Is external hard drive like USB?

An external hard drive is a type of storage device that can be attached to a computer via USB cable or other connections to provide additional storage space and serve as a backup drive. Like USB flash drives, external hard drives are portable and easy to use for transferring files between devices or backing up important data. However, there are some key differences between standard USB drives and external HDDs.

External hard drives typically have much higher storage capacities than USB flash drives and are designed for semi-permanent storage rather than transferring small files between devices. While USB drives may have capacities up to 256GB, external HDDs often start at 500GB and can range into multiple terabytes (TB) of space. This makes external hard drives better suited for storing large amounts of data long-term.

Storage Capacity

One of the main differences between an external hard drive and USB drive is storage capacity:

USB Drive Capacity

– USB drives are available in capacities ranging from 1GB to 256GB typically.
– Lower capacity USB drives under 16GB are common for basic file transfers.
– Higher capacity USB drives up to 256GB are available for storing more data.
– USB drive capacities top out at around 256GB for standard versions.

External Hard Drive Capacity

– External hard drives offer much higher capacities than USB drives.
– Entry-level external HDDs start around 500GB of storage.
– Mid-range models offer 1-4TB (1TB = 1000GB).
– High capacity external HDDs can have up to 10TB or more of storage.
– External SSDs offer capacities comparable to HDDs.

So while USB drives may top out at 256GB, external hard drives start at around 500GB and can easily provide multiple terabytes of ample storage space.

Speed and Performance

External hard drives also tend to provide better speed and performance than typical USB thumb drives:

USB Drive Speed

– USB drives rely on the USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 interface for data transfer.
– USB 2.0 drives have maximum data transfer speeds of around 60 MB/s read and 40 MB/s write.
– USB 3.0 drives improve speeds up to around 250 MB/s read and 150 MB/s write.
– This performance is sufficient for small file transfers and documents.
– USB drive speeds make them impractical for transferring large files or lots of data.

External Hard Drive Speed

– Most external HDDs connect via USB 3.0 for fast data transfer speeds.
– High end external HDDs may use USB 3.1 Gen 2 for speeds up to 10Gbps.
– eSATA connection available on some HDDs provides up to 6Gbps transfer speed.
– Thunderbolt external HDDs offer the fastest speeds, up to 510MB/s.
– This makes external hard drives much faster for transferring large files and backups.

The much faster data transfer rates of external hard drives make them better suited than USB drives for regularly accessing, saving, or backing up large files.

File System

External hard drives and USB drives also use different file systems by default:

USB Drive File System

– USB flash drives often use the FAT32 file system by default.
– FAT32 supports individual file sizes up to 4GB only.
– FAT32 allows flash drives to be used on Windows and Mac by default.
– Option to reformat USB drives to NTFS for larger file sizes.
– But NTFS may cause compatibility issues on Macs and other devices.

External Hard Drive File Systems

– External hard drives typically formatted with NTFS or HFS+ file systems.
– NTFS supports much larger individual file sizes over 4GB.
– NTFS formatted drives work natively with Windows.
– HFS+ is designed for Mac compatibility.
– Drives can also be formatted ExFAT for interoperability.
– Overall, external HDD file systems are optimized for large files.

So external hard drives tend to use file systems tailored to large file sizes and specific operating system compatibility, while USB drive file systems trade capability for wider device compatibility.

Portability and Durability

There are also some physical differences that make external HDDs and USB drives suited for different portable storage needs:

USB Drive Portability

– USB drives are highly compact and lightweight.
– Designed to plug directly into a USB port without cables.
– Easily fits into a pocket or bag to carry.
– Not durable or shockproof in most cases.
– More prone to physical failure if dropped or damaged.
– Good for transferring files between locations.

External Hard Drive Portability

– External HDD enclosures are larger than USB drives.
– Require a USB cable to connect to devices.
– Better suited for transporting files between home and office.
– Not as convenient for on-the-go file transfers.
– Enclosures offer more durability and shock resistance.
– Rugged, military-grade external HDDs available.
– Overall more durable and shockproof than USB drives.

So USB drives win for compactness and convenience, while external hard drives are better suited for transporting large data between locations safely.

Backup and Redundancy

Another key difference is the use of external hard drives for backup, while USB drives are less ideal for backup:

USB Drive Backup Usage

– The lower capacities limit backup use cases for USB drives.
– Most consumers won’t have more than 256GB of personal files to back up.
– Businesses would require many USB drives for adequate backup.
– Not ideal for keeping backups up-to-date incrementally.
– USB drives okay for one-off backups or file transfer.
– Overall not the best option for regular backup needs for many users.

External Hard Drive Backup Usage

– High capacities make external HDDs well suited as backup drives.
– Can easily back up entire system, drive images, or key data sets.
– Support incremental backup to keep copies up-to-date.
– Redundant backups provide data protection in case of failure.
– Can have multiple backup schedules and versions.
– Allows for complete system backups and version histories.

