The most common USB type used for external hard drives is USB 3.0. USB 3.0 offers faster data transfer speeds compared to older USB 2.0, allowing for quicker file transfers to and from the external drive. Many modern external drives use USB 3.0 or the newer USB 3.1 Gen 1 for the best performance.
What is an External Hard Drive?
An external hard drive is a portable storage device that can be attached to a computer through a USB connection. Unlike the primary internal hard drive that’s installed in a computer, an external hard drive is external and removable.
External hard drives provide additional storage space for backing up important files, storing large media files, or expanding the capacity of a computer. They come in a range of storage sizes from compact portable models with 1-2TB of space to larger desktop models with up to 10TB or more.
When connected to a computer via USB, an external drive will appear as a separate drive, providing fully usable storage capacity. Data like documents, photos, videos, music, and other media files can be copied or moved onto the external drive. This allows you to back up your data for safekeeping and transport or expand the storage capacity of your main computer.
Common Uses of External Hard Drives
- Extra storage space: External hard drives provide expanded storage capacity for storing large files like high resolution photos and videos.
- Backups: One of the main uses of external drives is to back up important files from a main computer as a protective measure.
- Data portability: The ability to disconnect and transport data makes external hard drives useful for transferring files between computers or locations.
- Media storage: External hard drives are ideal for storing and organizing large digital media libraries of movies, music, and games.
- Xbox & Playstation storage: Gaming consoles can have their storage expanded with external hard drives.
Advantages of an External Hard Drive
External hard drives are designed to be portable so you can move data between locations or bring important files with you when traveling. Unlike the internal drive in a laptop or desktop computer that is fixed in place, an external drive can be disconnected and taken anywhere quite easily.
Expanded Storage Space
One of the key benefits of using an external drive is the ability to add substantial storage capacity to your main computer. Laptops and desktops have limited internal drive space that can run out quickly if you have large files. An external hard drive with 1TB, 2TB or more capacity gives you lots of extra room to work with.
Data Backup & Security
External hard drives are an excellent way to back up critical data for protection against system crashes, viruses, accidental deletion, natural disasters, theft and more. Because the drive isn’t connected full-time, it’s less likely to be damaged if something happens to your computer. Storing backups on an external drive allows you to restore lost data if needed.
The plug-and-play connectivity of external hard drives makes them very compatible and easy to use with nearly any computer. USB-based external drives can be plugged into Windows PCs, Mac computers, tablets, laptops, and even certain types of smartphones and TVs. This universal connectivity makes them versatile for transferring and accessing data across many devices.
Potential Drawbacks of External Hard Drives
They Can Fail or Be Damaged
Like any storage device, external hard drives are susceptible to technical failure or physical damage that could lead to data loss. It’s important to be careful when transporting external drives and keep backups of your most critical data in more than one place.
Slower Speeds Than Internal Drives
The data transfer speeds of the latest external hard drives are much faster than a few years ago, but still typically slower than internal PC hard drives. This means it may take a bit longer to copy files to and from an external drive.
Requires Power Source
Most external hard drives need to be plugged into a power source in addition to connecting to a computer via USB, so they’re not as fully portable as a USB flash drive. However some external SSD (solid state drive) models are powered solely via USB.
More Susceptible to Physical Damage
Because external hard drives are meant to be portable and frequently moved, they can be more susceptible to accidental drops, bumps, liquid spills, and other physical damage. Always handle external drives with care.
Extra Upfront Cost
External hard drives involve an additional upfront cost compared to simply using the internal storage of a computer. However, serious computer users often find the extra storage capacity and backup protection worth the cost.
USB Connections for External Hard Drives
There are a few different types of USB connections used by external hard drives today:
USB 3.0 is the most common USB connection found on new high capacity external hard drives today. This version offers a data transfer rate of up to 5 Gbps, which is about 10 times faster than the USB 2.0 standard. USB 3.0 is backwards compatible with USB 2.0 ports.
USB 3.1 Gen 1
USB 3.1 Gen 1 has a transfer rate of up to 5Gbps. This is essentially the same speed capability as USB 3.0. In practice, USB 3.1 Gen 1 and USB 3.0 are interchangeable in use. But USB 3.1 Gen 1 does allow for more efficient data transmission.
USB 3.1 Gen 2
USB 3.1 Gen 2 bumps up the potential data transfer speeds, capable of rates of up to 10Gbps. While not yet common, some high-performance external SSD drives feature USB 3.1 Gen 2. This allows for extremely fast operation that can rival or surpass even Thunderbolt 3 speeds.
USB-C is a physical connector type that can support various underlying USB protocols. For instance, a USB-C external SSD might use a USB 3.1 Gen 2 connection for 10Gbps speeds. USB-C connectors are reversible and convenient, but the speed depends on the USB protocol supported.
Thunderbolt 3 connections can achieve blazing fast data transfer speeds up to 40Gbps. For professional users who need ultimate speed when working with huge files, like high resolution video, Thunderbolt 3 external drives offer top-end performance. But they remain more expensive than regular external hard drives.
What Type of USB Connection Does My External Hard Drive Need?
For most typical consumers and business users of external hard drives, a USB 3.0 connection is the bare minimum you should look for when buying a new external HDD. USB 3.0 allows you to transfer files to and from your external drive at decent speeds, while maintaining full backwards compatibility with older USB 2.0 ports if needed.
If you plan to routinely transfer very large files, like 4K video footage, then it’s worth seeking out HDDs and SSDs with even faster connections like USB 3.1 Gen 2, Thunderbolt 3 or Thunderbolt 4. The faster transfer speeds will save you time when reading and writing large amounts of data.
Keep in mind your computer hardware needs to support the fastest interfaces as well. Make sure your desktop or laptop has a compatible port before splurging on a cutting edge external drive with the fastest transfer speeds available.
That said, for more casual everyday external storage needs, like backing up a family computer, storing extra photos and media files, or bringing important documents with you on the go, a USB 3.0 external HDD is probably sufficient. This will allow you solid data transfer speeds and maximum compatibility with nearly any machine you plug it into.
Here are some examples of high-performing external hard drives using the most common modern USB connections:
– Western Digital My Passport (2TB-5TB capacity)
– Seagate Backup Plus Portable (1TB-5TB capacity)
– LaCie Rugged Mini Portable HDD (1TB-5TB capacity)
– Samsung T5 Portable SSD (500GB-2TB capacity)
– SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD (500GB-2TB capacity)
– WD My Passport SSD Portable Storage (1TB-2TB capacity)
– G-Technology G-Drive Mobile Pro SSD (500GB-2TB capacity)
– WD My Passport Pro SSD Portable Storage (2TB-8TB capacity)
– LaCie 2big RAID Thunderbolt 3 Storage (8TB-60TB capacity)
In summary, the most common and recommended USB connection type for external hard drives is USB 3.0. This interface offers nearly universal compatibility along with decent 5Gbps data transfer speeds for most needs. For power users who want cutting edge speed, USB 3.1 Gen 2, Thunderbolt 3, and Thunderbolt 4 external drives are good but pricier choices. And USB-C connectors provide a compact and convenient physical interface that can support USB 3.0, USB 3.1 Gen 2, Thunderbolt 3, and more. Consider your budget, speed needs, hardware compatibility, and usage when deciding the optimal type of USB external hard drive for your data storage requirements.