In the age of cloud storage and high-capacity internal hard drives, many wonder if external hard drives are still a worthwhile purchase. External hard drives remain popular due to their portability, ease of use, and ability to provide abundant extra storage. However, advances in cloud storage and wifi-enabled drives have introduced alternatives that may better suit some users’ needs. This article examines the pros and cons of external hard drives in 2023 to help readers decide if they are still a smart buy.
What are the benefits of external hard drives?
External hard drives offer unique advantages that other storage solutions cannot provide. Here are some of the key benefits of using an external drive:
External hard drives are highly portable, fitting easily into a bag or even a pocket. This makes them ideal for users who need to transport large files or backups between locations. Creative professionals like photographers and videographers often rely on externals to quickly move gigabytes of data from one worksite to another.
Extra storage space
External drives provide abundant extra storage for a low cost. A 4TB external HDD can be purchased for under $100, while 4TB of cloud storage from Google Drive would cost $40 per month. For users that need more capacity than their laptop or desktop allows, an external is a cost-effective solution.
Externals are ideal for local backups of important files and system images. Keeping backups off-site provides protection in case of theft or hardware failure. The set-it-and-forget-it nature of external backup drives makes it easy to consistently maintain recent copies of critical data.
Booting and running an operating system from an external drive allows users to effectively bring their main OS with them anywhere. This can be handy for troubleshooting computer issues or maintaining a consistent environment across multiple machines.
Because they do not require an internet connection, external drives keep data physically secure and inaccessible from network intrusions. Sensitive financial, medical or personal data may be safer stored on a disconnected external rather than cloud storage that could potentially be hacked.
What are the downsides of external hard drives?
While externals have significant advantages, they also come with some downsides to consider:
Portability introduces risk
The portability that makes external great also increases the risk of physical damage or loss. Externals lack the redundancy of cloud storage and server backups, so portable drives being misplaced, stolen or dropped could mean permanent data loss.
The bandwidth of a USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt 3 connection will never match the speeds of internal PCIe NVMe SSDs, so large file transfers will be significantly slower. This can frustrate creative professionals used to lightning fast internal drive speeds.
Extra cables and power adapters
Externals require more cables and separate power sources compared to internals or cloud storage. This can clutter workspaces and lead to compatibility or recognition issues, especially with laptops. Some portables drives run solely off USB power, but larger HDDs and SSDs may need wall adapters.
Possibility of failure
Like any hardware, external drives will eventually fail. Portable externals may be subject to more shock damage, drops, power surges or general wear and tear that reduce their lifespan. Mechanical HDDs also have fragile moving disk parts that can break.
Single point of failure
Unlike RAID drive arrays or cloud storage networks, single external drives represent a single point of failure. If they fail or are damaged, you lose access to that data. This lack of redundancy means consistent backups to a second external or the cloud are necessary for important files.
Who should still consider buying an external hard drive?
Here are some examples of users who can still strongly benefit from purchasing one or more external drives:
Those with limited internet bandwidth
Users in rural areas or developing countries may not have reliable access to fast internet. Uploading backups to the cloud may be impractical. For these users, a large external drive provides local backup capacity without relying on internet speeds.
Professionals who frequently travel for work often need to take large amounts of data with them. Externals allow taking client files, presentations and work samples anywhere while keeping the data secure.
Creative pros and power users
Photographers, video editors and other creatives dealing with large multimedia files need the speed, capacity and portability of external SSDs to augment their workflow between home and studio. Power users can benefit from externals for expanded storage and bootable OS options.
Those with limited internal capacity
Laptop users or those with older desktops may be running short on storage space for modern games, media libraries or productivity files. Adding an external drive can be cheaper than upgrading internal storage or expanding with NAS devices.
Anyone needing routine local backups
While the cloud provides redundancy, periodic backups to an external drive covers situations where internet is unavailable. This provides an additional layer of protection in case cloud backups fail or can’t access your latest files yet.
Are HDDs or SSDs better for external storage?
Both traditional hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs) are commonly used in external enclosures. Which is right for your needs?
Cost per GB
HDDs are far cheaper per gigabyte than SSDs. Discounted external HDDs can be under $20 per TB. External SSDs average around $100 per TB. If you need massive amounts of storage on a budget, HDDs deliver.
SSDs have much faster read/write times than HDDs. This speed boost is important when regularly transferring large files like video projects. Externals with Thunderbolt 3 connections can exploit this SSD advantage.
Portability and durability
SSDs with no moving parts withstand drops and bumps better than HDDs. Small portable SSDs also draw all their power from the USB cable, eliminating bulky power adapters. The improved durability and compact size of SSDs make them better for travel.
Availability in large capacities
While external SSD capacities have grown, HDDs are the only option for expansive 16TB+ externals ideal for massive backups and media libraries. SSDs remain limited to around 8TB max currently.
|Cost Per GB||Around $0.02||Around $0.20|
|Max speeds||Up to 210 MB/s||Up to 1050 MB/s|
|Capacity limits||16TB or more||Typically under 8TB|
|Portability||Larger and heavier||Small and light|
|Durability||More fragile||Withstands shocks|
For most users, the ideal external drive combines both technologies – SSD for speed and frequently accessed files, HDD for larger backups and media archives. Used together, they overcome the downsides of either drive type alone.
How does cloud storage compare to external drives?
Cloud services like Google Drive, Dropbox and iCloud offer abundant online storage accessed from anywhere. But cloud storage differs in key ways from local external drives:
Cloud storage relies on consistent internet access. Externals can be accessed any time without an connection. This makes them better for use in remote locations or where internet is unreliable.
