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With the huge amount of data that computer users are now generating, an external hard drive that you can use as a safe place to back up your data in case of fire or theft - or even just to free up memory on your main computer - is definitely a worthwhile investment. External hard drives come in two main physical sizes - 2.5"""" (the same size as the hard drive you'd find in a laptop) and 3.5"""", which is the same as the one in your desktop PC. The main difference is in the way they connect to your computer. Most external hard drives connect to the computer through a USB/Firewire cable, and then your PC automatically recognises it as a storage tool, so you can just 'drag and drop' files into it on-screen.

2.5"""" drives are usually referred to as 'portable' drives, as they are smaller and typically designed to be easy to carry around with you. They are normally powered by the USB port in your computer, so there's no need for a separate power supply, although you need to make sure that your computer has enough power to make the drive function properly, especially if you have lots of other USB peripherals attached. Some portable drives come with a separate USB power cable to get over this problem, definitely a big plus in the features stakes.

The 3.5"""" format is normally reserved for 'desktop' external hard drives, which are housed in bigger enclosures that may also have a fan built in to keep the drive cool while it's working, which will also make it last longer. Desktop drives are designed to give you the largest possible storage capacity - from 500GB to 1 terabyte and above - but aren't so portable, as they normally have a separate power supply to ensure reliable data transfer, although you can still unplug all the leads and move them over to a different computer.

Whether you go for the portable or the desktop type, there are three main things you should look at in making your choice: the capacity, the spindle speed and the interface.

The hard drive capacity is listed in GB (gigabytes) and the larger the GB figure, the more data the unit will be able to hold. What you need is, of course, entirely down to how much you will be using the drive. To give you a really rough idea, a 160GB drive can hold about thirteen thousand digital photos, or forty thousand audio files. The spindle speed, given in RPM, or revolutions per minute, is the speed at which the drive rotates -and basically the higher the better. 5400RPM is about average for portable drives, and 7200RPM or more is what you should expect in a desktop model.

Then it's all down to price. With today's technology commonly available to most manufacturers, unless you find some dodgy cowboy that offers no guarantee and no service support, then between two machines with exactly the same specifications, go for the cheaper model, especially if it's from a name you can trust.

Author R. Germain
date added Tue 04 08 2009

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