How Does an External Hard Drive Work

An external hard drive seems like a simple piece of technology; plug it in, add some files and off you go. However, you can do a lot with an external hard drive, so you should learn about the technology to ensure you're getting the most from your investment.

External Hard Drive Mechanics
External hard drives work exactly like an internal hard drive, except for the way they're connected. External hard drives are magnetic drives with rotating platters that store data. The faster the drive rotates, the faster it stores and retrieves data. Drive rotation speed is measured in revolutions per minute, or RPM, and a typical external hard drive would have a 5400RPM or 7200RPM speed. While the connection type and storage buffer both influence the file storage and retrieval speeds, the drive speed is the biggest variable in external hard drive performance.

Back up Multiple Computers
To ensure you're always protected in the event of a computer malfunction or hard drive failure, you should routinely back up your hard drives. Luckily, external hard drives can back up files from multiple computers, so you can save money by buying one large drive to back up all of your machines. You typically have to connect the external hard drive to one machine at a time, but you can simply plug it into each machine in turn to back up your data.

Add Backup Software
Because data backups are the primary use for external hard drives, many come with their own backup programs. When you connect an external hard drive for the first time, you can configure these backup programs to tell them what to back up, how frequently to run and how to handle file storage. You can use backup software to tell your external hard drive to only save new files or files that you've changed since your last backup, minimizing backup time and ensuring you have the most up-to-date files. This software also lets you limit how long a backup is stored, if desired, and lets you easily restore your files should you have a hard drive failure.

Working with Multiple Operating Systems
It is possible to use an external hard drive with multiple operating systems. The easiest way to do this is to partition the drive and use a separate partition for each operating system. When you plug in an external hard drive that has partitions, it shows up as two or more different drive volumes. You use one drive volume for one operating system and another drive volume for the other operating system; for example, you could use the F: drive for Windows file storage and G: for Mac OS file storage.

You can often share a drive without partitioning, but that can lead to data corruption depending on the OS, so partitioning is the safe way to go. It also prevents your drive from getting clogged with OS-specific files that are used to map out data locations, which will occur if a Mac-formatted drive is read by a PC or vice-versa.

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