External Hard Drives as Backup Solutions

Background In the old days, the primary media for computer backup was magnetic tape. I still remember using cassette tapes to back up programs and data from a...

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In the old days, the primary media for computer backup was magnetic tape. I still remember using cassette tapes to back up programs and data from a TRS-80 computer in the early 1980’s. It was so slow and unreliable that it drove me to spend the $500 on a single sided 5.25″ floppy disk drive that could hold all of 100 kB of data. The reel-to-reel tapes used in university mainframes and the cartridge tapes of later PCs were of course much more reliable and had vastly larger storage capacity than the cassette tapes and were the gold standard for preserving data for many years. Tape is still important for many organizations but today’s hard drives are so large and inexpensive that they have become the preferred solution for most individuals and small businesses.

External Drive Options

I’ve used external USB 2.0 and FireWire drives over the last half-decade or so with generally good results. Theoretical throughput for USB 2.0 is 480 Mbs (Mega bits per second) while FireWire offers a 400 Mbs and an 800 Mbs option. This sounds fast but you’ll never realize full throughput with most devices. Considering that many of our hard drives are now in excess of 1 TeraByte even the theoretical speeds of these interfaces are such that backing up a loaded desktop machine might well take many hours or even a day or more to complete. The latest USB 3.0 interface claims up to 5 Gbs (giga bits per second) transfer rate so newer external drives based on this interface should offer a nice speed-up provided your computer machine is equipped with USB 3.0 ports. I expect USB 3.0 will likely become the dominant interface within the next 5 years or so. Until then there is also another interface that might an even better option for external backup drives.

eSATA Advantage

eSATA (external SATA) supports transfer rates of 3 Gps or 6 Gps depending on your PC and the hard drive in use. eSATA is basically the same interface as your internal hard drive so it is very fast. Most new PCs and motherboards come with eSATA ports. If you’ve got an older desktop machine you can likely add eSATA capability by buying an inexpensive rear panel adapter such as this one:

StarTech.com 2 Port SAT to eSATA Adapter Plate

Once you’ve got the adapter installed you only need an eSATA cable and a hard drive in an enclosure with eSATA capability.  While eSATA enclosures aren’t quite as common as the USB variety they are out there if you look. I have an older Western Digital MyBook 1.5 Terabyte drive that offers USB 2.0, Firewire and eSATA ports. My experience has been that the drive works better with the eSATA adapter than it does with either of the other interfaces.

I have a lot of backup hard drives so I have come to prefer bare drives over the added expense and fuss of having each drive in it’s own enclosure and having to keep track of the various dedicated wall warts and cables. This is where eSATA is really nice since you can buy a docking station such as this one:

StarTech.com eSATA Docking Station for Dual 2.5 or 3.5 inch HDD

and plug your bare drives into the docking station as you need them. The docking station linked above even offers USB 2.0 capability so that you can use the docking station with a legacy laptop that might not have eSATA capability. (It’s not nearly as fast when running on USB though!)

To mitigate the risk of dropping or inflicting static discharge damage on the bare drives I use Silicon Forensics drive transporter cases like these:

Silicon Forensics Drive Transporter Cases

to protect the bare drives when they aren’t in the docking stations. These cases also work great for protecting the drives if you need to ship them to an off-site remote backup storage site.

In addition to speed, convenience and cost, eSATA also offers some other advantages. It has been my experience that backing up drives on USB or Firewire interfaces can sometimes lead to a sluggish or in some cases even a hung (i.e. unresponsive or crashed) computer. I’ve noticed that certain USB peripherals and related software misbehave when the USB bus is subjected to throughput during backups. I’ve also seen backups and computers hang as a result of connecting and / or disconnecting USB peripherals from the USB bus when a backup was in progress. By moving your backup drives to eSATA you eliminate the potential for those kind of nasty interactions and free up the USB ports for other devices.


Over the last few months I’ve configured my backup system to use bare SATA drives and eSATA docking stations. I’ve found that the backups are much faster and the system runs much smoother than it did when using older USB 2.0 and Firewire 400 based external drives. By using the Silicon Forensics Drive Transporter cases I can keep the bare drives protected when they aren’t in use and easily ship them to off-site storage locations.

If you’ve spent any time on this site you know backups are important. If you don’t already have a backup solution you may wish to consider a setup like the one described above. Be sure to check out our Amazon store front for other hard drives, adapters and docking stations.



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