dunce in need of an external hard drive
April 26, 2006 10:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the market for an external hard drive. I'm running XP on a PC and know nothing about external hard drives except what I'd like it to do.

I've looked at a lot of threads, but they all seem to deal with Macs.

I know nothing about external hard drives. Do I just connect it with a USB and drag and drop files? Do I have to use a program to transfer files?

I'm looking for one that can hold all my music and data files (so, like 150G), is 150$ or less, is smaller than a bread box, and is sync-able so I don't have to recopy everything everytime I back up. I don't need RAID, I'm happy to reinstall XP and all my apps in the case of a crash. Any suggestions on brands/models?

Sorry for the dunce question, and thanks for your advice.
posted by misanthropicsarah to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
I know nothing about external hard drives. Do I just connect it with a USB and drag and drop files? Do I have to use a program to transfer files?

That is basically it. An external hard drive is a box with a power supply and an EIDE (or SATA) to USB (or FireWire) interface. You plug everything in and get a new drive on your computer.

The things that differentiate external drives are:
1. the quality of the drive inside. Some vendors like to pack slow drives without much cache in external enclosures. Others put fast drives in. Still others will sell you an empty enclosure, and you can add your own hard drive.

2. the quality of the interface. You definitely wan the 480 mb/s variant of USB2. Some interface chips are slightly better than others, but I think the really bad ones are mostly in the distant past.

3. Price / Capacity - much like any other disk.

Brand has almost no meaning in external hard drives. You could buy a Western Digital or Seagate branded drive, but it won't be any better than a WD or Seagate disk inside someone else's enclosure. I bought a few 320 GB Acomdata external drives when they were on sale at Fry's. I'd buy them again, but only if the price was right.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:49 AM on April 26, 2006


Small compact enclosures, the size of large paperback books, overheat the drive and result in short lifespan. I've lost five drives that way.

The thing to look for is an enclosure the size of a hardback book, which has a cooling fan built in. I've got three drives like that and all of them are still running, one after more than four years of use.

If you're up to it (it isn't hard) the best way to go is to buy your own enclosure and put the drive of your choice inside. That way you can select an enclosure to make sure it provides proper cooling, and can select a drive which is fast and big.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:11 AM on April 26, 2006


You will undoubtedly see a lot of Maxtor drives, as I did. I did not purchase one, however, because I read many, many, many negative things on the internet about them. So, to save you some time, just know that Maxtor's have a bad rep.

I ended up purchasing an Iomega with USB2, Firewire 400, and Firewire 800 interfaces. It has worked fine so far, but I only turn it on to do a weekly-ish backup, then turn it off again.

Why the FW800, you ask? I dunno. It's supposed to be the next big thing in fast data transfer, so I thought I'd get in on it now.

Also, I use a program called Syncback for my updating purposes. I use the free version, which is kind of hard to find on the site, but it does everything I needed.
posted by MrZero at 11:41 AM on April 26, 2006


I bought this enclosure about this same time last year. I used it to hold a 30GB harddrive from an older machine. Installation took no time at all, though I did need a verra verra tiny screwdriver to take it apart.

It's worked like a champ since. Came with cables for both USB and Firewire.
posted by grabbingsand at 11:56 AM on April 26, 2006


I've been very happy with my LaCie (250GB, USB2). It's fast and very quiet. It also runs very cool, even though it is about the size of a paperback novel.
posted by wheat at 1:26 PM on April 26, 2006


Build your own.

Putting stuff together is fun and you can choose a higher quality HDD.

As was mentioned above, go for a bigger enclosure with cooling fan.

Avoid anything plastic. Aluminum enclosures look (and feel) nicer and have better heat dissipation.

Find an enclosure that supports USB 2.0 and external SATA.

Personally, I wouldn't waste my time with FireWire. USB 2.0 is more common and SATA will give you better data transfer rates.

