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External Hard Disk for Backups – 8 Reasons They Are Your Best Option

They don’t even have to be expensive.

External Drive

An external drive is by far the best piece of additional equipment you can get for your computer to keep your data safe.

There are so many options for backing up these days, but I keep coming back to external hard disks as your first, best, go-to solution.

Why? Especially in the face of so much available cloud storage, why would I keep coming back to something this … boring?

Because sometimes boring is good.

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TL;DR:

External Hard Disks

  • They’re plug-and-play.
  • They don’t have to be costly.
  • They hold plenty.
  • They’re fast enough for backing up.
  • They’re easy to find.
  • They often out-last your computer.
  • They are what most backup software works best with.
  • They work whether you are online or not.

They’re simple

An external hard drive is nothing more than its name suggests: a hard drive that exists externally of your computer. You connect it to your desktop or laptop using a USB connection.

Many don’t even require an additional power connection. Just attach it, and you’ve got lots and lots of storage available.

Nothing to sign up for, no accounts to create; it’s almost the literal definition of “plug and play”.

They’re inexpensive

At this writing, a quick scan of Amazon shows external USB hard drives cost somewhere around $25USB per terabyte.

By the time you read this, they may even be cheaper. Disk prices are only coming down while capacity goes up.

They’re big

The smallest external hard drive I could quickly find on Amazon was one terabyte.

That’s one trillion bytes of information. Put another way, that’s enough room for over 190,000 copies of The Bible.

For the average person, that’s plenty of room. And, as I said, that’s the smallest I could find. More common sizes include 2TB, 4TB, 5TB, and 8TB. The largest I ran across? 18 terabytes.

They’re fast enough

External drives are generally slower than those inside your computer for either or both of two reasons:

  • The USB connection is generally slower than the speeds available inside the computer.
  • External hard disks are classic spinning-platter hard disks (HDDs), rather than the much faster solid-state drives (SSDs) that are now common as primary drives.

The good news is that they’re fast enough. Certainly their speed has improved over the years; it’s not unreasonable to use a higher-speed drive on a higher-speed USB3 connection as an actual working drive. (All that, of course, comes at a higher price.)

When it comes to backing up, a USB 2 or better connection with any reasonably current less-expensive external drive is plenty fast.

They’re everywhere

External hard drives are easy to find.

Not just online, but even at your local big-box store, or just about any place that has a fledgling technology section. You may be overwhelmed by the choices available, but available they are.

I think I’ve even seen them available at larger grocery stores or the occasional convenience store.

They’re re-usable

I have external hard drives older than my oldest computer in use. They’re durable, and perhaps most importantly, they’re one of the most future-proof pieces of computing technology you can have.

The only real long-term limitation is that a drive — any drive — that seems huge today will seem small someday in the future. Regardless, be it for backing up, simple data transfer, or archiving information off-line, an external hard drive can not only last a long time, but it’ll be useful for a long time as well.

They are what backup software expects

Most backup software — including both the Windows 7 Backup tool and File History, both built into Windows 10 — assume they will back up to an external hard drive.

Most third-party backup tools (like my recommended Macrium Reflect or EaseUS Todo) are optimized to back up to an external drive.

The restore/recovery process is also tuned to fetch your backups from an external drive.

They work without a network

Cloud backup services of various types are particularly popular right now, and rightfully so. They’re convenient and they create an important additional backup safety net.

Note the word additional.

For a variety of reasons, a cloud backup isn’t appropriate for everything. The single most important reason? Access. Be it connectivity problems or even some kind of account hack, cloud backups can hiccup, or worse. They’re just not appropriate as your primary backup, and definitely not your only backup.

Get one, use one

If you don’t have one, get an external drive.

If you aren’t already, start backing up to that external drive.

Once you have that in place, consider adding additional safety in the form of File History or cloud backup.

But start with the basics: regular backups to an external drive.

Someday you’ll thank me.

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10 comments on “External Hard Disk for Backups – 8 Reasons They Are Your Best Option”

  1. This is a good plan but isn’t there a risk that in a catastrophic event e.g flood, bushfire (wildfire), cyclone etc.,. you lose the computer being backed up and the backup drive?

    Reply
      • Exactly. I back up my OS drive and my data drive to 2 external USB drives, then back up everything, including the external USB drives, to BackBlaze. If my computer and USB drives were to be damaged or stolen, I’ve still got my Macrium backup files on BackBlaze.

        Reply
    • Of course, which is why in addition, as the next step, offsite or cloud backup should be considered.

      But in terms of priority and relative risk, you are much more likely to be impacted by something that having an on-site backup on an external drive will let you fix. Set those backups up first, and then move on to increasing your coverage for less common disasters. (And, of course, if catastrophe like floos, fires, and so on happens to be common in your area, then you might prioritize offsite first. But for most that’s not eh case.)

      Reply
  2. Yeah, it’s obvious that hard drives (although one could argue external is a bit better) are the most convenient/efficient etc, and generally the all around best choice, to use for important data backup.

