Q: My hard drive is getting full. Should I just buy an external hard drive?

Tech Q & AA: Buying an external drive is certainly one way to free up some space on the internal hard drive of your computer. However, while this method might seem simple, it could end up being more confusing and problematic than anticipated.

The first thing to make clear is that adding an external hard drive does not simply “extend” the space on the main hard drive. To actually make more room on the internal drive, data must be manually moved from the internal to the external drive and then deleted from the internal. The immediate problem most users will face is deciding what data to move from the internal to the external drive. Many users will have difficulty figuring out what data is taking up the most space on the hard drive. To complicate matters, in some cases a system problem is the cause of excessive drive usage. So if a user can’t effectively clean up their main drive, an external drive really hasn’t solved anything.

The second problem with moving data to an external drive is keeping track of what data resides on which drive. Having some data on an external drive can be confusing, especially when a computer is shared among several users. Again, since an external drive is a separate drive from the internal, it doesn’t simply extend the space of the internal drive. Users must decide when to save or store data on the internal vs the external drive and then remember what they did later.

A word of warning while I’m on this topic: external hard drives are in NO WAY any more reliable than internal drives! I say this because I’ve had many clients copy their data to an external drive as a backup but then remove the data from the internal drive. They thought the data was somehow safer on the external. While I certainly recommend using an external drive as part of an automated backup plan, the point of a backup is to have at least two copies of your valuable data in case one copy is lost. If your only copy of data is on an external drive, it isn’t really a backup. An external hard drive is just as likely to fail as an internal drive, which many an unwitting user has found out the hard way.

My recommendation to increase the storage on an internal hard drive is to replace it. However, when replacing an internal drive, the entire contents of the old drive should be properly copied to the new one, a process called cloning. By cloning, users will not need to reinstall their operating system and software. And by replacing an older internal drive, not only will the user increase the space of their main hard drive, they will also likely extend the practical life of their computer.

The only problem with replacing an internal drive and cloning the data is that it is usually not simple enough for an average user to perform. The good news is that qualified technicians should be able to perform this service for a reasonable fee, including parts and labor. This service, which I call a Hard Drive Transplant, is often not much more than the cost of a quality external hard drive alone, and is certainly a whole lot cheaper than the cost of recovering from a crashed hard drive.

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