If you’ve looked into the best ways to store data locally, you’ll run into three main candidates: SSD, HDD, and USB flash drive. All three of them can store data just fine, but they fit different niches that make them better at performing specific roles.
Let’s break down these three options and see where each one shines.
USB Flash Drives
USB flash drives are small sticks that plug snugly into a USB port. Their small size makes them a convenient way to store data.
Advantages of USB Flash Drives
Do you need to get data from one place to another? If so, it’s worth considering the USB flash drive. Its biggest forte is how small it is, meaning you can store it in a pocket or bag and bring it with you.
USB flash drives are very resistant to the bumps and knocks that come with travel. That’s because their storage doesn’t have any moving parts that can break or wear out. However, the USB connector itself can get damaged, which is why most flash drives have a cap or the connector retracts to help protect it when not in use.
While USB drives used to only come in smaller storage sizes, such as 128GB and under, you can now get 1TB drives for around $150. Some lesser known brands actually have 1TB options available for less than $50.
Disadvantages of USB Flash Drives
The biggest disadvantage of USB flash drives is their physical size. How often have you lost your keys? A flash drive is around the same size as a key. It’s surprisingly easy to stick your USB drive in your pocket and have it fall out without knowing.
This is why it’s a good idea to encrypt USB data in case you do lose a drive that contains sensitive data. Also, if you carry multiple flash drives, consider a protective case that fits inside a laptop/tablet case, purse, or your pocket. A case is harder to lose.
Naturally, the higher price may make this a less affordable option – but it is the most portable option available.
If your computer’s hard drive is filling up fast, an external HDD can plug in to your USB port and act as a secondary drive. This makes it easy to expand your computer’s storage space without prodding around inside it.
Advantages of External HDDs
Of all the options, external HDDs are usually the more affordable option. For instance, you can buy a 5TB external HDD for around $100.
As such, external HDDs are the best option to solve shrinking computer storage. Buy a few terabytes on the cheap, plug it in, and you have a vast amount of room for more files and programs. You can even install an operating system on it!
Disadvantages of External HDDs
Out of these three storage mediums, the HDD is the only one that uses moving parts. This makes them more prone to damage from bumps and scrapes and introduces mechanical damage as a potential cause of data loss.
As such, external HDDs are best used as a stationary workhorse. You can plug them in to a PC and unload large amounts of data on them for cheap. They make great devices to plug in to a computer and keep there for long periods of time. They’re also ideal for backups.
Despite this, external HDDs these days are wallet-sized and can be easily carried, so it doesn’t have to be fixed to one spot forever.
The cousin to the humble HDD, the external SSD, stores data on flash memory instead of relying on moving parts. They’re often used in tandem to HDDs in computers, but some laptops will run entirely off of an SSD.
What Is Flash Storage?
Unlike HDDs, SSDs use flash storage technology. USB drives also use this technology, but SSDs provide a more advanced version designed to handle the daily demands of computers and servers.
Flash storage utilizes memory chips to store data versus the traditional moving disks used in HDDs. Without any extra moving parts, writing and retrieving data is far more efficient, leading to faster response times. All of this also makes the drives themselves physically smaller, and they use less overall power. Another benefit is they use non-volatile memory. So, if the power is randomly cut off, data isn’t lost.
Advantages of External SSDs
SSDs enjoy high speeds due to, once again, the lack of moving parts, which makes them faster than HDDs. SSDs have comparable storage space to USB drives, making them suitable for storing operating systems and software.
Disadvantages of External SSDs
This luxury doesn’t come cheap, however. If you want an external SSD, be prepared to pay more per GB than the external hard drives or USB drives. While they have come down in price over time, a 1TB external SSD still costs around $150. However, they are more durable and faster than HDDs, which accounts for the price difference.
As such, they don’t make good workhorses for storing large amounts of data for cheap. They do, however, reduce the load times for software installed on them, so they’re the best option for storing games and programs.
Due to the memory chips, data can only be written a certain number of times to a specific chip or cell, which usually ranges from 3,000 to 100,000 times. The amount depends on the brand.
