How To Keep an External Hard Drive Useful and Healthy Longer

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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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Summary

  • Remember to back up the contents of any drive, external or otherwise.
  • Avoid physically damaging your drive, especially while it’s being used.
  • A little software maintenance can go a long way to extend a drive’s useful life.
  • When the time comes, make sure to securely remove or destroy any data left on the drive.

Back up

The single most important piece of advice I can offer is to back up the contents of your external hard drive.

Many people consider their external drive their backup drive, and once they copy data or other files to it, they delete the original. The files are on the backup drive, so they must be backed up, right?

Wrong. So very, very wrong.

External DriveThey have only one copy of their data — on that external drive. If that drive fails, their data is gone. It doesn’t matter that the drive was called a “backup drive”; the files were in only one place, and thus were not backed up.

Make sure data stored on external drives is somehow duplicated — backed up — elsewhere as well. Like all drives, external drives can and do fail, often without warning. This is true regardless of the technology (HDD or SSD) used.

Hardware issues

When it comes to ensuring the longest life possible for the hardware, the most important thing to avoid is moving, jostling, or especially dropping the drive while it’s in use. Dropping isn’t good at any time, but can be particularly damaging when the drive is doing something.

This is true for both HDDs (traditional spinning platter Hard Disk Drives) and SSDs (Solid State Drives), though it’s more important for the former. There are moving parts within the HDD that, if jostled enough at the wrong time, can cause irreparable internal damage and data loss. More commonly, moving the drive causes the cable connecting it to your computer to become partially or fully disconnected, which in turn risks data corruption.

If you drop your HDD, or suspect an issue for any reason, immediately run CHKDSK /R on the drive. This will report, and possibly fix, any errors caused by the fall.

Use drives with a USB3 (or USB-C) interface if at all possible. This requires having a computer that supports USB3. It’s much faster than USB2, and speed becomes more of an issue as our files get larger over time.

There’s no consensus on whether  you should turn the drive off or not (using a power button, if it has one, or unplugging it), or allow it to spin down1 automatically or not. Doing so can save a small amount of electricity, but may result in more wear and tear on the drive as it heats up and cools down repeatedly. Leaving it connected and always on means it’s always ready for use.

Let your use of the drive guide your decision: if you use it frequently, leave it on; otherwise, perhaps not. In my case, my external drives are always on, but are allowed to spin down after some period of inactivity.2

However, if turning it off interferes with your backup strategy in any way, leave it on. Backups are more important.

Software

In a sense, software doesn’t affect the longevity of a drive, since you can always erase it and start over (as long as the hardware is working). But some choices and habits can lengthen the useful lifespan before that drastic action might be required.

If you’ll only use the drive with Windows-based computers, format it as NTFS. NTFS is slightly more resilient to some types of disk failures, and also somewhat faster. If you plan to connect the drive to non-Windows devices, then FAT32 or exFAT has more widespread support.

You don’t need to defrag your external HDD drive unless you use it intensely (in which case you might want to consider an internal drive instead). Defragging may speed things up slightly, but it generally pales in comparison to the USB interface speed, so you’d never notice the improvement. Do not defrag SSDs.

Run CHKDSK /F on the external hard disk periodically to check for and repair any file system errors that may occur due to physical abuse (like the jostling discussed above) or program crashes.

Every so often, review what you have stored on your external drive to see if you still need the files, or still need them connected to your PC. You can either move or archive things to a drive normally kept offline, or, if you’re certain, delete things you no longer need. Freeing up space will keep the drive more useful, longer.

The end of the drive

If a drive is working well, but is too small or otherwise inappropriate for whatever you need it to do, consider the “trickle-down” approach: use the drive on another, less demanding machine, or offer it to someone else. Many of my oldest external drives have gone on to live useful lives connected to some of my older, slower machines, performing less demanding tasks.

I do have to add that while our goal here is to keep the drive as useful as possible for as long as possible, don’t be afraid to replace it if you think it’s having problems that can’t be repaired, or you decide it’s simply too small.

