Can I power a portable hard drive using a USB wall charger?
November 23, 2017 4:18 PM   Subscribe

I'm picking up a Wii U, and want an external HDD to go with it. Portable hard drives need a USB Y-cable to draw power from two of the Wii U's USB ports at the same time, and some people say they have stability issues / drives die from constantly powering the console on and off. But could I run the Y cable to a wall outlet (eg a 5A phone charger) instead, running the data part of the cable to the Wii U? That way the drive would stay powered when the Wii U shuts down.
posted by obiwanwasabi to Technology (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
(If this sounds dodgy, I'll just grab a cheap 3.5" internal drive and put it in a powered enclosure.)
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:19 PM on November 23, 2017

I would think that your plan should work. If one plug is only pulling power then it shouldn't matter where it is pulling power from.

Could you plug the HDD into a powered hub and plug that into the Wii U? Might be an alternative if you have a powered hub lying around.

If you haven't already bought the hard drive, you can buy portable hard drives that are powered. They use 3.5" drives so are slightly larger but they will stay on and won't draw power from the Wii U.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 4:50 PM on November 23, 2017

That will work, but portable drives are designed to be powered on and off all the time, so you shouldn't have any problems just powering off the console.
posted by gregr at 9:13 PM on November 23, 2017

Skip the powered hub and either pick up a powered 3.5" external HDD, or just pick up a powered HDD enclosure for 3.5".

The HDD manufacturer marketing departments would like you to believe that they're designed to "be powered on and off all the time". This is really not true for any hard drives, which tend to be most stable with constant operation. Lower power hard drives such as the WD Green which aggressively spin down when idle are doing a similar thing and see a higher failure rate, which led to the popularity of wdidle.exe and eventually to WD releasing "NAS" HDD's to address a previously unidentified segment where cheap large storage was desired.

Unexpectedly dropping power on a HDD, especially while it is actively doing something, is just bad. There's a lot of engineering that's been thrown at the problem over the years, but when it comes down to it, it's a chancy sort of thing. It'll probably be OK. It's NOT okay often enough that you hear about the problems. Don't trust the marketing. Trust the problem reports you've heard.

There are some well-thought-of prebuilt external 3.5" drives out there and if you're not technically oriented, you're best off just finding something like a WD MyBook 4TB.

Depending on how failure-resistant you would like to be, you can look for an enclosure with a fan. It has sadly become common to avoid fans in external drives because they cause enclosure designs to be larger ("not sexy") and they can add a little noise, but heat is one of the primary killers of hard drives.

The Vantec NST-530S3 is a 5.25" unit that hit all my requirements, and can be used for either optical drives or HDD. This is substantially larger than your typical enclosure, but it has a built in power supply (no brick/wallwart! yay!), a fan, and an extruded aluminum design that helps get rid of heat.

The best inexpensive drives to put in an enclosure you intend to power 24/7 may well be the NAS drives. There are some tradeoffs here.
posted by jgreco at 2:43 AM on November 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've never seen data to back up the idea that power cycles cause drive failures. There are some interesting studies showing little correlation between hard drive temperature and failure rate.
posted by gregr at 12:56 PM on November 24, 2017

That's because the people who constantly power cycle their drives aren't running fleets of drives and tracking those statistics. However, to those of us who repurpose inexpensive drives for large scale storage purposes, we came to realize early on a few things:

1) Load cycles are an issue, which makes the WD Green drives pretty evil for many purposes. You can Google for "WD Green" and wdidle.exe for further discussion.

2) Drives that are experiencing temperature differentials, such as those that are turned on (cold) and then get to a warm operating temperature, tend to have more difficulties.

3) The Backblaze temperature study is irrelevant to this discussion because their drives are slotted into systems that are actually being actively cooled and the drives remain within the optimal operating temperatures specified for those drives - this actually supports what I said. Many drives are specced to run up to 50-60 degrees C, but doing so over time will cook them. A lot of the external USB drives can easily get to these temperatures or even higher if you do anything at all to mess with the passive cooling - lay it on its side, have it up against an object obstructing airflow, etc.

The fact that drives tend to be happier and last longer if they are constantly powered on and kept at a constant temperature has been a well-understood issue for many years. There are no promises on a case-by-case basis, of course, and it may well be that you could have a drive regularly cooked at 75'C that is powered on and off half a dozen times a day for five years without ever giving trouble. Statistically, though, that's a lot more likely to have failures.

The biggest disturbing thing with external disks is that they're usually not redundant, and I've seen too many people store all their crap on a single external disk, with no backup, and then wonder how to get the pictures of their kids back when the drive ages and eventually fails. I have disturbing stories about that.

obDisclosure: I'm a moderator over at the FreeNAS forums where we routinely discuss how to build systems that survive over time, and I've participated in too many discussions with people whose systems baked due to insufficient cooling, etc.
posted by jgreco at 4:24 PM on November 24, 2017

Thanks all. I've grabbed an external 1TB 3.5" drive and a powered enclosure.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:56 PM on November 26, 2017

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