External Hard Drives vs. Flash Drives

This might not seem like an obvious question to ask yourself at first.

But you’re forgetting that maybe not everyone understands tech as well as you do.

So they might genuinely want to know whether or not they should buy an external hard drive versus a flash drive.

And the purpose of this article isn’t to change your mind.

Flash drives and external hard drives serve and suit different purposes.

So there’s no “right” answer here.

Just before we get started – some visuals:

An external hard is typically one of those small blocks of plastics that sits on your desk.

Some external hard drives require a separate power supply, but the good ones don’t. You will need a cable to connect it to your PC or Mac though.

A USB flash drive is the tiny plastic dongle that you carry around with you – they’re sometimes called “thumb drives”…because…they’re about the size of your thumb.

Then again I have kinda stumpy thumbs.

USB flash drives do not require an external power supply or cable – they will connect to literally any device with a USB port.

And then finally we have external SSD (Solid State Drive) hard drives which look like this:

Source: Seagate.com

This is one of the newer Seagate One-Touch external SSDs – I’m really digging the fabric cover.

I don’t own one…yet.

Seagate peeps – if you happen to be reading this, hook a guy up with a test model, eh?

If you’re wondering is a SSD a hard drive, the answer is “Yes.”

The only difference between over a regular external hard drive is that external SSDs use the same super-fast memory found in USB flash drives

So that means no moving parts and much higher transfer speeds.

How much storage capacity do you need?

When friends ask me for advice on how many GB(Gigabytes) of storage capacity they need I always answer with, “…as much as you can afford.”

The good news is that buying an extra hard drive has never been more affordable – hard drives are super cheap right now.

Even high-speed SSD (Solid State) hard drives now a fraction of the price they were just a few years ago.

But, if you only need to store up to about 256GB of files then a USB flash drive will make more sense.

If, however, your you need to store multiple terabytes of files then an external hard drive is a better choice.

And that comes down to nothing more than price – as of right now a 1TB (Terabyte) USB flash drive costs 4x – 5x as much as the equivalent 1TB hard drive.

Durability

An external hard drive has moving parts, with the exception of external SSDs.

Flash drives (USB or otherwise) have no moving parts.

So a USB flash drive can survive being dropped kicked and basically mishandled – in fact some of them are designed to be pretty much indestructible. (Corsair Survivor)

An external hard drive probably won’t survive being dropped on a hard surface.

That means if your home has kids who are prone to breaking things then an external hard drive probably has a very limited life span.

You can always add an extra layer of protection with a case for your external hard drive, but that does not provide a guarantee against your hard drive being smashed or submerged.

Or set on fire…if you’re really unlucky.

So the USB flash drive wins the durability argument, hands down.

And that’s taking external SSDs into account, too.

Portability

This is an important consideration – will you need to carry your data around with you?

Flash drives are usually no bigger than you thumb, so you could fit several of them in your pocket at once.

Modern external hard drives are WAY smaller than they used to be.

Right now they’re smaller and lighter than a smartphone:

But you will need to carry around a USB cable for your external drive – just in case you need one.

A cable isn’t really a huge issue because that would fit in your pocket too.

The fact remains though that USB flash drives are far more portable due to their smaller size.

You feel the need…for speed?

Does it really matter how long it takes to transfer files to and from either of these storage devices?

Yes, because a combination of an old USB interface and a cheap USB flash or external drive can leave you waiting in frustration.

Basically, any external storage device you purchase right now should be USB 3.0 compatible.

USB 2.0 has been the standard for years.

Is USB 3.0 that much faster?

Well here’s some sample transfer rates for you:

2GB to a cheap USB flash drive (USB 2.0)

2GB file to a Corsair Voyager  (USB 2.0)

2GB to a cheap USB flash drive (USB 3.0)

2GB file to a Corsair Voyager  (USB 2.0)

And of course my USB 3.0 external hard drive decided to act up during testing.

But I have achieved data transfer rates of 105Mbps with it.

Which is 5x faster than any USB 2.0 or 3.0 flash drive I’ve ever tested.

And I’ve tested several, including several brand new flash drives.

So if you’re looking for raw, blazing data transfer rates, then a USB 3.0 compatible external hard drive leaves every other device standing still.

