The Discerning Consumer’s Guide to Buying an External Hard Disk

The Discerning Consumer’s Guide to Buying an External Hard Disk
External Hard Disk

External Hard Disk

Through the decades, external hard drives have been of immense benefit to users as the premium mobility solution for data that they just can’t do without. Over the years, both affordability and storage capacities have only increased. Owning an external hard drive is now more than just a way to expand your storage capacity, but to share content with others in ways that were previously just not possible.External Hard Disk.

Flash drives and memory cards have their advantages, but there’s nothing like the sheer amount of data you can bring along with you with a portable hard drive. There’s nothing like knowing you will be able to keep all your personal memories safe while ready to be reviewed at any time.

Iomega Prestige 500GB by StefanXP via Wikimedia Commons

As many movies as you want; an entire operating system; the very applications you need to keep working while on the go; to reduce the storage strain on your portable devices like smartphones, cameras and camcorders; and as the primary backup solution for your most important data – external hard drives perform par excellence.

In terms of price per gigabyte, external hard disks beat all other media hands-down. You can easily get a portable 1 Terabyte (1024 Gigabytes) for less than $100. Maximum capacity can only increase as prices decrease, with 1.5 to 2 TB drives already in said price range.

Other advantages include unmatched speed and reliability. Hard drives are designed for near-constant data reads and writes, and with most manufacturers providing warranties for 5 years of operation. A USB 3.0 portable drive, specially a Solid-State Hard Drive, is the fastest and most reliable medium of data transfer that exists on the market.

It is still important to take note of credible information and the latest news about hard drives in making your final decision on buying a particular hard disk. You don’t want to make a wrong choice in terms of cost and quality, because the safety of your data should be paramount. What’s the point of transferring hundreds of gigabytes that may end up corrupted and useless, right?

Because portable external hard disks are such convenient, powerful tools for your leisure and productivity, there are a lot of junk items on the market to tempt you into a foolish bargain. In this Consumer’s Guide, we’ll discuss how to select the best portable hard drive for you based on our own experiences as a customer too.

Portable External Hard Drives vs Hard Disk Enclosures

Before we begin, we should examine the difference between a portable external hard drive and an enclosure. That is: very little. A portable hard disk is one that comes with a (usually hardened) casing, connectors, and the hard disk in the capacity you want. The hard disk inside is usually not removable.

A hard disk enclosure is a device that allows you to use a hard disk outside of the PC case, communicating through USB or FireWire ports. You need to buy enclosure and drive separately, which may be cheaper.

However, portable drives are more convenient for travel, tend to include more bundled software for security, and may be more shock-resistant.

Note that using a hard drive docking station does not really suffice. You need something around the hard disk itself to protect it from the elements and any mishaps.

External Hard Disk

What Kind of External Drives Can You Buy?

External hard drives are available in the two main disk drive sizes:

  • 3.5” Desktop
  • 2.5” Laptop

And in two main types:

  • External Hard Disk Enclosures
  • All-In-One Portable Drives

With these in mind, there are four possible combinations that can fit your criteria of “External Portable Hard Drive”.

  1. Desktop 3.5” Drive Enclosures

These are the least complex external hard drives as they basically operate with a regular hard disk inside, and comes with a AC to DC adapter cable to give the drive the power to spin its large-capacity platters. They are sometimes provided with an option for personal cloud storage, if you do not wish to trust your data to a third party, and come in free-standing casings with or without fans.

Desktop drives are more sensitive to being moved. With their big platters for big capacities, you may fear jostling them too much and ruining your data. They are portable in the sense you can carry them from place to place, but not in the sense of minding your luggage.


Using a regular hard disk means being able to swap your drives as capacity fills up.

Best price per gigabyte since you’re buying at the same rate as regular desktop-use drives, you only pay extra to for enclosure. It is difficult to find laptop drives with capacities beyond 2 Terabytes, but it is becoming increasingly common to find 3 Terabyte hard disks at a budget.

They designed for continuous use, with vents and fans to mediate heat buildup.


You still need to buy a hard disk.

Of course, since you’re using a desktop hard disk… it’s not really very portable. These types of enclosures are usually standing tower-like structures for your desk.

You will need an extra electric socket to plug into, else it’s just a paperweight.

Requires greater care when being transported.

  1. Laptop 2.5” Drive Enclosures

 Much more convenient are 2.5” laptop drives. They can be powered entirely by the 5-volt USB slots on any computer or laptop. They are much smaller, so you can store them with enough padding around to absorb shocks and hits. They can easily fit in your pocket or purse.


Much easier to find than 3.5” enclosures.

Does not need any extra cabling for power.


Still needs to purchase a laptop hard drive.

Tends to be slightly larger than comparable 2.5” portable drives.

May not be as shock-resistant.

Does not come with extended warranties and bundled software.

  1. Desktop 3.5” Portable Drives

 A rare beast for a reason, since a portable version of a 3.5” drive is still a handful. However, some manufacturers have made measures to mitigate the risks of transporting such drives, and adding certain value-add options such as wireless access and cloud storage.

