How Fast is Fast Enough?

by Steve Simon

Next week I will be on my way back to Africa, specifically, South Africa, Angola and Mozambique--so I thought I would talk about my preparation for this six-week trip.

The last time I was on assignment in Africa for that long, I shot more than 250 GBs of raw images. That is a lot of pictures and figuring out how to store them while traveling as light as possible is a challenge.

I know that when you travel there are no guarantees.

In February, I was in Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. I had a brand new Firewire 160GB bus-powered drive, along with a 120GB USB-2 bus powered drive.

Of course, I promptly lost the 160GB Firewire before even landing in Kigali, so I had to go with the flow, and figure out how best to maintain my archives with a combination of deleting images I would never use; burning DVDs and having to wait until I returned home to back up the images--not my favorite way to work.

But fortunately for me, everything turned out fine. I discovered that Aperture worked pretty well on my Western Digital 120GB Passport bus-powered drive, which I basically was going to use to back up my main Firewire drive. I was actually surprised how well Aperture ran with the USB-2 drive on my older MacBook Pro.

For this trip, as I prepare to leave, I noticed that bus-powered 250 GB drives have become available at a good price; yes, these little drives are the same small size, but are now up to 250 GB's in storage capacity.

I have been very happy with my Western Digital Passport Drives. I have 160GB and 120GB USB-2 versions. They are inexpensive, small, sleek and cool looking and have done a great job for me on the road.

Western Digital USB-2

But since I also have a Firewire-400 160GB drive, I decided to do a little test to see if the speed difference justifies the added expense of firewire. The LaCie 250GB Firewire 400/USB2 portable sells for $240, the Western Digital Passport 250GB USB2 can be had for $180.

LaCie Firewire 400/USB-2

I have to admit that I was secretly hoping that the speed differences were not that great so I could save some cash. I used the same 40GB Aperture Library on my Western Digital 160GB Passport vs my 160GB Firewire LaCie Portable, both small and Bus-Powered and perfect for traveling.

Of course there are many variables that will effect the speed at which Aperture will work (processor speed and graphics card being two important ones). My testing was unscientific, but real world using the equipment I take with me on the road.

I opened each library and did similar things: moved from project to project, went to full screen, made the same adjustments, exported and imported images and realized that though the difference in speed was not too great, the Firewire connection seemed to make a positive difference in my Aperture experience.

The Firewire was clearly faster on import, almost twice as fast importing from my local laptop drive and from my USB-2 card reader. (My Firewire reader stopped working and I haven't replaced it yet).

There are few people that would disagree with the "faster is always better idea" when it comes to computing speed. But increases in speed don't always justify the cost, and it's a personal decision. For my purposes it makes sense to spend the extra money and get the Firewire version, though I know form experience that USB2 works well when pressed into action.

I think it would be useful to hear others experiences with Aperture Libraries on different drives.

Has anyone compared 7200rpm vs 5400rpm drives with Aperture? We're starting to see portable and notebook-sized 7200rpm drives pop onto the market, but for considerably more cash than 5400rpm versions.

The question is not always how fast?; but how fast is fast enough? I expect having a MacBook Pro with a Firewire 800 connection should speed things up and I'm looking forward to upgrading my laptop when I return.


2007-08-02 06:10:02
regarding the 5400vs7200rpm drives, what I can say is GO FOR IT! I replaced my MacBook Pro (c2d, 2,33GHz)'s internal HD with a Seagate Momentum 7200RPM drive and, boy! is it fast! On top of making the whole OSX experience snappier, Aperture went from sometimes barely usable (like while generating previews) to acceptably fast. Now I can work with Aperture without feeling like I'm back on my G4 iMac with iPhoto 2.0.
So, my first advice would be to go for an internal 7200RPM HD for your MBP (OK, you loose a bit of battery life but the speed gain is worth it). And yes, of course, using a SATA 7200RPM 2.5" HD in a USB2 or FW400 (ebtter even, they do enclosures with FW800 connectors) would be a blast.
2007-08-02 06:15:09
I ditto what moose has said: I have a MacBook pro and replaced internal 5400 rpm Seagate Momentum with 7200 RPM same drive and it makes Aperture fly where it groaned before.

Now I wish I had a 7200 RPM external as well as I think using two drives, even with a portable computer, will improve performance even more.

Of course, if you keep an image library on an external, you really need two externals, one to back it up. Or, three: one to back up internal, one to back up external and the external itself.

One could do this with a large external backup drive partitioned in two but now we're talking about carrying even more stuff on the road.

