If you're looking to transport data between PCs, you're going to need a portable storage solution. But what are the options, and which one should you choose? Our portable storage guide has got you covered.
There are three main types of portable storage devices — portable drives, desktop drives and flash drives. Each type offers distinct advantages and disadvantages, depending on the desired use.
The typical flash drive is known by many names — thumb drive, USB stick, memory stick — the vast majority of which connect through USB, although some notable exceptions have hooked into FireWire or eSATA. They're small enough to slip into your pocket, and span from 512MB to 128GB in storage. The term "flash drive" comes from the technology used to store the data — the solid-state flash memory, meaning it has no moving parts and is more likely to survive a drop. These days, USB 3.0 drives are starting to proliferate, offering significantly better speeds if you have a USB 3.0-capable system, and backwards compatibility with older USB 2.0 devices. Speed can vary greatly, and if a USB stick is expensive, there's a good chance it's using fast flash.
Desktop hard drives are typically much larger in capacity than flash drives, from 500GB to 4TB for single drive solutions. They are usually powered from the wall, and tend to function as a back-up solution more than portable storage — but sometimes you really do need to cart that much data around! Unlike a flash drive, they have mechanical parts, as they are simply a desktop hard drive stored in an external case — making them susceptible to damage when dropped. These can come with a number of interfaces: USB2.0 (with 480Mbps theoretical maximum speed), USB 3.0 (capping at 5Gbps theoretical), IEEE 1394 (commonly known as FireWire, and available in 400Mbps and 800Mbps speeds) and eSATA (3Gbps). Despite eSATA being theoretically slower than USB 3.0, at this point in time eSATA connections provide faster real-world performance than USB 3.0.
Another thing to take note of: although USB2.0 has a higher maximum theoretical speed than IEEE 1394 400, the latter tends to give higher-sustained transfer rates, as it doesn't get cycles stolen away from it by the rest of the system.
The final type of portable storage device is a compromise between the first two — the portable drive. This is still generally small enough to fit in a pocket (although probably uncomfortably!), and is actually a laptop hard drive encased in a plastic/rubber protective shell. By and large, connection is via USB or 1394, and it can be powered directly from the USB/1394 port. In some cases, USB ports may not provide enough power, and so the units are outfitted with an optional power cord. Capacity tends to be from 320GB to 1.5TB, although smaller capacity solid-state drives have started creeping in with significantly higher performance — and price tags.