An external hard drive is a must for every computer owner. Sooner or later, you’re going to have more files than available space, and it’s far less expensive to get an external hard drive than it is to buy a computer with a larger internal drive. And in case you haven’t noticed, small external hard drives have replaced ZIP drives, and even rewritable CDs, as the best way to move data from place to place. Pronto’s External Hard Drive Buying Guide outlines your options so you can find the best way to store your files.
Small external hard drives, known as thumb drives, have replaced floppies, ZIP disks, and even CDs as the preferred way to transfer data. Their durability and rewrite abilities make them more cost-effective than CDs in a matter of months.
The best rule of thumb to follow is find an external drive that is three times the size of your computer’s hard drive. Unless you are a backing up volumes of enormous files, anything over a terabyte will be way to large. 250GB is about right for most.
If you’re storing documents, family photos, or music, a USB 2.0 connection will provide good data transfer. If you want to run applications or work with large multimedia files, look for FireWire or SATA ports.
External hard drives larger than 100GB should be partitioned to increase search and data transfer speed and to reduce data fragmentation.
Music players, biometric sensors, and software packages all add to the cost of an external hard drive. For all-in-one photo centers, include the cost of ink replacement over three to five years to determine the lifetime cost of the drive.
A single unit of digital storage space on an external hard drive. A megabyte (MB) is equal to one million bytes, a gigabyte (GB) equals 1,024 megabytes, and a terabyte (TB) is a thousand gigabytes.
A condition that occurs when data from a single file is stored in several disconnected areas on the surface of an external hard drive’s disk. Fragmented files slow down the read time on an external hard drive.
A high-capacity connection between an external hard drive and a PC. FireWire typically offers the fastest transfer speeds for digital files.
A solid-state storage device used in thumb drives, cell phones, digital cameras, and other portable devices.
The process of segmenting a single external hard drive disk into several smaller spaces, each with their own unique ID.
Redundant Array of Independent Disks is a system that uses mirrored data stored on two separate disks with a single controller to improve speed and reduce data loss.
Revolutions per minute, the speed at which an external hard drive spins. Higher speeds allow for faster data reading.
Serial Advanced Technology Attachment is the new standard for connecting PCs and external hard drives. By processing data files sequentially, it can speed read and write times to an external hard drive.
Another name given to small external hard drives that can be carried on a keychain or slipped into a pocket.
Universal Serial Bus is the standard for connecting PCs and peripherals, such as external hard drives, keyboards, and mice. These connections pass data and power back and forth between the devices and are not as fast as other connection options.
External hard drives come in large desktop models that contain a magnetic disk for storing data, and small “thumb drives” that store data in solid state on flash memory. If you own an iPod or MP3 player, you’ve already got an external hard drive.
Prices have dropped dramatically on solid state external hard drives in recent years, with 1GB thumb drives available for as little as $40. These external hard drives are excellent for carrying data from home to the office or for sharing with colleagues. These small external hard drives connect via a built-in USB port and work with Mac and Windows machines. All you do is plug them in and they’re ready to go.
As external hard drives have gotten smaller, they’ve started to turn up in unusual places. One of the more popular models is a Swiss Army knife. External hard drives with built-in music players and biometric sensors to keep your data safe are also available.
When shopping for a thumb external hard drive, think about how much storage capacity you need, as this is the greatest influence on price. Additional features, such as built-in music players, fingerprint sensors to keep your data safe, and improved shock and water resistance will also add to the cost.
External hard drives with 1GB or more of storage capacity draw more power than low-capacity thumb drives. In general, these external hard drives need to be plugged straight into a PC’s USB ports or a powered USB hub, something to consider if USB space is at a premium. Mac users should note that while external hard drives are plug and play, the Mac OS does not like to have external hard drives removed before you eject them from the desktop. Simply pulling out an external hard drive can corrupt the most recent data transfer.
Almost every external hard drive supports the faster USB 2.0 connection, which can transfer data at around 30MB per second. Unless you’re transferring a lot of very large files, you won’t notice the increased speed, and you may still be able to find older USB thumb drives at steep discounts.
Larger external hard drives can store up to 1.5 terabytes of data, but most users will find that it takes years just to fill a 250GB drive. These external hard drives are self-enclosed magnetic disks with a metal case that disperses the heat generated by the drive.
As with thumb drives, the biggest factor in external hard drive pricing is storage space. The more capacity, the more you pay. If you work with large video or multimedia files or you need an external hard drive to back up your PC for security, you’ll need a larger drive. If you want to save photos, documents, and music, you won’t need as much external hard drive space.
RPM and Connectivity. External hard drives can load files and run applications almost as quickly as an internal drive, but there are limitations. The first consideration is the external hard drive’s speed, which is rated in RPMs. A 7,200 RPM external hard drive is faster than a 5,400 RPM model, but only if you have the right connections.
Almost every external hard drive has a USB connection. If you’re storing music or documents on the external hard drive, you’ll never have performance problems with USB. If you’re dealing with large multimedia files or running complex applications, you’ll want a drive with FireWire or SATA connections, which are better suited to fast data transfer.
Some external hard drives include backup software that let you save the contents of your PC’s hard drive at the push of a button. At the highest end are dual-disk external hard drives built for video editing that deliver the fastest data transfer speeds available.
Searching the contents of a 250GB external hard drive can be taxing for many PCs. If you buy a high-capacity external hard drive, it’s a good idea to partition it into segments of 50 to 80GB. Partitioning assigns identities to each section of an external hard drive, such as F:, G:, and H:, which speeds searching and data transfer. It also limits disk fragmentation, which occurs when data is stored in several unconnected sections of the external hard drive.
The growth of digital photography has encouraged the development of specialized photo external hard drives ranging from basic USB powered models to high-capacity external hard drives with FireWire ports. High-end external hard drives are packed with features for professional photographers and have far more capacity than most families need.
If you’re saving photos of family and friends, look for an external hard drive with 160-250GB of space and a USB connection. Some of these external hard drives include built-in LCD screens, so you can preview photos, and inkjet printers. These external hard drives are meant to be all-in-one photo centers, so they’re not ideal for PC backups, but they can be used for documents, music, or other files you wish to save.
If you’re considering an external hard drive for photos, remember that LCD screens and faster connections will add considerably to the drive’s cost. For all-in-one photo external hard drives, consider the cost of ink cartridge replacement over the next three to five years to determine the lifetime cost of the drive.