2007-08-02 06:17:10
This may be useful for reference for those who are thinking of doing a hard disk replacement on their own: MacBook Pro HD replacement, revisited.
Steve Simon
2007-08-02 07:31:44
This is good and useful information. I'm now thinking of an external 7200 200GB drive with Firewire 400/800 connection that will be fast now, and for a time to come.
2007-08-02 11:11:38
I pretty much always used firewire drives, but the WD USB drives are very nice and reasonably priced, so I got a few. They're definitely noticeably slower for me. It's unfortunate that WD doesn't make a firewire version.
2007-08-02 11:56:52
I use Western Digital drives and I'm very happy with them. I'm only using the USB2 at the moment. Western Digital also have ethernet drives in 500gig and 1-2 Terrabite capacity called "My Book" and "My Book World Edition II". This would be the absolute best way to go given ethernet speeds are the fastest in the USB/Firewire connectivity category. You can also connect them to a wired/wireless router and send your files remotely or from within a LAN network. The draw backs are they are big and heavy and require external power sources (so does firewire if I'm not mistaken). Given the huge advantage of these types of drives it's a no brainer for my purposes. Now if someone came out with a way to connect to these ethernet drives straight from a camera.....
2007-08-02 12:04:49
This is one case where I'd argue it's better to do a more rigorous test rather than going by your impressions. The problem is, (as I learned recently) there is actually no such thing as a native firewire drive. They pretty much all use a "bridge chip" to connect to pretty much the same circuitry that's used in the USB versions of the drive (which then, of course, talks to the IDE drive itself). So unless that internal circuitry is designed to handle transfer speeds significantly higher than that of USB 2, you're not likely getting all the benefit you should from using firewire.

That's not to say a firewire version might not still be faster (it depends on exactly where the speed bottleneck is occurring); but in making that decision you should probably not go by gut feeling since that's easily influenced by your presuppositions - I mean, we all "know" that firewire is better for large transfers, right? And, if you really want a truly fast interface, consider buying an eSATA drive and using an Expresscard SATA adapter.

2007-08-02 13:55:49
FYI, if you decide to go with a 250GB drive internally mounted, DO NOT go with the Samsung drives! As a Mac service tech, I keep tabs on all the new devices as they're pressed into service in Macs, and we're seeing high failure rates in MacBook Pros with 250GB Samsung drives. Try the Western Digital drives instead. Personally, I'd go Seagate, but they're still not shipping a 250GB notebook drive. Hitachi is also one to check out, but note that no one has a 250GB 7200RPM model yet. Hopefully in the next month or two we'll see 300+GB @ 5400RPM, and 250GB @ 7200RPM.

Also, we had a ton of MyBook drives from WD start dying on us over the past 6-8 months, so we've been selling both Seagate and Rocstor drives instead. No failures yet.

Steve Simon
2007-08-02 23:24:20
Thanks everybody, there's some great information here. I decided to spend some money with an eye to the future by getting an OWC 7200RPM 200GB drive firewire 800/400 that should work well on this trip and when I upgrade my laptop.
Yann Michel
2007-08-03 02:46:40
I use a WD myBook Premium II connected via FW800 and I must say that this device rocks! Besides that I'm wondering why you use the external drive as primary storage and not as a backu device while you are on the go. Me, I would personally whink of importing the images into the Aperture library and use the external (portable) device as a backup means for the backup-vault.
Steve Simon
2007-08-03 05:25:01
The main reason I won't use the laptop's drive is one of space. It has a 100GB drive and that simply isn't close to enough space with all the other stuff sharing the 100GB.
2007-08-03 23:23:06
Firewire 800 is great. I've swapped 5400rpm drives from firewire 400 enclosures to fw 800 enclosures, and noticed a significant difference, fw400 can be a bottleneck it would seem.

On a long copy, my fw800/5400 rpm external is twice as fast as my fw400/4800 rpm external.

2007-08-04 01:21:57
Hello there!

RAW files are big, so for getting them from the drive on the display I haven't yet experienced a workflow without this as Bottleneck. Even I have my Aperture Library on a LaCie Little Big Disk (Raid of 2 100 GB 7200 rpm) with FireWire 800 connection, I experience the Beachball if I go fast from Picture to Picture.

But maybe Aperture isn't yet as fast as it could. I really do expect 10.5 and Aperture 2 to have this solved...


Michael Hansen
2007-08-04 05:46:50
I've got and used FireWire 400, FireWire 800 and USB 2.0 external hard drives with my Aperture Library. Currently, I only use the FireWire 800 because it is the fastest for my system. USB 2.0 is technically faster than FireWire 400, but I've always experienced faster download and access times with FireWire 400 than USB 2.0. Also, you will notice a significant speed increase with Aperture using a 7200 rpm disk.


Steve Simon
2007-08-04 07:17:55
We know the theory, but it's great and useful to hear real-world experiences with the various types of connections and speeds. Having not tested it myself, i was really curious to hear what the reality would be between 7200bus powered and 5400 bus-powered drive. Thanks Michael.
jace rivers
2007-08-16 11:00:12
I just recently shot for two months in India and had two WD 120GB USB drives with me. They were flawless. I keep my Aperture Library on my MacBook Pro and have all of my files referenced. That way I can still see my entire Library while on the road (if you've saved 1024px previews).

I would import all of my shots into Aperture with the files referenced on one of the drives and backed up on the other. The key here is to keep one of the drives on your camera bag at all times. The other drive stayed back at the hotel room, hut, tent, whatever, locked in a Pelican case.

That way, if I got mugged and lost my gear I'd have a back-up at the room. If the room got broken into and I lost that drive, I'd still have one on me in my camera bag. This system worked perfectly for me and my peace of mind. Whenever I got to a major city with a semi-fast internet connection, I would FTP as many of the files as I could to a remote server to create a second back-up.

So far, I'm sold on Western Digital. Even though USB 2.0 is a bit slower than Firewire it still suited my needs. At 480mbs, USB is still often times slower than Firewire 400 due to the fact that USB ports utilize your system software and Firewire bypasses all of that. All in all, still a good deal for the price and performance.