What Is An External Hard Drive: 7 Things Everyone Should Know

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What Is An External Hard Drive?

An external hard drive is a device that stores computer files and backs up data. Think of it like a storage locker for your computer! You’ll want an external hard drive when you need some extra space for new files, images, videos, etc. The types of files that would otherwise fill up and slow down your computers internal hard drive.

All computers come with internal hard drives. These are storage devices that are built into your computer. Over time, these internal drives can fill up and won’t be able to save any new files or data onto your computer. That’s where external hard drives come in to save the day. You can find external hard drives in varying storage sizes to supplement your computers internal storage device and expand your overall storage space.

How You Can Use An External Hard Drive

What are the actual applications of an external hard drive? Do they offer any kind of advantage over internal device storage? Here’s a few reasons why external hard drives make life better:

External Hard Drives Can Improve Computer Performance:

If your computers internal storage is near full, you will definitely start to feel the effects. Having a full internal storage can be cause for slow performance and even cause computers to crash in some cases. With external hard drives, you can move your internal storage files and free up space for your computer to function smoothly again.

External Hard Drives Are Cheaper Than Upgrading Internal Storage

Upgrading or purchasing a computer with extra internal storage is going to cost you. Supplementing your internal storage with an external hard drive is significantly cheaper when considering the cost versus storage size.

For example, when purchasing a Macbook Pro, it will cost you an extra $1200 to have 2TB of internal storage:

internal storage upgrade macbook pro

Now compared to a similarly spec’d external hard drive, you can get the same storage capabilities for under $150. This particular hard drive is the Lacie Rugged Mini 2TB external drive. It’s one of my absolute favourites!


External Hard Drives Can Be Used Across Multiple Devices

Admittedly, internal storage is nice since it reduces the chance of losing files from an accidentally damaged external drive. Internal storage also takes away that one extra thing you’d need to carry around with an external drive.

However, External hard drives can have storage saved from one computer, then be easily accessed from another computer. All you have to do is plug it in! This makes life quick and easy when trying to transfer large files to another computer or person.

I’ll let you be the judge if that extra $1000 for internal storage is necessary or not.

Why You Should Get An External Hard Drive

Having an external hard drive makes life a whole lot easier when it comes to media management. Whether you want to have a dedicated “Travel Drive” for backing up vacation photos, or one that never leaves your computers side. There are several reasons why an external hard drive might be worth purchasing. Here’s why I use external hard drives:

  • I have several drives that never leave my desk. Their sole purpose is to back up the files and expand the overall memory I have access to on my computer.
  • I have one 2TB(2000GB) SSD Drive(Explained Below) that I use as a “Travel Drive”. This drive is to dump media on when I am on the road or have to pass off/receive project files and media.

Without my external drives, I would quickly run out of room on my computer, have no safe place to back up my media, and would struggle with data management. I’m sure you already know how much space a few photos and videos can take up!

Types Of External Hard Drives


When shopping for external hard drives you will be faced with two options, HDD or SSD.

Hard-Disk Drives(HDD): Hard-Disk Drives aka HDD drives are the cheapest type of hard drive you can buy. They contain a physical disk inside that holds all of your information. Compared to solid-state drives they are noticeably slower but are very affordable. An HDD drive is best left in a permanent spot in your home where it won’t get moved around very often. With such fragile components inside, traveling with HDD drives can be risky as they can be easily damaged by bumps in transit.

Solid-State Drives(SSD): Solid-State Drives aka SSD drives are drives that have no moving part inside them. There are no spinning disks to scan, or exceptionally fragile components inside them. A key point to know about SSD drives is that they are extremely fast, but extremely expensive compared to their Hard-Disk Drive counterpart. If you have the means, SSD drives are the best option for external memory and handle extremely well while traveling.

It is important to note that both SSD and HDD drives are delicate to different degrees and should be handled with care while traveling regardless. Certain brands of hard drives offer “Rugged” drives with a beefier exterior to keep the interior components and storage safe.

How Much External Hard Drive Storage You Need

Hard drives come in everything from as low as 64GB all the way to several hundred terabytes. The struggle is just trying to find what amount best suits your needs. The first question you should ask yourself is, “what types of files will I be storing on this external hard drive?”.

