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Buyer’s guide to external hard drives

Welcome to Crowdstorm’s guide to buying external hard drives. While the cloud has become an amazing resource for storing data, many of us rightly like to have a more physical backup for our files too.

If you’re looking to invest in a portable hard drive, you’ve come to the right place. At Crowdstorm you can compare products from all the leading manufacturers (from Seagate and Samsung to Western Digital and Toshiba) – available to buy direct from your favourite online and high street retailers. But before that, let’s help you narrow down your choices.

External hard drive styles

External hard drives come in two rough categories: desktop and portable:

  • Desktop external hard drives are large units designed to sit by your computer and need to be plugged directly into the mains. They tend to have larger storage capacity and have often have internal fans, so are perfect for users who need to leave their computers running 24-7.
  • Portable hard drives do what they say on the tin: they’re much smaller and are built primarily for moving rather than simply storing data. Portable drives tend to be around the same size as a paperback book and often draw their power from the machine they’re plugged into, so don’t need an external power source.
  • Solid state drives (SSD): The majority of external drives are of the spinning disk variety, but you do find some external SSD drives. However they tend to be expensive and lower in capacity, so tend to be best suited to being in your machine rather than outside it.

Hard drive capacity

Once you’ve decided on the type of drive you need, it’s time to turn your thoughts to capacity. The cost of memory has dropped dramatically in recent years, meaning the price of a 1TB external hard drive has dropped to below £50. But what is a TB?

Before you buy an external or portable hard drive, you need to assess how much external storage capacity you need. A TB (terabyte) is equal to 1,000GB (gigabytes): a downloaded HD movie is likely to be a little under 2GB, while an album is just 50MB – and there are 1,000MB to a GB! Images vary wildly in size, depending on their quality, but a photo taken with a smartphone is likely to be smaller than 5MB.

While this may lead you to believe a 1TB external drive will be more than adequate, it’s also worth considering that file sizes are also growing all the time: as the internet gets faster and memory cheaper, the quality – and so size – of files is growing too. A 2TB portable drive will be less than twice the price of its 1TB equivalent, so is definitely worth considering – while a 4TB device will still cost you less than £100.

Connecting your hard drive: USB vs the rest

Most people are familiar with USB ports and many external hard drives use this form of connection. However you’re likely going to need at least a USB 2.0 (and preferably 3.0) port on your PC or laptop, so older devices may have a problem.

The reason for this is data transfer speed. USB 2.0 (common on modern computers) has a maximum transferring speed of 60Mbps, while 3.0 transfers at up to 5Gbps – super useful if you’re transferring a lot of data. Most modern drives will have USB 3.0 compatibility, but are backward compatible with 2.0 ports.

You may also find devices that transfer data via ‘Thunderbolt’. This offers transfer speeds close to twice that of USB 3.0 (up to 10Gbps) – while Thunderbolt 2.0 doubles that speed again. However you’ll need to have a Thunderbolt supported computer to use this.

Other considerations

With the main issues covered, it’s time to whittle down your options to a final decision. Here are some other key hard drive factors you may want to consider:

  • PC or Mac? Check compatibility! Some drives will work with both operating systems, but others will only work with one or the other. Be sure to read the small print.
  • Physical protection: While it’s great to have your data physically backed up, that’s only useful if you keep it safe! If you’re going to be travelling with your portable hard drive, it’s worth looking for a device that has added physical protection.
  • Software protection: You may also want to consider the hard drive’s encryption, especially if your drive holds sensitive files. In this case look for a drive with hardware-based encryption.
  • Built-in software: If you’re new to external hard drives it’s well worth choosing a model with built-in software – unless you have someone techy around to help you out!
  • SATA: This refers to the speed capability of your drive – although the data transfer rates will likely be governed more by the kind of cable you use (see USB above). However, SATA is a hallmark of quality – with the higher the SATA number the better (SATA3 is the current standard).
  • Spin speed: You’ll find both 5,400 and 7,200rpm drives. And yes, 7,200rpm drives can transfer data quicker!

What next?

So you’ve found your ideal 2TB external hard drive – what do you do next? Well that part is simple: just click the link next to the product to be taken directly to the official website of the retailer selling it. Remember, Crowdstorm isn’t a retailer. We just give you a place to compare all the best products, before handing you over to a store you can trust. Happy transferring!