lot.  Curious, I checked for firmware updates and drivers for these devices.  The Buffalo proved to be up to date, as were my USB 3.0 drivers, but a firmware update was available for the My Book.  After a quick and easy update I ran the benchmarks again.

MyBook_after_firmware

Let this be a lesson to you – always update your hardware’s firmware.  While the write speeds didn’t see a huge boost, there was no doubt that it greatly affected read speeds.  The Western Digital My Book takes this round, but let’s look at it another way:

hd_tach_comparison

Round 2…fight!

Heading back to Crystal Disk Mark I raised the stakes and bumped the file sizes up to 500MB in size.  Given how large games are getting, this seemed like a logical next step.  As before, let’s get into what a thumbdrive is capable of delivering.

Thumbdrive_large_block

Abysmal, as expected. Next up we had the Buffalo MiniStation 3.0’s large block results.

Buffalo_Large_block

The results on the large-block test were pretty consistent with the previous test.

And finally once again we look at the Western Digital My Book’s at-bat.

MyBook_Large_block

The Western Digital My Book took a bit of a hit in read and write speed at such a large block, but still absolutely mauled the competition.  The win goes to the My Book again.

Round 3 – let’s break out the stopwatch

I wanted to move away from the synthetic benchmarks and move on to some real-world results.  Since the market is moving towards the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, I planned to use both to benchmark off-system backups and installs but I was surprised to see that the PlayStation 4 doesn’t allow external drives.  Tip of the hat to Microsoft on allowing consumers to use their own devices.  As a consequence of that revelation, all tests were conducted on an Xbox One.  For reference, the Xbox One sports a laughably slow 500 GB (roughly 380GB available for use) 5400 RPM SATA II hard drive.  This gives it a theoretical maximum speed of 300MB/s, but it’s not the bus speed that causes the slow loading times – it’s that laptop drive spinning at 5400 RPM.

Given how dominant the Western Digital My Book has been throughout the synthetic benchmarking process, I pressed forward with that drive alone.  For my test I figured I’d tackle Watch Dogs, Wolfenstein, and Ryse – three games that are likely in any Xbox One owner’s library.   I was absolutely blown away by what I saw.

Watch Dogs takes roughly 90 seconds to do its initial load from the internal hard drive.  That same initial load coming off of the external drive was slashed down nearly 40% to just 56 seconds!

watch dogs

Wolfenstein: The New Order takes roughly a minute to boot off of the system’s hard drive.  Given how stable the framerate is on this game, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it is not overly hard drive speed dependent.  After reinstalling the massive beast of a game to an external drive, it shaved just four seconds off the boot time.  A minute isn’t that bad anyway, but it isn’t the initial load times that people complained about – it’s the reload after a death.  I am happy to say that the reload times on that sequence was cut nearly in half!  While it may not help the initial heavy lift, it certainly pays dividends in subsequent loading efforts.

wolfenstein

The final title to get the stopwatch treatment is Crytek’s Ryse.  Clocking in at roughly 50 seconds to load, I expected a modest improvement.  My jaw hit the floor when that time was cut in half.  At just 26 seconds to load the first level of the game, Ryse’s overall experience was drastically improved by simply using a better hard drive.

The first and easiest conclusion here is never, ever, use a thumb drive for a storage medium for anything you’d like to read with any sort of speed. Other USB 3.0 thumbdrives I had on hand performed within a 20% margin of the scores I saw coming from the Lexar I tested, and that shouldn't impress you in any way. If you want to use something without moving parts, pick up an SSD, but expect a bit of mechanical work and risk to swap the internal drive. That said, it’s very clear that the quality of the drive in use makes a huge difference in throughput, regardless of whether it’s internal or external. My trusty and portable Buffalo MyStation 3.0 got absolutely smoked by the Western Digital My Book in nearly every category. Based on a few days of heavy testing on a limited pool of what any gamer might have around their house, one thing became very clear - pick up a My Book and stop worrying about that hard drive percentage used dial.

Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming. Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter. Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 21 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
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