Back to school tech guide: storage buying advice for students

USB flash drives and external hard drives are both useful for school work

Picking up the right tech products during the back to school period can be a daunting prospect for students and parents alike (and pity those who are both!) A computer and an Internet connection are essential for students, but you should also consider picking one or more storage devices, such as USB flash drive or an external hard drive. Portable storage devices are useful for taking work to school, and backing up assignments is a must if you want to avoid disaster.

USB flash drives, otherwise known as thumb drives or memory sticks, have replaced floppy disks as a cheap and convenient way to carry around a small amount of data. Flash drives can be used on any computer with a USB port, and will work on both PCs and Macs straight out of the packet. They can even be used with compatible printers to directly print documents and photos; some multifunction printers can scan directly to a flash drive. USB flash drives come in a variety of shapes and sizes, as well as a range of storage capacities from bargain bin one gigabyte (GB) drives to the ultra-expensive 256GB models. For many younger students, 1-2GB is plenty for schoolwork, but university students and those in the later years of high school might require an 8GB or 16GB drive in order to store large files such as presentations.

One of the biggest advantages of a USB flash drive is compatibility with both Macs and PCs Newer Macs can read Windows-formatted hard drives, but won't be able to write any data to them; this means that if a student uses a Mac at school but owns a Windows PC, they will have trouble bringing assignments home. USB flash drives use the FAT32 file system, which works with both kinds of computers.

USB flash drives can be frustratingly easy to lose, particularly for kids. Choose one that can be attached to a keyring for safe-keeping but is slim enough to fit into pockets easily.

While USB flash drives are largely fuss-free to use, they aren't always cost-effective. If you, or your child, need to take a lot of data to school — say, a music collection or movies to show to the class — an external hard drive may be necessary. "Pocket" external hard drives have storage capacities of between 250GB and 1000GB, and can be simply plugged into a USB port. Desktop external hard drives are larger and require a separate power supply, but offer storage capacities of between 500 and 2000GB.

Portable external hard drives are easy to carry around, though it is essential to pick one that's tough enough to withstand travel in a bag or pocket. Some hard drives offer a USB cable that's physically attached so it won't get lost. We would recommend pocket hard drives over their desktop counterparts for students, simply because they are much more portable and won't require a separate power adapter.

While external hard drives can fit much more data than USB flash drives, they are designed to work with either a Mac or Windows PC, not both. Many are configured to only work on Windows, which makes it even more difficult for Mac users to choose. If you need to transfer data between a Mac and Windows PC, USB flash drives are still the easiest method.

You should also consider purchasing an external hard drive to back up any data on the home computer. Desktop external hard drives are particularly handy here, as they don't need to be moved and can store a lot of data. Many external hard drives come with backup software, or you can use the software bundled with the latest versions of Windows and Mac OS X.

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James Hutchinson

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