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External Hard Drive Buying Guide
Table of contents
Do you have years of stored image, video, and music files on your desktop PC hard drive? Sharing your files on the go (e.g., when you are at a friend’s house) may be rather difficult if data sizes run in the tens or hundreds of GBs. Reinstalling your hard drive on another PC is an option but is extremely inconvenient, and burning your files to CD or DVD can involve a large number of discs, and searching for specific files afterwards is a nightmare.
The answer: why not consider an external hard drive? It’s the perfect companion for those who travel frequently with large amounts of data. External hard drives offer massive storage capacities and feature convenient connections that allow you to transfer data between it and any computer or other type of storage device. The external hard drive will also act as a storage center or a temporary storage location for data exchanges.
A wide selection of storage sizes
An external hard drive can contain more than one internal hard drive, resulting in a very wide range of storage size options. The smallest external hard drive provides only one or two GB, and the largest exceeds 1TB (1,000GB according to manufacturer information). Most users should easily be able to find the capacity they require.
Enhanced data protection
One of the most important aspects of the external hard drive is its case. It provides additional protection for the internal hard drive(s) and reduces the chance of failure caused by shock. This makes the external hard drive very suitable for mobile applications.
Connecting the external hard drive to a computer is simple as pie. Most external hard drives feature the USB or IEEE 1394 (also known as FireWire) ports for direct connection to the front or rear I/O panels of a computer. External hard drives are hot-pluggable too, meaning you can conveniently attach and use the external hard drive or detach it while your computer is up and running.
The process of backing up your data is typically long and arduous, but fortunately the majority of external hard drives come bundled with backup software and some even provide a handy backup button right on the case. This means that users only need to press that button, and the backup operation is processed automatically according to the preset rules.
Almost all external hard drives can be compatible with both the PC and the Mac if the partition is formatted in FAT or FAT32 This means you can exchange data between the PC and Mac platforms conveniently with the help of your external hard drive. This is a very attractive feature for users who are required to use both the PC and the Mac simultaneously.
The main component in the external hard drive is none other than the internal hard drive (or notebook hard drive), thus the key specification of external hard drives are usually very similar to those of internal hard drive or notebook hard drives.
The form factor of an external hard drive is determined by the type of hard drive used inside. Since both internal hard drives and notebook hard drives can be used in an external hard drive, the form factor of the external hard drive is roughly determined by the form factor of the hard drive inside, which can be 3.5, 2.5, 1.8, 1 or even 0.85-inch. Obviously, the smaller the form factor, the better its mobility.
Almost the full range of internal hard drive storage sizes can be found in external hard drives. As external hard drives may be constructed of two or more internal hard drives, it can offer double or several times the capacity any single internal hard drive. When attached to your computer system, it is recognized as a single hard drive, however.
The hard drive RPM value corresponds to its spindle speed, which is an important hard drive performance parameter. Spindle speeds for external hard drives range from 3,600 RPM to 10,000 RPM. In general, a faster spindle speed is beneficial towards the performance of the hard drive.
The cache refers to high-speed RAM (random access memory) integrated on the PCB of an internal hard drive. Cache is used as the buffer between the system and the hard drive. Drives with more cache generally perform at a higher level than drives with less.
The interface of the external hard drive is very different from that of the internal hard drive or notebook hard drive. You will hardly see IDE or SATA connectors on an external hard drive. USB and IEEE 1394 (also known as FireWire) ports are used instead.
We are spoiled for choice when it comes to external hard drives as internal hard drives of every size are currently being used in their construction. We can narrow our search requirements down into three basic areas: capacity, performance and mobility. All three are closely related to the hard drive form factor.
Form factor is a good indicator of the capacity an external hard drive can provide. For example, a 3.5-inch external hard drive can offer a maximum capacity of over 1TB at present, while a 1-inch product may only provide less than 10 GB. You can refer to the following table for a breakdown:
Note: The development on hard drives means that capacities from each form factor will exceed these figures in the future.
As described above, the spindle speed (RPM), cache size and interface type all affect the performance of an external hard drive. Generally speaking, higher spindle speeds, larger cache sizes, higher bandwidth interfaces and higher data transfer rates are all desirable traits as they contribute to higher levels of performance. The relationships among RPM, cache and form factor are listed below:
Note: Data taken from current mainstream products.
Mobility and form factor
Smaller form factors are always beneficial to mobility. A 1-inch external hard drive may only weigh about 2 oz, while a 3.5-inch product may weigh close to 6 lbs, which is similar to the weight of a mainstream notebook computer.
Large form factor external hard drives (e.g. 3.5-inch) may provide several interface types, which makes it extremely convenient for the user. Small form factor external hard drives (e.g. 1-inch) may only provide one type. In this case it is recommended that you choose the external hard drive with the interface that matches your computer.
As we can see, the capacity, performance and mobility of an external hard drive are all inter-related. A 3.5-inch external hard drive may provide extremely large capacities and high performance, but they may not be your best choice for travel. On the contrary, a 1-inch drive is excellent for travel, but the capacity is limited by comparison. When selecting your external hard drive, please find one that best fits your requirements in terms of performance, capacity and mobility.
Bundled software and hardware designation
If you are looking for extra convenience out of your external hard drive, you can look for products that come bundled with additional software to help you simplify back up and storage operations. This software may also provide disk management and security functions. In addition, some products may even provide hardware buttons that execute backup and storage operations when pressed.
Certain external hard drives receive power from the USB or IEEE 1394 port directly, while others may require an external power supply unit. If your primary concern is mobility, please take this point into consideration.
The RAID function builds an array using two or more hard drives for increased performance or enhanced data security. Currently, some external hard drives come with two (or even more) hard drives and provide RAID (such as RAID 0, RAID 1).
Some external hard drives may provide additional functions or features such as an integrated USB hub to allow you to link other USB devices – this is especially useful if you have run out of USB ports on your computer. They may also integrate memory card readers for easy data exchange between digital camera, mp3 players and computer. Some special products may even be capable of direct multimedia playback, meaning that they will play the music and movies files stored in them directly. These extended functions add value to your purchase and may solve more than one of your hardware purchasing needs.