USB Flash Drive vs. External Hard Drive: Which Is Better? – How-To Geek

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Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He’s invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf. Read more…
If you’re looking to expand your portable storage, you’re likely considering either an external hard drive (HDD) or a smaller portable flash drive. So what are the differences, is one always better than the other, and are there other options?
Hard disk drives (HDDs) offer the most storage for your money, but it comes at the cost of speed. According to DiskPrices, a website that aggregates storage prices from Amazon, you could pay as little as $0.014 per GB (or $13.76 total) when you buy a large 16TB external drive, or 0.035 per GB with a smaller 2.5″ 1TB external drive.
While HDDs offer the best bang for your buck when it comes to capacity, read/write speeds for hard disk drives typically top out at 200MB/sec, with the fastest (internal) drives on UserBenchmark measuring 198MB/sec real-world sequential write speed. Most drives will be USB 3.0 or better at this stage, which offers a maximum speed of around 640MB/sec, which is plenty fast enough for the drive’s internal abilities.
Slower read and write speeds aren’t the only thing holding them back, though. Since data is stored on spinning platters, these must “spin up” before the data can be accessed. This can add up to 10 seconds to each read or write request, depending on whether the drive is already spinning.
A mechanical arm must then move across the platter to read or write data. This is the signature “clicking” noise you can hear while an HDD is in use, and it also represents a point of failure. Since hard drives rely on moving parts, they’re more prone to failure particularly when it comes to drops or other impacts.
If you’re not too worried about having the fastest read or write performance and aren’t going to be carrying your drive around on a regular basis, consider a hard drive for your storage needs. They’re good for archiving old projects, functioning as “cold storage” for an Xbox console, or creating local Time Machine backups (or the Windows equivalent). Check out our top-rated external hard drives for some recommendations.
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If capacity is less important to you than speed or portability, a USB flash drive might be a better choice. DiskPrices affirms that you can get a relatively quick USB 3.2 (gen 1) flash drive for around $0.070 per GB (or $70.27 per TB) with a capacity of 128GB. For higher capacity (256GB) USB 3.1 drives, the price is around $0.093 per GB.
The main drawback to choosing a USB flash drive is its overall capacity. The current largest drives top out at 1TB, like the SanDisk Extreme PRO at a price of around $0.136 per GB. You could get an 8TB external drive for around the same price if you went the hard disk route.
These high-performing flash drives advertise theoretical read speeds of 420MB/sec or better, but in the real world, they manage sequential read speeds around 250MB/sec. It’s a similar case with advertised write speeds (around 380MB/sec) versus real-world performance (around 200MB/sec) according to UserBenchmark.
What’s most important to remember here is that flash drives have no spinning platters, which means no additional delays when it comes to read and write requests. They’re also able to take more of a beating since there are no moving parts. Plus, they’re much smaller, which makes them a better choice for carrying around.
If you can find a flash drive that’s big enough for your needs, you will find it provides a faster, more reliable, and considerably better portable experience. Just be sure when you’re buying to get a drive that’s rated for USB 3.0 speeds or better since there are plenty of cheap drives around sporting the older USB 2.0 standard that come with a serious speed penalty.
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If you’ve purchased a laptop in the last five or so years, it’s almost certainly come with an internal solid state drive (SSD). These drives are similar to portable USB drives in that they use flash storage cells rather than a spinning magnetic platter to store data. The upside is that they’re available in much higher capacities, allowing them to perform the same duties as a hard drive.
The downside is that SSDs are far more expensive than the alternatives, with DiskPrices reporting that the cheapest external drive works out at $0.077 per GB or $77.50 per TB for a 2TB drive. This is comparable with USB flash memory in terms of cost, with the caveat that you’ll be able to store more data for a larger initial investment.
With an SSD, you’re paying for both speed and durability. The fastest (internal) SSDs can reach sequential write speeds of around 3750MB/sec, but keep in mind that USB 3.2 (gen 2) caps out at a theoretical 1250MB/sec, with USB 3.2 (gen 2×2) doubling this to 2500MB/sec. Don’t expect the same high read and write speeds from a USB drive that you’re used to seeing from an M.2 drive in a laptop, desktop, or PlayStation 5.
What you will get however is best in class performance from a portable drive, in capacities that far exceed what a portable USB stick is capable of. SSDs are also more rugged than their hard drive equivalents on account of not using any moving parts. They’re also often much smaller, falling somewhere between a thumb drive and a small portable HDD.
If speed and durability are a concern and you want something that will still feel fast in a few years compared to older mediums, consider an SSD for your portable storage needs. Capacity is the main concern, so make sure you buy a big enough drive to cover your future needs even if it costs a bit more than you’d like initially. Wondering where to start? Check out our top-rated external solid-state drives.
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Depending on what you’re using your drive for, cloud storage could be a better option. It’s a far cheaper initial investment and the price scales with your requirements. It’s perfect for collaborative projects, provided you and your collaborators have fast and reliable internet access.
Check out some of the best free cloud storage platforms to get started without spending a penny.
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