If you read our article “7 Reasons Why You Should Invest In An External Hard Drive” you probably realize how beneficial owning an external hard drive really is and how much of a lifesaver it can be in those situations where you run into serious issues. I understand that some of you less tech savvy readers are struggling to pick out which device is right for your needs so I am here to try and help! Below I will attempt to give you a better understanding of what types of options you'll see offered on the various external hard drives currently in the market and which options are most suitable for your individual needs.
Connection Type & Speed Capability
There are 3 main types of connections that external hard drives offer and depending on the model it may offer only one or all 3 of them. It is important to understand which types of connection your computer can handle and that you make sure the hard drive you decide on has at least one compatible connection type. It is also important to note that all connection types can transfer virtually any type of media, but my suggestions below will help you save time by choosing a suitable hard drive for your needs as a large file on the slowest connection (USB 2.0) could take several hours where the same file using eSATA could be finished in several minutes.
This is the most popular connection types offered and the one you will most commonly see in the lower priced models. A USB port can be found on virtually all computers currently being used therefore it has a very high compatibility rate. Using a USB port is the most convenient in most cases, but is also the slowest connection (USB 2.0) so it is typically best used for transferring text files, audio files, small groups of photos, and other various documents with small file sizes. USB 3.0 is fairly new, but boasts faster more efficient performance. The only issue is that most computers that were not purchased within the past year likely won't have USB 3.0 support therefore the drive will default to using less powerful USB 2.0 speeds.
FireWire is the next step up from USB 2.0 in terms of performance and transfer speeds. You will see a smaller number of computers containing FireWire support with the majority of compatible models in the desktop category. There is a very noticeable increase in the speeds & performance with FireWire which is more suitable for medium to larger sized files such as multimedia, large folders of files, and video files. It seems as though FireWire is starting to become phased out for the most part, but some drives still ship with this connection type and I personally use it for one of my drives.
The eSATA connection is the most advanced type currently offered for external hard drives, but is also the toughest in terms of compatibility. Speeds with eSATA can reach up to 3 gigabit/s which will rely out to around 300MB/s in reality. This is perfect for someone who transfers lots of HD video files, music libraries, RAW photos, and documents with large file sizes.
Physical Size & Portability
There are two basic size categories of external hard drives and they are designed to cater to how your drive will be used. It is important to choose which type of device you will need as there are various limitations to both large and small external hard drives.
Portable external hard drives
Drives in this category are designed for “on the go” use and can be transported quickly and easily. They usually only rely on connecting via one to two short cables and they are a small physical size in order to fit in your backpack, briefcase, laptop bag, or purse. You will usually only find the portable drives offered with a USB connection and these drives do not require an external power source. This means they will be powered by your computer's power supply and do not require a wall outlet to function.
Stationary external hard drives
These drives are meant to stay in one location for the majority of the time so they are often bought for use with a desktop or in a home office. You will find all three connection types offered in these drives and they almost always will require an external power source therefore you will need to have an extra wall outlet dedicated to it. Depending on the brand and model these drives can be rather large so expect to have an ample amount of desk space in order to accommodate the device as well.
Storage Size & Capability
External hard drives come in all different sizes when it comes to storage space. Typically the cheaper the drive the less storage space it has, but it varies on a of other number of criteria. The typical range of current consumer drives start at 160GB and the highest ones end around 6 TB which is equal 6144 GB. How much space you will need is hard to say as it varies from person to person, but like many things in life you are better off going bigger than smaller as you'll never know when that extra room will come in handy later on. I personally own 3 external hard drives of various sizes with the lowest being a 320GB and the highest being a 2TB. I will admit knowing I have a lot of extra room to save important files and data is a reassuring feeling allowing me to never feel like I have to delete something just to save space. If you are a photographer or take a lot of HD video I would recommend a drive with at least 1TB as multimedia content can fill up your hard drive fast if your not careful.
Will it be used for a Mac or PC?
You'll often see drives advertised as a PC or a Mac hard drive, but realistically it only matters in a few aspects. First off, any drive regardless of whether it is branded for a PC or for a Mac can be used for either though you will likely need to reformat the drive in order to make it compatible (see this article for further details). The only real advantage to buying a Mac drive over a PC drive is that it will include automatic backup software for a Mac in comparison to the PC version, which will come with Windows compatible software. This software when installed and properly configured will automatically back up your files periodically without you having to do anything. To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of this type of software as I've never really had a great experience with them so I just choose to drag and drop my files manually to back them up. If you are fine with going the manual route and don't have a problem reformatting the drive yourself then don't pay attention to the Mac or PC aspect. If you absolutely want to use the included software or don't want to attempt to reformat the drive yourself then you will likely want to get a drive designed particular for either a Mac or PC depending on which you own.
Budget & Pricing
In most cases one of the most important factors to buying an external hard drive is the overall price and keeping within your budget. Typically the cheapest drives are the slowest, have the least amount of storage, and only will allow a USB connection. As the price raises you'll get into faster and higher capacity drives that will often allow multiple connection types. I will say an external hard drive is one of those “you get what you pay for” situations in most cases so I'd be comfortable spending at the top end of your budget to ensure you a quality drive with adequate space that will last you multiple years of use. The last thing you want is to drop $75 on a drive just to have to replace it in 6 months when you could have bought a better drive for $110 that would have lasted you 3 years.
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The Middle Man
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As a graduate of the University of Massachusetts and our Managing Editor, Colt loves testing out the newest tech products/services. His goal is to help better educate other consumers to ensure the most satisfying purchases decisions on consumer electronics and services. When he is not working on creating new content, Colt enjoys spending time with his two Australian Shepherds, Mia and Zoey.