How to buy an external hard drive

Okay, time for me to (again) remind everyone to back up their data that they absolutely do NOT want to lose.

I basically back up my laptop once a night if I’m paranoid, and once weekly/monthly depending on how much information I’m creating that I do not want to lose.

Because of this, I have no fear of my laptop getting reformatted at any given time. I’ve made a list of programs I need, as well as passwords I need to ensure I have written down in the event I have to reformat, and I keep this backup list on my USB key, along with my super important documents that I’m currently working on, or need to access quickly.

As for my main documents from my company or from the client-side, I back it up on an external harddrive on a regular, nightly basis.

No, really. I do.

Without further ado, here are my tips on buying an external USB hard drive.

Buy a brand name you trust

From experience, this is not like buying a pair of shoes or a top. Brand names MATTER in external hard drives. I myself, have wasted $200 on 2 external (cheap) hard drives from a shoddy company called ZData. They have the WORST customer service ever, and one little knock, and all of my information was lost.

I bought a Western Digital, and having personally dropped it from 4 to 5 feet, on carpet and on hardwood, and this little baby keeps chuggin’ along.

I also bought a Comstar, but haven’t dropped it yet to test its durability (trying not to drop it), and it works like a charm. In fact, it has a Western Digital harddrive inside of it (other reviewers have taken it apart and seen the name).

But basically, what you are doing is paying more for a brand that has been around in the business, that is well known and trusted. Western Digital, Iomega, Comstar, Maxtor. Those are the big names to trust. HP is best left to printers (and not much else), and don’t buy names you have never seen before. Like ZData. *shudder*

You truly get what you pay for – shoddy workmanship, materials and parts.

Big name brands also have strong warranties that they stand by, whereas the cheaper companies could fold over like a cheap hand over night, and run off with your hard earned cash.

Research what you’re buying

Look for feedback, customer reviews, product reviews, what people say (both good and bad). Everyone treats their accessories differently (with kid gloves or with heavy handed hams), so they’re going to get different experiences. However, if you see a common theme in people’s complaints such as “The drive made a funny clicking noise, that ended up dying a month later”, or “The power cord started fraying within a month of using it, and now I can’t get it to stay plugged in and powered”. Take heed of these comments!!!!

Spend time in Google checking out your prospective purchase. You’ll be glad that you did, and it’s economical to do some light research before handing over your hard earned cash.


Look for a USB 2.0 port connectivity. Most laptops and computers are now running USB 2.0’s, and it is rare to see a USB 1.0 port. Another way to transfer information may be through Firewire, a faster-than-USB cabling connection which used to be an Apple invention, but is now used on regular PCs (Windows-based systems). Firewire is mostly found to be used with professional digital cameras or memory card readers. If you have USB 1.0, you will need to get a special card to retrofit your computer to accept USB 2.0s.


Grab a piece of paper and write down these specifications. These are your guideline requirements of what to look for when buying an external hard drive. You could certainly go for lower buffer sizes, RPMs or seek times, but every item you cheap out on, you will get a slower connection and you may very well be sitting there for a long time, waiting for information to transfer. Ask yourself how much speed means to you, and adjust these guidelines accordingly based on the store sales and deals in your area.

Seek time: 10ms (milliseconds) or less. This is how long it takes to data. 🙂

Buffer size: Get a drive with at least a 4MB (megabyte) buffer if you can. The higher the buffer, the better.

RPM: Same deal. The higher RPM the better. RPM stands for “Rotations per minute” and most externals come with 5400 RPM as a minimum, but if you can swing it, look for a model with 7200 RPM.


But what you can afford. I personally have bought a Western Digital 60 GB drive, only to realize I’m running out of room (c’est impossible non?..Uh..oui!!!) and I upgraded to a 120 GB Comstar, only to realize I need yet ANOTHER external hard drive. They’re quite handy to travel with, handier and easier than DVDs and CDs.

A good rule of thumb is to add 50% to what you think you need. If you want 60 GB, consider a 90 GB (if you can afford it). You will definitely use up all of the space in no time and wonder where the hell it all went. I personally want 10 terabytes in a small, slim, quick, compact hard drive, but that right now, is just a pipe dream.

As for the actual physical SIZE of the product, look for something slim, easy to hold, light, and easy to carry and tote around. Even if it’s only $50, and has 250GB, if you are planning on toting this thing around, you are going to rue the day you bought a hunk of brick metal. You will come to resent how fat, heavy, and bulky that thing is, and wish you had bought a 100GB, slim model that could almost fit in your jacket pocket. The heavy ones are also more prone to being dropped on the floor because they’re heavier and it feels more awkward when you’re handling it.

Trust me. Size is everything.

Like financial security (such as saving an emergency fund for rainy days), this is like data insurance. And all it costs is about $100-$200 for peace of mind. And when your co-worker moans and screams: NOT AGAIN!!! …. You can secretly smile, and fondly pet your external hard drive, and feel secure in the knowledge that you backed up the night before and are not subject to such techno-torture again.

About the Author

Just a girl trying to find a balance between being a Shopaholic and a Saver. I cleared $60,000 in 18 months earning $65,000 gross/year. Now I am self-employed, and you can read more about my story here, or visit my other blog: The Everyday Minimalist.