How to Choose the Right External Hard Drive

edited August 2023 in PC Tech

Have you ever considered what happens to your files and photos once you hit save? Every computer has a built-in hard drive that stores the operating system, various applications, and those all-important files. This data is spread out and stored on multiple hard drive components and are accessed when users open a file. Internal hard drives look like a platter or tray and are protected from damage by a steel casing. Computer hard drives are a kind of non-volatile storage device, meaning stored data does not disappear when a computer shuts down. But what happens when the internal storage space is not enough?  

What is an external hard drive? 

It does not take long for a computer to run out of storage space — even for the most frugal users. An external hard drive, or external HDD, connects to the computer on the outside, giving users more storage space than is available internally. This allows users to back up or store their data on a portable device. Some external HDD devices connect to the computer via a USB cable, while some plug directly into the wall. 

Why should I buy an external hard drive? 

We live in a world of choices — and storage space for our files and photos is no exception. In addition to internal storage, we can also save data on an external HDD or the cloud. Here are a few reasons why an external HDD may be the right choice for you. 

1. Convenient and portable: External HDDs are portable and let users transport large amounts of information between locations, which is perfect for digital nomads or those working in a hybrid setting. Users can simply unplug the external HDD and take it to their next location, safeguarding their precious data while on the go. 

2. User friendly: Unlike the cloud, external HDDs do not require an internet connection or user account. Users can access data by simply plugging the cable into the computer or wall outlet.  

3. Safer than the cloud: Using cloud-based services to store files and photos is convenient, but valuable data may no longer be yours once uploaded. Look closely at the terms of use and you might find information about data ownership nestled in the small print. Although it is unlikely that companies will use and claim ownership of your photos or files, they could still use them for other purposes. Moreover, sophisticated cyber criminals often target cloud companies as part of their latest hack. A 2022 study showed that 81% of organizations suffered a cloud-related security incident over the previous year. The best way to retain complete ownership of files is by using an external HDD.

4. Keeps data safe: Accidents happen when we least expect them. From spilling coffee over the keyboard to dropping the laptop on the floor, saving data to an external HDD protects files from life’s mishaps. It also prevents work from getting lost if files are deleted from the main computer. It goes without saying that leaving a computer unattended in a cafe or hotel room increases the risk of theft. But did you know that one laptop is stolen every 53 seconds? Unfortunately, only an estimated 2% of stolen laptops are recovered, meaning important files end up in the hands of thieves. Saving data to an external HDD ensures your files are safe even if your computer is not.

What should I consider when buying an external hard drive?

After identifying that an external HDD is the right for you, the next step is to know what to look out for. 

1. Type of external hard drive  

External backup hard drives generally fall into two categories: external hard disk drives (HDD) and external solid state drives (SSD). HDDs consist of mechanical platters and a reading and writing head that retrieves data from the drive. They are usually the primary or secondary type of storage within the computer, saving critical and non-critical data. HDDs are differentiated by their rotations per minute, and 5400 and 7200 RPM are the most common types available. 

Unlike HDDs, SSDs are non-mechanical drives and rely on flash memory. Memory chips and transistors that capture and store data in the drive replace moving parts, creating a newer storage-saving technology.  

2. Storage capacity 

When considering which external hard drive to buy, you should think about your storage needs. Will you save documents and files or video footage and high-resolution images? Are you an avid gamer or musician? Do you only want to store your existing files or will you be expanding regularly? Considering these points in advance will prevent you from purchasing the wrong device or quickly running out of storage space.

In general, saving videos and images will require more storage space than documents and may require a 1TB external hard drive or above. Here is a general guide to assess how much space you may require.

  • Documents: <80 GB 
  • Music: 80 - 120 GB 
  • Software: 120 - 320 GB 
  • Videos: 320 GB - 1 TB 
  • 4K or HD videos: over 1 - 2 TB

3. Transfer speed and connection type 

When purchasing an external hard drive, bigger is not always better. Transfer speed is crucial, especially if you regularly transfer files back and forth. When considering transfer speed alone, SSDs are generally faster than HDDs. However, they are generally more expensive and could have a smaller storage capacity.

Next, potential purchasers should consider how the external drive and PC or mobile device will connect. USB 2.0 devices are useful for small and irregular transfers but have a maximum transfer speed of 480Mbps. The next stage up, USB 3.0, USB 3.1 Gen1, or USB 3.2 Gen1 offer transfer speeds of around 5 Gbps, whereas USB 3.1 Gen2 and USB 3.2 Gen2 offer 10Gbps. Topping that, USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 can reach up to 20 Gbps.

Note: A Thunderbolt NVMe SSD is required to achieve the fastest possible external transfer speed. 

4. Portability 

Considering whether your external hard drive will stay at home or not will determine which type of device to buy. Desktop drives are reliable and suitable for long-term use. HDD devices usually fall into this category 

Storage devices intended to be used out and about must be lightweight and small enough to fit into a bag or pocket. Although portable HDDs are available, SSDs are usually the smaller option as they are free from mechanical platters. Moreover, SSDs tend to be less fragile than HDDs and are durable and shock-resistant, so they will not flinch when thrown into a backpack or accidentally dropped on the floor.  

5. Cost 

External hard drive prices increase with the amount of storage required. For example, a 500GB - 1TB HDD may set you back USD $30 - $50, whereas a 1TB - 2TB SSD could cost up to USD $200. Hard drive costs for a 16 TB SSD could even reach USD $3000. Purchasing multiple smaller devices may be a cheaper option, but less convenient than one large device. Overall, deciding which external hard drive to buy really depends upon your unique requirements and budget.

How long do external hard drives last? 

Purchasing a new external hard drive is a big decision with many factors to consider. Along with price, storage capacity, and portability, you should also think about how long your new device will last. Damage-free and well-maintained HDDs have an average lifespan of around five years, whereas the failure rate for SSDs is determined by how much data is stored over time


It is wise to thoroughly analyze your needs before purchasing an external hard drive. An external HDD for games, videos, or high-resolution images requires significantly more space than documents or files. Pick the largest external hard drive for your needs, and consider purchasing a higher storage space if you plan on continually saving files. Evaluating the features and differences between HDD and SSD storage devices is also important. HDDs are based on an older technology and are generally slower than SSDs. However, HDDs are cheaper, and buyers can purchase more for less. Lightning-speed SSDs are robust and practically shock-resistant, but will require a higher investment.

Jeni is a translator and writer based in Taiwan. She is passionate about business development and loves helping companies enter international markets. She is fluent in English, German, and Mandarin Chinese, and combines these with her industry experience to provide practical market entry solutions.


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