External storage is an easy way to add extra capacity to your computer. Use it to store all your multimedia including movies, photos and music or as a backup device.
In this post we will be looking at higher-capacity external hard drives and portable SSDs. For the purposes of this article we will ignore USB flash drives which also come under the umbrella of external storage.
Three compelling reasons to buy an external hard drive or SSD
Firstly, adding an external drive increases the storage capacity of a PC without having to open up the case – great news for those of us with no idea about what happens inside the box hidden beneath our desk.
Secondly, the majority of drives are plug and play so can be used with any computer and, thirdly, the cost per gigabyte is exceptionally low.
Types of external storage
There are four types of external storage we will look at:
Desktop hard drives
Physically, these are the largest units and generally have bigger capacities than other types of external drives. They are intended to be kept permanently in one place and often have their own power source.
Because of their larger capacities and more intense workloads (they are often used for extensive backing up) desktop drives will often have their own built-in fans. This ensures they remain cool and continue to operate efficiently no matter how long they are used for or how much data they process.
They can be fairly large units so can be quite obtrusive. However, their extra storage power makes them an important piece of kit for those who have a lot of data to store or have resource-intensive systems to backup.
Portable hard drives
As they are designed to be carried from one place to another these drives tend to be lighter and have less storage capacity than their desktop counterparts.
They are small and lightweight and can be easily carried in a bag or pocket and, as they are plug and play, can be used to ferry large amounts of data between different locations and used with any PC.
Unlike desktop models, portable hard drives do not have their own power source as they are powered from the computer they are connected to, usually via USB.
Portable SSD drives
Pretty much ditto the above but SSDs have faster data transfer rates than HDDs though they do tend to have smaller storage capacities. However, they do bring all the advantages of an internal SSD including speed and reliability.
Portable wireless drives
Wireless drives are terrific pieces of kit. Designed to be an entertainment hub as well as a storage device, they are versatile and can be taken anywhere. They are absolutely invaluable if you are on a family holiday or have gone camping or caravanning.
They can store a large amount of data but are at their best with media such as movies or music. Most portable wireless drives can simultaneously stream content to multiple devices including laptops, tablet PCs, and smartphones making them an ideal solution for a family holed up in a caravan or tent during inclement weather.
Choosing your external storage device
There are a few things you should look out for when choosing the best drive for you.
Probably the first thing most of us will consider. There isn’t much point in buying an external drive with only limited storage so I suppose the advice here is to buy as many gigabytes as you can afford. If you are buying the device simply as additional storage it should be at least as large as your internal drive but preferably have twice its capacity.
The basic rule here is the faster the spin speed the faster data can be transferred and stored or read and written. A transfer speed of 5GBps will be ample for most purposes though even faster drives are available. Again, buy the fastest drive you can afford.
The third of the big three things to consider when looking for external storage is the interface. Many devices will have either a USB 2.0 or the much faster USB 3.0 connection which simply plugs into the interface every computer has.
USB 3.0 is around ten times faster than 2.0 (USB 3.1 is even faster) and is backwards compatible so it can be used with any USB connection. If you do have the choice between 2.0 and 3.0 always choose the later to future-proof your device.
Other common interfaces are Thunderbolt and FireWire. These are super-fast connections with the former used exclusively for Mac computers though FireWire can be found on both PCs and Macs.
Another interface you may come across is eSATA. This is the external (hence the ‘e’) counterpart of SATA which is used to connect internal hard drives to the motherboard.
Uses for external drives
Most external drives are used simply for their extra storage capacity. When the hard drive in our computer becomes full many of us are reluctant to open up the case and install a new or additional HDD. So adding a plug & play external drive is a simple and practical solution all of us can use.
The external drive can be used to store all documents and media files whilst the machines HDD or SSD is reserved for applications and booting up.
An external drive is also ideal for backing up the full system to protect the user against hardware failure. This ensures important or sensitive data is always secure even if the computer’s internal drive suffers a catastrophic failure.
Portable drives also allow large amounts of data to be easily moved between computers. If you have a PC at work as well as at home, files can be easily moved between the two machines.
Media files, such as movies and photos, can be easily shared with friends and family by simply plugging the drive into their PC and copying the files across. Because portable hard drives are so inexpensive, a different device can be used to house different collections of photos or movies.
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