USB2 External drives & containments

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There are many options open to those requiring extra storage on their computers. One easy option, IF your PC supports
USB (Universal Serial Bus) is the external  USB  drive, this is usually a conventional internal hard drive mounted in a case that is portable, connected only by a USB lead and a small power unit.

Being portable, mean a number advantages for transferring data between machines and for backing up existing data, but it
also means a degree of risk where reliability is considered, compared to that achieved with an internal drive.

Physically smaller in its portable housing than when installed in a PC case, means its more easily damaged by bumps or careless handling. Many of the smaller cases offer no fan assisted cooling, so drive temperatures can quickly reach levels considered by many drive electronic sensors to be "Over Temperature" thus shortening the drives reliable life. Requiring an external power supply adds another level of risk, these power units are switched mode devices, subject to damage by line surges, and often inexplicable self destruction, although this may not cause a major loss of data, as if the power fails during a write, only that file will be corrupted.

Case considerations:

Quality cases COST but are usually better constructed, some offer cushioning of the drives mountings, and internal fans to control the running temperature, these cases are usually the larger ones (longer & wider) with visible air outlets.

Cheap cases are false economy, poorly constructed, parts attached with self tapping screws into plastic pillars, lead panels and printed boards fall away from rear panel when inserting power plugs and USB cable, cheap slide switches for the power on/off, unreliable and difficult to use.

Differing standards for power connections, different formats of "DIN"  connectors that do not interchange, different polarities of  power connections, 5 Volt and 12 Volt reversed, all these problems will lead to incompatibility and damage for a multi-drive owner.

Beware the  "No Tools"  boxes that use plastic wedges to retain the hard drive in the case and button clips to fix the ends to the case, you may be able to fit it once, but forget trying to replace a drive.

Some boxes use a single 12 volt lead fitted with a conventional coaxial power connector, these generate the 5 Volts
internally for the drive electronics, if these regulators fail and allow something larger than 5Volts to the drive electronics it may NOT damage all drives, but certainly can some. (Maxtor for example).

These coaxial power connectors are in themselves a minefield of different diameters of outer, different diameters of pin,
different lengths of connector, and worse still different polarity, they provide one of the largest sources of non-standard standards in the portable appliance field.

Transfer speed:
USB is blessed itself with at least 2 standards, USB 1 on older machines is really too slow for serious use, ok for backing up, but its throughput is limited for general access, for example for video or for hi-quality audio.
USB 2 is sufficiently fast to be used for video, and appears only slightly slower when using explorer to list it's content.

All USB drives require loaded drivers for your operating system to recognise them, Win98 especially, Win XP knows
about generic drives and will work most with its inbuilt drivers.

All USB drives need TIME to complete transfers and should be removed carefully to avoid losses of data.

USB drives do NOT work well on heavy file serving use where multiple access is quite normally expected.
USB drives MUST be prepared and formatted first on a native connection to your (IDE or SATA) PC before they can be used externally.

Addendum:

WinXP provides drive management features which allow recognised external USB drives to be set up and formatted, without having to use the native IDE or SATA connection:  See...
Control Panel / Administrative Tools / Computer Management /  Storage / Disk Management
This service may need starting if it has been disable on a minimal or tuned system (See Services)

Newer external boxes can now accept the laptop type of 2.5" drive, these will usually power from the USB as they require only 5 Volts supplies, so eliminating most of the potential power problems mentioned above.
However there may be problems with drawing enough power from a single USB connection, hence some 2.5" external boxes come with a double USB plug & lead to share the power from two sockets.

Labourinvein
August 13th 2007, Updated 22nd April 2009


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