Top Features You Should Look For in your External Hard Disk

External Hard Disk
Top Features You Should Look For in your External Hard Disk
External Hard Disk

A common mistake which people make when looking for a new hard drisk drive is that they tend to focus more on the product reviews and customer testimonials than the best features of their new portable device. True, these are good resources to figure out the reliability of a drive – which should be your most important consideration above all else – but the most recommended drives might not be the best fit to your situation.

We have discussed in another article the difference between a portable drive and enclosure-based external drive. There have things in common too. Here are the features that you should consider in your External Hard Drive before making a purchase.


External Hard Disk

1. Data Connection

The input and adapter cables of any portable hard disk have a paramount role to play in the overall efficiency and speed of the device and your workflow. It doesn’t help that there are scads of connection standards on the market. Often overlooked, it is the all-important deciding factor in the performance of internal (often running SATA2 or SATA3) compared to an external drive.

Why bother with anything other than USB? There’s several good reasons.

Typically external hard drives are available with either USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 connectivity, as it offers better connectivity and is also available in almost every computer, from a ultrabook to a notebook, PC or MAC. However the fastest and most reliable connection available for external hard drives is through the use of FireWire technology, which also supports multiple external hard disks to be connected simultaneously to a device or computer system. FireWire is also offers the fastest data transfer speeds of 50-400 Megabtyes per second.

Another rival to FireWire is the eSATA interface which offers speeds of up to 3Gbps; and prior to the establishment of the USB 3.0 standard, was actually the preferred connection for serious data transfer. It is an unpowered connection, requiring another cable to power the drive (typically 5V USB for laptop-sized HDDSs) or as part of a self-powering hard drive enclosure. FireWire (or the IEEE 1394 high-speed bus) is a standard pioneered by Apple and therefore is used by many iOS-based machines.

Thunderbolt is largely considered the successor to FireWire, now to be found in some of the new Apple laptops and devices.

Although eSATA may not be as fast as USB 3.0, it is a singular connection, unlike USB which tends to share its data transmission with multiple devices. Therefore, eSATA is capable of higher data transfer throughput than using a USB portable drive in a computer with many other devices connected through USB. This is specially significant if you’re using a USB slot for WiFi  reception. The cost of an eSATA drive is typically higher than other portable drives for this reason.

A portable drive that connects through USB  is the most compatible option. USB 3.0 connectors are compatible with USB 2.0 sockets, so minding your drive speed is a matter of identifying which are the USB.30 sockets on your device.

Users who are in need of an external hard disk which may need to be used in different computers could also consider a multi-port drive as it offers better flexibility and compatibility with literally any machine to which it would be connected. The disadvantage of multi-port drives is that its cost considerably increases as the number of ports which its supports increase.

2) Plug and Play Compatibility

You don’t really want to have to install  drivers or connect to the Internet just to be able to use your data. The main criticism of cloud storage is that it demands constant reliable internet connections and often limits the amount of data you can access at a time. So why should you tolerate drives that hassle you about device drivers?

Make sure that your devices are automatically detected by any Operating System – Windows, iOS, Linux, it doesn’t matter. Portable drives have the slight edge over enclosures here because manufacturers try to make them as easy to identify as possible.

3. Data Security

Password protection is just the first step. Some drives can encrypt your data automatically. Your drive may come with bundled software to improve protection against theft, loss, viruses and malware. However even better is hardware-based security. Drives like those sold by IronKey, for example, offer hardware-based encryption for faster and more secure usage and biometric locks that need your fingerprint to unlock the data.

4. Casing and Safety

This is a more complex issue than it first appears.

Most portable drives and enclosures are made of aluminum, which is strong yet lightweight, and non-corrosive metal. However, it is also conductive, you may have to worry about static buildup and small electric shocks. That it also conducts heat is both positive and and negative. Good, in that it radiates heat building caused by normal operation. Bad, in that it may get hot and uncomfortable, if not dangerous on your desk and on your lap.

Plastic is soft, which means it may absorb physical shocks. It is nonconductive, so casing heat is less of an issue. However, it may trap the heat inside instead, which over time could be dangerous to the circuit boards. It is lighter and often much more pocket-friendly. It is also not as strong, and where an aluminum case would not deform, a plastic case may develop unsightly cracks.

Vents to mitigate heat buildup however also make that portable drives much less weather-resistant. It is a tradeoff whether you feel that heat or water is the bigger risk.

Some portable drives are ‘ruggedized’, meeting military standards for drop, crush, and even water immersion. These things are pricier, but you may find it a comfort to know that you won’t lose about 500GB of data every time a drive falls to the ground.

5. Read/Write Speeds

Better, faster hard drives tend to impact user experience much more than buying a faster, much more expensive CPU. You’re always reading, writing, swapping tiny files around as you use your computer in such simple tasks as web browing or word processing. So, getting a faster drive is almost always a good investment.

Hard Drive RPMs often serve as a hint for drive performance, though only in comparison to more common 5400 RPM drives.

However, going slower also has its benefits. The performance hit is unnoticeable if you’re mainly using it for storage and infrequent access, if the drive mainly contains documents, pictures, and movies which are sequentially read (compared to things like games and applications, which need to load many associated files at once) and if you are connected to a mobile device.  Lower RPMs also mean less noise and lower power consumption, which is a big deal if you’re running on batteries. If you’re on the road and charging mainly through solar panels, every bit less power is important.

5. Storage Capacity

We have placed this last, because while it is the main reason for getting a new hard drive it is a decision that does not really depend on on the hardware side. It is a matter of your own activity cycles – how much do you predict you’ll need?

Two different drives may have the same capacity, but one may be much pricier than other. Are you paying a premium for a reputation of reliability? Or are you getting a bargain through compromising on performance?


To sum up, it could be said that choosing any type of portable memory is an important decision in which you need to examine yourself and your habits for best value for money.

In terms of cost and performance and as discussed in this guide users should focus on at least the main features which have been discussed, such as:

  • Data transfer speed
  • USB compatibility
  • Storage capacity
  • Safety enhancement such as drop protection
  • Casing material
  • Weight
  • Plug and play operation
  • Password protection
  • OS Compatibility
  • Hardware encryption capabilities, etc.

Which ones are most important to you?

Transfer speed may not be as important if you’re using it for storage. Drop protection is essential if you’re going to keep it in your backpack rather than a suitcase. Weight and dimensions to fit in your pocket. Hardware encryption and biometric locks if your data is sensitive. And so on.

Portable hard drive are excellent gadgets to power up your work or vacation experience. Why not tell us about your experience with portable drives? Any brands and best features you’d like to recommend? Please leave a comment below!

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