What Is External Storage? [The Only Guide You'll Ever Need]

Aditya Rayaprolu
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Updated · Mar 28, 2023

Aditya Rayaprolu

Joined February 2023

As a cloud architect at McKinsey with experience handling Fortune 500 clients, this individual has c... | See full bio


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For quite a while, people have been storing backups of their data on their external storage drives. But what is external storage?

Let’s answer this question and talk about other important aspects of storing your data away from your computer.

Trust us, you’ll be thanking us later.

What Is External Storage?

This storage type, also often referred to as auxiliary or secondary storage, is becoming more and more popular.

It’s a place you can store data on, that’s not inside your computer’s base or memory. It can be removable or non-removable, temporary or permanent, wired or wireless.

It’s relatively low cost, and it doesn’t require you to open up the system.

Keeping data externally doesn’t always work the same. For example, individual users usually use it for backups and computer file transfers. Enterprises, however, can utilize it as primary storage. To do that, they have to connect it to servers through Ethernet or Fibre Channel switches. Obviously, they can also use it as a secondary option.

As you can guess, this calls for different types of external storage.

Types of External Storages

Not so long ago, we were in the cassette tape and floppy disk era. Now, storage options come in all shapes and forms. The most popular ones are:


Compact Discs or CDs have been around since 1982. They’re one of the oldest types of external data storage devices still in use. But at the time, the 700 megabytes these things could store was massive.

Once they became a thing, several different types emerged, including:

  • Read-Only Memory (CD-ROM): You can’t erase or write over whatever you have on it
  • Recordable (CD-R): You could write on only once
  • Rewritable (CD-RW): You have the option to erase and write over up to 1000 times

Over time, CDs became outdated as we started working with larger files and portable storage devices with higher capacity emerged.


  • Higher quality sound
  • Long lifespan
  • Cover art
  • Rarely crash


  • CD drive required
  • Small capacity
  • Cumbersome
  • Fragile


Next came Digital Versatile Discs or DVDs. They’re similar to CDs in that they also rely on laser light to store and retrieve data.

While similar in some aspects, these storage devices are also quite different. The biggest distinction is their capacity. A DVD is capable of storing 4.7GB of data.

You can choose from several options:

  • Random Access Memory (DVD-RAM): A slower, earlier version of DVD-R.
  • Recordable (DVD-R):  You can write on it once. After that, it becomes read-only.
  • Rewritable (DVD-RW): You can write and erase from as many times as you want.

In addition to the types mentioned above, DVD+R and DVD+RW exist. They’re basically the same thing but these two allow the use of the drag-and-drop feature.

Most often, people store movies and videos on DVDs, while they use CDs for music and pictures. Both became obscure, however, when some new portable computer storage devices arrived.


  • Larger capacity than CDs
  • Cheap
  • Good quality
  • Long lifespan


  • DVD drive required
  • Data difficult to change
  • Cumbersome
  • Fragile

External Hard Drives

Next on the list, we have external hard drives. These things have become one of the most common places to store backup data.

But what are external hard drives?

They’re exactly the same as the drives you have on your computer, but portable. You can also connect them with other computers.

Because they are portable, they’re often used for sharing data with other people. You can even partition your disk to ensure everyone has their own storage space.

When it comes to types of external hard drives, you can choose between HDD and SSD.

The latter is slowly becoming a standard as it comes with some perks no user can ignore. It:

  • reads and writes data faster
  • make no noise
  • conserves energy
  • has a longer lifespan

These large data storage devices don’t come at the same price. If you need it just for storing backup, you can go for an HDD. On the other hand, if you often transfer files, an SSD might be a better solution.

Moving terabytes of data can sometimes take days. 

Good news, though - there are companies that can do it for you. Then, they’ll ship you a hard drive with your backup on it.


  • Capacity
  • Accessible
  • Better performance


  • Not as secure
  • Cables

Flash Drive

Flash drives are another popular form of external storage device.

They’re small gadgets you can use to store and transfer data quickly. You may find them under several different names including USB flash drives, pen drives, thumb drives, etc.

They come in different shapes, sizes, and capacities. Often, a 32GB USB flash drive is enough for all kinds of purposes. Initial devices didn’t come close to this in terms of capacity while the latest ones go even up to 2TB.

Over time, flash drives have become one of the most popular PC storage devices. They’re not made specifically for computers, however. Some of them you can even connect directly to your smartphone or tablet device.

They also have some other purposes like gig sticks for musicians or USB brochures.

While flash drives may seem simple, they’ve gone a long way since emerging. Now, you can even find options with password protection and fingerprint scanning for extra security.

Some new flash drives are suitable for users who may use them in harsh conditions. They’re rugged and waterproof, meaning that almost nothing can harm your digital content.


  • Easy to use
  • Affordable
  • Security features (some devices)
  • Speed


  • Easy to misplace
  • Connectivity
  • Security
  • Mechanical damages

Memory Cards

Memory cards are smaller than flash drives but still offer plenty of storage.

Generally, they’re used as external phone storage but can also act as backup devices for your computer. To access one from your computer, you need a memory card slot or a reader.

Just like USB flash drives, new iterations of these things go all the way up to 2TB.

Some of the most popular options are:

  • SD card: A standard card for all kinds of devices.
  • MicroSD card: A tiny version of the standard SD card.
  • CF card: Previously used for cameras. Slowly being replaced by SD cards.

In case you want to get external storage for an Android phone or tablet, finding a suitable card isn’t going to be tough.


  • Reliable
  • Size
  • Capacity
  • Compatibility (mobile and computers)


  • Speed
  • Upgrading
  • Data corruption
  • Lifespan

External Storage vs Internal Storage vs Cloud Storage

If you’ve read everything so far, you’re probably wondering which data storage devices to use. 