If the drive starts to act up, reporting errors, not coming online as expected, or whatever else — and you can’t seem to repair the situation — a new drive is typically less costly than the effort you put into the repair attempt. Replacing a drive is also less costly than experiencing catastrophic failure and potential data loss.

And of course, a new drive will probably be larger and/or faster.

Finally, when the day comes to dispose of your external drive, make sure you don’t give a stranger whatever data is, or was, stored on it. If it’s working, do a full (non-quick) format of the drive, or use a secure delete or free-space wiping tool to remove all your data and ensure it’s not recoverable. If it’s not working, consider physically destroying the drive in some way.

I have many external drives, some of which are nearly a decade old. They keep working, and while they seem to get smaller every year,3 they continue to play various roles in my setup.

With a little care, yours can last a long time as well.

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Footnotes

1: Many drives automatically stop spinning the disk inside after some period of inactivity so as to save power. You can usually hear it stop spinning, and there’s typically a delay the first time you access it thereafter as the drive comes back up to speed.

2: Mostly because there’s no setting to adjust or disable the spin-down. Disabling spin-down can be easy, difficult, or impossible, depending on the drive, and apparently mine falls into the last category. Based on how I use the machine, I’d prefer it to be always on.

3: In comparison to what’s newly available each year. 500GB isn’t considered as big as it once was.

21 comments on “How To Keep an External Hard Drive Useful and Healthy Longer”

  1. One use I’ve found for external drives which have become to small is to give them away to friends who I’ve told need to back up. I install EaseUS Todo and set it up and they are ready to go. I’ve done this for two people already.

  2. “the most important thing to avoid is moving, jostling, or especially dropping the drive while it’s in use. Dropping isn’t good at any time, but can be particularly damaging when the drive is doing something.”

    I actually had this happen to me once. I was walking past my desk and the USB cable connected to my 0.5 TB portable HD got caught up in my clothing, was ripped out of the USB port, which sent the device tumbling to the carpeted floor. After I was finished screaming in horror I plugged it back in and it worked. Whew.

    • If that was a standard 3.5″ drive, you were very lucky: I saw the same thing happen at a friend’s house with a brand new external drive running on a coffee table only 18 inches from the ground; someone came in, walked into the USB lead, pulled the drive off the table and instantly destroyed it. I have kept mine on the ground since! I once read that if the head of a drive were the size of a house and the platter were the ground, the distance between them at that scale would be the thickness of a sheet of paper, which shows how small a tremble is needed for a catastrophic head crash to occur. I am told that modern drives are so refined that the head is only molecules away from the platter and they are filled with helium as air is too dense. The 2.5″ laptop drives seem to be much more robust, and some come in caddies with shock absorbers.

      As I only manage incremental back ups from time to time rather than full ones daily, as Leo recommends, and shut down my computer when not in use, given that the title of this article is “How To Keep an External Hard Drive Useful and Healthy Longer” I would be curious to know whether all that additional wear and tear shortens the lives of the drives.

      • I personally don’t worry too much about the life of an HDD. I’m careful but what’s important to me is the life of the data which can be protected via the 3-2-1 method:
        3 copies (or more)
        2 different formats (I use a system image with daily incrementals and OneDrive)
        1 copy kept off-site (I use OneDrive and keep a removable drive at work. Dropbox, Carbonite, or BackBlaze are also good.)
        How Do I Back Up My Computer?

  3. When I first started following Ask Leo!, I couldn’t understand what Leo meant by “If There’s Only One Copy, It’s Not Backed Up”. I knew it mean what is said but it seemed so obvious until I started working for Ask Leo! and read comments from people who lost their data because thought they were backed up because they moved their data to an external drive. Copy, don’t move unless you have a backup copy of your external drive.

  4. At 69 I’ve seen my share of drives, no doubt! LOL! I repurpose all my working drives for archiving files, photos and…well…just stuff…I have them in drive caddies for easy access and store them in my dads old gun safe. Still have my very first home-built drive from 1997, a Seagate 3.2gb, big for those days, with windows 95 still on it. I also have the Pentium ll from that same machine with dual heat-sink fans and two sticks of 64mb ram!

