I like solid-state storage, but there’s a time when you want the storage capacity that only a hard drive can bring — at least until SSDs become much, much cheaper. Of course, SD cards are pretty cheap to buy and to support in hardware which is why the format was chosen for the Raspberry Pi in the first place. At high capacities, the price:gigabyte ratio isn’t as attractive as that of a hard drive, but you get a single point of access for all your computer storage just as you do with any modern laptop or desktop.
Note This article is out of date — WD doesn’t make this drive any longer. Raspberry Pi 4 owners might instead want to check out this more recent post.
Having to put up with separate mount points, and therefore all that tedious copying back and forth, is the big drawback in simply hooking up an external hard drive to one of your Pi’s USB ports. Surely there’s a way to have oodles of inexpensive capacity and have it as your Pi’s primary storage?
That’s what Western Digital’s new £30, 314GB PiDrive promises to be: high-capacity single-point storage for operating system, applications and data. I decided to give it a try.
The installation process couldn’t be much easier: format a (small, cheap) Micro SD card to FAT32 then copy the contents of the unzipped Berryboot archive onto the card. Transfer the card to your Pi, connect up the PiDrive using WD’s special cable, and power the whole rig through a single jack. Berryboot takes you through some basic system settings — display overscan, network, input devices — and the has you select the PiDrive, listed as a WD MyPassport. Berryboot formats it next; choose EXT4.
I used a Raspberry Pi 3; the download only contains support for earlier models, so Berryboot offers an update, an offer I accepted. That done, up comes the Berryboot Menu Editor and its Add OS option. All the well known Pi OSes are present, plus a number of others, including Android KitKat. I chose Debian Jessie to start with. Berryboot downloads it and then installs it on the hard drive.
All the OSes you install are listed; you pick the one you want at start-up. You can select a default, which Berryboot will run after ten seconds — sooner if you click on its Boot button.
So what is the start-up experience? The Pi boots into Berryboot, which provides a menu of installed operating systems. Select the one you want and click ‘Boot’, or wait the aforementioned ten seconds for your default to start. There’s a further delay while the desktop boots up, and then you’re in familiar territory.
Now, I prefer to boot to the command line, primarily because I access my Pi over SSH rather than directly. I used the Raspi Config GUI to set that, rebooted and found start-up to be much quicker, as you’d expect. There’s still the ten-second Berryboot pause — something to remember when you’re booting your Pi headless — but that seems a small price to pay for all that storage capacity.
A word on the cable: this is the best part, really. It’s a combination of USB 3.0 full and micro jacks, plus male and female micro USB 2.0 leads. The latter takes your power feed; its male equivalent clips into the Pi’s power port. The two USB 3.0 connectors go into the one of the regular USB ports and the PiDrive’s micro USB port, respectively. So that’s Pi and PiDrive fed from a single input. Nice.
And with a nice tower-style Pi mount, there’s room for the PiDrive to fit neatly underneath.
The cable costs £6.99. A word of advice: don’t buy one with the PiDrive. The HDD comes with a 20 per cent off voucher, so it’s cheaper to get the cable separately. And bear in mind that since the Pi doesn’t support USB 3.0, all the USB 3.0 connectors here work in USB 2.0 mode. You won’t get a USB 3.0 speed boost.
But, you may ask, why use the PiDrive at all? Why not just plug in a standalone HDD? Good question and, to be honest, that’s probably what you should do. Get yourself a USB 3.0 hard drive and pair it with WD’s fancy cable, or just a vanilla USB 2.0 drive and cable. Berryboot is an open source tool that’s readily available without WD’s help. Just download it from its web site. So it’s not as if WD has the monopoly on loading your OS from a USB hard drive rather than the Pi’s Micro SD slot.
It’s worse when you consider that this here 314GB drive — you’re left with around 280GB after its formatted and the OS installed — will set you back 30 quid when for a few pounds more you have a 1TB external drive, even a WD one.
The other question you have to ask is, do you even need 314GB of Pi storage, let alone 1TB. Well, if you’re building a media centre, maybe — though you could just as well stream off a multi-gigabyte network drive. Directly connected storage is handy of you’re preparing a server, though, and there’s no doubt that magnetic storage has better data resilience than an SD card, especially over many, many write cycles. On other hand, an HDD is much less resistant to physical knocks and bumps. A 128GB Micro SD card costs pretty much the same as the 314GB PiDrive.
So how does the PiDrive perform? To find out, I created a 1GB file, copied it three times and duplicated the resulting 4GB directory. The duplication took 264s on the PiDrive — a speed of 15.2MB per second. The same test run on the SanDisk 16GB Ultra that I usually run my Pi from took 783s — 5.2MB per second. So the PiDrive is roughly three times as quick as an SD UHS Class 1 card.
To be honest, the PiDrive is a luxury: it’s more capacious than equivalently priced SD cards and rather faster, but you can have three times as much storage for not much more money using the exactly the same software that’s pitched for the PiDrive. The 314GB HDD — an internal drive manufactured for WD’s MyPassport 2.5-inch external HDD series but presumably rejected for that role because of one or two failed platters, hence the odd, non-standard capacity — doesn’t even come with a cable, though the £7 one WD recommends is actually a good purchase for any Pi-friendly external HDD.
Price £30, but currently on a £27 promotion
More Info Western Digital Labs