Hard drive reviews: FAQs
Do I really need an external hard drive?
A hard drive (also called a hard disk) is really just a very high-capacity storage medium.
If your PC or laptop computer’s hard drive gives up the ghost, you might not be able to retrieve any of the data that's stored on it. For this reason, it pays to keep a copy (known as a backup) of important files.
One of the simplest ways to do this is to attach an external hard drive.You can use them as additional storage, as somewhere to save copies of important files, or as a place to keep a mirror image of what’s on your computer’s internal hard drive so you can restore your system if your hard disk fails.
You may find you can back up everything that’s important to you without buying either backup software or an external hard drive. If you just have a few important files saved on your computer (eg digital photos), it would probably be easier to save them onto a CD or DVD.
How much capacity should I get?
This will depend on what you do with your computer, and what you want to use the external drive for. It’s worth doing a bit of future-proofing; the capacity of hard drives is increasing and, even if you don't need that extra space now, you might find it invaluable in a couple of years.
A downloaded, full-length feature film takes up around 1.5GB. So should the future of TV and film-viewing lies with internet downloads, it certainly pays to go for a higher capacity drive. (As a general rule of thumb you should probably go for as much capacity as you can afford.)
Bear in mind that the drive’s actual capacity won't quite match what it says on the box. We found the drives on test had capacities that were as much as 10% smaller than stated.
Are they hard to set up?
External hard drives connect to your computer via a cable, and are usually pretty easy to install. Many of the drives are 'plug and play' which means that, once attached, your computer will recognise them automatically. A few devices (such as the network drives) require you to install some software, which can be fiddly.
What’s so important about speed?
If you have a large amount of data to copy, speed is going to be a factor. A faster drive means that you won't be twiddling your thumbs waiting for all your files to be transferred over.
Should I buy a standalone or portable drive?
Portable hard drives are ideal for transporting data around and also for keeping important data separate from your computer (on another premises, say). However, you may find keeping a copy on a CD or DVD is a more practical (and cheaper) option.
Standalone drives sit beside your computer and are a better option for saving large amounts of data and also for making ongoing (incremental) backups.
How do I back up to an external hard drive?
You can just treat your external hard drive just like your computer’s internal drive, so it just keeps a spare copy of your files, or you can keep a complete mirror image of your computer. In order to do the latter, you'll need to invest in backup software.
Several of the drives we tested come with free backup software, which lets you schedule backups and save changes to files. While these free versions were generally adequate, none compared with our Best Buys (see our reviews of backup software).
Generally you won't be able to store a complete mirror image from one computer to a different one, as they're likely to be set up differently. So a full system restore is of most use when you're restoring back to the same computer.