    I have a USB3 docking station that I can connect regular internal hard drives (3.5″) and laptop hard drives (2.5″) to which is what I use for connecting some of my smaller hard drives to for data backup occasionally.

    plus, as a bit of a bonus with external vs internal hard drives is if you only connect the external hard drive setup to your computer for quick backup occasionally and then disconnect it, it lowers ones risk of say a virus/ransomware (or even some hardware failure on the PC potentially taking out the devices connected to it etc) damaging your data since it’s not always connected.

    but like David L said… it won’t protect against natural disasters. but I think most of us generally ain’t worried about those (although it probably mainly depends on where you live whether your at higher risk for floods/tornados etc or not). but it’s possible one could still get hit with those which probably won’t hurt to have some backups online of ones highest importance data. but then again, since anyone who takes this data backup and general online security seriously, will almost surely be using a password manager which means if say a natural disaster took out a persons home, they would likely be out of luck getting their data back anyways unless they happened to escape with their password manager data etc which would then allow them to access it online to restore that data (assuming all local copies are destroyed from the natural disaster). so that’s kind of why I am not too big of a fan of online backup (even though it can be nice as a additional backup option occasionally). sure, if one was really cautious they could always keep ones password manager data stored in another location. or if someone has extra money they could simply keep a copy of ones data on a external hard drive stored in a physical location far enough away from ones main residence as this should help minimize the chance of permanent data loss simply because it seems unlikely both locations would have a natural disaster at the same time. but speaking of password managers… while they are obviously better than not using one in general, that’s a potential negative side effect of not knowing ones passwords to services online as if one lost all physical copies from say a natural disaster and only online copies of their data existed, and they did not know the password to that specific place, they probably won’t get their data back.

    but all-in-all… good article, as a simple external hard drive is a good minimum level of data backup which I think as a general rule when it comes to higher importance data backup, even for the lazy types, is to have two copies of data on two different hard drives (or equivalent) as a bare minimum as those who don’t do this, are asking for trouble.

    Reply
    • An external hard drive is more than a bit better than an internal hard drive for backup. So much so that it’s a bad idea to back up to an internal drive as it would be subject to the same electrical problems and software glitches and malware as the system drive.
      I use LastPass and it syncs all of my passwords and all of my devices and I’ve even used their web version to access it on a works computer. Last Pass’ slogan “the last password you’ll need to remember” is true.

      Reply
      • @ Mark Jacobs ; while I obviously agree that external is better than internal hard drive backup, even copying data to two different internal drives is still noticeably better than just leaving data solely on one internal drive (and takes very minimal effort to make a copy of data in this situation to). sure, it might not protect against viruses and potential power surge etc, but short of that, it’s still much better than having only a single copy of ones important data on a internal hard drive.

        although naturally, external hard drive backup is clearly safer than only using internal hard drive backup. but my guess is most people taking the time to backup will probably have a external backup source whether it be a hard drive or USB stick (and the like). I am sure some of my backup is strictly internal/internal setup but anything I really care about is, at the very least, one internal and one external copy (with some stuff being even more thoroughly backed up).

        thanks for your time.

        p.s. but speaking of this stuff… maybe I have been lucky, but when my PC’s power supplies have died over the years (I generally leave my main PC on all of the time), of which I had three die in total (my current one is the longest lasting which is Seasonic brand which had a 5 year warranty which ended Nov 2017 (but it’s still going strong). my previous PSU’s typically died within about a year of warranty end of which all of my previous PSU’s warranties were 2-3 years. so my current PSU is hands down the longest lasting PSU I have owned at 8 years and 5 month and counting and like I say has been running pretty much all of the time since I got it short of a occasional power down), they have never taken out other components with them as I simply replaced the PSU with a new one and everything is back to good running order. even the small amount of hard drives I have had die, are all fairly ancient by today’s standards with a 40GB IBM (which I think was referred to as ‘death star’) and a 80GB Maxtor. NOTE: for whatever it’s worth my current main PC and previous one are using ASUS motherboards which covers from 2006 to date and both still work although the motherboard from 2006, even when I semi-retired it in May 2012 (it was sitting from May 2012 til I think Jan 2019) has some swollen capacitors on it (ASUS A8N32-Sli Deluxe) but it’s still stable. but it’s strictly a backup computer at the moment. but my current main ASUS motherboard has solid caps and everything appears okay on that so far as I plan on using my current PC (i5-3550 CPU etc) for the foreseeable future (probably til atleast 2025+).

        Reply
        • The issue (of backing up internally) is MUCH more than about power supply failures. ANYTHING that affects the internal drive can affect both internal drives, be it the power supply, a lightning strike (externals are slightly better protected), or even software gone off the rails. PSU failure is just an obvious example of many possibilities.

          But I also agree that ANY backup is better than no backup at all. One of my rules of thumb is that the further away the backup is from the original, the more things it protects you from. The adjoining hard drive in the box is pretty darned close. Smile

          Reply
  3. Well, I for one am so glad I stumbled across Leo’s site many years ago. Backups are easy to implement, but so easy to think ‘I’ll do it soon, one day’. Then, on that particular ‘one day’, you wish you had. Only happens once.

    My backup array of USB drives appears over-the-top, but by heck, I’m glad I have them. You see, having ever-larger hard drives means you file things more and more and it just grows and grows. Do we actually need everything we file and archive? I have lots of video files, masters and edits that take lots of room. But am I just lazy and add another drive when needed because my HDD housekeeping is not what it should be? I think I’m going to spend the next few weeks looking exactly at what I am filing. I’ve already found some garbage which once I’d stored as future-useful. How my life has changed.

    Reply
    • “Do we actually need everything we file and archive?” My take on that is “It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.” According to a corollary of Murphy’s Law, “As soon as you delete an unnecessary file, you’ll soon find you need it.” I archive older files and keep a backup of my archives.

      Reply

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