External hard drives can be a useful way to back up your data and expand your storage capacity. But are they the right choice for you? Here we’ll examine the pros and cons of using an external drive to help you decide if it’s a good option.
What is an external hard drive?
An external hard drive is simply a hard drive that is external to your computer and connected via a USB cable or wireless connection. It provides additional storage space outside of your computer’s internal hard drive.
External drives come in many sizes, with common capacities being 1TB, 2TB, 4TB, and higher. They can be portable and small enough to fit in your pocket, or larger desktop drive designs that require a power adapter. Most connect via USB 3.0 or USB-C for fast data transfer speeds.
Pros of using an external hard drive
Here are some of the benefits of using an external drive:
Extra storage space
The main reason people get an external drive is for the extra storage capacity. If your computer’s internal drive is full or nearly full, an external drive gives you breathing room. You can offload files you don’t access often to free up space on your main drive.
With external drives commonly offering 1TB or more of storage, you can massively expand beyond the storage limits of a laptop or desktop computer.
Backup important files
One of the most important uses for an external drive is as a backup for your most important files. You can manually copy files to the external drive for safekeeping. Or use the backup software that comes with Windows, macOS or other operating systems to automatically backup your files.
Having an external backup allows you to restore lost or damaged files in case of computer issues or accidental deletion. And in the worst case of your computer being lost, stolen or destroyed, your important files are safe on your external drive.
Transport files easily
The portable varieties of external drives make it easy to transport files to different locations. You can carry tens of thousands of documents, photos, videos and other files in your pocket and access them from any computer.
Professionals like photographers who work across multiple sites appreciate being able to bring their files with them. And having access to your personal media library while traveling is a big benefit.
Works with any computer via USB
Standard external drives use USB connections which work with virtually any modern laptop, desktop, tablet or smartphone. This universal compatibility makes external drives very flexible and convenient for transferring files between devices.
So you can access and share files between Windows PCs, Macs, iPads and Android devices with ease. Just plug the drive in and you’re good to go.
Faster speed than cloud storage
While cloud storage like Dropbox or OneDrive offers a level of convenience, the upload and download speeds cannot match what you can achieve with an external drive. Large files in particular will transfer much faster to and from an external drive connected over USB compared to the internet.
So if you regularly work with large files or need the absolute fastest data transfer rates, external drives have a noticeable speed advantage.
Security from cyber attacks
With data security and cyber attacks continually in the news, keeping your data off the cloud and on an external drive can provide peace of mind. If the drive is not connected to a network, it is essentially hack-proof and immune to remote cyber threats. While no storage is ever 100% secure, external drives are less likely to be targeted or compromised than cloud storage.
Cons of using an external hard drive
There are also some downsides of using external drives:
Possibility of failure
Like all hardware, external drives are susceptible to technical issues and failure. Hard drives have delicate mechanical and electronic components inside, so with the more handling and movement of a portable external drive, there is more opportunity for problems. Drives can fail due to age, manufacturing defects, or physical damage such as being dropped.
Having an external backup is pointless if the backup drive itself fails before you can retrieve files from it. So it’s extra important to have a second backup of your most critical data.
Need for power source
Most portable external drives need to be plugged into a power source, whether that’s your computer’s USB port or a wall adapter. So if you want access to your files when away from a power source, such as outdoors or when traveling, a drive may not be usable.
However some external SSD (solid state drives) can operate solely from USB bus power and don’t need a separate power connection.
Bulkiness to carry around
A portable external drive is not as convenient to carry as something small like a USB flash drive. While external drives are designed for portability, they can still take up substantial space in a bag or case when traveling. And most models still require a USB cable to connect to devices.
Not as durable as internal drives or SSDs
Consumer external drives emphasize slim, lightweight designs for portability. So they generally do not have the rugged construction as internal HDDs designed to withstand vibration or drops inside a computer. Externals can fail from impacts during travel that would rarely affect an internal drive.
And external drives usually use traditional hard drive magnetic media rather than the more durable flash memory in solid state drives (SSDs). So they are inherently more prone to damage from movement and trauma. Overall, externals drives have more fragility and are easier to break than internal hard disk drives or SSDs.
