Everything you need to know before buying an external hard disk

Buying a new external hard drive may seem relatively straightforward but there are many factors to consider. An external hard drive is a type of storage device that can be attached to a computer via a USB cable, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or a FireWire connection. An external drive can be a hard drive (HDD) or a solid-state drive (SSD). They often have very high storage capacities and serve as a network drive or as a system backup. An external hard drive is a sensible way to store all your data — your photos, documents, and music. It’s important to buy the right external drive for your needs. Here are some factors to take into consideration.

An external hard disk or drive (HDD) or a solid-state drive (SSD)?

An SSD doesn’t have any mechanical or moving parts; its data is stored in microchips and uses so-called NAND-based flash technology. An HDD, on the other hand, features a mechanical arm, a read/write head that can move to read information from a metal storage platter. They both have the same function, but which should you choose?

SSDs are the more expensive option and will be for the foreseeable future. Their main advantage is speed – they boot up much more quickly than HDDs. A computer with an SSD will be able to boot, launch apps and transfer files much more quickly than one without. Fragmentation is also not an option for SSDs whereas it is an issue for HDDs. As SSDs don’t have any moving parts, they are also more likely to survive an accident such as being dropped. They are the ideal option for students and business travelers.

Physical size

There is a limit to the size of HDDs because of the aforementioned mechanical parts, but SSDs are becoming increasingly compact as time goes on.

Data transfer speed

If you are intending to move a lot of data from your computer to the drive, you will want something with a fast transfer speed. Portable SSDs are the fastest with speeds up to 540 MB/s but that speed comes at a price. Many inexpensive HDDs are 5200rpm, while more powerful 7200rpm drives cost a little more.


There is a range of security options from which to choose. Some offer basic security, while others feature software suites with sophisticated encryption and more.


If you are going to take your external hard drive out and about, it is important that it is rugged, shockproof and able to withstand the drops, knocks, and tumbles that will inevitably happen from time to time. Many are also designed to withstand extreme temperatures, dust, and even water.

Storage Capacity

The price of hard drive storage has plummeted over the last thirty years from an astonishing $500,000 in 1981 to less than $0.04 per gigabyte in 2017. Nowadays, external hard drives are affordable and great value.
Most people could safely store all their data with around 100 – 500 GB. However, as prices have come down such a lot, there is no reason not to invest in the future and opt for a model with 1 or even 2 terabytes of storage.


If you find ambient computer noise annoying, you will want an external hard drive that is as quiet as possible. SSDs are much quieter than HDDs but the noise levels are pretty negligible really. A rule of thumb is that the faster the hard drive, the noisier it is. One surprisingly effective option is to buy some noise reducing pads to place under your drive’s housing.

Lifespan and reliability of your external hard disk

HDDs are believed to be more reliable and longer-lasting and use a tried-and-tested technology that has been around for a very long time in computer terms. The lifespan of an external hard drive is approximately five years, although your drive may well last much longer than that, especially if you don’t use it very often. External solid state drives have a reputation for not lasting as long, but they actually survive for a respectably long time under normal usage. Most SSDs are supplied with a three to five-year warranty which supports (or backs up!) this view.

If you are planning to use an external hard drive for cold storage i.e. transferring the data and then storing it in a safe place for any number of years without further use, then an HDD, with its more simplistic technology, is probably the safer option, providing it is kept in a climate-controlled environment. An SSD for archival storage is probably not a good idea owing to the rapidly developing nature of its technology but theoretically, there is no reason to suppose that it would be unusable several decades later.

Hybrid Drives (SSHDs)

As its name suggests, a hybrid drive is a standard hard disk with a built-in SSD that boosts its performance. It operates by remembering which files you regularly access, and caching them in the ultra-fast solid-state storage. As this is all done silently, it’s difficult to say whether you’ll notice any significant improvement in performance, although it won’t be as good as a standard SSD as it will be unable to cache much of Windows and your favourite applications. They’re bigger than SSD’s and faster than regular HDDs.

The Cloud

Of course, you might decide to dispense with an external hard drive and decide to store all your data in the cloud, using services such as DropBox or Google Drive. However, although relatively secure, this means relying on an internet connection and on an outside provider to keep your private data safe and secure. Plus, there’s usually a monthly fee which increases if you need additional capacity over time. An external HDD or SSD is easy to synchronize, completely secure and the only payment is for the device itself.

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