New motherboards now have external SATA connectors. If you are using an older motherboard but have internal SATA connectors that are not being used, you can buy an adapter to convert internal SATA connectors to external. In fact, do-it-yourself external SATA enclosure kits will probably include such an adapter. If you have no available internal SATA connectors, you can add a PCI or PCI Express card to give you external SATA connectors. The SATA adapters/cards are inexpensive, very easy to install and have excellent data transfer rates.

The theoretical data transfer rate for SATA is 150MB/s. This is higher than the transfer rate for FireWire 800 which is 800Mb/s (or 100MB/s) and much higher than USB 2.0 which is only 480Mb/s (or 60MB/s).

In other words, you will have the convenience of an external drive with data transfer rates of an internal drive.

If your motherboard can handle SATA II, an external SATA II connector will give you a theoretical data transfer rate of 300MB/s, which is nice when making backups or transferring large files.

External SATA connectors are not as common as USB connectors so be sure to find an enclosure that can handle both SATA and USB 2.0.

When selecting HDD, 3.5 inch is better than 2.5 inch. Generally speaking, 3.5 inch will be cheaper, bigger, faster and have better transfer rates - especially when transferring data on the outer edges of the disk.

Go for a HDD that is fast (7200 RPM) and has a big cache (8MB).

As was mentioned above, heat is your enemy. You want a drive that runs cool. Avoid Hitachi/IBM Deathstars. They have a reputation for running hot.

If 150GB is what you need, the perfect drive for you is a Seagate 7200.9, 160GB, 3.5 inch HDD with 8MB cache. The model number is ST3160812AS. It has only one platter. In general, fewer platters = less energy required to get the HDD spinning (and keep it spinning) so it will run cooler than a 160GB HDD with two platters.

This Seagate drive is SATA II compliant. SATA II is backwards compatible, of course, so if your current PC can only handle SATA I, it will still recognize it as a SATA I HDD.

If you decide to go for this drive, please pay attention to the model number. Similar 160GB Seagate drives that are older or have smaller a cache (2MB) are about the same price as this one (only a bit cheaper) so you don't want to buy one of those by mistake.

Have fun!
posted by cup at 2:08 PM on April 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


I just bought a Western Digital My Book 160GB External USB 2.0 Hard Drive this weekend at Best Buy for $99. It is small, looks nice, and just worked out of the box. I plugged it in to a power outlet and to my computer via USB. I'm running XP and it just showed up automatically as an additional drive.

Initially, yes, I just dragged and dropped files to that drive. It was a pretty quick process. I did it in batches and wasn't always at the computer, but I'm pretty sure I backed up ~60GB in under 30-45 minutes.

About automatic synching -- good question. This one didn't come with any synching programs, but I just started looking around for some free synching programs. This one looked promising, but haven't had a chance to play with it yet. Hopefully, I will use this or a similar program to back up certain files automatically on some regular schedule.

Other ramblings -- some external hard drives do not need to be plugged in to a power outlet -- they get their juice directly from the USB 2.0 connection.

Personally, I primarily made my decision based on a $ per GB ratio and this particular external drive met my needs and was in my budget.

Finally, the files I wanted to back up only ended up taking about 60GB, so I have plenty of space to grow. If you already have 150GB of data, maybe you need to be looking for a larger hard drive. Unfortunately, you're only going to keep accumulating more data --- however prices will continue to drop over time.

Good luck.
posted by jerryg99 at 2:27 PM on April 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


Two friends, three colleagues, five La Cie drives.

Make that five dead La Cie drives.

Neither I nor any of my friends or colleagues have ever had a single drive of any other brand fail. (At least, not since the old days when a 40 megabyte drive cost a few hundred bucks.)
posted by dmd at 3:58 PM on April 26, 2006


Maxtor make some very nice drives indeed, but in my experience they run WAY hotter than the competition. Putting one in a poorly ventilated enclosure is just asking for trouble.

200GB drives seem to have the lowest per-byte cost at the moment, for what that's worth.
posted by flabdablet at 5:02 PM on April 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


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