Basically, USB 2.0 has a maximum possible transfer rate of 480Mbps, while USB 3.0 has a theoretical maximum transfer rate of 5.0Gbps, or roughly 10x faster overall than USB 2.0.

Just remember, the data transfer rates they advertise and what happens in real life are two different things.

Same as your Internet connection.

Are external SSDs faster than a regular external hard drive?

Absolutely – and I’ll update this post once I get my hands on one to test it.

Just be aware that you’ll pay around $150 for 1TB external SSDs.

Or 4x as much as you’d pay for a regular external hard drive.

Or 8x as much as you’d pay for a thumb/USB flash drive.

Longevity

I’ve owned several Western Digital Passport external hard drives for over a decade now.

But that’s about as long as I’ll get out of one before I start hearing the tiny clicks and squeaks that tell me it’s about to die.

With that said, that’s like 7 years longer than the warranty, which is pretty much unheard of these days.

The flipside of this is that I’ve owned a number of USB flash drives that are at least 12 years old now – one of them is definitely 15 years old.

Which is nuts…especially because they’re still working just fine.

Now, here are two important lessons for you to add some context to the above:

  1. The lifespan of any data storage device will be much shorter if it’s used on a daily basis – it doesn’t matter how much you paid for it.
  2. USB flash drives can have data written to them no more than 100,000 times – the memory chips degrade rapidly after that.

Basically, both devices will wear out more quickly if they’re used more often.

And that goes double for external hard drives because they have moving parts inside them – motors eventually wear out.

Your budget

If money is an issue for you, then don’t worry too much.

As we said earlier, hard drives of all shapes and sizes have never been cheaper.

Like the 500GB SSD in the computer I’m writing this on – it would have cost me at least $500 just a few years ago.

But I only paid like $99 for it in a Christmas sale on Amazon.

Long story short, you can get a 256GB USB flash drive online for about $30

A 2TB external hard drive by a decent brand costs around $60

External hard drives provide more storage for your hard-earned dollars

But the price gap between USB flash drives and external hard drives has shrunk a lot over the last decade or so.

Except for SSD hard drives – they’re still pretty expensive.

Don’t buy cheap drives

If you buy some no-name hard drive that takes 6 – 12 weeks to ship to you, I can pretty much guarantee it’ll fail in a matter of weeks.

Maybe days.

If it ever works.

And you’ll have given yourself a huge headache, and gigabytes of lost data, to save yourself maybe $15.

Please only buy data storage devices from brand names you recognize or that you can find in Google.

And even then, don’t buy the cheapest models.

I once bought a whole bunch of cheap USB flash drives for a company I worked at – can’t mention the brand name or I’ll get sued…but it begins with “V”.

We got a real bargain price on them.

One or two of the drives were DOA (dead on arrival) but I overlooked that.

And we even managed to overlook that these flash drives were slow as tar when transferring files.

But the final straw was when these drives started dying quicker than a politician’s promises.

Eight weeks later we had to go out and replace 95% of those cheap drives.

You get what you pay for.

Conclusion

And that brings us to the end of our little chat about who wins out in the “external hard drive vs. flash drive” debate.

The truth is that flash drives make way more sense for people who don’t need to carry terabytes of files around with them, but does need their data to be portable.

An external hard drive is going to be a better choice for somebody in a more static position i.e. you’re in an office all day.

I have several of both, which is typically what happens to most people who work for themselves.

But at least now you have a better idea of the pros and cons of each type of storage device.

FAQ

Are USB flash drives good for backup?

USB flash drives are an excellent way of creating a backup of up to 512GB of data. At higher capacities these drives become prohibitively expensive when compared to regular external hard drives.

Can flash drives go through airport security?

Yes, USB flash drives can go through airport security without being damaged.

Which USB flash drive is fastest?

Corsair manufactures the fastest USB flash drives we’ve tested, particularly their Voyager and Survivor models.

Do external hard drives work like flash drives?

No, standard external hard drives use the same basic technology as internal hard drives. USB flash drives use memory chips, so have no moving parts.

Are external hard drives slower than internal hard drives?

Yes, external hard drives are slower than internal hard drives due to the interface being used (USB 2.0 or 3.0). But that gap has narrowed now due to the introduction of external SSD hard drives.

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