5 Things to Consider when Choosing an External Hard Drive

Having an external hard drive is practically essential in today’s data-driven world.  Keeping all your files on a single computer is inconvenient, unwieldy and risks losing everything if your computer fails, so keeping your files backed up on an external hard drive adds an extra level of security to your data, ensuring that if one storage system fails, your important files aren’t lost.  External hard drives are also useful for additional storage, as they often offer terabytes of storage in a small, compact package.  If you have a large movie or music collection, or your work involves dealing with large graphics files, keeping your data on an external hard drive can reduce the burden on your computer’s hard drive and give you the space you need for all your files.  Finally, external hard drives are typically small and portable, making it easy to transport your media and your work from one place to another without having to carry heavy or unwieldy computer equipment.  With external hard drives such an important part of any computing system, it is important to choose one that really suits your requirements.  Consider these five things when you shop for an external hard drive, to help you find the one that best matches your data storage needs.

How much storage do you need?  Certain file types take up far more storage than others.  For example, video editors working with high-definition footage might need terabytes of storage to contain all of their media files, whereas an accountant who works primarily with spreadsheets might only need a few gigabytes to handle many years’ worth of files.  It’s a good idea to get an external hard drive with enough space to back up your laptop completely and host any extra files that aren’t on your computer, but since size does affect how expensive and portable a drive is, there’s no need to go much bigger than can comfortably contain all your data.  Hard drives are typically available with storage capacities from 250 gigabytes all the way up to 6 or 8 terabytes: if you need more storage than that then it’s probably time to look for something more robust like a RAID or external sever array.  Bear in mind, also, that it is possible for hard drives to fail.  If you need to store large amounts of data consider buying two smaller hard drives instead – that way if one fails, you don’t lose all of your valuable data.

How is it powered?  Smaller hard drives typically are phantom-powered, meaning that they draw power from the computer reading them through the connecting cable.  Larger hard drives that require more power to run usually need to be connected to a power source.  Hard drives that require a power source are usually more robust, but they can be inconvenient if you take your work with you when you travel, particularly internationally.  If you often work on the go, a smaller drive that runs on phantom power may be a better option, since you don’t have to have access to wall power or worry about adapters for international travel.

What type of connection does it use?  Hard drive technology is continuously being improved, which means it’s a very good idea to check which connection options you have on your personal computer.  USB 2.0 is gradually being replaced by USB 3.0, but most USB drives can be read by either: 2.0 is just a little slower.  Firewire is a very fast and efficient connection, which is useful if you need to transfer large amounts of data between your computer and your hard drive, but not every computer is equipped with a Firewire port.  Newer Apple computers do not have Firewire ports, and many netbooks and ultrabooks also come without Firewire ports: typically it is only desktop computers and larger laptops that offer Firewire connectivity. Other connection types include Thunderbolt, which is an expensive but extremely high-speed option if you use a Mac.  Right now Thunderbolt is mostly found on Apple computers, but other manufacturers like ASUS, Lenovo and HP are adopting Thunderbolt as a fast and reliable connection option for external hard drives.  For slower data transfer but more ease of use, you can also find external hard drives that connect to your computer wirelessly.  They rely on a consistent wireless connection to work, but they can be very convenient, and they usually come with a backup data cable in case there’s no wireless network nearby.

What operating system do you use?  Unlike USB flash drives, external hard drives have to be formatted depending on the operating system you use.  While most hard drives can be used on any operating system – and, with a little tinkering, with multiple operating systems – some hard drives are designed to work better with one operating system than another.  Sometimes you can find out which in the product description; if you’re unsure, it’s always worth reading product reviews, where users of different operating systems will often weigh in on how well an external hard drive works with their computer.  If you always work with Apple computers, certain brands like Western Digital, which has a proven relationship with Apple, might be a good place to look for an external hard drive; on the other hand, if you work with multiple operating systems, LaCie and Seagate are known for handling partitions and formatting particularly well.

Are the customer reviews good?   If you’re unsure about a hard drive, it’s always a good idea to check the customer reviews on sites like Amazon.com and Newegg.  The more popular brands often amass hundreds of reviews, so it’s easy to tell by their average rating whether they are reliable and well-made.  Users reviews also often reveal things about hard drives that may not be in the product description, like how sturdy the cables are, whether the drive has a tendency to overheat and so on.You can also always ask for expert advice: a professional computer technician, especially one who knows your computing needs, will be able to advise you on a reliable drive that works well with your existing computer system.