External storage

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About this article

This article provides an overview of various external file storage options that can be used with your WSU laptop. It is intended for students and employees.

What's external storage?

By "external storage," we are referring to portable devices like external hard drives and SD cards, not network or cloud storage. Many people purchase some type of external storage device to transfer files from one computer to another, to back up files for long term storage, or to expand the storage capacity of a laptop, camera, smartphone, or tablet device. External hard drives and SD cards are available for purchase through our campus bookstore as well as from various Winona businesses (e.g., Target, Walmart).

Use at your own risk

Although many WSU students and employees use some form of external storage, WSU can provide only limited support for it. There are simply too many options, all of which are completely beyond our control. You use external storage at your own risk. We will provide general recommendations, guidance, and limited troubleshooting, but you may need to rely on the vendor's support service in case of crisis.

The future of writable CDs and DVDs

Although writable CDs and DVDs are still available, this method of storing files is headed for obsolescence and we do not recommend it. While Blu-ray DVDs are still a popular format for movies and you can still buy music on CD, the industry is transitioning to online, on-demand access and most laptop manufacturers are phasing out internal, optical drives. Neither of the laptop models distributed by WSU over the past two years have included an internal CD/DVD drive. Instead of CDs and DVDs, people are now using cloud storage, external hard drives, and SD cards to store their files. Writable CDs and DVDs also have the following limitations:

  • The laser-based writing process is extremely slow compared to other methods
  • The capacity of the discs is relatively low
  • The discs, even the so-called "re-writable" ones, cannot be reused. Once the space on such a disc has been used, it cannot be overwritten
  • CDs and DVDs are easily scratched, which can prevent you from recovering data

If you have a lot of music, movies, and files on CDs and DVDs, if you use them a lot in class, or if you are stuck with a stack of blank, writable discs, you can pick up an external CD/DVD drive for your laptop that you plug into a USB port. However, you should begin to wean yourself off CDs and DVDs for file storage. Internal optical drives are not coming back and you probably don't want to mess with an external optical drive forever.

External hard drives

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External hard drives come in all shapes and sizes, but they can be grouped into three categories: a flash or thumb drive, an external, mechanical hard disk drive (HDD), and a portable solid state drive (SSD). Flash drives and portable SSDs do not have moving parts. HDDs are smaller versions of the spinning, mechanical hard drives we used to have in all of our desktop computers. HDDs can be further subdivided into portable and desktop-style (i.e., not designed to be moved) drives. Typically, they all plug into a USB port, your computer's operating system recognizes them almost immediately (i.e., there may be a brief setup), and you can simply drag-and-drop folders and files to them as you would to any other location on your computer. Here are some things to consider when purchasing an external hard drive:

How much space do you need?

  • How much do you want to spend? The greater the capacity, the greater the cost. A single external HDD could hold anywhere from GBs to TBs of data. You can now get a 1 TB WD My Passport Ultra external HDD for about $50.
  • What are you going to store on it? If you want to store your growing library of personal multimedia (e.g., music, family pictures and videos), this can take up a lot of space. Give yourself enough space to store what you have, as well as some room to grow.

How much speed do you need?

  • The speed of any hard drive is measured in multiple ways, including how fast a file can be copied to the drive and how fast it can be accessed. Your need for speed depends on what you plan to do with the drive. If you plan on using it for simple file backup and keeping it in a drawer most of the time, then speed is not a big issue. Go with a less expensive external HDD that meets your space and financial specs. If you plan on using it regularly as a working drive to organize and play all of your family videos or edit huge design or video files, then speed is an issue. Consider a faster HDD or a portable SSD if you can afford it.
  • Currently, the fastest external drives are portable SSDs designed for Macs that use a Thunderbolt 2 connection. The Thunderbolt 2 port on the MacBook Air provides four times the transfer speed as the new USB 3 port. This blazing speed is not cheap, however. The LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt Series 256 GB Portable SSD is selling for about $300 currently. Most portable SSDs also come equipped for use via your USB 3 port. This would be your second fastest option and the only portable SSD option for PC users.
  • Close behind in terms of speed are external HDDs that utilize the new USB 3 port. These work on both PCs and Macs. Starting last summer, all WSU laptops now come standard with USB 3 ports. These allow for over 10 times the transfer rate of the older USB 2 ports. Older external HDDs will work just fine in the new laptops, but if you are in the market for a fast external HDD, look for one designed for USB 3.

What form factor do you need?

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  • Watch out for the so-called flash drives, thumb drives, or USB keys. These are tiny drives, typically no bigger than your thumb, that are very fragile and easy to lose. One trip through the washing machine and your data is gone. Although they use the same general type of "flash" memory as portable SSDs, they are slower and less reliable. Flash drives are great for moving files around, but you don't want to use one to store irreplaceable files or as a drive from which to work on files.
  • For rapidly growing personal storage needs (e.g., family pictures and videos), consider a larger, desktop-style HDD. These are designed for home, not campus, use. They stay put and connect to your home network, making them accessible to devices on your network (e.g., desktops, laptops, game consoles, tablets). Some desktop-style HDDs are designed to work exclusively with Windows or Mac devices. Others can work with both. The Western Digital My Cloud drive is an example of one such dual-platform solution.

Do you need the software that comes with the drive?

Watch out for the backup software and other tools that come with external drives. WSU does not support these tools, so you use them at your own risk. You can typically use your external drive, especially portable ones, just fine without installing, configuring, or registering for any of the proprietary software and services that come with it. Very often, these are just lures to get you to become dependent on that particular vendor for all of your storage needs. Use good judgement and make sure you understand what is happening to your files if you choose to use any of these tools.

SD cards

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Secure Digital (SD) cards are actual cards that you slide into an SD card slot in your device. They are often used in digital cameras and smartphones to provide additional storage space. Both the HP EliteBook and the Apple MacBook laptops have SD card slots. SD cards are available in different capacities and speed classes. With capacities in the TBs and most people leaving their SD cards in their devices almost continuously, adding an SD card is like adding a new hard drive. If you have a MacBook Air, consider purchasing a low-profile card that will not stick out as much. The Transend JetDrive Lite 130 128GB card is an example. This goes without saying, but if you decide to leave your SD card in your laptop and use it to back up your files, it will help you if your laptop's hard drive ever fails, but it won't do you much good if your laptop is stolen or falls in the river.

Do I need to encrypt my external hard drives and SD cards?

Encrypting your external storage devices prevents someone from opening them up on another computer if they are ever lost or stolen. Although it may slow the performance of your external drive or SD card slightly, the benefits may outweigh the costs. Because you are not allowed to store any public or private university data on external storage, the decision to encrypt your external hard drive or SD card is entirely up to you.

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