You can always try to compress files, but that’s not much fun, and this often just delays the inevitable. If you’re running out of hard drive space it’s only a matter of time before you need to buy a new drive. But what should you buy?
Inside or Out?
First things first – before anything else, you need to decide what type of hard drive you’re looking for. External or internal?
These drives are very different. External drives loiter outside your system and connect to your computer via USB, eSATA or FireWire connection. These hard drives are portable and incredibly simple to use – most are plug and play.
However, external drives are generally more expensive per gigabyte of storage than internal drives. They also take up space on your desk, which may not be ideal. Finally, external drives usually don’t perform as well as internal drives, so you may notice that copying files to and from the external drive takes a long time.
External drives connected via USB 3.0 are an exception to this – but remember, connecting an external hard drive via USB 3.0 requires that both your computer’s motherboard and your external drive support the standard. If your motherboard doesn’t support USB 3.0 you’ll need to buy an expansion card and install it inside your computer.
Internal drives are better value overall, but an external drive is fine if you’re not comfortable mucking about inside your PC.
Let’s assume you decided on an external drive. If you went internal, skip to the next section.
There are two general types of external drives. On the one hand you have small drives based off 2.5″ mechanical hard drives. These usually connect via USB and are powered via USB. They’re often small enough to carry in a pocket. Seagate offers a 1.5 TB drive in this category – all other options max out at 1 TB.
On the other hand you have large external drives based off 3.5″ mechanical hard drives. These drives sometimes require power from a wall socket. They’re heavier and not fun to lug around without a bag, but they’re available in capacities of up to (and beyond) 3TB. They’re usually better value, too. The choice here is simply one of portability vs. storage capacity and value.
You should also pay attention to how a drive connects to your computer. The quickest connections are USB 3.0 and eSATA, but these are also the least common on desktops and laptops, so check to make sure you have the proper connection before buying. USB 2.0 and FireWire connections are more common, but not as quick.
The spindle speed of an external hard drive should also be considered – higher is better. The fastest external drives available max out at 7200 RPM.
If you’re comfortable installing a hard drive you’re probably best off going internal. Doing so opens up a world of options.
You don’t have to worry about the portability of internal drives, so picking an internal drive is a straight compromise between performance, storage capacity and price. You do have to worry about size, however, because laptops and desktops use different drive sizes. Laptops use 2.5″ drives, while desktops generally use 3.5″ drives. Be careful, though – some of today’s slim systems and all-in-one PCs do use 2.5″ drives.
Performance is determined by the spindle speed and cache available on a hard drive. The maximum spindle speed on consumer drives is 10,000 RPM (enterprise hard drives are quicker still, but forget about them – they’re outrageously expensive). Cache is usually between 16 and 64 MB.
Storage capacity is incredibly various. The smallest internal drives offer about 80 GB of space, while the largest external drives tops out at 3TB.
Prices rise with performance and capacity. For example, Western Digital sells its low-end “green” 1TB 3.5″ internal drive for $60. Upgrading to the high-performance “black” version requires that you hand over an extra $30.
Connection type isn’t really an issue with internal drives. Almost all internal drives use SATA. You only need to worry if you have a computer older than 5 years, as it may use a legacy connection instead of SATA. You can add SATA support by installing an SATA expansion card.
A Note About Solid State Drives
Everything I’ve said so far applies to mechanical hard drives. These are still the most popular by far, but the performance a solid state drive can offer is hard to ignore.
If you are considering a SSD, keep in mind that they’re virtually always 2.5″ drives. They can be installed in a desktop, but you may need an adapter to secure the drive. Also, be sure to read the reviews. Spindle speed and cache size give a good impression of a mechanical drive’s performance, but there is no easy way to guess the performance of an SSD without reading a review.
External SSDs are basically just thumb drives. They’re very expensive, but extremely portable. As with internal 2.5″ drives there is no easy way to guess performance without researching first.
Almost everyone runs out of hard drive storage eventually, but this is nothing to worry about. It’s easy to buy a new hard drive, and most drives with less than 1TB of storage can be had for under $100.
Just be sure to do your homework – otherwise you may end up with a drive that is slower than you hoped, or a drive that doesn’t work with and/or fit in your computer.