Home > HDD > HDD Buyer's Guide

Internal Vs. External HDD

Last Updated on July 15, 2024
Internal vs External HDD
PC Guide is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Read More
You can trust PC Guide: Our team of experts use a combination of independent consumer research, in-depth testing where appropriate - which will be flagged as such, and market analysis when recommending products, software and services. Find out how we test here.

We bet you want to add more disk space to your computer and you’re wondering if you should get an internal hard drive or an external hard drive. There’s pros and cons to both. While most experts would tell you external is the way to go, since they’re easier to install, there can be downsides to external drives. Depending on your storage capacity and efficiency needs, you may be better off with an internal drive. The pros and cons can help you decide which of the two types of HDDs would work best for you in your situation. That’s why we wrote this article to tell you the differences between internal and external HDDs and which option may work best.

Our Recommended Picks:

Differences Between The Two

First off, the main difference between an internal drive versus and external one is this: internal hard drives are installed within the body (laptop) or tower (desktop) of your computer, while external hard drives connect to your computer via a USB or FireWire connection. In tech-free terms: internal hard drives work inside your computer; external hard drives work outside your computer. While you may be able to start considering the pros and cons in your head, you can find out more details between the two drives by understanding how each is useful in certain situations.

The device itself is relatively similar in both situations. Both write data to a magnetic disk by spinning it against a magnetized arm. Both contain spinning plates. Internal and external drives do the same thing as well, they store your files and retrieve them when needed. At the core, they are almost the same kind of device. And in both cases, hard drives are essential to using a computer—and you can’t have a computer that doesn’t have at least one internal hard drive. There would be no information to access, to way to save your files, and nothing for your computer to look for when you try to perform any action whatsoever. HDDs are integral to the functionality of your computer, and whether you have an internal or an external preference, both can lend themselves well to the value of your PC.

External hard drives offer a wealth of conveniences. They’re easy to install—simply plug them in with your USB or FireWire cable, and you’re ready to save files directly to the new external drive. It works almost identically to a USB flash drive. External hard drives are also convenient for transferring files from one device to another. Need to get all your movie files onto your Playstation 4? Want to move important documents from your home computer to your work computer? An external hard drive allows you to accomplish this with ease. Finally, they’re a great back up to the internal drive. You can have all your files stored on a second device in case your laptop ever gets lost or stolen. If you backup your files to a separate machine, you can rest easy knowing that you have two copies of everything. Never forget to back up your files!

Some other great benefits of external hard drives include:

  • Huge storage capacity – You can easily store great amounts of files, images, videos, and more with an external hard drive. Plus, you can increase the amount of data depending on the make and manufacturer of the drive you choose.
  • Portability – You can take them with you anywhere. They are a great choice if you travel a lot, or if you need to exchange files between multiple locations.
  • Lightweight – In addition to being portable, external hard drives are also very lightweight. They can typically fit in your pocket, bag, or briefcase with ease. Plus, they require no special formatting required to be able to use them everywhere.
  • Increased security – Since your data is always right in your hands, you know that it will always be secure. You can get rid of the risk of your data being stolen by carrying it with you, rather than leaving it vulnerable on a single computer.

Internal hard drives can have some benefits over external ones, however. Internal HDDs are faster at pulling up and saving files, since their working directly with your motherboard and the files aren’t “traveling” through a cable. If you can install another hard drive on your machine, do it. However, most computers (laptops in particular) can’t install a second hard drive. There’s no space for it. Getting a second internal drive probably means upgrading your first one and using the new one instead. And even if you can get a second one, you need to be comfortable with opening up the shell or tower of your computer. Most people would prefer not to do this. This makes the choice pretty easy.

Additional benefits that internal hard drives may have over external hard drives include:

  • Constant connection – Your internal hard drives are ALWAYS connected to your computer. This means you won’t have to worry about your files not being there when you turn on your device.
  • Largest storage capacity – Internal hard drives typically have the biggest potential for storage capacity over other kinds of hard drives.
  • Affordability – Compared to the cost of purchasing a top-of-the-line external hard drive, internal ones can be far more worth it. Especially considering that they can come included with the purchase of a PC; or if you are building one on your own, you may be able to find internal drives to be cheaper.
  • Upgrade capability – If you ever find that your internal hard drive is running out of space, or just isn’t processing as smoothly as it used to, you can always pay for an upgrade. You can replace it or upgrade it with the necessary parts to keep your tower running smoothly and so you can continue to store all the files you need.

