Saved! All About Removable Storage

“That file’s too big to email! I’ll just put it on a flash drive and run it across the hall!”

Huh? Let me explain.

Removable Storage is an important new category of computer accessory. External hard drives and flash drives are handy for making backups, transferring files, and unloading camera memory cards on the go. Most such devices use USB as the connection type, meaning they are plug and play on most computers less than 10 years old. They show up in “My Computer” as an additional drive with a new drive letter. Some models have network connections. A drive hooked up as a network drive can be used by any computer on the network just as if it was installed in that computer, thus you can back up all your computers to one drive.

External hard drives come in large (3.5″) and small (2.5″) physical sizes. Large in this case means slightly larger than a paperback book, and small is pocket size. Storage capacities vary from 250 GB to over 2 Terabytes (A Terabyte is 1000 Gigabytes), with prices to match. The 3.5″ drives use the same type of drive found in desktop computers and need an AC adapter for power. Pocket size drives use the same drive used in laptop computers and can usually be powered by the USB cable. It’s not a bad idea to get the biggest size you can afford, but I don’t recommend getting the very biggest one, because it may be slightly less reliable.

3.5″ drives are most useful as home backup devices. Many come with some sort of backup software to make this vital operation easier. Unlike backing up to a second internal hard drive, an external drive can be quickly disconnected and taken off site for security or in the event of some disaster requiring evacuation. Of course, they can also be used to transfer files, but unless you have a huge amount of data to transfer, they can be awkward, since you have to move not only the drive but the power and USB cable.

2.5″ drives will do anything 3.5″ drives can do, but at a higher cost (per Gigabyte) and a somewhat smaller data capacity. The portability factor often outweighs the added cost. You usually still need to carry a USB cable with the 2.5″ drives, but you won’t need a power cord, and there are carrying cases to make it easier.

Flash drives (also known as thumb drives, because of their small size) are the ultimate in data portability, completely replacing floppy disks. They work exactly the same as a portable hard drive, but they are much smaller and have no moving parts, making them very durable. They cost somewhat more per Gigabyte, and are not available (yet!) in as large a size as hard drives. Available in capacities up to at least 128 GB, they allow you to carry your entire digital life on a keyring. Many popular programs are also available in a portable version, allowing you to do all sorts of work even when you don’t have your own computer available.

In summary, if you need to back up massive quantities of data, and you don’t need much portability, get a 3.5″ drive; It’ll have the lowest cost per Gigabyte. If you need portable backup or large storage, get a 2.5″ portable hard drive. The cost per Gig is still pretty low. If you need something to carry your most important files everywhere, or if your backup needs are minimal, get a flash drive. Watch out, though, those flash drives are so small they disappear easily!

If you are an adventurer or James Bond, there are also ruggedized flash drives, and some portable hard drives have very good encryption built in if you carry sensitive files.

Since we live and die by the quality of our data, don’t try to save a few bucks on off brands when buying external storage. Stick with name brands, especially when it comes to flash drives. Sandisk, Memorex, and PNY are reputable brands. For hard drives, the big two are Seagate and Western Digital, although Toshiba, IBM, and Hitachi are just as good.

More info on backing up:

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