How To Keep an External Hard Drive Useful and Healthy Longer

What are your external hard drive best practices?

External hard drives are a ubiquitous, simple way to provide additional storage or portability (or both) to an existing desktop or laptop computer.

These are the steps I take to ensure my external hard drives remain as useful as possible as long as possible. They break down into three categories: hardware, software, and something so important that it deserves a category of its own.

You can probably guess what that last one is.

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How Do I Password-protect a Flash Drive?

I want to put all of my websites and passwords in a text file and store them on a flash drive for safekeeping. How do I password protect it?

There are several different ways to do this.

You can purchase flash drives that have built-in password or PIN protection. They tend to be pricey, but they’re almost perfect for this kind of situation.

Frankly, I don’t recommend them. There are other solutions that are more flexible and less costly.

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How Do I Create a Bootable USB Thumb Drive from an ISO?

ISO files are disk images often used to distribute software. In years past, we burned them to CDs. As the ISOs themselves became larger, we’d burn them to DVDs instead. In either case, we would then boot from the CD or DVD to run whatever the software provided. A good example might be operating system installation DVDs.

More and more machines are coming without optical drives — that is, they don’t have the ability to read a CD or DVD, much less boot from it.

Fortunately, there are tools we can use to take an ISO that contains a bootable image and place it on a USB thumb drive from which you can boot.

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Is it Safe to Just Turn Off an External USB Drive Without “Safely Removing” First?

If I have an external hard drive connected and running (but not being used or accessed through my overt actions) and I get the message “The device … cannot be stopped right now. Try stopping the device again later”, would it be safe to turn off the external drive (assuming it has an on/off switch) and then unplug it from the computer? Or would switching it off be just as risky?

Turning off the device is essentially the same as unplugging it, so the short answer is no, it’s not a safe alternative.

Sometimes, a USB device appears to be in use for no apparent reason and cannot be stopped. I’ll walk through some of the approaches you can take to removing the device while minimizing the risk of data loss.

Spoiler: pulling the plug or turning off the power aren’t on the list.

Read moreIs it Safe to Just Turn Off an External USB Drive Without “Safely Removing” First?

Are USB Ports Going Away?

At least two articles on the future claim that either USB sockets and/or Flash drives will disappear in 5 years or more. I use mine daily. Should I stock up on flash drives while I can?

The article(s) in question predict the USB port’s demise on two things: cloud storage replacing local, physical storage, and smaller mobile devices that leverage the cloud with no ability to connect to external storage devices.

The problem is, they’re absolutely right: much of the technology we take for granted and rely on today will be replaced by something.

The question isn’t whether it will happen; the question is: when?

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How Do I Force Windows to Reinstall a Driver?

My machine is an emachines T2792 and has six USB ports. No matter which port I plug into or what type of hardware that I try to use, my computer tells me that the “hardware has malfunctioned” or “hardware not recognized”. My OS is XP-Home edition. I’ve tried no fewer than a half-dozen driver repair and PC rejuvenators – all to no avail. What do you think is the most likely culprit?

My knee-jerk reaction is to say that the half-dozen driver repair and PC rejuvenators are at fault. Many are no better than snake oil; they either add problems where there previously had been none, or make existing problems worse. I recommend avoiding them completely.

However, there was a problem before you tried them, so they can’t be completely at fault.

We do need to seriously consider that the hardware here has a problem, and no amount of driver fiddling is going to fix that. But before we throw in the towel on a software solution, there is one thing worth trying.

Read moreHow Do I Force Windows to Reinstall a Driver?

Is USB Safe?

My dad just sent a link about a USB security flaw. I searched via google and there are other sites talking about this also, but perhaps just feeding off each other. Would you address this so we know what we need to do or not do?

As I understand this problem is actually a pretty serious issue – or at least it could become one.

The real problem is that there’s no work-around other than not using USB for one of the things that it was intended to be used for: easy portability between machines.

Right now I’m honestly not quite certain how concerned we need to be, but I’m not panicking.

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Can a USB thumbdrive “wear out”?


I have a database application that I share between multiple computers. We keep the database itself on a USB thumb drive and simply move that drive to the other computers as needed. The database is never copied off the thumbdrive, we just update it in place. Seems very simple.

A friend of mine just told me that I was asking for trouble. He said something about thumbdrives “wearing out”, and that sooner or later, probably sooner, the data on my thumbdrive would become corrupt. Is that true? Do these USB drives actually wear out?


I strongly recommend that you backup the contents of that drive – yes, sooner rather than later. And perhaps even rethink how you’re sharing that data.

Inexpensive flash memory, the type used in USB thumb drives, memory sticks and other devices, is very, very cool. But there is a dark side that people don’t talk about much.

Flash memory “wears out”.

Read moreCan a USB thumbdrive “wear out”?

How risky it is to run Ubuntu from a flash drive?

I just installed Ubuntu on my 16 GB flash drive. I occasionally use it to edit documents or use the terminal to SSH to my server online, edit server files, and download online files to put on my server. Is my Ubuntu installation something that would cause my drive to wear out fast? There’s hardly any write activity during boot and shutdown. How long should I expect my drive to last?

Unfortunately, there’s no really clear answer to that question. To be honest, I don’t how much Ubuntu is writing to the installed drive, though my guess is probably not a lot. As long as you’re not memory constrained on the machine that you’re using it on, there’s a good chance that it’s mostly reading. When you become memory constrained, Ubuntu may fire up a paging file, which could cause a lot of write activity. But my guess is that Ubuntu itself isn’t doing a whole lot of writing.

I am a bit concerned about the flash drive, but it actually makes sense. Let me explain.

Read moreHow risky it is to run Ubuntu from a flash drive?

Why Won’t My System Recognize My USB Device?


I have a problem with my USB ports. Say I plug in my digital camera to upload some pictures to the tower or plug in my iPod to put music on it, my system won’t recognize that they are plugged into the USB port unless I restart the entire system. This can get very annoying having to restart the computer every time I want to upload pictures, use my webcam, put music on my iPod etc. I have asked many of my friends if they have the same problem with their USB ports, but they don’t. My system won’t recognize anything that is connected into USB unless the system is restarted.

USB is great when it works, but as you’re experiencing, it can still be a pain when it doesn’t.

USB’s really only been around for a few years, and while most of the kinks have been worked out, not all of them have. Especially if you’re on an older machine or operating system version.

Read moreWhy Won’t My System Recognize My USB Device?

How can I tell if I have USB 2.0?


I’m thinking of purchasing a USB device, but it requires USB 2.0. I can’t find anywhere on my machine that tells me whether or not I have this. How can I tell if I have USB 2.0?

USB (for Universal Serial Bus) 2.0 is a significantly faster version of USB 1.1. Some devices can be quite speed intensive, and hence manufacturers are starting to require the faster connection. Most new machines come with USB 2.0 already built in. But what about an older machine? How do you tell?

It’s easy, just not at all obvious.

Read moreHow can I tell if I have USB 2.0?