External vs Internal Hard Drive: Complete Comparison

Choosing to go with an external or internal hard drive can be a difficult choice. Both have pros and cons, and every PC setup is different. It also depends on many factors, including speed and price. But which is the better option between the two? 

External drives are ideal for raw storage space and transportation of files. Internal drives are suitable for frequent file access and speed, especially with gaming. External drives can also be easier to repair and have a higher storage cap, while internal drives can hold up better and last longer.

Choosing the right drive for you can be complicated, as there are many factors involved, but read on for an easy-to-understand guide on how to choose what’s best for your computer and situation.

example of an external and internal hard drive with vs symbol between them

External vs. internal hard drives explained

Both external and internal hard drives are crucial to a computer’s function. Hard drives allow you to save data to your computer, including files that you need to reference or send later, computer games, and other programs like word processors.

If you build or upgrade your PC, you need to know what type of hard drive you want to use and work with.

You’ll need an internal drive for your computer to function correctly, but you need to decide if you’ll depend on an external or internal drive for daily function.

Here’s an explanation of the two and a description of their fundamental differences.

External drives

different types of external hard drives enclosed stacked on top of each other and one beside the pile

An external drive is a remote storage device that you can connect to your computer to expand its internal storage.

They can also be moved and kept separately, meaning you can use them with multiple different devices.

They tend to have high storage capacities, upwards of a terabyte. This is because they don’t need to fit in any other devices or be custom-designed for a space inside the computer.

Typically, external drives are connected to your computer with a single cable. These can be USB connections or other wired hookups. Sometimes, you can make these links permanent, though those are less common.

Internal drives

a 3.5-inch hard drive for desktop and a 2.5-inch hard drive for a laptop

Internal drives are installed into the computer itself. This is commonly referred to as your local drive and has the main programs and data you access on your computer.

When you save things to your computer, that’s where they go.

Additionally, internal drives have many different types of storage capacities. The capacity is usually listed in the specs manual you received with your computer.

Or if you built your computer yourself, it’s on the description of your hard drive.

There are two main different sizes when it comes to internal hard drives. A 3.5 inch is more commonly used in desktop computers, and a 2.5 inch is designed for laptops.

External vs. internal hard drive considerations

Here are some factors that discuss the differences between the two to give you a feel about which factors matter most to you.

Reliability

an inside closeup of a mechanical hard drive

The reliability of hard drives varies from device to device and depends on the company that made it and what you’re using the device for.

The drive quality is just as crucial for reliability as the other compatibility issues.

When it comes to hard drives, you get what you pay for. If you buy a cheap external drive, you may run into some unexpected issues, and it could have a shorter lifespan.

However, sometimes, you can’t afford to spend $100 on a drive.

You can solve this predicament by reading reviews of the drives you’re looking to buy online.

These can reveal common issues between models, and many professional reviewers will point out the pros and cons of each option.

If you carefully research the drive before you buy it, you can avoid misspending your money and save you time and unnecessary stress down the road.

There’s no worse feeling than a hard drive crashing and taking all of your data with it.

There are also programming problems to consider. Sometimes, when you put in a new drive, external or internal, there can be programming issues as the devices attempt to work together. 

There are usually straightforward fixes to the problem. You may need to install additional programs or restart built-in setup procedures.

Sometimes, drives will come with a manual that explains common issues and how to fix them.

If you run into more extended problems, you can check out programmer’s forums like Stack Overflow.

This is a public, active forum where people can get their computer questions answered.

However, if you load an unstable program onto your drive, you’ll face reliability issues.

Verify the integrity of your program files if you start having performance issues, like crashes or slow movement. 

Speed

warp speed stars moving by in a blur

When comparing external and internal drives on speed, there’s no competition between them. Internal drives are faster than external drives. 

There’s no need to worry about the file traveling before it runs into your computer because it’s already built-in.

This speeds up connectivity and improves power efficiency because the file is accessed on an internal drive.

External drives must be attached, and connectivity must be consistent. Anything can happen when you use wired hookups.

They can come loose, which can cause file corruption or program crashes. If your hard drive is older, it’ll start to have performance issues as it ages.

This can happen for many reasons: dust build-up, cache data, the age of the base device, and tech advancements as the years go on. The older a drive, the slower it’s going to run.

Technology has continued to advance exponentially. With the rise of new operating systems and all kinds of unique, integrated code, it only takes a year for devices to become out of date.

This is especially true if you are using machines for gaming.

Gaming

a woman gaming on a computer

External and internal drives both have pros and cons when they’re used for gaming.

Internal drives can speed up the performance, but external drives have a higher capacity and can be transported more easily.

When choosing a hard drive for gaming, you’ll need to decide what’s more important: performance or storage.

There’s no wrong answer. What you should choose depends on your personal preference.

