How To Best Utilize Your External USB Hard Drives

By Matthew Braga

When it comes to storage, laptops have historically been second-rate citizens. So what's a mobile user to do? We'll show you how to use your external drive for more than just a file dump, and get the most from that extra space.

When it comes to storage, laptops have historically been second-rate citizens. Minuscule hard drives and slow transfer technology often plagued road warriors of old in comparison to their faster desktop counterparts. With the rise of desktop replacements, that's begun to change, but many users are still left counting their gigabytes. The solution for most lies with the purchase of an external drive, or even a spacious flash stick; the question is, how do you use all that extra space effectively?

External drives are more than just a file dump, or an extension to your current space needs. Used right, they can actually give your laptop a bit of a speed boost, and change the way you use your computer for the better — without going low on storage.

Move your libraries


Easy mediashare

For all the useless features wireless routers have acquired over the years, there's always a good one — namely, USB ports. This enables flash drives or external disks to be plugged in and accessed by anyone connected to your network — useful for a cheap and easy to use mediashare. Move your music and movies to an external drive and share them, not just to your laptop, but anywhere you wish. And if you can't share through your router, you can still do the same through your computer's wired or wireless connection, the same as you would any other file or folder. This approach is handy for freeing up space, not only on a laptop, but all your computers, and can reduce redundancies by storing all your media in one place.  

Set up a scratch disk

Adobe CS5 is lame and no longer allows external capture scratches. But that's how you'd do it.
Premiere Pro, Photoshop and Gimp all make use of a scratch disk, where these scraps files and temporary data are stored when you run out of RAM. If you're working with a large project, those files can grow in size fast. By shifting them all to another drive entirely, you're lessening the load placed on your internal drive, splitting reads and writes between two places, as opposed to one. You'll render faster, export quicker and be all the happier for it. Alternatively, storing your project files on an external drive can also be a handy exercise, especially if you plan on moving your projects between multiple computers.

Portable gaming

Like access to your media libraries, gaming is something that you might not do all that often. With the size of today's games — some 10Gb or more — that can put a damper on what little internal space you have left. One good strategy is to move or install them to an external drive. Most games are still fully playable here, just the same as they would be on your local drive, though without taking up all that space. Load times might be a bit longer, but once the game's data has been loaded into RAM, you're free to play without issue. Even better, you'll find that some games can easily be moved from computer to computer this way, making it a great way to get your portable gaming fix. Your mileage may vary, of course, but it's fun to see what does and doesn't work.

Back up your stuff

Perhaps a no-brainer, but external hard drives shouldn't just extend your storage space, but keep your files safe as well. You don't need to backup everything, but prioritizing the stuff you'd miss most if lost is a good start. Used in combination with a wireless router, or some other sharing method, you can use the drive like a medishare in reverse — a place to send files to, instead of stream files off of. That way you can keep all your files backed up to one central spot, and accessed across all your PCs, sort of like a local dropbox. And of course, nothing's stopping you from plugging it directly to your laptop, for use with things like Time Machine or Windows 7's Backup and Restore.

How do you use your external hard drives? For storage, backup, media or something else entirely? Let us know below!      
Images via Matt Braga.