How to Choose an External Hard Drive?

Today we will take a closer look on how to choose the external hard drive for your computer, laptop or tablet. We’ll explain basic things that will help you to make the best choice for your needs.

First, answer the question: why do you need an external hard drive? These devices are the best way to upgrade the storage on a laptop with a non-removable drive (for example, on a laptop with soldered SSD or no additional slots), gaming console or even a regular PC. An external hard drive is your best friend when you need to carry away a large amount of data that does not fit a regular USB drive or an SD card.

how to choose external hard drive

What Should You Know to Choose External Hard Drive that Suits Best for You?

External hard drives are not so sophisticated as laptops or smartphones. There aren’t that many specs you need to consider in order not to suffer from a buyer’s remorse syndrome. Here we gathered four main specs you need to pay attention to. They include:

  • Disk capacity;
  • Connection Interface;
  • Memory type;
  • Form-factor.

Important: perhaps you don’t need to buy an external hard drive at all. If you have a spare HDD or SSD you don’t use in your PC, consider buying a simple case that converts your internal SATA drive to external drive. These are extremely cheap and will make a good job for those on a tight budget. We recommend Sabrent 2.5-Inch SATA to USB 3.0 Tool-Free External Hard Drive Enclosure (fits 2.5-inch HDDs and SSDs) or UGREEN External Hard Drive Enclosure Adapter. There’s the same model with the USB-C interface.

What to Look For in an External Hard Drive?

Drive’s Capacity

Let us start with disk capacity because it is probably the most important spec that defines everything else. The thing is that we can’t tell you which capacity will fit your needs best. Only you know your budget and needs so there’s almost nothing we can advise you. Probably the only thing is that we do not recommend buying a 500 GB drives. You won’t save that much money comparing to 1 TB model but spare 500 GB of free space will come in handy. For devices from 1 TB and more the price is higher so your budget is the only thing that can dictate what to buy. Still, the larger drive you will buy, the better is GB per $ ratio.

Here are some decent examples of external hard drives worthy to consider.

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Form-factor

Form Factor. The form factor defines how much space in your bag an external hard drive will take. There’s even less to talk than about a disk capacity. You either buy a larger 3.5-inch drive or 2.5-inch drive. The vast majority of external hard drives consist of 2.5-inch variants (3.5-inch are quite rare). Because of people want to carry an external hard drive in their bag, manufacturers prefer soklutions with 2.5-inch drive to save weight and volume. In terms of performance or capacity, there’s no difference between 2.5 and 3.5-inch except their size.

Almost all external hard drives in this article are 2.5-inch but for your convenience here’s a link to a 3.5-inch converter in case you have a spare 3.5-inch drive and want to make it external. DIY option. ORICO Tool-free USB 3.0 to SATA External 3.5 Hard Drive Enclosure Case.

Caution: 3.5-inch external drives need separate power to operate. In addition to the data cable, you need a separate for power delivery. Not a very convenient solution.

External Hard Drive Connectors

The interface determines how your drive connects to a computer. Things are getting a bit more complicated, so we need to make things clear. When buying an external hard drive, you will see the following interfaces:

USB-A. The most common and most universal connection option. Almost on any device, there is a USB-A port to connect any peripheral device. Right now, you can find USB drives with USB 3.2 Gen1 (up to 5 Gbits/s), USB 3.2 Gen 2 (up to 10 Gbits/s) and USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 (up to 20 Gbits/s). But the funny thing is that you shouldn’t care about that if the devices of your choice use a spinning hard drive, not an SSD. Even if its SSD (SATA SSD), regular USB 3.0 interface is more than enough to properly use an external drive on its maximum speed. All of the drives mentioned above are regular USB-A drives.

USB-C. The same as USB-A but in more modern form-factor for computers that don’t support USB-A. We recommend buying USB-C external drives since they will save you from carrying a special cable to connect your drive (most of the regular USB-A drives use MicroUSB 3.0 that you won’t find anywhere else).

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WD 4TB My Passport Ultra Silver Portable External Hard Drive offers drives with capacities from 1 to 5 TB with a USB-C interface. You can also find USB-C in Samsung T5 Portable SSD (from 500 GB to 2 TB) and SanDisk 1TB Extreme Portable External SSD (from 250 GB to 2 TB).

Thunderbolt is the only interface that can hit the speeds higher than USB 3.2 Gen 2×2. This interface is being used only in external SSDs to provide extremely high read and write speeds. Do note that although Thunderbolt 3 looks like a regular USB-C, some Thunderbolt external SSD may not work if your laptop or motherboard has no support for such an interface. And yes, the mere fact that your laptop or motherboard has a USB-C does not mean it is Thunderbolt 3-compatible. Refer to your PC user’s manual to ensure it supports Thunderbolt 3.

So far, the best thunderbolt-based external SSD is a Samsung X5 Portable SSD (from 500 GB to 2 TB) with reading/write speeds reaching up to 2000 MB/s. Design, though, is questionable, but we are here not to discuss which drive looks better. Crucial 1TB X8 Portable SSD (from 500 GB to 1 TB) is more affordable but still faster than any SATA-based external SSD.

If you need a maximum speed and you have a compatible device, go for a Thunderbolt external SSD. Just be sure you are prepared for outrageously high prices. Can’t afford such a drive or don’t need it? Then a regular HDD or SSD-based drive is your choice. Go for USB-C to ensure further compatibility with new devices.

Memory Type

You have already seen that we mention external hard drives and external SSD. The difference between these two is very big. Here is what you need to know.

External HDD is the most affordable. Inside such a drive you will find a regular spinning disk like the one in a cheap laptop. In addition to a low price, they provide the largest amount of available data. Need a big drive for the cheap? External HDD is your choice. The obvious downside is that they are painfully slow and quite noisy. Not the best choice to move a large amount of data.

External SSD. Just like with internal SSD, these offer much better read/write speed. In addition to that, no vibration and no noise. More expensive than external HDDs but still relatively affordable, unless you need a crazy-fast drive.

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If you decide to buy an external SSD, kindly check the other article about how to choose an SSD. It will help you to learn the difference between SSD memory type. It is important because it directly affects the longevity of a drive and its price.

Design

At first glance, all external hard drives are rectangular bricks and there are no major differences. After all, this is not a smartphone or a watch that you always carry and look at. But there are still some things worthy to consider when it comes to design. There are more and thinner. These are called “slim” drives. For example, Seagate Backup Plus Slim 1TB Portable USB 3.0.

Also, many manufacturers offer beautiful cases with nice prints to make a regular ugly external HDD looking more appealing on your desk.

Hard Drive Buffer Size

The buffer is a small amount of faster memory that speeds up the disk. In most models, its value ranges from 8 to 64 megabytes. The higher the value, the longer time your drive can work on the highest possible speed. To get the best performance-to-price ratio, go for something with at least 32 MB of the buffer.

Protection

Since the hard drive itself is a mechanical and relatively fragile device, some companies offer models with additional protection for more durability.

For example, the Transcend StoreJet M3 Military Drop (also available in slim configuration) is protected against shocks with US Army drop standards U.SMIL-STD-810G 516.6 — the hull design has received three stages of impact protection, an anti-slip rubber case, and a high-tech internal hard drive suspension mechanism. Others offer drives that are waterproof, like LaCie Rugged Mini 1TB (from 1 TB to 8 TB) and Silicon Power 4TB USB-C USB 3.0 (from 1 TB to 4 TB with USB-C).

We hope this article will help you to make the best choice and purchase a nice external hard drive.

Cyril Kardashevsky
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