USB Flash Drive vs. External HDD and SSD: Which Is Best for You?

Usb Storage Featured

If you’ve looked up ways to store a lot of data via a USB port, you’ll run into three main candidates: the flash drive, the external HDD, and the external SSD. 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.

Usb Storage Stick

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 a 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.

Disadvantages of USB Flash Drives

The biggest disadvantage for USB drives is storage space. USBs shine when carrying around small files such as photos and text, but pushing the boundary further may end in disappointment.

At the time of writing, USB flash drives begin to peter out at the 256GB mark, and 512GB sticks can be tricky to find. The ones you do find are at eye-watering prices that make it the less desirable option.

External HDDs

If your computer’s hard drive is filling up fast, an external HDD can plug into your USB and act as a secondary drive. This makes it easy to expand your computer’s storage space without prodding around inside it.

Usb Storage Hdd

Advantages of External HDDs

Of all the options, external HDDs give you the most amount of storage for your buck. For roughly the same cost as a 256GB USB flash drive, you can instead purchase a 1TB external HDD – that’s four times the size!

As such, external HDDs are the best option to solve a shrinking computer storage. Buy a terabyte 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 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 into a PC and unload large amounts of data on them for cheap. They make great devices to plug into a computer and keep there for long periods of time.

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.

External SSDs

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.

Usb Storage Ssd

Advantages of External SSDs

SSDs enjoy high speeds due to the lack of moving parts, which makes them faster than HDDs. SSDs also have more storage space than 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.

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.

Storage Potential

While USB flash sticks, external HDDs, and external SSDs can all expand your storage through a USB port, they all have their roles to play. Flash sticks are the king of portability, external HDDs have the best storage-to-cost ratio, and external SSDs have the space and the speed to make loading software a breeze.

Did we miss any key uses for these useful storage devices? Let us know below!

Simon Batt Simon Batt

Simon Batt is a Computer Science graduate with a passion for cybersecurity.


  1. There is an option you have not mentioned and that is a a dock. A dock can be used with SSDs and HDDs, laptop and desktop drives. I believe the current max size that a dock can handle is 8 TB. You can plug two drives into a dock to act as two external drives or you can use the dock to copy for cloning drives or copying files from one to the other. A good dock can be purchased for about $20. A dock allows you to have multiple removable external drives.

    1. That isn’t a ‘drive’ or storage of any kind. The article is about storage units and advantages and disadvantages of each, not what they can plug into.

  2. Two things to consider in addition to the article. MicroSD cards can be used in USB ports with an adapter just like USB sticks; however, these are more fragile and care in handling must be taken into consideration. I have only ever snapped one into two pieces, but the data was lost FOREVER. The second thing to consider for all of these is that their portability also makes the easy targets for would be thieves. So, unless you are working in a location that can be secured, you might not want to leave them unattended.

  3. Clarification
    1) in Windows 10 is there a hard size limit?
    I had bought three 1 Tb external hard drives, made a backup of Windows 7 in one and save some pictures in other. After four months when I connected the drives the computer displayed drive cannot be recognized!
    I formatted the drives.
    Wondering if the drives need to be kept connected to computer and power on.

    1. Forgetting and not being able to recognize external drives seems to be a rather common problem. Do an Internet search on the problem. I have seen articles on how to remedy it. I cannot give you any specific advice since I use Linux and do not run into this problem.

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