Internal, external, and cloud storage all share some common functions but are good in different scenarios. You can put each of them to good use.

Let’s start with internal memory.

When you do some research on external devices, it may seem like hard drives in your computer aren’t as useful. This isn’t necessarily true.

Internal hard drives come with their own perks. Just the fact that you don’t have to handle them when using your PC proves it.

Another difference between an internal and external hard drive is that the former is less likely to get damaged. You’re never going to carry it around, and human handling often causes some major stress.

So, what should you remember about internal memory?


  • Stable
  • Less susceptible to damage


  • Not portable
  • Easier to hack into
  • Difficult to replace

The best part of external storage devices - you can also take them with you without bringing the entire computer. You can store backups on them just in case, too.

Also, think about space. If you want more space on your computer, you’d need to install the new drive. With external storage, you just plug in a USB port. Similarly, you can always buy more devices.

It does come with some drawbacks, though. When carrying your hard disk or memory card around, there’s always a chance it gets damaged or stolen, for example.


  • Portable
  • Easy to use
  • Easy to replace


  • More likely to break
  • Can get stolen

You can, of course, also store your data on the internet. It’s pretty much as if you were using wireless storage devices for your backup but without any hardware.

Although the data is kept on a physical server, you can still access it from anywhere, as long as you’re connected to the internet.

The cloud has recently gained popularity. Whether you want extra space on your computer or you need external storage for an Android, the cloud is the place to be. With just a few clicks, you can store your data online and access it from anywhere.

Although it’s been around for quite some time, this tech is still in its early days. Judging from what we’ve seen so far, it has the potential to replace other types of storage entirely.

Some of the most popular cloud storage providers at the moment are:

  • Google Drive
  • Dropbox
  • OneDrive

With most of these online file storage options, you usually pay a monthly fee. You can go for a free option as well, but those usually come with limited space.

For many, it’s all about getting the least expensive backup cloud solution.

Another thing we have to mention about the cloud is the sync feature. External storage transfer speeds on the cloud are quite high. Still, copying files into your backup folders can be a bit tiresome. 

Well, this tech can do this for you. As long as the sync feature is on, it will automatically create backups for all new files and folders it finds on your computer.

Cloud is also the best way for large companies to store data and make it accessible for all employees. According to cloud computing statistics, 81% of all enterprises employ a multi-cloud strategy in their operations.

While we’re somewhat far away from that, it is still the perfect option to choose when looking for data storage. Just remember that you need internet access to get your files. Go offline and reaching your data will be impossible.


  • Accessible
  • Low-cost
  • Scalable
  • Secure


  • Lack of total control
  • Internet-dependent
  • Difficult to migrate

Security and Data Protection

Whether or not you have backups on your portable computer storage devices, you still have to ensure your data is safe.

After all, the last thing you want to do is put your data out there for hackers to collect.

But that’s not the only threat out there. What if you lose your external USB flash drive or hard disk?

Luckily, you can ensure no one can go through your folders. There’s an entire set of strategies and processes to follow to protect your data.

Let’s go through the steps:

First of all, keep all types of malware at bay. Your best bet is investing in powerful antivirus software.

The next thing to keep in mind is encryption. Regardless of what type of external computer storage you keep your data on, you can encrypt it. This way only you’ll have access to certain information.

That’s because when encrypting your data, you change its format to unintelligible. Later, you can return it to its previous form by decrypting it. To do this, you need a unique key password, which is made of unfathomably long numbers.

Of course, you don’t have to come up with the key password. The encryption software you choose will do all the work for you.

Another important step is to create a strong password. Rather than remembering all the passwords and typing them in every time, you can have a password manager do it all for you.

Also, ensure both your computer and external devices are up-to-date.

Enterprises are supposed to be even more careful when it comes to their data. As a result, businesses often invest a lot in data protection.

Wrap Up

So, what is external storage?

It’s the ultimate protection for your data. Whether your computer gets hacked or damaged, you can still access all your files on an external storage device.

Plus, if you want to transfer or share your digital content, you have an easy way to do so.

Ever since it emerged, the cloud has become the most popular type of storage around. If things keep moving in the same direction, there’s no doubt it’ll replace all types of computer storage devices almost entirely. Some old external storage options are already dying out. Just think about CDs and DVDs.

That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s the option you have to go with. Choose what fits your needs now - you can always adapt later.


What is external storage device?

An external device is a mechanism that stores your data without being inside a computer's main storage or memory. Some of the most common types include external hard drives, USB flash drives, memory cards, and the cloud.

Do you need external storage?

Having external storage can come in handy in many situations. As long as you keep a backup of your data on another device, you won’t lose access to it in case your computer gets hacked into or stolen.

Is SD card external storage?

You can use an SD card as an external hard drive for a smartphone device. You can also access it from all PCs and laptops with memory cards. We’ve explained more about different types of SD cards in the post above.

Is it OK to leave external hard drive plugged in all the time?

When the drive is left on while it’s not needed, you’re just wasting energy. Not only that, but you’re putting needless wear on it. If there’s a sleep/suspend mode, however, the effect won’t be that bad.

Is an external hard drive worth it?

Getting an external hard drive is definitely worth it. Whether you choose to use it for backup or file transfer, having portable storage can be useful. To learn what is external storage and what types of it there are, refer to our post above.


Aditya Rayaprolu

Aditya Rayaprolu

As a cloud architect at McKinsey with experience handling Fortune 500 clients, this individual has comprehensive expertise in cutting-edge technologies and tools such as cloud computing, virtualization, network security, data storage, and disaster recovery. They have a wealth of experience in creating and executing virtualization solutions for both on-premise and cloud-based systems, with a primary focus on enhancing efficiency, dependability, and security.

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