Need More Storage? Expand with External Drives

If your drive is running out of space you can just plug in an external drive to expand capacity. But, there are pros and cons.

Face it. Emails, digital pictures, video clips, and other data can quickly fill up hundreds of gigabytes of space. As your remaining space dwindles to nothing, you have a decision to make in terms of how you're going to expand capacity.

You could replace the drive entirely with a larger one, or you could turn to cloud-based data storage. Then, there is a third option--use external hard drives to grow beyond the limited capacity of your internal drive.

Of course, there are pros and cons to this approach, so let's examine expanding storage with external drives more closely.

Benefits

There are a number of advantages to expanding with external storage. For starters, there is no limit to your storage capacity. Well, technically each external hard drive you use will have a limited capacity, but any time you run out of space you can just add a new external drive and keep going.

Another benefit is that expanding storage is fast and simple with external drives. You may encounter rare instances of incompatibility or driver issues, but for the most part you just plug the external drive into your PC, your operating system detects it, and voila! You have more storage.

If you store a lot of large files--like high resolution photos and video clips--you will likely exceed the capacity of even the largest drives eventually. At that point, upgrading to a larger drive is no longer an option, and you would have to look at solutions like external drives or cloud storage to find additional capacity.

Depending on the alternatives you compare it to, price might fall in favor of external drives as well. An external hard drive generally costs more than an internal hard drive of equal capacity, but both are finite, one-time purchases. Compared to the ongoing costs of cloud storage, the investment in an external drive is cheaper in the long run.

Drawbacks

The first two issues that come to mind when dealing with external drives are aesthetics and logistics. Aesthetics is a minor issue, but compared to upgrading to a larger internal drive, an external drive presents a more cluttered appearance. It adds an additional piece of equipment, and more cords to run around your workspace.

Logistics, on the other hand, can be interpreted a couple of ways, and either could become a significant issue. First, your PC has a finite number of USB, Thunderbolt, FireWire (IEEE 1394), or other ports. If you already have a mouse, keyboard, webcam, and other devices attached to your PC, there may not be any space left to attach an external drive. You can use a hub to add additional ports, but then you are adding yet another device and more cables to deal with.

The other issue of logistics doesn't really impact desktop PCs, but becomes a serious issue for laptop users. If you rely on external storage to extend your capacity you have to either carry it around with you, or lose access to that data when you're on the go. If you carry it with you, you need to be able to connect it, which detracts from the convenience and portability that you got the laptop for in the first place.

Performance is also a drawback for external drives. There are many different external drive technologies that deliver varying data transfer speeds, but few come close to matching the performance of an internal drive.

Another concern with external storage is housekeeping and managing the data. When you start having multiple drives you need to have an organizational system to govern which types of data go where, or you run the risk of creating a huge mess of gigabytes, or terabytes of data, and "losing" your own data on your own drives. Thanks to the universal search capabilities in operating systems, and tools like X1 Search, this isn't as much of an issue as it once was, but it is still a concern.

Choosing an External Drive

Assuming this option makes sense to you, and you want to expand your storage with an external drive, the next question you need to ask yourself is "what kind?"

USB

USB drives are the most obvious, and most plentiful option. For small, immediate data storage needs you could even resort to using a USB thumb drive. For expanding your storage capacity, though, you will want a much larger drive than what even the biggest flash drive has to offer.

Most PCs and laptops have more USB ports than other kinds of ports--if they have the other ports at all--and it USB hubs are cheap and plentiful if you need to connect more devices. One thing you need to pay attention to with USB is whether your device is USB 2.0 or USB 3.0, and what the capabilities are of your USB ports. There is backwards compatibility, so your USB 2.0 device will work in a USB 3.0 port, or your USB 3.0 device will work in a USB 2.0 port, but in either case it will run at USB 2.0 speeds, so you are losing significant performance by not taking advantage of what USB 3.0 has to offer.

FireWire / Thunderbolt

FireWire and Thunderbolt are both technologies that compete with USB. FireWire is generally faster than USB 2.0, transfers data more reliably, and requires less PC and CPU resources than USB. Thunderbolt is a newer technology developed by Intel that combines PCI Express and DisplayPort functionality in a single port capable of 10Gbps transfer speeds.

For both FireWire and Thunderbolt drives, your options are limited, and the drives are more costly. But if performance is your primary consideration, these make a better choice for expanding with external storage.

SSD

Regardless of the connection type you go with, you can also choose whether to use a traditional disk drive, or a solid state drive (SSD). The SSD is a flash drive--essentially a much larger USB thumb drive--so it has no moving parts. SSD drives are more reliable, and less prone to crashing, but cost significantly more, and are not available in the same massive sizes as traditional drives.

Further Reading

Need More Storage? Upgrade Your Drive

This story, "Need More Storage? Expand with External Drives" was originally published by PCWorld.

From CIO: 8 Free Online Courses to Grow Your Tech Skills
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies