How do I Choose the Best Desktop Hard Drive?

M. McGee

Choosing a desktop hard drive is actually a very straightforward process. Since hard drives have very few specifications, and many of them are common to large groups of drives, picking one out is much easier than it may appear. The first step is deciding whether you want an internal or an external drive and then deciding its connection type. After that, the drive’s capacity, transfer speed and seek time may have the most impact on the decision.

SATA cable connected to a drive.
SATA cable connected to a drive.

The first major choice in choosing a desktop hard drive is whether you want an internal or an external drive. An internal drive is generally less expensive and doesn’t require additional cords or separate power, but you need to install it yourself. An external drive needs a connection to the computer and nearly all of them need to be plugged in separately, but they are easy to install, portable, and often ready to use in minutes.

An external hard drive may be moved easily between multiple computers.
An external hard drive may be moved easily between multiple computers.

The next step is determining the type of connection you have available for the desktop hard drive. Internal connections are generally integrated drive electronics (IDE) or serial advanced technology attachment (SATA). Some motherboards have both types of connections, but most have one or the other. If you have the choice, SATA is generally considered the better choice. External drives usually use universal serial bus (USB), firewire or external serial advanced technology attachment (eSATA). While USB is both the most common style of drive and port option, eSATA is the fastest and most stable, followed by firewire and then USB.

SATA hard drives are the best choice for most applications.
SATA hard drives are the best choice for most applications.

Many users choose a desktop hard drive based on its storage capacity. A drive’s size is typically measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB), with terabytes being larger. Drive sizes are always given before formatting; after formatting, the drive loses about 10% of its total capacity.

The second common method of choosing a drive is based on its transfer speed or spindle speed. The transfer speed is how long it takes to move stored information between the drive and the computer. Some drives don’t have a specified transfer speed so buyers use spindle speed instead. This is a measurement of how fast the storage areas inside the drive spin. In both cases, the higher the number the faster the transfer.

The last common measurement is seek time. This amount is given in milliseconds. The lower the seek time the faster the drive is able access stored information. This is one of the few areas where you want the lowest number possible. An average desktop hard drive has a seek time around 10 milliseconds.

When choosing a hard drive, consider how much memory it has and how fast it operates.
When choosing a hard drive, consider how much memory it has and how fast it operates.

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Discussion Comments


@Scrbblchick -- You've gotten one of the ransomware viruses? Those things are horrible! If the creators are caught, they ought to be drawn and quartered!

I have an extra internal drive on my machine, but when my husband accidentally ran into one of those viruses, we couldn't access the drive, even in safe mode!

I had to take the long way around and do a manual system restore command from the run menu. It got rid of the virus, so I was pleased with that. Then, I ran every scan I could think of, just in case.

The virus had not attached itself to the extra drive, thank goodness, so I could still safely access the information on it. But if I'd had an external drive,. I probably would have wiped the computer drive, reinstalled Windows from my restore disk and put everything back on from the external drive. What a pain.


Using an external hard drive is no big deal. Most people have power strips for their computer setup anyway, so there's almost always an extra plug available, so external power is not generally an issue.

My main concern is storage space. Is there enough space on the drive to store photos, files and even completely back up my current computer, if necessary? My external drive has one terabyte of space, which is enough for a whole bunch of computers. I wouldn't buy an external drive with less space.

The other advantage of the external drive is that, if I got one of those horrid ransomware viruses, it wouldn't affect my external drive if I didn't have it plugged in. The virus could however, affect an internal drive.

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