So while USB drives may work for ad-hoc backups of documents, external HDDs really shine for high capacity redundant local backup and versioning.


There are also some important security differences between external HDDs and USB drives:

USB Drive Security

– Data stored on USB drives is readily accessible.
– No built-in security against unauthorized access if lost or stolen.
– Hardware encryption available on some USB drives.
– Adds protection but not turned on by default in most cases.
– Must remember to enable encryption manually for security.
– Does not protect from viruses that may infect the drive.

External Hard Drive Security

– Most external hard drives feature built-in security options.
– Password protection can prevent unauthorized access.
– Drive encryption secures data from theft attempts.
– Comes enabled by default on many external HDDs.
– Provides automatic protection of data.
– Some feature fingerprint readers for biometric security.
– Helps protect against viruses and malware as well.

So external hard drives tend to offer higher security with built-in encryption and protection, while USB drives place more responsibility on users to enable security.

Cost Comparison

There is also a significant difference in cost between USB flash drives and external HDDs:

Storage Device Typical Cost Per GB
USB Flash Drive $0.20 – $0.60 per GB
External Hard Drive $0.02 – $0.05 per GB

– USB drives are considerably more expensive per GB than external HDDs.
– This cost difference is compounded as capacity increases.
– A 256GB USB drive may cost $80 while a 4TB external HDD costs only $100.
– Over 10 times the storage for about the same price with external drives.
– External HDDs provide far more cost-efficient storage per GB.

This significant cost advantage makes external hard drives more scalable and economical for high capacity storage needs.

Use Cases and Applications

Based on their differing characteristics, external hard drives and USB drives are suited for different applications:

Typical USB Drive Use Cases

– Quickly transferring smaller files between public computers.
– Sharing presentations or documents at school or work.
– Storing personal files and documents while on the go.
– Occasional backups of key files and folders.
– Running diagnostic tools and portable apps.
– Bootable operating system installation.

Typical External Hard Drive Use Cases

– Expanding long-term storage for a desktop PC or laptop.
– Maintaining comprehensive file backups.
– Storing entire media libraries of photos, videos, music.
– Housing projects, designs, or source code repositories.
– Archiving old emails and correspondence.
– Protecting valuable data from system failures.
– Performing full system image backups for recovery.
– Expanding game storage on gaming consoles.

So in summary, USB drives are better for quick transfers and mobile document storage while external HDDs serve better for high capacity long-term storage and backups.


There are also some compatibility considerations between these storage options:

USB Drive Compatibility

– USB drives can plug directly into any USB port on most devices.
– Wide compatibility across Windows, Mac, Linux, and other operating systems.
– Can be used on desktops, laptops, tablets, phones, TVs, cars, and more.
– Limited compatibility issues barring any hardware restrictions.
– Formatting may be required for optimal performance on some devices.

External Hard Drive Compatibility

– External HDD compatibility varies more between devices.
– Almost all desktop and laptop PCs support external HDDs.
– Game consoles only support certain external HDD models.
– Mobile device support more limited and often requires adapters.
– TV support restricted though some support USB HDDs.
– Cars generally only support USB drives for media playback.

So USB drives universally work across almost all devices with USB ports, while external HDD compatibility is good but more limited for non-PC use cases.

Lifespan and Reliability

There are also differences in the typical lifespan and reliability of these portable storage devices:

USB Drive Lifespan

– USB flash memory has limited erase/write cycles before failure.
– Typical lifespan ranging from 5,000-100,000 write cycles.
– Heavily used drives may wear out within a few years.
– Prone to loss or accidental damage due to small size.
– Not designed for decades of continuous use.
– Overall useful life is limited compared to HDDs.

External Hard Drive Lifespan

– External hard disks use more durable storage media.
– Designed to withstand millions of read/write cycles.
– Average 3-5 year warranty but can often last much longer.
– Enclosure provides protection from shock and damage.
– As reliable as internal desktop hard drives.
– Enclosure may fail before the drive itself fails.
– Overall much longer lifespan than USB flash drives.

So external hard drives are better suited for continuous long-term usage and archival storage with a longer lifespan. USB drive lifespan is shorter overall but the small size allows for easy replacement.


In conclusion, while external hard drives and USB drives both provide portable storage, they are suited for different usage:

– USB drives are smaller, more portable, and better for transferring smaller files.
– External HDDs provide much more storage capacity and speed for backups and archives.
– Security, compatibility, lifespan, and costs also favor external hard drives for most needs.
– But USB drives remain useful for mobile document storage and transfer.

So external hard drives work better as expanded storage and comprehensive local backup solutions, while USB drives serve a purpose for quick file sharing and transfers on the go. For large capacity portable storage and backup, external hard drives are typically the better choice for consumers and businesses alike. Carefully consider the pros and cons when deciding between these two popular forms of portable storage.