Do you buy a device for its design or its quality of build?

A week ago LaCie's PR firm invited press reviewers to present its newest range of external hard disk drives. Press that couldn't make it and even those of us who for health reasons can't attend much anything these days didn't get the presentation.That was a shame, because I for one would have loved to ask the LaCie managers attending this event if they believe their products have reached a quality level at which design has become the sole selling proposition—I received the announcement of LaCie’s new products two days later, and they turned out to be Philippe Starck designed external hard disk drives.

The announcement of the presentation said LaCie was going to reflect upon twenty years of innovation and design—“en passant” showing the attending audience some new products. When I read which these were a couple of days later, I couldn’t but ponder over what exactly drives today’s sales of commodities such as external hard disk drives.
Apparently, LaCie believes it’s design. The Philippe Starck designed hard drives that were presented are described as devices of which the most important features are the design itself and the 2 millimetres thick aluminium sheet that is used to enclose the mechanics and electronics inside. The technical features are less impressive: an unknown brand disk and a USB 2.0 interface. One would expect a device specially designed by a famous design icon to at least have a “quad” interface (eSATA, FireWire 400/800 and USB 2.0) or am I too demanding?

More to the point, are we to believe that people will buy these drives solely for their looks and the fact that Philippe Starck made a couple of thousands off drawing the enclosures? What’s inside? Western Digital, Seagate, or lesser gods like Samsung? Are desktop hard drives only being used to store mom and pop’s ‘digital life’—futile enough not to care so much for the technology inside?
Because, lets’ be honest: LaCie makes good quality devices. I tested the 4Big Quad drive earlier this year. The RAID drive that’s designed by Neil Poulton has all the characteristics of a very high quality build: thick aluminium case, a special ventilator that runs really quiet, four disk drives of good quality in easy to use disk cradles. LaCie also recently teamed up with ATTO for enterprise level NAS devices that look every bit as ugly as any other NAS device but apparently intentionally so, with the bright orange disk position levers.

Perhaps LaCie is right after all, and people have indeed grown so accustomed to a basic quality of technology inside that they’re willing to go for design and ignore what could happen to their data if the design is not matched by quality of build. One thing is clear though: LaCie and its competitors aren’t gambling on people being willing to pay extra for design.
The proof: the LaCie Starck 1TB disk drive costs 130 Euros. The Freecom 1TB Network/USB 2.0 aluminium enclosed Hard Drive (an IF design Award winner, although not designed by a renown designer) costs 150 Euros. Finally, the Verbatim Quad Interface External Hard Drive 1TB costs some 120 Euros—its design is clearly not going to win any awards—the focus is on what’s inside, nothing else.

It would be interesting to know sales figures for comparable drives of these three vendors and see which drives sell the most. Who knows: Apple owners might buy exactly because of the design, while PC owners might buy anything, as long as it does the job.

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