How big should my external hard drive be?

When it comes to external hard drives, one of the most common questions is “How big should I get?”. The right size depends on your specific needs and budget. This comprehensive guide will walk you through the key factors to consider and provide size recommendations based on different use cases.

Quick Answers

Here are quick answers to some of the most common questions about external hard drive sizes:

  • For basic files storage: 500GB to 1TB
  • For photo storage: 1TB to 4TB
  • For video storage: 2TB to 5TB+
  • For backup drives: 2x your computer’s storage capacity
  • For gaming: 500GB to 2TB

What Will You Use It For?

The main factor that determines how big your external hard drive should be is your intended use case. Here are some common uses and the recommended sizes:

Basic File Storage

If you just need some extra storage space for documents, spreadsheets, and other basic files, a 500GB to 1TB hard drive should suffice. This provides enough room for tens of thousands of files.

Photo Storage

An external hard drive is a popular way to store and back up photo libraries. For photo storage, here are the recommended capacities:

  • 1TB = 150,000 to 300,000 photos
  • 2TB = 300,000 to 600,000 photos
  • 4TB = 600,000 to 1,200,000 photos

So for most amateur photographers, 1-2TB is usually enough. But professionals may want 3-4TB or more.

Video Storage

Video files take up much more space than photos. Here are some estimates for video storage needs:

  • 500GB = 100 hours of HD video
  • 1TB = 200 hours of HD video
  • 2TB = 400 hours of HD video
  • 4TB = 800 hours of HD video
  • 5TB+ = 1,000+ hours of HD video

For most home video needs, 2-5TB is usually sufficient. Power users may want 6TB or more.

Backup Drive

Another common use for external hard drives is as a backup drive for your computer. Experts recommend your backup drive be 2-3x the storage capacity of your computer.

So if your laptop has a 500GB hard drive, a 1-1.5TB external drive is recommended for backup. This ensures you have enough room to hold multiple backups over time.

Gaming Storage

Modern video games take up a lot of storage space. For PC gaming storage needs, here are some general guidelines:

  • 250GB – 500GB = 10-20 large games
  • 500GB – 1TB = 20-40 large games
  • 2TB = 40+ large games

Console gamers’ storage needs vary depending on the platform – somewhere between 500GB to 2TB is typical for most gamers.

File Size and Number

In addition to your intended use, also think about the average file size and number of files you need to store. Large numbers of big files will take up space faster.

Here is a very general overview of storage capacity based on file counts and sizes:

Capacity # of Files (10MB each) # of Files (100MB each)
500GB 50,000 5,000
1TB 100,000 10,000
2TB 200,000 20,000
4TB 400,000 40,000
5TB 500,000 50,000

Of course, file sizes vary greatly, but this table gives you a rough estimate of capacities based on file counts.

Future Growth

When deciding on a hard drive size, it’s also smart to consider how your needs may grow in the future. It’s always better to get more storage than you need right now so you have room to expand.

Storage needs usually grow over time as we accumulate more files and data. So it’s best to get a drive that has plenty of extra room to grow into.


If you want to regularly transport or carry your external drive, then you should consider getting a smaller capacity drive – usually 1TB or less.

Large capacity external drives of 3TB or more tend to be bulkier and require external power, so they are less convenient for portability.

Smaller portable drives with 1-2TB capacities can easily fit in your pocket and run off USB or Thunderbolt power.


Your budget obviously plays a role in how much storage you can buy. Hard drive prices fluctuate over time, but here are some average costs as of 2020:

  • 500GB to 1TB = $50 to $60
  • 2TB = $70 to $100
  • 4TB = $100 to $130
  • 5TB+ = $130+

Less than $50 can get you up to 500GB, while high capacity 4-5TB+ drives run over $100. So set a budget and find the largest drive you can afford in that range.

Brand and Build Quality

While you’re shopping for an external hard drive, you’ll come across a range of brands and build qualities. Some key factors to look for include:

  • Reputable brands – Stick with major brands like Seagate, Western Digital, Samsung, etc.
  • Robust materials – Metal and silicone provide maximum shock protection.
  • Portability ratings – Look for durable exterior coating and ratings like IP68 for water/dust protection.
  • Encrypted drives – If security is a concern, look for drives with built-in encryption.
  • Connectivity – Make sure the connectivity (USB, Thunderbolt, etc) matches your devices.

Investing in a quality external hard drive from a top brand ensures your data stays reliable and secure over time.


Before choosing a hard drive, always check that it’s compatible with your computer/devices in terms of:

  • File system – NTFS for Windows, HFS+ for Mac, exFAT for cross-platform.
  • Connectors – e.g. USB 3.0, USB-C, Thunderbolt 3, etc.
  • Software – Some drives come with pre-loaded backup software for Windows/Mac.

Choosing a compatible drive prevents any connectivity or software issues down the line.


Faster hard drives allow quicker file transfers and access times. Here are some speed measurements to look for:

  • RPM – Higher RPMs (5400, 7200) offer faster performance.
  • USB version – USB 3.0 allows transfer speeds up to 5 Gbit/s.
  • Thunderbolt version – Thunderbolt 3 has transfer speeds up to 40 Gbit/s.

SSD (solid state drives) don’t have RPM ratings but provide the fastest speeds. If speed is critical, consider getting an SSD.

RAID Configuration

For additional performance and redundancy, some external drives support RAID configuration through hardware or software. Common options include:

  • RAID 0 – Splits data across two drives for faster speeds.
  • RAID 1 – Mirrors data across both drives to protect against drive failure.

RAID lets you optimize for speed or redundancy by combining multiple drives. Dual-drive external RAID arrays provide an excellent performance and protection solution.


Determining the ideal hard drive size involves assessing your storage needs, budget, and other factors. For most users, a 1-4TB portable external drive from a reputable brand will cover the majority of needs for data storage, backups, video, photos, and gaming.

Aim to buy more storage than you need today so you have room to grow. And always make sure to get a high-quality drive that meets your interface and platform requirements for seamless compatibility and performance.

With the right sized external hard drive that fits your budget, needs, and compatibility requirements, you’ll have peace of mind knowing all your important files are stored safely in a durable, portable enclosure.

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