Extra devices can get lost or misplaced
The small size of external drives also makes them easier to lose track of or misplace entirely compared to desktop computer components. Their portable nature means they can be put down anywhere then forgotten or lost. It’s also easier for an external drive to be left behind at a hotel or location compared to the components inside your computer case.
Ideal external hard drive uses
Here are some of the best ways to utilize the advantages of external drives while minimizing any downsides:
Photo storage and editing
Photographers who work with lots of large RAW files require plenty of storage capacity. External drives excel at providing ample space for massive photo libraries. Their fast USB 3.0 speeds allow quick transfer of RAW files to your computer for editing. When traveling, you can carry your entire image collection on a portable drive. And storage is cheaper with external drives vs buying multiple internal SSDs.
Backup important personal data
An external drive provides an excellent way to automatically backup irreplaceable files like family photos,videos, financial records and documents. For extra data safety, use backup software to mirror files on both the external drive and a cloud storage service. This provides both fast local backups and offsite cloud backups if your external drive is lost, stolen or damaged.
Movie & music storage and playback
An external drive can store enormous collections of movies, TV shows and music for convenient playback on any device. You can store more content than what fits on your laptop or phone’s internal drive. Playback is easy, needing only a USB connection to smart TVs, streaming boxes, computers and tablets. And playback is smooth thanks to the speedy transfer rates of USB 3.0.
Expand storage on a desktop computer
Adding an external drive to your desktop PC instantly provides vast amounts of extra storage space for games, video files, programs, photos and other large data. External drives are also easy to swap out to increase storage or transfer files between computers. The USB connection makes connecting and disconnecting an external a breeze.
Extra storage for gaming consoles
Games and their save files take up tremendous space on gaming consoles like the PlayStation and Xbox. An external drive can exponentially increase the storage for more game installs. Just connect the external drive via USB and you can install games and store save files directly onto it. When the drive fills up, swap in a new external for even more space.
External hard drive buying tips
If you’ve decided an external drive fits your needs, keep these tips in mind when shopping:
- Storage capacity – Buy more than you need today, at least 2TB or more. Videos, photos and games will quickly eat up space.
- USB 3.0 or USB-C interface – The speed of USB 3.0 makes transfers much faster vs older USB 2.0 drives.
- Solid state drives cost more but are much faster and more durable than hard disk models.
- Portable or desktop – Portable drives offer easy travel while desktop models stay in one place.
- Additional software – Some drives include free backup software for easy file mirroring.
- Built for toughness – Rugged, waterproof models provide more protection when traveling.
- Security options – Encrypted drives add an extra layer of data protection.
External SSD vs HDD
|SSD (solid state drive)||HDD (hard disk drive)|
|Cost||More expensive per GB||Less expensive per GB|
|Speed||Faster read/write speeds||Slower read/write speeds|
|Durability||No moving parts, more shock resistant||Contain fragile moving parts|
|Noise||Silent operation||Audible spinning of disks|
|Power needs||Lower power draw, some don’t need power supply||Higher power draw, external power often required|
Solid state drives provide big advantages in speed, durability and power efficiency. But you pay more per gigabyte compared to hard drives. Ideal for frequently accessed files where fast speed matters.
Hard disk drives are cheaper per gigabyte, so you can get more storage capacity for the same budget. The mechanical nature makes them less rugged, but technology improvements continue to increase their lifespan and reliability.
External hard drives provide a versatile way to expand your storage for backups, accessing media libraries, transporting files and more. Prices are affordable, capacities are massive, and USB 3.0 connections offer speedy transfers. Just be mindful of the potential for drive failure and physical damage with externals.
For many users, an external drive is worthwhile for the extra space, portability and peace of mind from having an entire backup of your important files. Just be sure to follow precautions like running automatic backups and storing a second copy of your most critical data in case the external drive is damaged. Used properly alongside internal computer storage and cloud backups, external hard drives remain a smart and useful way to manage your growing digital library.