Internal Storage Options
If you want to expand your internal storage or replace a damaged drive, obviously, USB flash drives aren’t an option. However, you can buy both internal HDDs and SSDs. There’s a common debate as to which is better when it comes to SSD vs. HDD. The winner actually depends on your preferences.
There are three main things to consider:
- Cost – An internal SSD costs around $100 – $150 for a 1TB drive. An internal HDD costs around $50 for a 2TB drive.
- Storage space – If you need terabytes of storage, an internal HDD is usually the better option, as it’s easy and affordable to buy 4TB and 5TB HDDs. SSDs generally offer smaller storage options for around the same price as much larger HDDs.
- Use – Since internal HDDs have the same types of moving parts as external HDDs, they’re more prone to damage. If you take your laptop with you everywhere, you may want to consider an SSD, as it’s much more durable. If your laptop or desktop stays in one place most of the time, an HDD works well. Also, if you need faster speeds, such as for gaming, an SSD wins hands down.
Buying a New Computer: SSD vs. HDD
If you’re starting from scratch, you’ll notice more and more computers now have SSDs. This helps the device last longer, but you’ll also notice that storage space is often limited to 512GB or 1TB. If you’re storing numerous videos, songs, games, and photos, you’ll need to either have an external storage solution or a much larger hard drive.
If storage is a major factor for you when buying a new computer, consider a hybrid model. These have both an SSD and HDD already installed. The SSD usually contains your operating system, and you’d also install any apps or games that require faster hard drive speeds to it. The HDD, which is usually 1 TB or larger, stores most of your files, giving you the best of both worlds.
SSD vs. HDD vs. USB Flash Drive: Which Is Best Overall?
Each option is actually the best, depending on how you want to look at it. While all three are storage solutions, none of them are the same.
External HDD and SSD vs. USB Flash Drive
For external storage, all three are viable options. However, each one is best for the following uses:
- External HDDs – Used mainly for backups, second operating system, and additional overall storage. The moving parts make them more fragile, so it’s better if they stay in one location most of the time.
- External SSDs – Used mainly for backups, operating systems, and additional overall storage. Flash storage technology makes them tougher and longer lasting, so they’re ideal for taking with you on the go.
- USB flash drives – Used mainly for transporting files from one location to another, storing a small portable OS, and making temporary backups. The small physical size makes them ideal for on-the-go usage, but they do tend to wear out faster than SSDs.
SSD vs. HDD
For more permanent storage, you’ll want to choose either an SSD or HDD. Whether you’re opting for an internal or external option, SSDs do cost more.
However, they have the benefit of a longer lifespan, faster speeds, and are ideal for high performance apps, such as gaming. When it comes to SSD vs. HDD for gaming, SSD always wins, as you don’t want any lag.
HDDs are significantly cheaper, but may not last as long. These are best suited for someone who wants a lower price storage solution along with large amounts of storage.
If you’re examining SSD vs. HDD as far as speed, HDD is noticeably slower. For light or general usage, this isn’t much of an issue, though.
To give you a clearer picture of the main differences before you make your choice, check out the following table.
|HDD||SSD||USB Flash Drive|
|Life Span (years)||3-5 (longer with careful care)||Up to 10||5-20 (longer if rarely used)|
|Cost (per TB)||$25||$130||$50 – $150|
|Speed (read/write)||250/200 MB/s||560/530 MB/s||150/45 MB/s|
|Reliability||Moving parts randomly fail||Reliable||Reliable when used properly|
|Storage||Up to 20TB||Up to 8TB*||Up to 2TB|
|Portability||Not as portable||Portable||Most portable|
|Main Uses||Backups, main drive||Backups, main drive, gaming||Transferring files, small backups|
*While there actually are some enterprise SSDs up to 30TB, most consumer SSDs are 8TBs or less.
Internal and external HDDs and SSDs are the go-tos for more reliable storage, running operating systems, and storing apps. For the ultimate portable storage option, it’s hard to beat a USB flash drive. For most users, you’ll likely use a combination of the three.
If you’re ready to buy an SSD, this buying guide will help you. You can also quickly check the health of your macOS SSD.
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