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Can you recommend a good external hard drive?

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I have a desktop running Windows 7 and plan to follow your suggestions for backing up. But having never used an external hard drive, I’m overwhelmed with the choices and could use some direction. My internal hard drive is a 500 GB SATA and the USB I have is 2.0. Can you recommend some guidelines: 2 ½ inches or 3 ½? 5400 vs 7200-RPM? 500 GB vs a terabyte? Which brands are the most reliable, etc?

Can I make a specific recommendation? No. The problem with this type of recommendation is that the industry is constantly changing over time, in some really fundamental ways. Often it seems, those changes happen immediately after I make a recommendation!

Instead, I’m going to review one recommendation that I just made to a friend of mine. Then I’ll discuss some of the characteristics of the drives that you asked about.

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A recent recommendation

I used to recommend Seagate FreeAgent Go Drives. At that time I did so I was recommending 500 GB drives. They’re really nice drives; I like them a lot. They’re based on laptop-sized drives, and they don’t require an external power supply. They get all the power they need from their USB connection.

While researching this question for a friend recently, I found that these FreeAgent Go Drives are apparently becoming a little harder to find. They’re still out there; they’re just not as plentiful. So I ended up recommending a larger 2 TB external Seagate drive, (which does require an external power supply), to my friend.

Let’s look at the specifics you’re asking about, and you’ll see also how I ended up recommending the Seagate 2 TB drive to my friend.

2 ½ inches vs. 3 ½ inches

If you want something portable, 2 ½ is kind of nice. The FreeAgent drives I have are 2 ½ inch drives. They are just a little bit wider than that when they’re in their enclosure, and I throw one in my backpack when I travel.

I like having a backup utility or a backup drive with me when I’m out and about. When I’m flying, I’ll have my laptop with me, but I’ll have the external drive in my checked bag; so that in case I lose one, I would still have the other. But even when I’m just driving around, traveling light, I’ll definitely throw that external drive in my backpack just to have something to back up to at the end of every day, depending on how much work I’ve been doing.

3 ½ inch drives can sometimes be faster or ultimately have larger capacity. They’re definitely good if you are looking for something that’s going to be sitting next to your computer all day long.

5400 vs. 7200-RPM

External HD ConnectedI almost never check for RPM when it comes to external drives. I couldn’t tell you what some of my external drives’ rotation speeds are. What we’re talking about here is literally how fast the disk inside that drive is spinning: either 5400-RPM or 7200-RPM. There are internal drives that will run at 10,000-RPM, but external drives generally run at slower speeds.

The smaller drives tend to be laptop drives, which are designed to be a little bit more rugged. The drawback is that they’re often slower. In fact, these smaller drives are often designed to run at 5400-RPM to increase their hardiness as portable devices. If speed matters to you, then you might consider a faster drive, which I suspect might very well be a (physically) larger drive.

When it comes to internal or primary drives, I do shop for faster rotation speeds. But for backing up, speed really isn’t that big of a deal.

500 GB vs. a terabyte

For backups these days, I recommend a terabyte at a minimum. What I ended up getting was a 2 TB drive for my friend.

You may be able to simplify your decision by asking yourself four questions:

  1. How big are my backups going to be?
  2. How many backups am I going to want to keep?
  3. Am I going to use the drive for anything other than backups?
  4. How much am I willing to pay? (Larger drives are a bit more expensive.)

In my friend’s case, I believe her computer’s internal hard drive is about 500 GB. When you use a backup program like Macrium Reflect and turn on compression, the data stored on your external hard drive will take up about 2/3 of that space. So for a 500 GB internal hard drive, we’re looking at about 300 GB per backup on your external.

So if I have a 2 TB drive, that means I can keep several backups for a while, which can be useful. Alternately, what I really like to do with backups is keep a complete, full image backup once a month, and then have incrementals every day. That can add up to a lot of disk space.

Just based on the size of the drive you’re starting with (in your case 500 GB), something like 2 TB sounds about right. But again, it really depends on how many backups you want to keep, how long you will want to keep them for, and whether you are going to use the drive for anything else.

Which brands are the most reliable?

That is really the unanswerable question, and I say that because it changes so often. In the years that I’ve been dealing with computers, it seems like drive quality is cyclical. In other words, today for example, I just happen to gravitate towards Seagate drives. They’re good, and as you’ve noticed I’ve mentioned them several times already. But Seagate drives haven’t always been the drives to get. There are several other manufacturers of hard drives. One of them is better for a while, then another other one is better for a time.

I chose the 2 TB Seagate drive for my friend, and maybe that’s a good choice for you today. Whether that choice will hold up over time remains to be seen.

24 comments on “Can you recommend a good external hard drive?”

  1. I have one concern about lsrge capacity drives. If something goes wrong, you lose a large amount if data. I once lost 1 TB of backups due to hardware failure. I prefer two 512 GB drives than one 1 TB drive.

    • That’s a consideration, but often the difference in cost between a 500MB and a 1000MB drive is only about $20 so I usually spring for the larger one, especially for backing up a 500MB machine. I have 4 1TB drives. I give the smaller ones away to family and friends.