If you are needing one more for leisure, to backup a few documents, personal photos, and video, you don’t need much more than 250GB of storage. However, if you have the money, going with more storage never hurt anyone.

If you are like me, using your drive strictly for photography work, a 1TB or 2TB drive will suffice for quite some time. Just make sure you routinely clean out extra unwanted images every once in a while.

If you are dealing with mostly video, particularly in 4K, you should be looking at a 2TB to 4TB drive at the very minimum. Trust me when I say you will fill up that space faster than you can imagine.

If you are needing more storage space than what singular external hard drives offer, you should consider a RAID setup. Long story short, a RAID is a series of hard drives merged together to create 1 giant hard drive that has incredibly fast transfer speeds, automatically backs up your files, and can be sending information to multiple computers at once through a server. How amazing does that sound?

Lacie 6 Stage 48,000GB RAID Array ($5300)

Unfortunately RAIDs are several thousand dollars at the least. For today, we are just sticking with more affordable storage devices, but now you know a bit about RAIDS!

Considering External Hard Drive Speeds

This may be the most important piece to consider, how fast is the drive you are getting? You could have a 3TB hard drive but if it has a low max RPM or an older model of USB or Thunderbolt, it will just be slowing you down. Here are the things to consider for drive speeds:

Connectors: What cable connects your drive to your computer? There is actually a massive difference between different types of cables. The main cables you will come across in new external drives are USB 2.0 and 3.0, and Thunderbolt 1 or 2.

USB 2.0 has a maximum transfer speed of 480Mb Per Second while USB 3.0 has a maximum transfer speed of 5GB Per Second. Thunderbolt 1 and 2 both have a max transfer speed of 40GB Per Second! However, Thunderbolt 2 has a bidirectional transfer speed of 20GB Per Second while the Thunderbolt 1’s bidirectional speed is just 10GB Per Second. Ironic to say just 10GB per second isn’t it?

Drive RPM: Depending on the drive, some can process incoming and outgoing information faster than others. If you are dealing with photos in bulk or high resolution video, I would recommend a drive within the 5400rpm – 7200rpm range. If you are strictly using the external drive for documents and other small files, the drive RPM shouldn’t be much of a concern to you.

Also note the performance you get out of your drive will also come down to the capabilities of your computer.

Considering The Value Of An External Hard Drive

Purchasing an external hard drive is an investment. It can be a lot of money up front, but for the amount of storage solutions they offer, it’s definitely worth while. When you start hunting for hard drives you’ll notice it becomes challenging to tell which one offers the most ‘bang for your buck’.

Here’s a great calculation you can do to decide the value of a hard drive:

Divide the cost by the total storage to equal the cost per GB. 

For the 2TB Lacie external hard drive shown previously, it costs $128 and has 2000GB of storage. That means that $128 / 2000GB= $0.06 per Gigabyte. You can do this same formula to compare multiple hard drives and find out which offers the best value for the money.

With that being said, always remember to do your research on different brands and external hard drives. Some may be more prone to failing than others, so it’s wise to do your research before purchasing.

Final Thoughts

There’s nothing worse than trying to save a file only to realize your computer is out of space. With an external hard drive, you’ll never have to worry; especially if you get 1TB or more!

Buying a good hard drive may seem like a big investment. But just remember… it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than trying to recover lost files from a crashed computer. Whether you are just looking for more space, or backup the files you already have, external hard drives have you covered.

Hopefully this helps you to make a more informed decision on finding the perfect home for your media files! Do you have a favourite hard drive or brands you stay away from? Let me know in the comments!


Article By

Brendan Williams

Hey, I'm Brendan! I'm a professional photographer and photo retoucher who has spent the majority of his career shooting or retouching outdoor lifestyle and social media campaigns for brands like G-Adventures, xoxo Bella, P&G, Fitbit, Chevy, Tourism California, and more. These days I primarily focus my efforts on this site, creating guides and tutorials that I wish I had earlier in my career. Each week I publish new tutorials on Photography, Photoshop, Lightroom, and Canva to help you unlock new skills and bring your creativity to new levels! Everything you learn here is backed by real experience, so you can finally skip the fluff and focus only on what matters.

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