Computers are more portable than ever, but many laptops suffer from meager hard drive space. The cure for the common capacity crunch is an external hard drive. In addition to giving you a reliable place to backup your data, external hard drives let you expand the storage space on your computer and easily transfer files back and forth between machines. Consider the following when shopping for an external hard drive.
Capacity is likely the first feature you’ll look at and is an easy decision to make. How much space do you need and how much money are you willing to spend? The higher the capacity, the more you’ll pay.
Size and Portability
There are three main types of external hard drives: the 3.5 inch with a power source, which is meant to stay put on your desktop and the 2.5 inch and 1.8 inch portable hard drives that draw power from the connector cable. The 3.5 inch drives have bigger capacities, but unless you want to hunt down a wall outlet each time you want to use it, stick with a 2.5 or 1.8 inch.
Most external hard drives will connect via FireWire or USB. Every computer has a USB port, so choosing a USB hard drive makes sense. In terms of speed, the jury is still out in terms of USB vs. FireWire. But USB 3.0 is indeed faster than USB 2.0, while FireWire 800 is faster than FireWire 400. FireWire drives can also be “daisy chained”—that is, you can connect several FireWire drives to each other and then connect the entire chain to a computer. Some hard drives feature both FireWire and USB connectivity.
External hard drives come with rated speeds of 5,400 RPM, 7,200 RPM and up. But given that the transfer speed via USB or FireWire isn’t fast enough to make a difference, you don’t really have to worry about RPMs unless you intend to connect your drive directly to the motherboard at some point.
Solid State Hard Drives
Solid state hard drives have a number of advantages over your typical hard disk drive. Because there are no moving parts, you have less chance of hard drive failure and faster read times. Plus, they are much, much smaller—you can cram 64 GB into a flash card the size of a postage stamp. The one fatal flaw of solid state drives, however, is price. Dollar for dollar, solid state drives are exponentially more expensive than conventional hard disks. For the price of a meager 80 GB solid state drive, you could get a 1 TB hard disk drive. For now, the benefits of solid state don’t quite justify the costs.
Beyond the tech specs, you’ll also want to consider the other aspects, such as design, aesthetics and cooling capabilities. External drives that sit on the desktop and are accessed consistently may need a fan to keep it from overheating. Drives that are only occasionally used for backups or file transfers can usually get by without a fan. Portable drives will benefit from a rugged casing, perhaps with rubber padding to minimize damage from drops or dings.
All in all, external hard drives are fairly simple to buy. As long as you get the size you want and a connection option that is compatible with your computer, you can’t really go wrong. But if you want to get the most for your money, follow the above guidelines carefully.