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WD's Red 4TB hard drive reviewed


The new face of secondary PC storage
— 12:01 AM on September 25, 2013

PC storage has increasingly split into two categories: system and secondary. System storage houses your OS, applications, games, and all the data you need to access quickly. Secondary storage handles everything else.

SSDs are easily the best solution for system storage right now. They're insanely fast and finally capable of housing a decent-sized Steam library without draining your bank account. For secondary storage, old-school mechanical hard drives are still the way to go—their cost per gigabyte simply can't be beat.

Of course, there are multiple classes of mechanical storage. In the consumer space, high-end models typically rotate their platters at 7,200 RPM, while low-power variants spin them at a more sedate 5,400 RPM. The slower spindle speed hinders performance, but it also lowers noise levels and power consumption.

If you can afford an SSD large enough to house all of your important applications and data, a low-power hard drives (or two) is the best option for secondary storage. Low-power drives are also preferred for NAS devices, which seem to be more popular than homebrew file servers these days. NAS devices are limited by the bandwidth of their network connections, so speed isn't the primary concern.

Which brings us to the WD Red 4TB.

The Red is a low-power drive built specifically for secondary storage, whether it's connected via a network or living inside your PC. The drive's low-power credentials are somewhat obfuscated by its spec sheet, which lists the spindle speed as "IntelliPower"—marketing speak for about 5,400-RPM. Red models can have slightly different spindle speeds based on their particular platter configurations, so there's some justification for the IntelliPower nonsense. Listing the spindle speed as ~5,400 RPM would have been much simpler, though.

WD uses four one-terabyte platters to bring the Red up to 4TB. That configuration is shared by WD's Green 4TB, which is another IntelliPower model. Both sport 6Gbps Serial ATA interfaces and 64MB DRAM caches.

Interface 6Gbps SATA
Spindle speed ~5,400 RPM
Cache size 64MB
Platter capacity 1TB
Total capacity 4TB
Max sustained data rate 150MB/s
Idle acoustics 25 dBA
Seek acoustics 28 dBA
Idle power 3.3W
Read/write power 4.5W
Warranty length Three years

Specifications are just a small part of the equation for the Red 4TB. The drive's defining feature is NASware 2.0, a collection of optimizations targeting network-attached storage and RAID implementations. The firmware includes special hooks for NAS-specific power management routines. It also supports the ATA Streaming command set used by some consumer electronics gear. Designed for streaming media, this extension to the ATA command set allows hosts to demand that data is delivered within a specific timeframe.

For RAID configurations, NASware offers time-limited error recovery. This feature prevents drives from engaging in lengthy error recovery procedures. If drives spend too long chasing down errors, the RAID controller can drop them from the array, forcing a time-consuming rebuild. RAID controllers have their own error correction routines, so they can address problems that drives can't resolve quickly enough on their own.

The Red's TLER support should work with any PC RAID controller. WD has also done extensive testing to ensure that the Red family is compatible with a wide range of NAS boxes. If you're curious whether your network-attached storage device supports the 4TB model, check WD's compatibility selector.

In addition to testing the Red in a range of NAS devices, WD performs validation testing to ensure the drive can run non-stop in warmer environments. Hard drives can really heat up when multi-drive arrays are squeezed inside the smaller chassis typical of NAS gear.

Vibration can also be an issue for tightly packed drives, but the Red has "dual-plane balance control technology" to minimize that. WD says this feature helps lower the Red's noise levels and lengthen its lifespan. We're still waiting for the firm to clarify exactly what the balancing act entails, though. Balance control appears to be limited to reducing the drive's own vibration, unlike WD's Rotary Acceleration Feed Forward (RAFF) tech, which aims to cancel out the vibration produced by adjacent drives. RAFF is available in WD's enterprise-oriented Se and Re models.

The Red 4TB's one-million-hour Mean Time Between Failures rating falls between the 800,000- and 1.2-million-hour ratings attached to the Se and Re drives, respectively. Those enterprise-oriented models have five-year warranties, while the Red is covered for just three years. The three-year warranty is at least longer than the two-year coverage typically associated with desktop drives.

Although WD touts the Red's reliability, an awful lot of Newegg user reviews complain of DOA drives. Over 20% of the reviews for the 2TB and 3TB models give those variants just one star, with stillborn drives and premature death often cited as the cause. I see just a couple of legitimate user reviews of the 4TB model, which has only been available for a few weeks, but both report problems. Oddly enough, the user reviews at Amazon are considerably more positive. We asked WD about the discrepancy; after looking into it, the company "identified an improper handling and packaging issue at a few partners." WD is working to resolve the issue, and we'll be keeping an eye on user reviews to see if the complaints persist.

If you encounter problems, reaching out to WD should be easy. The Red family has a dedicated support line that, apart from major US holidays, is available 24/7. The hotline is free for 30 days from your first call. After that, you'll need to purchase a support plan or pay a per-incident fee.