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?

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.

Read more: The best way to watch Netflix on your big-screen TV

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).

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.

Read more: Storage buying guide: Finding the best storage device for you

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.

Network attached storage (NAS)

Like the name suggests, these are hard drives that can be plugged directly in to your home (or office) network's router. They are the best solution for sharing storage across multiple computers, including desktops, laptops, and even things such as tablets and smartphones. You need a good router for the NAS to connect to, and the interface is Ethernet, usually of the Gigabit variety.

A NAS device requires a bit more know-how to set up and use compared to a regular external hard drive, primarily because you need to have a functioning home network and an idea about how to access and configure a network drive once it's on your network. Luckily, many NAS devices on the market these days come with tools that can allow you to find and install the drives with relative ease, so the learning curve is not a steep one.

With a NAS device, you may also need to fiddle around a bit more with the physical installation. While vendors such as Seagate and WD supply NAS devices that come in pre-configured capacities, the usual form for other vendors, such as Asustor, Qnap, Synology, and Thecus, is that you buy only the case, which is empty, and then install the hard drives of your choice yourself.

Your buying decision in such a scenario will have to include how many drive bays you want. The more drive bays (up to four is most common for consumer NAS devices, though six and eight are available, too), the higher the capacity you can install. Two drive bays should be the minimum that you go for, though drives with one bay also exist if you want the simplest installation experience.

If you are going for an empty NAS, then you will need to buy 3.5in hard drives of the capacity of your choice and follow the recommended NAS vendor's instructions on how to properly install them physically, and then how to set them up after that. You can install only one drive (even in a multi-bay drive), but it is recommended that you install two or more in order to keep your data safe.

Since most NAS devices have two or more bays, it is typical for a NAS device to support RAID arrays, with RAID 1 being the recommend array for a NAS device with two drive bays. What RAID 1 does is mirror your data on both drives. If one drive dies, then your data is not lost and you can replace that dead drive and rebuild the array to keep protecting your data. If you were using RAID 0, which stripes your data across both drives for the purpose of speed, then a faulty drive would leave your data lost forever.

Note that with a RAID 1 array, your total capacity will be halved. If you install two 4TB hard drives, instead of getting a full 8TB, you will get 4TB as one drive will be used for data duplication. It is the price to pay for protecting your data. It used to be said that you should match the make and model of drives in your NAS device. These days it is common to mix and match vendors and models to minimise the chances of buying two drives that can develop the same fault. There are also dedicated NAS hard drives these days, from both Seagate and WD, which are optimised for use in a NAS device.

Read more: Presto finds an unlikely ally in Quickflix

You should buy matching disk capacities in order to make the most of the total capacity. For example, if you buy one 4TB drive and one 2TB drive, a RAID 1 array will only let you use 2TB, thereby making that extra 2TB go to waste. Buy the same capacity for both drives, and that maximum will be used in RAID 0. Mixing capacities works in a mode called JBOD (just a bunch of disks), but you don't get data redundancy.

While a NAS device is perfect for storing and backing up data from anywhere on your home network, the other thing to note about NAS devices is that they can be used for a vast array of other purposes. A lot of advanced devices now have built-in download managers, support for VPN, as well as things such as media server support (for streaming to mobile devices, smart TVs, and consoles) and can even serve blogging platforms such as Wordpress.

In many instances, they can also be accessed and managed conveniently from a mobile device, and you can even stream content from a NAS to a mobile device quite easily if it has a supported file manager (otherwise you can use a third-party file manager such as ES File manager for Android to find content on your network).

You should implement a NAS device for your home or office network if you want the ability to manage and share storage capacity and files across multiple computers and mobile devices on your network. It requires a bit more legwork than a typical external hard drive, but the extra functions and the ability to expand the capacity, and to make data redundant in case of failure, mean they are more valuable than external hard drives.

Wireless portable hard drives

While we're on the network theme, a wireless portable hard drive is basically a network-capable drive that you can use while on the road. It is a typical-looking portable hard drive, though perhaps a little thicker or longer due to it having built-in Wi-Fi capabilities, and its capacity can be similar to that of a standard portable drive -- that is, enough to store heaps of movies and music.

A wireless portable hard drive emits its own wireless network, and is primarily designed to facilitate the streaming of content to mobile devices, be it tablets or smartphones, both of the Android or iOS variety. There is usually enough bandwidth to support the transfer of up to a handful of movie streams (in Full HD), and this can come in handy for families on road trips who want to give their kids access to content for them to stream on their tablets without tapping into mobile data plans.

The signal range of a wireless portable drive is not great, and it should only be used with mobile devices that are in close proximity. Setting up a wireless drive often requires connecting to the hard drive directly, following the instructions the vendor has set out for this procedure. Generally, it can cut off Internet access to a mobile device unless there is a pass-through Internet feature in the drive.

You can also use a wireless portable hard drive for the purposes of backing up the data on your mobile device.

Read more: Major update coming to Netflix Australia

Cloud-enabled drives

These are essentially NAS devices that plug in to your network, but which are marketed to highlight the fact that they are tailored for use over the Internet. A Cloud-enabled drive generally offers a simple Web-based service that can allow you to log in to your hard drive from anywhere you have an Internet connection, but you must sign up for the service (it's usually free and it doesn't store your data, only the location of your drive -- your data remains on your drive).

A drive like this can make it possible for you to access work files remotely, or even to log in to your drive so that you can manage its settings or set up downloads. In most cases, you don't have to know anything about how to set up remote access, or how to configure your router for such a scenario -- the hard drive and the hard drive vendor's service will take care of all the configuration details and all you will have to do is log in to that service via a Web browser or app.

Regular NAS drives can be set up for remote access as well, with some vendors providing their own services for such a task, while others require you to set up your own dynamic DNS service in order to make the drive accessible over the Internet.

On-the-go USB drives

An on-the-go USB drive is a relatively new type of drive that is designed to be used with mobile devices, and primarily those that might not feature a microSD card slot. They started off for Android devices, but models are now available for iOS as well. The prerequisite is that your device must support on-the-go or (OTG) drives (Android devices over version 3.1 should be okay).

An on-the-go drive has two ends to it: one end is a regular USB port, while the other end is a port (micro-USB for Android or Lightning for iOS) that can fit into your mobile device. This means that you can plug the OTG drive into your computer to load content, and then plug the drive into your phone to access that content directly. A supported app or a third-party file manager will need to be installed on your device to access the OTG drive.

For Android devices, an OTG drive will draw power from the device, while for iOS devices, the OTG drive will have its own internal battery, meaning it will have to be charged from time to time.

These drives aren't for mass storage like portable external hard drives. Instead, they are a flash-based drive that can be used as a convenient way to get content on and off mobile devices.

Read our reviews of storage devices

Seagate Personal Cloud 2-bay home media storage drive review
Seagate Seven portable hard drive review (500GB)
SanDisk iXpand: an on-the-go flash drive for Apple devices
Asustor AS5002T 2-bay NAS device review
Synology DiskStation DS215j NAS device review
Western Digital My Passport Wireless (2TB) review
Thecus N2310 NAS device review
Promise Technology NS6700 NAS device review
Seagate NAS (2-bay) 8TB storage device review
Verbatim Store ‘n’ Go OTG USB Drive review
Strontium Nitro On-The-Go USB review

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