Are external hard drives a good idea?

External hard drives can be a useful way to back up your data and expand your storage capacity. However, there are some pros and cons to consider before deciding if an external hard drive is right for your needs. Some key questions to think about include:

  • Do you need more storage space?
  • How important is portability to you?
  • How concerned are you about data security?
  • What is your budget for storage?

In this article, we’ll explore the benefits and drawbacks of using an external drive so you can make an informed decision about whether it’s a good choice for your storage needs.

Pros of External Hard Drives

There are several advantages that make external hard drives an appealing storage solution:

Extra storage space

One of the main reasons people use external drives is for the additional storage capacity. If your computer’s internal drive is full or nearly full, an external drive can provide much-needed breathing room.

External drives typically offer large capacities, often 1TB or more. This provides ample room for growing photo libraries, video projects,music collections, and files of all types. With some external drives offering up to 10TB of space, you can dramatically expand your storage capabilities.

Portability and convenience

Another advantage of external hard drives is their portability. Their small size and lightweight build allows you to carry large amounts of data in your bag or even pocket.

This makes exchanging or transferring large files quick and convenient. You can easily move projects from one computer to another. Portability also makes externals ideal for on-the-go backup of important data.


Most external drives today use a USB interface and are plug-and-play compatible with recent versions of Windows and MacOS. This broad compatibility makes setup quick and simple on nearly any computer.

Older computers often have lower USB standards, but externals are backwards compatible. They can interface with older USB ports at slower speeds. Some also support other connections like eSATA or Firewire if needed.

Encryption and security features

Data security is a priority for many these days. Most external drives provide strong 256-bit AES hardware encryption. Some feature added physical security measures like electronic locks or number pads.

With their security layers and physical nature, external drives offer protection for sensitive data that cloud-based backups can lack. Only someone with physical access to the drive can access its data.

Cost-effective storage

Perhaps the best part of external storage is the cost. Cost per gigabyte is extremely low for many external models compared to internal drives.

For example, a 4TB external drive often costs around $100. Comparable internal storage can cost several times more depending on computer model. For bulk backups and archiving, externals provide lots of storage on a budget.

Backward compatibility

Most external hard drives use backward compatible interfaces like USB. This allows older computers to access data from newer externals. You can back up an old laptop or desktop to a new high-capacity drive without issue.

This backward and forward compatibility makes externals useful for transferring data between machines new and old. This broad compatibility also future-proofs your investment in the drive.

Cons of External Hard Drives

Despite their benefits, there are also some downsides to weigh when considering an external hard drive:

Bulk and size

Although externals are relatively compact, they still require space and introduce bulk into your bag or workspace. Standard external drives range from about 4 inches to over 8 inches long. Plus you’ll need room for the necessary cable.

While not huge, externals are generally bulkier than a wallet, phone, or other everyday carry item. If you’ll be transporting the drive frequently, size and weight are worth considering.

Additional cables and accessories

Externals require a USB cable to connect to your computer. You’ll want to carry this cable alongside the drive at all times. Shorter cables can limit placement options, so keep cable length in mind as well.

If your external doesn’t come with a protective case, it’s a good idea to purchase one separately. This introduces more cost and bulk into the package. externals marketed as “portable” sometimes include integrated cables or cases.

Generally slower speeds

Due to the USB interface, external drives usually can’t provide the fastest possible data transfer speeds. The maximum USB 3.2 speed is 20Gbps. USB 2.0 tops out at just 60MB/s.

Meanwhile, internal SATA III SSDs can reach transfer speeds up to 600MB/s. If you work frequently with large files, an internal SSD may save you time over USB-based external storage. Externals are quick enough for less demanding storage or backup needs.

Power requirements

Externals need power to operate. Desktop drives rely on an AC outlet, while portable drives use USB power. This means you can’t readily access a portable external’s data on a dead laptop battery away from an outlet.

Desktop externals with dedicated power supplies also have another bulky item to house. Some higher-capacity portable models also require connection to an outlet to operate due to high power demands.

Possibility of failure

Like any storage technology, external drives are susceptible to technical issues. Because they often move around frequently, there’s a higher risk of failure compared to a stationary internal drive.

Drops, impacts, electrical issues, and wear and tear can cause an external drive to malfunction over time. Make sure your data is backed up in more than one location in case of external drive failure.

Any data loss from drive failure is more catastrophic for externals since they frequently store original copies rather than duplicates. Take the same precautions with externals as you would for valuable data on any drive.

Single point of failure

Related to the risk of failure is the fact that externals represent a single point of failure for your data. If the drive fails and your data is not sufficiently backed up elsewhere, you could lose that data entirely.

Photos, videos, important documents – any data without redundancy could disappear with that single external drive. It’s essential to maintain separate backups rather than relying solely on one external, which reduces failure tolerance.

Limited portability for desktop models

While portable external drives boast simple plug-and-play use across many devices, desktop models are far less transferrable. Large multi-TB desktop externals require an AC power source and usually sit near the primary computer.

