What To Look For In An External Hard Drive

Out of all the accessories for a computer, one of the most useful is an external hard drive. With more and more of your life on your computer’s hard drive, the more files you’ll accumulate. Whether you want extra storage space, an easy way to work with large files on multiple computers, a backup solution, or just a place to keep your data, an external hard drive is a must have.

Shopping for one can be a bit tricky. There’s many brands, sizes, interfaces and price points. Here’s what to look for to determine what you need and what to shop for:

The whole Mac / PC thing:

I’m not sure where this began but all External Hard Drives work with OS X, Windows and Linux. What will affect this compatibility is the Filesystem you choose to format it with. There are many different filesystems to choose from. Which one you use depends mainly on your OS of choice (and what OS you want the drive to work with). An external drive that’s specifically sold as a “Mac” drive or a “PC” drive is most likely pre-formatted for you.

The three major filesystems are:

- Mac OS X’s filesystem (HFS+).
- Microsoft Windows filesystem (NTFS).
- Microsoft Windows legacy filesystem (FAT32).

As you may gather, HFS+ won’t work with Windows. Also, NTFS isn’t going to work with OS X unless you install this. FAT32 is cross compatible with the Mac and Windows. Most USB flash drives are FAT32 for this reason. However, FAT32 has limitations that affect external drives. The major limitation is the fact that a FAT32 drive won’t work with a file over 4GB in size. So, if you’ve got some really large files, FAT32 won’t work for you.

If you’re going to stay strictly OS X, just format your drive with HFS+ and don’t worry about anything. However, if there’s any chance of you ever wanting a Windows computer to read your drive, you’ll want to format it with NTFS and install NTFS3G.

Note: Even with NTFS3G, you can’t format a drive in NTFS under OS X. You’ll need Windows for this.

What brand to buy?

Hard Drives hold the most valuable part of your system – your data. You don’t want to cheap out and buy something that’s going to fail on you. You want a drive made by a reliable brand that consistently produces well-made drives.

There are other Hard Drive manufacturers like Toshiba, Hitachi, Fujitsu, and Samsung, which many “drive-makers” just rebrand and put their label on. However, the two consistently best manufacturers out there are Seagate and Western Digital. Personally, I always go with Western Digital.

What size should it be?

Drives come in two sizes – 3.5″ and 2.5″. 3.5″ are the larger drives, the kind you find in a desktop. 2.5″ drives are the smaller kind that’s inside your laptop. What size you want depends on your needs. Do you need something small and portable? Or is size and cost a factor? Obviously, the 2.5″ drive will be smaller and more portable. However, more storage space on a smaller drive makes it expensive. 3.5″ drives hold more data for less cost.

Don’t forget about data security. 3.5″ drives are much more rugged than a small 2.5″ drive. If this is a priority, go with the larger drive.

Storage space – How many GB?

File sizes aren’t getting smaller. I’d always go with the biggest drive you can afford. Get at least as much space as you need and then some. If you’re looking at 3.5″ drives, a 1TB drive will run around $100. If you’re looking at 2.5″ drives, you’ll pay more for 1TB but you can find a 320 GB or 640 GB for a reasonable price.

Interfaces – USB, FireWire or eSata?

What interface you need also depends on what type of computer you want the drive to work with. Most Macs have a FireWire port on them along with USB. Most PCs have only USB. eSata is super fast but isn’t standard on a Mac or most PCs. USB2.0 and FireWire are similar in speeds, with FireWire having a major advantage when it comes to large files.

If you’re going to stick with Macs and Macs only, go with a FireWire drive. If there’s any possible chance you’ll want a Windows machine to attach to it, get a USB model. Unless you know what eSata is, don’t bother, its an added expense you’ll probably never use.

Note: By the end of the year, USB3 should be more common. This will likely be the most popular standard for the next few years.

Other features:

Other features to look for when shopping for an external drive are:

- Portability.
- Ruggedness.
- Speed.
- Price.

Think for a moment of how you will use the drive. Is it going to live on your desk, holding files for you? Or, will it spend a good amount of time in your laptop bag, with you on your daily travels? You’ll want to think about physical size (not storage size), weight, and whether it can be fully powered via USB/FireWire or will it need its own power cord.

If you’ll be working with large files often, you’ll want something big and fast. Look for a good size cache, fast drive speed and high data transfer rates.

If price is a concern, you may have to sacrifice something – whether its speed, storage size or portability.

New Drive Technology – Larger (4K) Sectors:

The latest drive technology is to use a 4 kilobyte sector size instead of the older 512 byte size. Without going into major details, it basically lets you pack more data onto a drive with better error correction / protection. Its a good thing. OS X 10.5 and above should be fine if you have a drive that works with this new sector size. If you’re working with Windows, Vista and 7 will be fine with this format, XP will not. Just format the drive with either OS X 10.5 and up or Windows 7 and you’ll be fine.

Western Digital began using this latest technology a few months ago in some of their larger drives under the name “Advanced Format”. However, this is only the beginning of this. Soon, other drive manufacturers will follow suit.

One final note about online shipping:

Buying a drive online is a good idea. You can pick out what you want, research ratings and quickly compare prices. Once you’ve picked out the drive you like, pay attention to the shipping method which is usually UPS or Fed Ex.

While reading reviews on NewEgg, I’ve begun to see a common complaint – drives ordered via UPS have a higher tendency to fail vs FedEx. It all boils down to the handling. Pay the extra money for either FedEx Express Saver or 2 Day shipping. Its money well spent if your drives aren’t punted into a truck, left out in the rain, or smashed into whatever corner they’ll fit in. Supposedly FedEx is a much gentler shipping experience.

Do note that FedEx Ground is a separate company, bought by FedEx. Don’t use FedEx Ground either.

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