Western Digital RED 8TB Helium HDD Review
Welcome to a brave new world, one with two very distinct storage mediums which, in some ways, are no longer actually competing for the same buyers. On one hand we have the SSD, an ultra fast storage format which has no problem featuring titanic throughput numbers but has historically struggled to deliver those numbers at affordable price points in the capacities today’s users require. In corner number two there’s the traditional hard drive; it can trump SSDs in the price per gigabyte category but performance just can’t compete.
Alongside the obvious performance-driven challenges, HDD manufacturers have also hit up against two other walls: one which limited platter density and the other which is a rather large but still spatially-constrained 3.5” form factor. In order to leap ahead in both those respects, Western Digital’s new RED 8TB’s platters are filled with helium and then sealed.
This new RED drive is targeted towards raw data storage rather than extreme performance and that’s an important distinction to make: Western Digital sees the benefit of focusing their new technology where it matters most to consumers. They realize the performance game has already been lost so capacity-driven options are the way of the future for spindle-based storage. In many ways this drive can be considered the first true collaboration between WD and their newly-minted Hitachi purchase.
It almost goes without saying that Western Digital’s RED series has gained a reputation as being a great value, but on the reliability side of the spectrum there have been a few stumbles. On the other hand, before their purchase, HGST was known as having some of the most reliable storage products available. If Western Digital has indeed taken the best portions of HGST and infused it into their next generation models, this new RED may just finally kill the idea that they are nothing but the ‘Green’ series with fancier firmware. This potential alone makes this new series very exciting – and that is just the tip of the iceberg!
Other than the helium filled goodness this drive brings to the table, there are a few other aspects we need to discuss. Being a 5400RPM drive means the new RED won't win any outright speed contents but it still has the capability to deliver some reasonable performance with transfer rates around 178MB/s. Meanwhile, power consumption is particularly noteworthy and that alone will likely be a large selling factor for anyone researching NAS-oriented HDDs. The warranty of 3 years is a bit disappointing given the fact that other current-generation consumer drives are moving towards 5 years of coverage but we also can't forget this length aligns perfectly with other RED models.
While there are some slight exterior design evolutions versus previous RED series drives, there’s no clue here to show that the RED 8TB’s pedigree is more Hitachi than Western Digital. However, when you do pick this drive up the sheer weight of it becomes apparent. This is due to the fact that unlike 6TB models which boosted aerial density to achieve their higher capacities, the 8TB version has a total of seven platters stacked into its chassis.
That aforementioned helium factor is how Western Digital was able to cram seven platters inside a chassis that really is only meant for six. They are stacked them closer together and since helium is lighter than air, there’s less turbulence as the platters spin, allowing that additional platter without worrying about the individual disks slamming into each other. This use of helium is also why when the 8TB RED is flipped over the usual air hole is MIA. Instead you will find a completely sealed unit.
While this is a first for Western Digital, using helium is actually not all that new of an idea – as it has been floating around for nearly as long as there have been hard drives. Hitachi on the other hand were among the first to make this idea a reality via their He8 series. As the name suggests the HGST Helium He8 was an eight terabyte hard drive meant for professional uses. Though it was not just meant for small business and home NAS use like the RED series, it is still considered to be a heavy duty enterprise-grade HDD that has proven the merits of helium filled solutions.
We mention the He8 because for all intents and purposes Western Digital has taken the He8 design and modified it for their needs. However, it is more accurate to say they used the He8 as the new 8TB RED’s foundation, upon which they then added in pure Western Digital technology – such as NasWare 3.0. The end result is a new hybrid drive that is neither true Hitachi nor true Western Digital. Instead it can trace it roots back to both previous RED models and the He8.
When the PCB is removed from its from the enclosure, it not only looks very similar to the He8’s but is also filled with He8 components. Make no mistake though, the controller and various other parts are the same, internally this drive is not an He8 clone. In fact, the firmware originates from Western Digital, and this is a good thing – as WD’s algorithms are some of the best in the business. By that same token we are glad to see that instead of the Marvel controller from previous generations, Western Digital has instead opted for the much more potent LSI controller that helped give HGST drives a reputation for being quicker than most of the competition.
The RAM cache buffer has also been improved and upgraded - 128MB instead of 64MB. This additional cache, when combined with Western Digital’s excellent firmware means that even though this is an ‘IntelliSpeed’ series, its performance should be excellent. This is especially true when consumers take into account the fact that there are fourteen read/write heads accessing those fairly dense 1.2TB platters. Whether or not this combination allows this approximate 5400RPM drive (as WD states the speed is set batch by batch) to compete against older 7,200RPM models remains to be seen.
This last piece of the puzzle is critical to understanding the RED 8TB. It not really meant to compete with last generation’s 6TB RED or RED Pro models, or even 6TB Black or Blue alternatives. Rather it is being introduced to allow SOHO and home consumers the ability to replace ageing 4TB 7,200RPM drives with the new 8TB RED and do so without sacrificing performance. Put another way, the new 8TB RED is meant to be used in an (up to) 8 drive array that previously held eight hot running, noisy, power hungry drives and do so without any noticeable drop in performance, a lower power envelope, less produced heat and an enhanced MTBF. This is what the RED is all about: excellent value with reasonable performance levels at a relatively reasonable price.
On the surface stating a traditional hard drive with an online asking price of $325 has a ‘reasonable asking price’ may seem counterintuitive since this is hugely expensive given the price points of lower-end drives. However, this works out to be only about 4 cents per Gigabyte. For comparison older 6TB RED’s also have an asking price of about 4 cents per Gigabyte of capacity. When you combine that with lower operating costs, purchasing multiple 8TB versions will likely prove to be better options in the long term for NAS users.
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