What is the point of an external hard drive?

External hard drives serve several key purposes for computer users. In our digital world, file storage is incredibly important, as is having a backup of your data. External hard drives provide additional storage space and serve as a convenient way to backup your files.

What are the benefits of an external hard drive?

There are several advantages that external hard drives offer compared to other storage and backup options:

  • Extra storage space – External hard drives allow you to drastically increase the storage capacity of your computer. For example, you can get an external hard drive with 5TB of space to give you ample additional room for files.
  • Portability – External hard drives are portable, allowing you to store your files on the drive and bring it anywhere. This provides easy access to your data from multiple computers.
  • File backup – Having an external hard drive provides you with a great backup to safely store copies of your important files. This gives you peace of mind in case something happens to your main computer and its internal hard drive.
  • Convenience – External hard drives plug right into your computer, typically via USB. This makes adding extra storage quick and convenient compared to upgrading your computer’s internal hard drive.
  • Price – Given their storage capacities, external hard drives are very competitively priced compared to other storage solutions.
  • Security – Keeping your data on an external hard drive helps protect it if your main computer is compromised by malware or is stolen.

When would you want to use an external hard drive?

There are several common situations where using an external hard drive would be very helpful:

  • Needing more storage space – If the internal hard drive on your computer is getting full, adding an external hard drive gives you immediate additional space for your files and data.
  • Backing up important documents/photos – Making regular backups to an external hard drive serves as a protective measure against losing your irreplaceable files.
  • Encrypting sensitive information – You can use specialized external hard drives with hardware encryption to securely store sensitive data.
  • Expanding storage for gaming – Gaming takes up a lot of storage space, so gamers can benefit from external hard drives for extra capacity.
  • Storing media collections – If you have large collections of music, movies or photos, storing them on an external drive helps preserve computer storage.
  • Adding storage to older computers – Breathing new life into an older computer by connecting an external hard drive to provide abundant storage.
  • Sharing large files – External drives make sharing large documents, presentations or media files easy since you can easily transport them.

What are the different types of external hard drives?

There are a few primary options to consider when looking at external hard drive types:

  • HDD (hard disk drive) – This traditional spinning hard drive is the most common choice for external storage. Offers lots of capacity for the price.
  • SSD (solid-state drive) – With no moving parts, solid-state drives offer faster read/write speeds in a lighter, smaller package.
  • Portable – Small and lightweight external hard drives that typically connect via USB and fit easily in a bag.
  • Desktop – Require an external power source, so they sit on or next to your computer. Offer very high capacities.
  • Wireless – External hard drives that connect via WiFi instead of a cable, providing more convenient mobility.

Factors like storage needs, portability, speed and budget will help determine which is the right external hard drive type for each user.

How does an external hard drive connect to a computer?

There are a couple primary data transfer technologies used to connect external hard drives to computers, including:

  • USB – The most common interface for connecting external storage. Versions like USB 3.0 and USB-C offer fast data transfer speeds.
  • Thunderbolt – Supports very fast transfer speeds over longer distances, perfect for large media files.
  • eSATA – Connects external hard drives to computers using external SATA ports for high speeds.
  • FireWire – Typically found on older external hard drives and Apple devices. Slower speeds than USB.

External hard drives today predominantly use USB connectivity. The most recent USB standards (USB 3.0, USB 3.1 and USB-C) provide extremely fast data transfer speeds that rival Thunderbolt speeds. USB remains the most popular option given its near-universal compatibility with computers.

Should you get a wireless external hard drive?

Wireless external hard drives provide some advantages, but also come with some downsides to consider:

Potential advantages:

  • Convenience – No cables to connect, allowing easy access from anywhere within your wireless network range.
  • Portability – Small enough to easily take with you virtually anywhere.
  • Shareability – Can allow multiple devices/people to access the same files.

Potential disadvantages:

  • Speed – Transfer rates may be slower compared to wired options like USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt.
  • Security – Potential data security, privacy and hacking risks due to wireless transmission.
  • Battery issues – Many wireless drives have integrated batteries that eventually need replacing.

Wireless hard drives provide more flexibility but wired models offer faster speeds. Users who prioritize mobility may find wireless most appealing, while those focused on fast data transfer should look at wired external drives.

What files should you backup on an external hard drive?

Some examples of important files you should make sure to backup on your external hard drive include:

  • Personal documents – Tax returns, wills, deeds, licenses, insurance information, etc.
  • Financial documents – Bank statements, investment records, receipts, etc.
  • Photos and videos – Especially irreplaceable events like weddings, graduations, etc.
  • Music collection – Lossless audio files take up significant space over time.
  • Email archives – Preserve important correspondence and attachments.
  • Creative work – Illustrations, recordings, writings, code projects, etc.

Anything that cannot easily be replaced and that would cause significant disruption to your work or life if lost should be considered for your external hard drive backup.

How often should you backup an external hard drive?

Consistency is key when backing up your external hard drive. Here are some general guidelines on frequency:

  • Documents – Backup anytime major new documents/files are added.
  • Photos – Backup anytime you shoot/import a major new batch of photos.
  • Financial records – Backup monthly when doing reconciliation.
  • Full system backup – Do a complete backup of the entire external hard drive every 3-6 months.

You may also want to invest in redundant external hard drives to have multiple backups of your irreplaceable data.

Some key things to remember:

  • Backup more frequently during periods of major change – new computer, home move, new job, etc.
  • Always keep at least one backup copy in a separate location in case of theft, fire, flood, etc.
  • Backup before major computer events like operating system updates, new application installations, etc.

How long do external hard drives last?

With proper care and maintenance, most external hard drives can be expected to function reliably for 3-5 years. However, there are many factors that can impact the lifespan of an external hard drive:

  • Mechanical vs. solid state – HDDs have moving parts that fail over time. SSDs are more durable.
  • Build quality – Drives made with high-quality components tend to last longer.
  • Usage habits – Frequent travel and transport ups the wear and tear. Heavy workloads also reduce longevity.
  • Environmental factors – Heat, moisture, dust and vibrations all shorten a drive’s lifespan.
  • Brand reputation – Leading brands like Western Digital and Seagate are known for reliable drives.

Following the manufacturer’s suggested care, performing regular backups, and keeping your drive in proper conditions will help maximize its useful life. Most external hard drives come with a 1 to 3 year warranty. An expired or voided warranty is a sign a hard drive is nearing the end of its lifespan.

How do I dispose of or recycle an external hard drive?

It is important to properly dispose of an external hard drive once it reaches the end of its lifespan to keep your data secure:

  1. Delete all data – Use software that overwrites all data for secure deletion.
  2. Remove any physical damage – Open up the housing and remove the actual hard drive.
  3. Recycle the components – Hard drive platters, circuit boards, metal housing, magnets and cables can all be recycled.
  4. Send to a specialty recycler – They shred and/or incinerate hard drives in an eco-friendly manner.
  5. Donate functional drives – Charities may be able to securely wipe drives and reuse working hard drives.

Removing the drive from the external enclosure and exposing the internal components provides assurance your data cannot be recovered. Watch for local recycling events near you to properly dispose of old electronics.


External hard drives remain extremely useful devices, providing additional storage space, vital file backups, and peace of mind knowing your data is secure. When your computer’s internal hard drive capacity is low or performance starts to lag, connecting an external hard drive can inject new life and purpose into nearly any machine.

Just be diligent about performing regular file backups and try to keep the drive in proper conditions to extend its operational lifespan as long as possible. But one day when your trusty external hard drive inevitably ceases functioning, be sure to give it an honorable data-erasing retirement and let it ride off into the plastic recycling sunset.