Why do I need a portable drive?

Despite how much storage you have on your laptops and desktops, you're going to want to buy portable storage at some point for a variety of reasons.

  • You need to install additional applications or development environments and it's too much hassle to dismantle and re-image your development machine. This especially applies to XCode on Mac machines, where each install will be ~15GB and you may want to switch between different versions of XCode. This also applies to keeping Android and Xcode environments running on the same machine.
  • Backups. Things that you want to make absolutely sure that you will never lose. Things like financial records, circuit designs and other company-critical documentation that would close the business if it was lost. Ideally you will have this on cloud storage as well, however it's crucial that any critical backup be stored in at least two places. Additionally, at least one of these places should be on a separate site and on a device that isn't connected to any network or machine. This prevents your backups being erased by something like a SAMBA hack that attacks all of your storage simultaneously.
  • Simply extending your storage. Rather than taking apart and re-imaging a laptop or desktop, it might be more convenient just to get an external drive. This is especially relevant as miniature form factor desktops become more common, as they won't have additional spare drive bays.

At some point, you'll want to get more storage, there's a few things that you need to be aware of.

USB Devices behave differently to regular drives

Those who are familiar with Linux will remember that it was possible to install operating systems onto a USB and then boot the machine off it, and that is still technically possible now. In fact Windows 10 supports something called Windows to Go, though I've heard that there's thoughts of it being phased out in the near future. With this functionality, you can carry your entire system, which includes your installed software and configuration between machines as well as your files in a portable drive, then simply plug it in to a computer and start the computer off your portable storage. This is less useful in the days of cheap laptops, but can help when you want to inspect a machine you suspect might have a virus from a system that you know is clean without taking the computer apart.

However, this functionality doesn't work as well these days. Windows 10 expects to be able to make many small accesses its storage in a way that the design of many portable storage devices just don't support. While a device might be rated for 120MB/s, in practice depending on the device, Windows might only be able to get 0.1MB out of it, which will cause it to lock up repeatedly and eventually crash. This isn't getting into the new "NAS" grade drives that have been circulating the market that use "Shingled Magnetic Recording", which will cause them to run at full speed for the first few GB, then intermittently pause as the internal mechanics try to fit the data in from the high speed sector onto the regular drive surface. There are lawsuits ongoing due to the fact that SMR drives are not always marked as such and in fact are marketed to higher end storage providers, as well as not being cheaper than non-SMR drives despite their major flaw. When plugged into storage arrays their non-responsive behavior can cause the array to mark the drive as failed, and if you lose two drives on most setups, the array can fail completely. These are usually sold as internal drives, but will be sold as usb-connected external drives as well.

In general, while usb devices are almost identical, they can have strange performance profiles and you should be aware of that if you're going to use them for intensive things. That being said, if you have a non-SMR drive, or a regular SSD inside a caddy, you can usually expect to see the same performance that you would from an internal drive.

Suggestion

Our suggestion? Just buy one of the Samsung T5 portable SSDs. We've seen several companies use them and to my knowledge not a single one of them has failed so far. I've dropped quite a few of them and as they're SSDs, there's no worry that a drop onto the desk will cause critical damage to the drive like it would to a normal portable HDD. Their top rated speed is about 500MB/s on a USB-C and I've seen them regularly hit 100MB/s on a regular USB3 connection, they come with all the relevant cables inside the box and they're also fast enough to handle Windows-to-go, from personal experience.

Based on our experience, this will shortcut all of the major problems people will have as well as address every need. That being said if the drive will never move, and speed is not an issue then something like the Seagate external drive. I've used several of these and seen other companies use them, they're solid and cheap (comparatively), but as a HDD drive they're prone to mechanical failure and will fail much more often than a modern SSD. Seagate offers everything up to a 8TB desktop storage device for $300.

If you only need to copy a few files, then any USB thumb drive will do the job. Though they come and go so often that I can't actually vouch for any brand or model.

One thing to be aware of. A Windows 10 machine will try to virus scan every file that it touches, that means that there may be a lot of background activity that doesn't show up in the file transfer window. I've seen one Windows 10 machine transfer at 1MB/s for a job copying small files with its internal SSD, and the Windows 8 machine running on the Samsung T5 copy the same job at 10MB/s, 10 times faster. This is a quirk of modern machines that is worth keeping in mind if you're getting strange performance on your device.