Readers Questions


I’m looking to purchase an external hard drive to use with my notebook while traveling.  I see many different models and prices, is there really any significant differences between them all that I should be aware of?

Thank you for a great weekly, it is something I look forward to reading every week!



Phil –

Yes, there are significant differences you should be aware of, but unfortunately it’s usually very difficult to tell by the provided specifications which models have the differences and which models don’t.  This is why I tend to rely on reading multiple reviews on these products before forming an opinion and making a purchase.

I’ve been using external hard drives for well over two decades and like everything else in the PC world they’ve progressed very far.  You mention use with your notebook and traveling so lets stick to discussing what’s best for this application.  Without a doubt the most appropriate “type” of external drive would be the USB powered genre which is very small in size, uses little power, and can be very rugged which is perfect for traveling.  USB powered external drives are many, which ones should you consider buying?

After owning nearly 20 of USB powered drives and using them on a variety of computers from PC’s to Mac’s to notebooks, and a variety of operating systems including XP and Vista both x32 and x64, I’ve noticed that very few of these work troublefree with all of these.  What works great on XP might not work at all on Vista, and one which works flawlessly on Vista might have big problems even being recognized in XP.  Why?  These drives are nothing more than enclosures for the exact same type of hard drive your laptop uses, a 2.5” mechanical drive, which are controlled by a “chipset” of various manufacture.  The chipsets are where the problems begin.  Some are old and work fine with older operating systems but not new, some are new and didn’t take into account older operating systems, and most of these choices are driven by price.  You can easily pick up a USB drive enclosure at Panthip for 200-300 baht which will accept the hard drive from your old laptop and put together a very inexpensive USB powered hard drive, and I recommend doing this if you have an unused drive laying around.  But, depending on the vintage of the enclosures chipset and your particular operating system, you might meet with instant success, or you might have to try a different enclosure.

The big companies like Seagate, Western Digital, Iomega, and a few others offers their own brands of USB powered drives.  After reading many reviews and trying several models across all the different platforms I can say without reservation that Western Digital’s “Passport” is my number one choice and is now what I use exclusively.  My second choice would be Iomega.  These are small tough drives, they instantly self-install and work correctly with any computer type or OS I’ve used them with (see list above), they use very little power, and they’re very fast compared to the competition.  The last 320gig model I purchased cost $129 USD.  Shop around for good prices.

Besides compatibility there are some other features the better drives offer:

  1. The use of just one USB connector vs. a two connector cable as was standard until recently.  This is possible because the newest drives consume much less power than drives on the market even a year ago.
  2. They consume significantly less power.  This is important when running off the battery of your laptop.
  3. They are designed for rugged use and incorporate shock zones and self parking heads.
  4. Included software makes backups easy, compresses data so you can fit more on the drive, and other various free utilities.
  5. Can be very fast compared to the others.

So you can see there really are some differences to consider.  Personally, I think the small 5% or less price differences between the very best, and the most economical, just aren’t worth the difference of what you get.

I hope this helps



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