We use our data storage devices all the time, whether it be accessing pictures, movies or other media files, or when loading programs, games or even our entire operating systems. But there may be more handy features your external hard drive can offer than you might think. They can help you organize files better, clean the drive from unused files etc. Knowing these features and what to look for in an external hard drive is important for both every-day usage and picking the best external hard drive for your needs.
1. Before buying, make sure you can use the external hard drive
If you’re new to the field of computer tech, or just haven’t cared much about it thus far, picking a hard drive seems like a super-simple thing – just get the most capacity for a decent price. Well, not quite because external drives can connect to your Mac through different interfaces and the speed at which data gets transferred from that drive to your Mac is also different for every drive.
It is vital to know what external ports your Mac has when you want to increase Mac storage with an external drive. If you buy an external hard drive with the wrong plug it will be useless to you. You can also buy a more modern version of one of your ports, in which case the port will bottleneck a fast external drive and make it slower. There are four main external interfaces you can find on Macs – USB, Thunderbolt, eSATA, and FireWire.
- FireWire is the oldest interface and would bottleneck even the slowest modern HDDs at less than 1Gbps bandwidth. If possible, avoid this slow port.
- Thunderbolt is the fastest interface at 10-20 Gbps and will handle any external hard drive, as long as you don’t connect entire entertainment systems to that same port.
- USB is the most common port on both Macs and Windows PCs, with the newest versions reaching 5-10 Gbps. A lot of external drives use USB 3.0 connection, which will be bottlenecked into the ground if you have a USB 2.0 port (white instead of blue).
- Very rarely a Mac may also have an eSATA port, which will have either 3 or 6 Gbps bandwidth and is basically an extension of the internal SATA connection.
2. Evaluate your need for speed
Having a fast interface, however, doesn’t mean that the drive itself will be fast. Each hard drive has its data transfer speeds and each drive may be a bit slower or a bit faster, depending on how you use it. Fast data transfer speeds are mainly necessary if you want to store your games, programs, or your operating system on your drive (more on that later) since there’s a whole lot more information to transfer there. You can easily go for a slower drive if you’ll just use it for backing up pictures, videos, documents etc. because the loading time difference of a half second for such small files won’t be worth the expenses.
Every hard drive is unique, has its own performance and its kinks, but there are still a couple main guidelines for finding a fast drive. There is a huge price and, accordingly, data speed difference between Hard Disk Drives (HHDs) and Solid State Drives (SSDs), which use completely different storage methods.
- HDDs can usually hold a lot more data and are a lot cheaper than SSDs (as of right now) but are quite a bit slower. This is because accessing the information stored on a hard disk platter involves using slower moving mechanical parts, as opposed to just electrical signals.
- SSDs, on the other hand, are usually smaller than HDDs (for now) but are a whole lot faster. However, having up to five times higher data transfer speeds boosts up the price accordingly, so SSDs are usually reserved for storing the OS or programs while a separate HDD is used for smaller files and documents.
3. Can’t find the best external hard drive? Build your own!
The external hard drive market may not be able to offer you that perfect hard drive for your needs. But don’t worry because you can just get an external hard drive enclosure and pick an internal hard drive that fits your needs the best. All modern hard drives come in either 2.5″ or 3.5″ form factor, making the search for a good hard drive enclosure rather simple. This will involve a bit more work than just plugging a fully functional external hard drive into your Mac, but it’s not too complicated. If you don’t want to look for a fancy enclosure, the Sabrent 2.5″ SATA to USB 3.0 enclosure or the Orico 3.5″ SATA to USB 3.0 enclosure will do you just fine (more options here).
4. Format your external hard drive to fit your needs
For the external hard drive to work with your operating system, you have to format it. The main thing to consider here is whether you’ll use the drive on Windows and/or other operating systems as well. You can check out our full walkthroughs for formatting your hard drive for Mac and Windows where these different cross-platform formats are discussed.
Overall, the easiest cross-OS formatting solution would be formatting the drive for NTFS (Windows format, many drives come pre-formatted in NTFS) and then getting an NTFS driver like Seagate’s Paragon to gain access to your files on Mac. Such a drivers remove most downsides and restrictions of the FAT32 and exFAT formats and have been polished over the years to function without errors.
5. Backing up data to your Mac external hard drive
One of the main reasons why many people purchase external hard drives is simply backup – securing all your data by always having a copy of it. For Mac users, there is a software tool integrated into the Mac OS called Time Machine, which can be configured to automatically backup your data to an external hard drive. The backup tool itself is very user-friendly and easy to learn. Such backup may require a large external drive, though, so make sure you have enough space on your external drive.
6. Turn the external hard drive into the main drive
An external hard drive can hold much more than just cat pictures or your favorite movies and games. You can put your entire home folder into your external drive to have less clutter on the main drive that has to load the operating system. This, of course, requires a constant connection to that drive for you to access your files.
Your external hard drive can also hold and boot your entire OS! To do this, format the drive to OS X Journaled format and GUID Partition Table scheme. Then download the operating system from the App store the same way as any other app, open the installer and choose your external hard drive for installation. To pick your external drive as the boot drive, hold the options button on boot and pick the external drive as the boot drive.
7. Keep your external hard drive spiffy clean
Cleaning out unneeded files from your external drive is a good practice to have it load files faster and to have more storage space. You can do this manually or use different software solutions, for example, Gemini 2 for finding unnecessary duplicates of files, CleanMyMac for overall unnecessary/unused file removal, and Disk Inventory X for having an overview of the external hard drive’s contents.
Also, if you have a decent internet connection, use cloud services alongside an external hard drive. This will let you keep more storage space for other files and programs, as well as have an extra backup in case you either lose the data on your hard drive or the cloud service removes access to a movie or song.