If you value performance, you should choose an internal hard drive. The connectivity between other parts of your PC will keep your games running smoothly and make sure everything is integrated.

In addition, you don’t have to worry about the hard drive becoming damaged unless there’s a significant issue with your whole system.

If you value storage and keeping many games, use an external hard drive. External drives have a massive storage capability and can be consistently upgraded.

In addition, you can move them around so you can transport your games and other programs with you.

Art and business

man doing audio projects using a computer

If you have a lot of art and want to create a backup of your portfolio, an external drive might be a good choice for you.

If something were to happen, all you’d need to grab is the external drive, and you’d have saved your collection. 

An external drive can be a good choice for business needs if you’re frequently traveling and moving from computer to computer.

You can also send the external drive in for study or as a way to transport files over long distances.

With that being said, cloud storage is becoming more and more affordable but can be slower if you need to transfer a large number of files at once.

Lifespan

an hourglass with gears inside the top end

One significant advantage external hard drives have over internal drives is that they’re easier to repair.

Having your hard drive outside of your device can make it easier to fix because you don’t need to disassemble the computer to get to them.

This means that if you need to make repairs, you can unplug the hard drive and repair it or take it to the repair shop. It’s as easy as throwing it in a bag and walking out of your house.

However, if you have an internal drive, the repair and installation process will take a lot longer.

Since the hard drive is contained in the computer tower, you’ll need to get into it and carefully put it back.

The same with laptops. Quite often you will have to remove part of the casing under the keyboard to install or replace a hard drive.

The advantage of this is that internal drives are typically better protected from stress or environmental factors.

They aren’t disconnected regularly, and they aren’t exposed to human errors or damage. 

That means that your hard drive is going to live longer than drives exposed to these external factors.

You won’t have to buy a new hard drive, and you won’t have to worry about losing an external drive.

You are also less likely to drop your computer than dropping an external hard drive.

Since external drives are exposed to more environmental factors, there may come a time when you need to transfer your data or make a backup to your backup drive.

If so, you need to make sure that the new drive is as large as, if not larger than, your current external drive.

While this kind of experience isn’t ideal, it can be a good time to upgrade your device, especially if there are other features your external drive doesn’t have.

You can also add even more customization to your setup with your new external drive.

Customization

different colored external hard drives

External drives are easier to customize than internal drives. External drives come in many colors.

They can come in all different specializations, and you can adjust their configuration as you see fit. 

If you want a drive that you won’t have to (or can’t) modify, then you should go with an internal drive.

These drives don’t usually need a higher level of configuring to use or get functioning. They are ready to go as soon as you take them out of the box.

If you mess with the configuration too much, you could run the risk of gaining errors. 

These errors could cause all kinds of issues with connectivity, performance, and can cause significant crashes.

Crashes can take all sorts of data with them and can also corrupt files on a large scale.

Price

the inside of a mechanical hard drive with a dollar coin placed on top of the center spindle

Overall, external drives run slightly cheaper than internal drives.

An eight terabyte internal drive can run upwards of $200 on Amazon.com, while an external drive of the same size and brand can cost as much as $179 on Amazon.

This almost $20 difference may not seem like much, but when you’re trying to find the best deal, there’s no question about it.

If you focus primarily on price, go for an external drive to save the most money down the road. They’re the best deal.

Where to get a new hard drive

Most large tech stores, like Best Buy, have hard drives available, internal and external. They can also have tech support who can help you with any troubleshooting or questions you have.

If you want to work with an associate, make sure you bring some of the specs for your computer setup.

If you tell them precisely what you need for your purposes, they can recommend the best drive for you.

Our recommended options

External Hard Drive for Any Computer

Western Digital 4TB Gaming Hard Drive

External vs Internal Hard Drive: Complete Comparison 1

A simple compact design making it extremely portable with no need for an external power supply.

The durable and long-lasting Western Digital 4TB hard drive offers a good storage capacity for everyday use along with the performance you need for most situations.

Simply plug it in and you have extra storage connected to your computer right away.

Internal 3.5″ Hard Drive for Desktops

Western Digital 6TB Black Performance

External vs Internal Hard Drive: Complete Comparison 2

After testing many hard drives, I’ve come to the conclusion that Western digital drives go the extra mile for longevity.

This is important seeing as your media files or data sometimes exceeds the value in cost of the hardware.

With excellent transfer rates, this is a great choice for a wide range of computers with enough storage to keep all of your games or media files.

If you considering an internal hard drive for your laptop, I recommend this Western Digital 1TB Black Performance Mobile hard drive on Amazon.

Final Thoughts

It can be hard to choose between external and internal hard drives, but with the tips we’ve covered above, you can avoid spending money on a device that’s not a good fit for you.

If you want to use the drive for extra storage space, you should choose an external drive for portability and cost.

If you intend to prioritize gaming, it’s more complicated, so you should look at the rest of your setup before choosing.