There are downsides to external hard drives. They’re more expensive than internal ones because the technology they use is newer and somewhat-harder to manufacture. Plus, it can be a scavenger hunt to try and find the right kind of external hard drive to purchase. Externals are slower than internals, since they connect over a cable instead of getting installed directly in the machine. Externals break much easier, as you’ll be carrying them around in a bag and they’re not protected by the shell/tower of your computer. And here’s something most people don’t consider until it happens: external hard-drives are way easy to lose. They’re small, you’ll be bringing them around to different places, and they aren’t inside your computer. If you lose your computer, you lose your hard drive; however, an external hard drive is really easy to misplace, especially during a move. All of this isn’t to say you shouldn’t get an external hard drive—we bring up these points simply to show that externals do have downsides compared to internals, even though it doesn’t seem to be the case initially.

And there are of course a few drawbacks to having an internal drive as well. Again, it all comes down to what kind of hard drive works best for you in your situation. A lot of people prefer internal hard drives due to their storage power and the fact that they remain inside the computer, but there can be some pitfalls that aren’t easy to avoid. For example, since they are fixed inside your computer, that means they must remain there at all times. You can’t easily pop it out and put it into another computer for the transfer of files. That task is much easier left done with the external hard drives. Also, if you want to upgrade them, you essentially need to replace them completely. And most of the time, this means doing it yourself. If you aren’t computer savvy enough to understand how to uninstall and reinstall hard drives, then you may find yourself stuck without a hard drive or a workable computer.

It’s important to realize that the decision between internal and external isn’t an either/or scenario. In fact, you can only get an external hard drive in addition to the internal one you’re using right now. Having a variety of storage options insures your files are safe, easy to share, easy to store, and easy to access. An external hard drive is a great investment—think of it as a really big USB flash drive. Likewise, you might even consider getting a cloud service to store files online. There’s a variety of options when it comes to file storage, and a mix between internal, external, and cloud storage is your best option. Those who are in need of multiple places for storage and safekeeping often go with a variety of options to fulfill their storage needs. Keep in mind that when choosing an initial internal or external drive, you don’t need to stick with your choice forever. In fact, you can test out both options to see what works better for you. You may find out that they are both equally viable options to add to your storage collection!

When it comes down to it, the biggest thing you need to consider when choosing a new hard drive is convenience. Think about the fact that an internal hard drive will likely need to be formatted for your computer and your OS, especially if it is a new upgrade from your old one. If you need to perform more complicated tasks such as partitioning your computer, an internal hard drive is your best bet. It is much easier to format an internal drive than it is an external drive. On the flipside, an external drive needs no formatting at all, so this may be the most convenient option for your needs. Think about what works best for your storage capacity, your operating system, and the devices you’re going to be using the hard drive with.

If you want physical protection, you can keep in mind that both internal and external hard drives come with their own enclosure. Technically, the internal drives themselves are not in an enclosure, but they are surrounded by the casing of your computer tower or laptop. This protects them from potential damage from dust, water, and static shocks. Likewise, an external hard drive does come with its own shell. You’ll never find an exposed external drive for sale. You won’t have to worry about damaging it or needing to create your own form of protection for it, since it will be very protected in the shell it comes in.

When comparing prices, things can get a bit tricky. While both types of drives are affordable, it often needs to be broken down by brand and type. For example, some HDDs of the same exact brand and specs can be cheaper as an external drive than an internal drive. Sometimes, you will find the opposite to be true. Do your research to find out the biggest price differences from the brands you trust the most in order to make the most well-informed decision.

In conclusion, the difference between internal and external hard drives is exactly what the name implies: internal goes inside your computer, while external is outside your computer. Internal drives come with a variety of benefits that include larger storage capacity, ease of formatting, and protection inside your computer. Externals are portable, do not require formatting, and can often help to exchange files between devices. Internals are faster and cheaper, but you usually can’t install a second one on your machine. As you can see, the pros and cons are valid on both ends, and the ultimate decision is up to you. If you need to decide between one or the other, consider what type of hard drive you already have, or what kind of storage you are looking to build. Don’t forget about cloud storage options too! In this day and age, having more than one location for your stored files is your best bet for security and backup. Getting a variety of storage options is typically the best choice to making sure your files are safe and secure.

Andrew is one of three co-founders of BGFG, the parent company of PC Guide. A keen gamer and PC enthusiast, Andrew dabbles in a bit of writing sometimes - when he gets the chance to!