Since there’s really only so much that can be done with size, Portable Desktop Drives compete in terms of features and presenting themselves as the main choice for backups. Quite effective for enterprises and offices.


Much more convenient on the road than using enclosures.

Tends to look much more stylish and attractive as a desktop accent.

Still much greater capacity than any other portable drives, up to 6 Terabytes.

May be Network Available. Some drives may automatically be shared to all others in a network just by being plugged into a router.

May have Wireless Availability and free Cloud Storage options through the Internet.


 Still a 3.5” drive, so it’s a bit heavy and inconvenient.

Expensive. All these useful features come with a pretty hefty price tag.

  1. Laptop 3.5” Portable Drives

 When people think about portable hard drives, these are what comes to mind. So it behooves us to consider them the industry standard and that other options are used for comparison in terms of price, security, and capability.


Can be powered through USB.

Large variety of options.

Easier and safer to carry, often with weatherproof casings.


Limited capacities. All-in-one portable drives tend to lag behind bare laptop drives in terms of price or total storage.

Still more expensive per gigabyte than the comparable 3.5” closed drive.

Non-removable shells may trap heat buildup during continuous use.

  1. Solid State Drives

Here’s a new option – a Solid State Drive (SSD). We could have folded this among the 2.5” portable hard disks since all current SSDs come in laptop drive sizes, but it’s worth a closer look.

Solid State Drives are like the hard disk versions of those little pen or thumb drives you may like to carry around for quick, cheap portable data transfer. The difference is that while a flash drive’s individual bit locations are only good for hundreds of thousands of read/write cycles, a SSD is rated for millions of reads and writes.

You may have heard some cautionary tales before about how SSDs may get worn out after all a while – and yes, it is true.

However, so do all other types of hard drives. SSDs typically have the same lifespan as a regular hard drive, and only slightly lose capacity over time. They are less likely to produce ‘bad sectors’ compared to the magnetic platters of a conventional hard disk.

Regular hard disks can’t even hope to reach the data transfer rate of USB 3.0, which caps at 640 MB/sec; and if you’re still using USB 2.0, you’re limited to about 384 MB/sec. (these are theoretical, with real-world data being much less to the tune of 60 MB/sec). With a SSD, actual read/writes of 500 MB/sec means there’s no real difference if your drive is connected internally or externally. Some SSDs today exceed even that!

SATA3 and USB 3.0 are no longer enough. SSDs promise to force the industry to update its standards again.

It has no moving parts, which is awesome for the sake of making sure your data is safe if ever it’s accidentally dropped.

They also consume much less power, which makes them very much ideal for the next generation of laptops and ultrabooks.


Fast. Wickedly fast, even. It laughs at the concept of slowing down due to file fragmentation.

Very little heat buildup.

Zero noise while in use.

Small and compact, acts exactly like any regular laptop drive (if used with an enclosure) or a portable drive.


Expensive. Terrifyingly expensive per megabyte, even. It’s the most expensive storage option in the market.

Limited capacity. Most affordable SSDs are only in the 128-256 GB range.


So, how do we stand on the topic of external hard drives?

All are useful and cost-effective in each their specific contexts.

Enclosures are inexpensive, and the ideal solution if you only need to travel large amounts of data either infrequently or very frequently. Whether you need to only move from room to room or to another office… or if you want to transfer data without physically connecting it to your PC.

The 3.5” enclosures and external drives are lovely bundle of contradictions. They can be very useful in the right conditions.

We use 2.5” laptop drive enclosures and portable drives as a matter of course. They’re ideal for any sort of trip. Hassle-free data transfer and power through the USB can’t be beat for personal use. However, if you want to make that drive available to others, you will need to mess around with the existing network a bit more.

Frankly, this editor believes that if you’re not already running your OS on that SSD, you’re doing it wrong. Yes, Solid State Drives by its nature is ideal for being carried around. They’re perfect portable storage mediums.

They’re just so much better at being your main drive. How can you improve on perfection? By having your swap files and TEMP folders running at 500 MB/sec for immediately perceptible improvement in your daily computer experience. This ironically means that putting applications in an external SSD may load and run faster than if it was installed on a PC running on a regular hard disk.

SSDs are, however, wasted for the sake of backing up data. They’re meant to be constantly in use, handling all those tiny, non-sequential reads and writes that has the drive head inside a hard disk jerkily searching for sectors. With an SSD, with no moving parts, it’s as easy as flipping an electronic switch.

Put your bootable OS and important documents and files in an SSD; use a regular high-capacity hard drive for everything else.


When choosing your portable hard drive, consider how you will be using it, how much disk space you really need, and the level of personal inconvenience you’re willing to tolerate in exchange for price and capabilities. Read user reviews and research the specs of your external hard drive.

Pay very careful attention to transfer speed and reliability.

Always remember – it’s your data that’s valuable.


If you’ve already decided on the type of portable drive you’d like to buy, let’s consider the Most Important Features Needed in Your New Portable Hard Disk.

How about you? Why do you want an external drive? Was this article helpful in making up your mind about what to buy?

Please let us know. We’d love to hear from you!

About: Carlo Marco

Carlo Marco is a web author and cartoonist. Also check out his quirky new illustrated web serial at

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