Storage buying guide: external drives, internal drives, SSDs, and NAS devices

From internal hard drives to advanced NAS devices, here's what you need to know about storage

The advent of streaming music services, and more recently of video on demand services (SVOD) in Australia such as Netflix, Stan, and Presto, has put a lot of audio and video content within fingertip reach. You can access it whenever you want, without you having to worry about the amount of storage space in your computing device.

However, not everyone has a good enough home Internet connection for streaming media smoothly. Furthermore, for those of you who do subscribe to streaming services, their limited libraries might be supplemental to the content that you currently have on your hard drives or in disc collections that you eventually want to put on a hard drive. Additionally, you'll still need plenty of storage to store your backed up data.

Therefore, local storage is still a must, and, as the old adage goes, you can never have too much storage space. So where do you start when trying to decide what type of storage solution is right for you and your expanding needs?

Related: The top 10 things to consider when buying a new laptop

There are many different storage options these days, ranging from tiny drives that cater to mobile devices, right up to network behemoths that are more suitable for multi-user environments. Even Wi-Fi drives and drives with 'Cloud' features are making the rounds.

In this feature we'll examine each type of drive and let you know which is best for certain scenarios.

Internal hard drives for desktops and laptops

These are the most basic of storage devices. They exist inside your desktop computer and laptop, and they can range in capacity from 500GB to 1TB for laptops, all the way up to 6TB for desktops. The benefits of internal storage in a laptop or desktop are that it can often be plentiful, and it's almost always accessible unless there is a problem with your hardware.

In a desktop PC, you can add a second, third or fourth hard drive to expand your storage capacity, as long as space within the PC case and connectors on your motherboard and power supply allow. Meanwhile, in a laptop you're usually stuck with whatever hard drive was installed at the factory (unless you're the adventurous type and want to tinker with a DIY upgrade).

For a desktop, the drive form factor is 3.5 inches. For a laptop, the hard drive form factor is 2.5 inches, and the thickness is an important consideration if you ever plan on replacing a laptop drive in a DIY project. Bigger laptops can take 2.5-inch drives that are up to 9.5mm thick, while thinner laptops require 2.5-inch drives with a thickness of 7mm. It's important to know which thickness your laptop supports prior to attempting a replacement.

Another consideration for laptops is a solid state drive (SSD). SSDs are superior to hard drives in many ways. Primarily, they are much faster in their retrieval and writing of data. They also don't have any moving parts, which makes them silent in operation, lighter in weight, and a little less needy when it comes to power consumption.

Most Ultrabook-style laptops have SSD drives of the mSATA or M.2 form factor, which are stick-like devices that plug into the motherboard, rather than 2.5-inch drives that reside in a drive bay; these notebooks without drive bays can not be upgraded easily and external storage solutions should be looked at instead.

The downside of SSDs is that their capacities are limited compared to hard drives, and they should be considered for speed rather than storage capacity. However, there is another solution that can give you both traits in one drive.

Solid state hybrid drives (SSHD) are a type of hard drive that has both an SSD component, and a traditional hard drive component in the same 2.5-inch form factor. A hybrid drive like this uses a small SSD (for example, 8GB) as a way to speed up the operating system and common applications that you use. The benefit is that the hard drive can still be large (1TB or more) while still giving you some of the characteristics of an SSD.

You should consider an internal hard drive if you want to increase the capacity of your desktop or laptop in the neatest possible manner, without relying on an external drive. Although we do recommend you get an external drive anyway to store all your backups.

External desktop hard drives

Secondary to internal hard drives for your computers' storage needs are external hard drives, which mostly use USB 3.0 to connect to a desktop PC or laptop, and which require a wall adapter for power. They are the simplest way to add storage to your computer system, and they are available in all manner of sizes, from 1TB, to 8TB, or even more depending on the model and its physical size.

No installation is required for such a drive; you can simply plug it in and have it be detected by the system. Since they are pre-formatted (some are pre-formatted for Mac systems, so be vigilant when you're purchasing), you can just open up a Windows Explorer window and start dragging and dropping files to them. They can also (and should) be used as a location for your system backups.

Typically, an external hard drive can also be plugged in to a smart TV's USB port and used to play videos, photos, or music files that are stored on it (even 4K video files if you have a 4K, Ultra HD TV). Be aware that some TVs may not recognise drives that are more than 2TB in size.

Pick up an external hard drive if you want to expand your storage capacity in the easiest and most convenient way. You can plug an external drive in to any computer via USB, and can even connect it to things such as TVs and set-top boxes (where supported).

Related: The Top 6 TVs in 2016

Portable external hard drives

The beauty of portable external hard drives is that they can be easily taken with you when you need to access your files at work or at school -- they can even fit in your pocket. The connection interface is usually USB 3.0 and this is the only cable they require since they also derive their power through this connection.

Capacities for portable external hard drives can vary, with vendors offering anything from 500GB to 4TB. They are good for storing not only music and photos, but also fairly large libraries of video files. Like regular external hard drives, these, too, can be plugged in to smart TVs and other home entertainment devices, and are a neater solution due to only having one cable requirement. However, the USB cable can sometimes be too short and leave the drive hanging behind a TV if the TV's USB port is located too high up.

Consider a portable external hard drive if you need something that you can carry around with you from time to time. We consider these to be supplemental drives that should always be backed up on a computer or another external hard drive due to their portable nature and the fact that they can be accidentally damaged or lost.

We would also recommend implementing hard drive encryption on such drives to prevent unauthorised data access in the event that you do lose one. Some drives come with their own 'lockers' software for this purpose.

Next: Network attached storage (NAS)

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