    Yep, treat those drives right and they’ll last a good while; that old Seagate still spins up and readable, hard to believe!

  5. I’ve had all Ask Leo newsletters saved for many years in my Yahoo email account, not quite sure why I keep them, but deleting would seem like abandoning an old friend.
    It’s easy to access your info on the internet now, which I frequently do, being far from a computer nerd, just an old guy plugging along and enjoying every minute of life!
    Keep up the good work, and enjoy the Corgis —Harv

    • With modern drives in particular I don’t believe that’s necessary. Only for very long timeframes might it be an issue, and then things like the format and compatibility of the disks drive the issue more than anything else. Example: I copied floppy disks to CDs to archive them. Later I ended up copying all those CDs to hard disks to keep them accessible. I expect at some point they’ll all get copied again — perhaps to the cloud, perhaps to something else.

    • With good backups in place, that’s almost a non-issue as that’s just another small potential source of data loss among many. And if you really do want to refresh, you can periodically restore from your system image backup which is also the most thorough defrag available. And speaking of defrag, that accomplishes the kind of refresh you are talking about. Windows’ background defrag will keep you HDD continually refreshed by default.

  6. Well… I’d rather suggest to unplug the external drives when not in use, because many malwares and ransomwares do look for them and encrypt them when found! And your careful backup becomes unusable as well…

    • That scenario is surprisingly rare. The problem with disconnecting the hard drive is that you have to remember to connect it again otherwise backups won’t happen. That backups happen is, to me, more important.

  7. Leaving external drives on versus off is similar to whether to leave a computer running when not in use versus turning it off. As Leo said, the solution depends on your expected usage. But there is one issue that was not addressed here with respect to external drives, especially when they are used for backup. I usually have several external drives that I use for weekly and monthly backups for a number of computers. Since they are seldom used, I turn them off. The main reason for that is my feeling that if they stay on they are vulnerable to malware just as internal drives are. Does anyone have any experience with external drives being infected directly? Maybe I am just being paranoid.

    • I have heard of it happening, but it’s exceptionally rare. I much prefer to keep them on so that automated backups continue to happen without needing to remember anything.

    • SSDs have a shorter life than HDDs. I use them in all 3 of my computers. The most important advice in this article is to back up. The other tips can save you a little money but only regular backups can save your bacon.

  8. The Dirty Harry in me asks, “Are you feeling lucky?” Every once in a while some computer store or another will offer a non-cutting edge hard drive for a very small amount of money. So don’t wait until that backup drive falls down or acts plonky. Spring for the cheapo drive, and every once and a while backup the backup drive. What’s you data worth in time and money?

    My cheapo external drive came with an automatic backup program on it, so I installed it. It’s been sitting on my desk for years, doing whatever it did with no complaints. I didn’t use it for anything or count on it for anything.

    Recently my wife “messed up” a program she uses all the time. That was all the information I had. After some internet research, I discovered the identities of the three most likely messed up files, found them on the cheapo drive, copied them to the right places on the computer, and gleaned some sincere thanks. Well worth $29.95.

  9. Backing up – a true story.

    In the early 90’s my sister had a small business. I urged her to back up every night to an old Colorado Tape Drive. One Friday night about 10 pm, my phone rang. It was my sister, who informed me, “I’m at the office backing up because I left earlier in a rush.”

    The following Monday, I was at work and my phone rang. It was my sister – “We were robbed over the weekend. They took our computer, monitor, keyboard and printer.” My fist question, “Do you stil have the tape in the usual hiding spot? She replied, “Yes”.

    I left my work, went home, grabbed my older computer, and on the way to her place I stopped by a supplier and picked up another Colorado drive. At her place, I installed the drive, plugged in the computer, and transferred 3 years of her business data back to my old machine.

    All in all, she was out of business for less than 3 hours.

  10. One of the satisfying moments in life comes when you open up a dead hard drive and take a hammer to the platters. (Wear eye protection!)

    I’m in the “turn it off” camp. My automated backups run across the network to another computer, but I still sometimes do a full backup onto an external drive.

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