External Hard Drive Buying Guide

Staff Writer By Staff Writer - updated December 1st, 2021
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Large digital media for storage is important if you have a lot of data you want to store, this could be personally valuable photos, home videos or important business files. If you're looking for something easy to use, that you can store physical copies of your computer files on, you'll want to consider purchasing an external hard drive.

There is an extensive range of external hard drives available nowadays, with portable SSD options that offer amazing performance and are becoming more affordable! Below is a quick guide on what to look for when shopping for one.

Drive Type

External hard drives come in two different drive types. Hard disk drives and solid state hard drives. Each has their own advantages and deciding on which is best for you comes down to your individual user requirements. To help you make an informed decision, see below for some information regarding the performance characteristics of each.

Hard disk drives (HDDs) are a popular choice for many customers. This is due to their main advantage of lower cost and higher storage capacity, hence many customers who have a large amount of digital media to store choose this format. On the downside, hard disk drives are slightly more prone to impact-related damage.

Solid state hard drives (SSDs) do not include any moving components, therefore, are the most damage resistant external drives you can access. They are typically compact in size, enabling them to have a higher tolerance for impact damage and are conveniently portable. The speed in which they load applications and perform is up to 10x faster than HDDs. Their main disadvantage being the high cost of storage when compared to the cheaper, hard drive options.

Storage Capacity

Storage capacity is usually the first thing most users want to know. Capacity in external hard drives commonly ranges from about 500GB - 5TB. Most computers come with between 500GB-2TB of space in the onboard hard drive. Determining how much storage you need is entirely dependent on your needs, bigger is not always necessarily better. If you are looking to store a few important documents, a simple USB flash drive may be suitable.

If you are looking to store all your photos, videos and songs you have many options to choose from. Generally, a good size to go for is a 1TB or 2TB drive. As a basic rule to remember, the more files you want to store, the larger the file type, therefore the bigger capacity you will need.

Hard Drives in different sizes at PB Tech

Form Factor

External hard drives are available in portable and desktop format. Portable hard drives are appropriate for those with high mobility needs. They usually feature 2.5" drives and can be powered by USB ports alone. The ability to transport your compact hard drive, for example, from home to work can be convenient, however the risk of damage increases. If you're looking for portability as you're constantly on the go, a small solid-state drive could be a good fit, it's also a good option to choose as a precaution against possible impact damage.

Desktop external hard drives, on the other hand, are designed to stay on a computer desktop, usually, feature 3.5" drives, and will require a power adapter. The desktop drive is larger than a portable drive, however they save desk space by easily being placed either horizontally on its base or flat on a desk. They naturally pack away easily when not in use. To ensure your drive is going to withstand frequent use and heavy file transfers over a long period of time, you may want to look at purchasing one with an inbuilt fan. Your availability of desk space and need for mobility will help determine which form of the external hard drive will best suit your needs.


Another point to consider is the connectivity options available. You'll need to choose a drive that supports the interfaces offered on the laptop/computer or another device (s) you have. Most computers have a standard USB connection, as do many external hard drives. Also, different drive interfaces offer different levels of file transfer performance. There are six common types of interfaces to choose from these being, USB 3.0, USB-C, Thunderbolt, Lightning, Firewire and eSATA, with another popular new option being wireless.

Wireless is a fairly new option to appear in the portable HDD space and allows your portable hard to generate it's own WiFi hotspot so you can connect to it without cables. Most importantly these devices usually include a battery inside allowing true freedom from cables with multiple users able to connect simultaneously. 

USB is a standard feature on most recent external hard drives and is generally not included on older hard drives and computers. The USB 3.1 includes good future proofing technology and still compatible with the legacy USB 2.0. However, the USB 3.1 interface needs to already be on your computer if you wish to achieve USB 3.1 transfer speeds. Alternatively, there are suitable adapters that can be used.

This also comes into play with some new USB Type C connectors found on some modern PC, to ensure maximum speeds are able to be reached the technology behind the port itself (not just the shape of the connection) must be USB 3.1 - this goes one step further with the new 'Gen 2', so a device such as the latest Samsung T5 Portable SSD, which features this technology, should be paired with modern hardware to achieve full speeds

Thunderbolt is another very fast data transfer connection also available. It is predominantly used by professional users and frequently appears on Apple devices. In order to reach its potential speeds, a Thunderbolt port on your computer and external hard drive is necessary. The Lacie range of portable storage is a great brand that often features this connection type.  

eSATA connection is preferred by some professional users due to it being a purpose-dedicated interface. It is a well-known connection which has a theoretically high transfer rate. A hard drive with an eSATA connection also requires a corresponding eSATA computer connection in order to receive these transfer speeds. For this connection option, check out the HDD Enclosure range for options with which you can add your own internal storage to create your own portable drive.

You'll find most of the options above much faster than USB 2.0, which tops out at 480Mbps. eSATA can deliver 6Gbps (older versions deliver 1.5Gbps or 3Gbps), USB 3.0 (and USB 3.1 Gen 1) runs at up to 5Gbps and USB 3.1 (Gen 2) can do 10Gbps. Thunderbolt 3 can do whopping 40Gbps.

Lightning is a connector which first appeared on Apple and now features on some Windows-based workstations and motherboards. The lightning connector is used for charging, syncing content, data and audio and video output with its main advantage being speed and slim design. In terms of usability, the connector works no matter how it is plugged in, which is very useful.

Firewire is another way to connect different pieces of equipment in order to easily share information and is similar to USB. Firewire includes a fast transfer of data, ability to hold multiple devices and supports plug and play performance, all for low cabling and implementation costs.


Nearly all external hard drives are able to work on both a Mac and PC provided both the drive and computer you are using have compatible connectors. In order to make an external hard drive compatible with your current device, you will need to format it using the appropriate file system that you already use.

We hope this quick guide helps you to decide what portable HDD or portable SSD is right for you, we'll keep adding to these with more popular options as they become available!

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Staff Writer

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