Access and syncing speeds
While downloading files from the cloud can be slow based on your internet speeds, cloud services maintain real-time syncing across devices. Changes are instantly accessible everywhere. Accessing externals is faster, but syncing requires manual efforts.
Security and privacy
Cloud data is secured against hardware failure, but still exposed to potential hacking via the internet. Local external drives keep data offline and physically secure. For sensitive personal or financial data, this may outweigh the risks of hardware failure.
Cloud storage apps are widely supported across devices and platforms like iOS, Android, Windows and Mac. Externals need compatibility with your OS file system and require connectors like USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports.
While cloud services can theoretically offer unlimited capacity, most limit you to 1TB or less for free, then charge subscription plans for expanded storage. Large externals beat this by providing huge local capacity at a one time purchase cost.
If your internet or cloud storage goes down, you lose access. Externals require no active provider or connection, so remain accessible anytime. Having both local and cloud backups provides redundancy if either fails.
|External Drive||Cloud Storage|
|Platform support||Depends on ports||Apps widely available|
|Cost for 2TB||Around $60 one time||$10/month recurring|
|Access speed||Very fast over USB 3.0+||Varies based on internet|
|Capacity limits||16TB or more available||Often 1TB or less free|
Users with connectivity constraints may need to choose between externals and the cloud based on their unique needs. For broader compatibility and redundancy, a hybrid approach utilizing both local and cloud storage delivers advantages that outweigh either alone.
What connection types allow the fastest external drive speeds?
The interface used to connect an external drive to your computer impacts the maximum data transfer speeds possible. Here are some of the fastest options:
USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 – 20Gbps
The latest USB 3.2 standard achieves up to 20Gbps transfer rates. This matches Thunderbolt 3 speeds. USB-C cables are required. Support is still limited to newer PCs and Macs.
Thunderbolt 3 – 20Gbps
Thunderbolt 3 via USB-C allows incredible 20Gbps throughput speeds, assuming your computer also has a Thunderbolt 3 port. Ideal for moving huge files to fast external SSDs.
USB 3.2 Gen 2 – 10Gbps
USB 3.2 Gen 2 boosts maximum speeds to 10Gbps with compatible SuperSpeed+ USB drives. This standard is more widely adopted using USB-A or USB-C cables.
USB 3.0 – 5Gbps
This common USB standard features typical real-world speeds around 3.5Gbps. USB 3.0 is nearly universal across modern computers, allowing lower costs.
USB 2.0 – 480Mbps
While USB 2.0 is still widely-supported, its 480Mbps maximum throughput is far too slow for external drives. Only use USB 2.0 for external hard drives as a last resort.
For the very fastest transfer speeds to take advantage of high-end external SSDs, choose drives with Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 or at least USB 3.2 Gen 2 support. Be sure your computer also has matching ports for maximum performance benefits.
Are wireless/portable hard drives better than wired drives?
External drives are available with built-in wifi and batteries to eliminate any wired connection. Are these portable wireless drives preferable over basic wired models?
Pros of wireless portable hard drives
- Access your data anywhere with no cables – just connect to the drive’s wifi network
- Builtin batteries allow use without any power cables or adapters
- Stream videos, photos, and music to mobile devices like tablets or phones
- Creates a standalonewifi network or bridges to your existing network
Cons of wireless portable hard drives
- Require charging the battery – usually lasts between 5-10 hours active
- Local wifi speeds slower than direct wired connections
- Limited range from the hard drive’s wifi signal, usually around 30 feet
- No security from connecting to public wifi hotspots
Wireless portable hard drives provide flexibility and easy access to data for mobile devices. But wired externals have faster transfer speeds and no battery limitations. Consider wireless drives for improved portability, and wired for better home use performance.
Do laptops still need external storage with abundant onboard SSD capacity?
With laptops now shipping with 1TB or larger internal SSDs, do they still benefit from adding external storage?
Scenarios where external drives are still useful for laptops:
- Storing backups of your system and files locally in case of laptop failure, theft or accidental deletion.
- Expanding capacity affordably compared to pricier laptop SSD upgrades.
- Shared storage for portable access to common files between multiple computers.
- Storing media libraries, games, project files/programs that overwhelm your primary laptop SSD storage.
- Scratch space for video editing or other temporary needs exceeding your internal capacity.
- Quick local copying of data from other devices via the external drive.
While abundant onboard SSDs reduce the need for externals compared to past laptops, there remain good reasons to still utilize external storage. Their added capacity, backups, sharing and portability keep them relevant even for modern laptops.
Should I keep external drive backups disconnected until needed?
Keeping backups on an external drive that is normally unplugged and stored safely provides an extra layer of protection from:
- Ransomware – Keeps backups offline and inaccessible, avoiding potential encryption.
- Power surges – No physical connection protects from electrical damage.
- Theft – No drive connected removes the target for physical theft of your backups.
- Fire/flood damage – Being disconnected avoids damage to both computer and backups.
- Accidental deletion – No connection protects backups if you mistakenly delete or overwrite local files.
The main downside is that disconnected backups are not automated and require manually connecting the drive to update. But for home users seeking ultimate backup protection, keeping it normally unplugged is ideal.
While cloud storage and internal drives continue advancing, external hard drives still deliver unique advantages like abundant offline capacity, security, portability, and local speed. For many users, externals remain indispensable tools alongside modern storage alternatives – providing redundancy, system mobility, and backup peace of mind at an affordable cost per terabyte. With USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 and Thunderbolt 3 pushing speeds past internal SATA connections, the limitations of external storage continue to fade. For prosumers, business users, travelers and home media hoarders alike, external drives should remain a staple for years to come.