  2. It should be 500 GB vs. a terabyte instead of 500 MB vs. a terabyte? Everywhere else in the article too right? Or am I missing something?

  3. I’ve purchased two Seagate portable hard drives (Backup Plus, 1 TB, USB 3.0) at different time over the last several months at a low price of $60 each. Unfortunately, I’ll be returning both of them. The hard drive body consists of two parts, including a narrow 7/16” section where the USB cable connects to the hard drive. When disconnecting the cable, the narrow section of the body separates from the rest of the body. This happened right out of the box with the second purchase and probably so with the first purchase too. In addition, the enclosure is made up of material that is smooth and hard to get a decent grip on. Plus, there are no rubberized legs, so the hard drive easily slides all over the table top. That’s my experience with this particular Seagate product; yours may differ.

    • Yeppers, it’s supposed to separate. Their design allows for connecting the drive to either a 2.0 USB base or a 3.0 base. Just hold the base when you disconnect the cable.

      • Hi, Jeff. I guess I wasn’t clear in my description. No, I have no problem with detaching/separating the USB cable from the portable hard drive, and, yes, the one cable can work with either USB 2.0 or 3.0. It’s the hard drive enclosure/body itself that is separating into two pieces – and I’m pretty sure the enclosure is not suppose to split open like that. It’s as if Seagate didn’t use enough glue to hold together the two sections of the enclosure.

      • My apologies to Jeff B. and Mike D. — you guys are right and I’m wrong. Thanks for setting me straight on the design of the Seagate Backup Plus. After playing around with the device a little more, I see now that the narrow section of the portable hard drive IS designed to disconnect from the rest of the enclosure, as you guys said. I thought using FireWire or Thunderbolt involved only changing the cable; I didn’t realize you had to change the narrow section of the hard drive too.

  4. I’m surprised at your favoring Seagate. In my months of reviewing and shopping for external hard drives, I found Seagate, by far, had the most unfavorable reviews and worst performance and durability ratings of most all other brands. I have also purchased WD drives and had them fail within a month. I’ve had extremely good luck with Fantom Drives and will continue buying them as long as I do.

    • I’m not terribly surprised. It’s possible that Seagate is on the downside of the cycle that I mention in the article and that others are cycling up. My experience has been quite good over the past 5 years or so. Most importantly is simply to be aware that there does appear to be a cycle. And to purchase from vendors with good return policies. 🙂

  5. When you wrote that a complete Macrium backup of a 500GB hard drive requires 2/3rds of that space with compression on, I was very surprised.

    I always thought you are backing up the data on the drive, not empty space. Why would that backup take up more space than the actual data you are backing up? For example, if you have only 50 or 100 GB used on the 500GB C drive, why wouldn’t the backup only take up only 50 or 100GB (or less if you have compression on)?

        • When Leo said 500GB, he meant 500GB of data. The idea is that a 500GB drive can hold up to 500GB of data, so it’s a good idea to have a backup drive which can handle up to the full potential of the c: drive. My 350GB HD has 220GB data and my image backup is 151GB. This is in the ball park of Leo’s estimate. With 2 months of incremental back up, it’s up to 300GB.

    • I don’t know about Macrium, but with Acronis, you have the option to create a disk image using the “sector-by-sector” approach, which entails copying all of the empty space too. This would make your disk image the same size as the disk itself. And if you further choose to compress the disk image, I guess the final size of the disk image can end up being 2/3 the size of the disk.

    • What I meant is that it typically takes ~2/3rd of the size of your data. So yes, if you had only 50GB on that 500GB drive, then I’d expect 30-40GB after compression. (It varies a LOT based on exactly what kind of data you have.) HOWEVER, the drive size I recommend is based on backing up completely full drives (which is more common than most realize 🙂 ).

  6. Every product ever made will fail at some point. With the low cost of drives now days it is recommended that you backup(copies of your data) , and foolish if you do not. If you truly backup your data you will never lose it. I have multiple externals with many duplicates. If I have multiple drives fail I still have my granddaughter’s pictures. By the way the GoFlex is a couple of generations back. The new product line is the Backup Plus. There is even a portable that is wireless designed to extend the capacity of laptops and can be used to stream wireless. The Wireless Plus.

  7. As I have few computers at home and need Backups more often for more reliability, I switched to 3 TB Hard Drives.
    Surprisingly what I found was that if there is a problem and I have to boot from the Backup program’s bootable CD (Acronis, Acer Backup Manager and one other), it was impossible for any of the computers to “see” the 3 TB HD. Therefore, I copy, when needed, the Backup file from my 3 TB HD to a 2 TB one and then Restore the computer using the bootable CD and the 2 TB HD.
    I think all readers should be aware of that.
    I abandoned buying the available 4 TB HDs although their prices are now really tempting to buy.
    I would not use any of them but for just as storage devices for some data, like movies, songs, documents. pictures…etc.

    • I’ve restored my Macrium Reflect backup from my Hitachi 3TB drive. It might be a problem with with your particular drive and not inherent to all 3TB and larger drives.

  8. Leo, would you say that, in theory, portable hard drives are more durable and reliable than external hard drives because, being portable, portable hard drives are designed to better withstand the impact of being bumped and moved around, whereas external hard drives are not? Thanks…

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