External vs Internal Hard Drive – Full Guide

Choosing to go with an external or internal hard drive can be difficult. 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 the 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 ones can hold up better and last longer.

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

External vs internal hard drive.

Differences Between An External vs Internal Hard Drive

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 you need to reference or send later, computer games, and other programs like word processors.

Building or upgrading your PC requires knowing what hard drive you want to use and work with.

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

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

External hard 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 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 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 hard drives

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

Internal hard 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 hard 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 for mechanical internal hard drives. A 3.5-inch is more commonly used in desktop computers, and a 2.5-inch is designed for laptops.

However, PCIe NVMe M.2 SSDs are fast becoming the drive of choice because of their performance and reliability. They also have a smaller form factor than common mechanical drives.

In cases where large capacities are required at a cheaper price point, the mechanical hard drive still wins out.

So many computers use an M.2 SSD for the operating system and a mechanical hard drive for storage purposes as a secondary drive with large storage.

External vs. internal 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, which 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 want 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 buying it, you can avoid misspending your money and save you time and unnecessary stress.

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

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, check out programmer’s forums like Stack Overflow.

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

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

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 ones. 

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 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 outdated.

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

Gaming

a woman gaming on a computer

External and internal drives have pros and cons when used for gaming.

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

Tip: 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. Connecting other PC parts 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 if you frequently travel and move 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 ones 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.

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 leaving your house.

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

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. You often must 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 your hard drive will 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 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 add even more customization to your setup with your new external drive.

External hard drive customization

different colored external hard drives

External drives are easier to customize than internal ones. 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 one 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 when you take them out of the box.

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

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

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

Price between internal and external drives

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

In past years, external drives could sometimes run slightly cheaper than internal ones.

Now you can get a hard drive slightly cheaper than external drives with the same make and model installed.

I have personally never been a fan of purchasing already sealed hard drives in encapsulations that are difficult to disassemble.

I think a longer-term approach is more desirable. Rather buy the drive and external unit separately to gain better control of the products you are investing in and reduce frustration when you want to upgrade the drive.

Where to get a new hard drive

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

If you want to work with an associate, 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.

Final thoughts

Choosing between external and internal hard drives can be hard, 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, 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.