In today’s digital world, having enough storage space for all of your files is crucial. From photos and videos to documents and music, our data continues to grow. At some point, the storage on your computer will fill up. When that happens, an external hard drive can provide a useful and relatively inexpensive way to add more storage capacity.
What is an external hard drive?
An external hard drive is a portable data storage device that can be attached to a computer via a USB connection. These drives typically have high storage capacities and are often used for backup purposes or as a network drive.
External hard drives come in a range of storage sizes, with some offering multiple terabytes (TB) of space. They connect to a computer through a USB cable and allow you to store and access data from the drive.
Because they aren’t located within your computer tower, external hard drives provide a layer of physical separation between your data and your computer. This makes them useful for backups, extra storage space, or transferring files between devices.
Why would you need one?
There are several key reasons why you may want or need an external hard drive:
|Physically separate from computer for protection
|Must remember to manually backup
|Can restore files if computer crashes
|Could be damaged/lost like primary drive
One of the most common and recommended uses for external hard drives is as a backup device for important files. Backing up your data provides an extra line of defense against things like hard drive failures, ransomware attacks, fires, and theft.
Because files stored on an external drive aren’t physically located on your computer, backups provide protection in case your primary hard drive is damaged or wiped. You can simply restore your files from the backup drive.
Extra storage space
If you work with large files like video, photo, or audio data, your internal hard drive can fill up fast. An external drive provides abundant extra capacity for these large files and other primary data.
Rather than relying solely on cloud storage, external drives allow you to keep terabytes of data onsite and easily accessible. The portability also enables you to transport huge files between locations.
File transfer and access
External hard drives make sharing and accessing files across multiple devices easy since they can connect via USB to different computers. This gives you flexibility if you work on multiple machines or share files with others.
The drives allow for quick transfers of data. You can easily take files with you or share them in different locations by simply detaching the drive and connecting it to the desired computer.
Privacy and security
Unlike files stored in the cloud, data stored on an external drive essentially remains under your control at all times. There are no third party companies to trust or rely on for file accessibility.
Encryption can also be used on many external drives for an added layer of privacy and security against unauthorized access. The physical control that external drives allow can be preferable for sensitive files.
If you have an extensive digital media library of movies, music, and photos, an external drive provides ample storage for these large files. A media server can also be set up with the external drive to host and manage your own streaming media library.
What are the advantages of an external hard drive?
There are several key advantages that make external hard drives useful storage solutions:
- Portability: Small external drives can easily be transported in a backpack or bag
- Capacity: External drives provide vast amounts of extra storage space for large files
- Speed: USB 3.0 and newer external drives provide fast file transfer speeds
- Compatibility: External hard drives can be used with most computers through USB ports
- Durability: External SSD drives are more durable and resistant to damage from drops or shocks compared to internal drives
- File sharing: Easily share files between multiple computers by simply detaching and reattaching the drive
- Price: Extra storage is relatively affordable compared to the cost of higher capacity internal drives
- Backups: Provide a way to physically separate your data from your computer for protection
What are the disadvantages of an external hard drive?
While offering various benefits, there are also some downsides to consider with external hard drives:
- Physically connecting and disconnecting the drive can become cumbersome
- Smaller drives offer less storage compared to a new higher capacity internal drive
- Portable drives risk being lost, stolen, or easily physically damaged
- usb cables can fail or become disconnected, interrupting file transfers
- For backup, files may not be automatically copied like with cloud backups
- Storing large amounts of data in one place has risks if the drive fails
- External SSD drives typically cost more per unit storage compared to HDDs
Should you get an HDD or SSD external drive?
External drives come in two main varieties: traditional HDDs (hard disk drives) or newer SSDs (solid state drives). Which one you choose depends on your specific needs and budget.
|Cost per GB
|Around $0.03 per GB
|Around $0.20 per GB
|Typically 100-200 MB/s
|Up to 550 MB/s
|Can fail with physical shocks
|More resistant to drops and vibration
|Typically up to 10+ TB
|Typically less than 4 TB
HDDs are more affordable per terabyte and offer larger capacities. But SSDs provide faster transfer speeds, run silently with no moving parts, use less energy, and offer better durability.
If you simply need tons of extra storage on a budget for things like backups, media files, and documents, an HDD is likely the better choice. But if speed, durability, portability are priorities, or you don’t need multi-terabyte capacity, an SSD external drive may be ideal.
How much storage space do you need?
The amount of extra storage you need depends on what you intend to use the external drive for and how much existing data you need to backup or transfer.
For only occasional file sharing or small backups, a drive as small as 1TB may suffice. But if you have hundreds of gigabytes of photos, media, documents, or backups, you may want a 4TB or larger drive.
If you plan to use the drive for complete system image backups, you’ll need at least enough capacity to hold a full clone of your primary hard drive. This could easily require 1TB or more of external storage.
Those working extensively with very large files like 4K/8K video will likely want one of the largest external HDDs available, which offer up to 10TB or more for cheap bulk storage capacity.
Should you get a wireless external hard drive?
External hard drives are traditionally connected and accessed directly via USB cable. But there are also wireless external hard drive options available, which give you more flexibility and remote access.
Wireless external drives connect via WiFi and allow you to access your data from mobile devices or multiple computers without physically attaching the drive. This provides more convenience and functionality.
Backup software is also built into many wireless drives to automate the process for you. But wireless drives cost more than standard external HDDs.
Wireless can benefit collaboration and remote access, but standard external hard drives offer faster transfer speeds over their direct USB connections. Closely consider your specific needs and which connectivity suits your workflow best.
How do you use and connect an external hard drive?
Using and connecting an external hard drive is very simple:
- Physically connect the drive to your computer’s USB port using the provided USB cable. Most drives are bus-powered and get energy through the USB cable, so no extra power connections are typically required.
- Once connected, the drive should appear within your computer’s file management system, like File Explorer on Windows or Finder on Mac. You can begin dragging files to it like any other drive.
- If the drive does not appear, check that the USB connection is secure. You may also need to initialize the drive by right clicking it in your file explorer and selecting Initialize.
- Eject the drive before physically disconnecting it by right-clicking and selecting “Eject”. Simply detaching without ejecting risks corrupting files.
For wireless external drives, you’ll need to connect to its WiFi network from your computer when wanting to access the files, rather than using a USB cable. Portable wireless drives typically can also connect directly to mobile devices.
Tips for choosing an external hard drive
Consider the following when shopping for an external hard drive:
- Storage capacity needed
- HDD vs SSD type
- Standard vs wireless connectivity
- Transfer speed (USB 3.0 minimum recommended)
- Physical size and portability
- Additional features like encryption and backup software
- Brand reputation and warranty
- Price per terabyte
Adding external storage provides more space for backups, documents, media, file transfers, and other data storage needs. Prices continue dropping while capacities increase, making external hard drives extremely affordable backup and storage solutions.
For massive amounts of cheap storage, HDDs deliver. But for added speed, durability, and portability, SSDs are worth the higher cost. The right external hard drive can greatly complement your computer’s internal storage for under $100.
With their plug-and-play USB connectivity, ease of use, portability, and storage capacities from 1TB up to 10TB or more, external drives give you flexibility in expanding your digital storage needs.