If you want to move large archives between locations, a desktop drive introduces challenges. Portable externals or more complex NAS devices are better suited for frequent large data transfers.

Setup and software complexity

Some external drives, particularly NAS devices, can require complex setup. Networked gadgets, RAID arrays, remote access, and related features often demand more steps compared to basic external storage.

Additional software like backup managers and encryption utilities is also common for enhanced externals. If you just want quick plug-and-play storage, simpler is often better. Understand setup and software needs before buying a more complex device.

When Are External Drives Ideal?

So when can external storage provide the most benefit over internal drives? Here are some of the best situations for an external:

  • Adding storage capacity – Externals shine for expanding capacity of a computer’s internal drive for large files like multimedia libraries.
  • Portable file transit – The ability to pocket large data troves provides convenience for transferring project files anywhere.
  • Time Machine/File History backup – Automatic backup utilities included with Mac and Windows can use externals as handy destinations.
  • Offsite data protection – Externals you can disconnect are great for creating physical redundancy against system failure or disaster.
  • Archiving/cold storage – Affordable multi-TB externals work well for storing data that doesn’t need frequent access.
  • Workspace expansion – Desktop external RAID arrays can expand storage pools for a workstation’s internal drives.

In general, if you need lots of storage capacity in a package that’s quick to connect and relatively easy to use, external drives tick those boxes. They provide a painless plug-and-play experience for the average user.

5 Tips For Buying An External Hard Drive

If you’ve weighed the pros and cons and decided an external HDD fits your needs, here are five tips for selecting the right model:

1. Match the interface to your ports

Ensure the drive uses a transfer interface compatible with your computer’s ports. Most recent machines have USB 3.0, 3.1, or USB-C. Select a drive with matching connector and minimum USB spec. Thunderbolt and USB4 externals can also suit high-end machines.

2. Consider drive speed

While the USB spec limits transfer speed, some externals use faster spinning platters or SSD technology for quicker access. If you frequently work with very large files, pay for extra performance.

3. Get more capacity than you need

Storage needs tend to grow over time. Buy more space than you need today for extra room tomorrow. Aim for at least 25% over your current storage use.

4. Check warranty and support options

Lengthy warranties of three years or longer can provide more peace of mind. See what support channels the brand offers if you need help. Quality manufacturers stand behind their externals.

5. Research reliability and software

Read reviews and benchmarks to avoid problem-prone models. Certain manufacturers excel in external reliability. Also confirm bundled backup software meets your needs.

Top External Hard Drive Brands

The brand behind your external hard drive impacts everything from construction to included software. These manufacturers produce quality drives across various price points:

Western Digital

Known for reliable drives since the days of IDE interfaces, Western Digital offers refined external storage options today. Lines like the My Passport and My Book focus on high capacities and strong construction.


Another venerable brand, Samsung provides external SSDs and HDDs featuring excellent NAND flash technology and slick designs. The sleek T5 and T7 portables win frequent praise.


Seagate is synonymous with storage, marketing external drives under its Expansion and Backup Plus lines. Both portable and desktop models offer capacious storage and fast transfers.


Owned by Seagate, stylish LaCie devices appeal to creative pros and Mac users. Rugged portable models withstand demanding environments for on-location photographers and videographers.


For advanced NAS devices that network multiple users, Synology is a respected choice. Their multi-bay DiskStation models support RAID and implement strong OS and software.

Brand Range Price
Western Digital My Passport, My Book, Elements $55-$300
Samsung T5, T7, Portable SSDs $100-$700
Seagate Expansion, Backup Plus Hub $60-$250
LaCie Rugged, Porsche Design $90-$500
Synology DiskStation $400-$1000

External Solid State Drives vs Hard Disk Drives

External drives come in two main types – traditional spinning hard disk drives (HDDs), or silicon-based solid state drives (SSDs). What are the differences?

Storage Capacities

HDDs are generally much more capacious, with external HDDs available up to 10TB+. External SSDs currently max out around 8TB. HDDs offer more storage for less cost.

File Transfer Speeds

SSDs are significantly faster thanks to quick access times – up to 10 times faster than HDDs. Large file transfers occur quicker.


With no moving parts, SSDs better withstand vibration, drops, and impacts. Portable external SSDs appeal for their resilience.


You’ll pay at least twice as much per gigabyte for an external SSD versus HDD. 8TB costs $700+ on SSD but just $140 on many HDDs.

Max capacity 10TB+ 8TB
File transfer speed Up to 300MB/s Up to 1050MB/s
Durability Moderate High
Price per gigabyte Around $0.02 Around $0.20


Hopefully by weighing the advantages and disadvantages, you’re now better equipped to decide if an external drive should be your next storage purchase. For a quick capacity boost and the convenience of portability, they offer a versatile solution.

Just be mindful of potential downsides around bulk, speed, and reliability depending on your specific needs. And always maintain backups since even reliable externals can fail.

Do you have an external you couldn’t live without? Or have you had a bad experience and sworn them off? Share your external hard drive experiences below!

Leave a Comment