Shopping for an External Harddrive: USB, eSATA or Firewire?

Dennis Faas's picture

Infopackets Reader 'Kim' writes:

" Dear Dennis,

I am studying photography and I need an easy to use external harddrive (HD) to store lots of memory. Could you please suggest a good exterior hard drive. By the way, what is the difference between eSATA, Firewire and USB external HDs? "

My Response:

There is an easy answer to your question, but let's first break down the basics to better understand what your options are.

Acronyms: eSATA, USB, and Firewire: What does it mean?

USB stands for Universal Serial Bus. eSATA stands for Serial Advanced Technology Attachment. Firewire is not an acronym ;-)

USB, eSATA, and Firewire in the simplest sense are connection ports on your PC or laptop. The ports allow your computer to communicate (and to transfer data to and from) an external device such as a harddrive, digital camera, and the like.

Compatibility and Speed: USB, Firewire, and eSATA

Most computers are equipped with USB ports because USB is the standard that has been around the longest.

Not all PCs and laptops come with Firewire and eSATA. Firewire is faster than USB but are not as common on PCs and laptops. Only newer computers and laptops have external SATA (eSATA) ports.

In terms of speed: eSATA is the fastest, followed by Firewire, and then USB.

Suggestions for an External HD: Features, Value, and Cost

All major harddrive manufacturers make external harddrives, typically with a USB connection.

Some external harddrives offer both firewire and USB connections. The most affordable external harddrive at this time (according to cost per gigabyte) would be a 500 GB, 750 GB, or 1000GB / 1TB external harddrive.

Look around on the Internet (, or for example) and compare brands, prices, and features.

Passive versus Active Heat Dissipation

External harddrives typically get hot. Try to find an external enclosure with active heat dissipation. Active dissipation means that it uses a fan to remove stagnant (hot) air from the enclosure, keeping the harddrive cool and (in theory) increasing the life of your harddrive.

Passive enclosures use heat sinks and are silent and cost less to produce.

Some enclosures offer both active and passive methods.

Build your own External Harddrive

It's easy enough to build your own external harddrive if you're relatively tech savvy.

To do so, simply pair an external enclosure with an internal SATA drive. Typically this would be the way to go especially if you're picky about brands -- and especially if you want an active cooling unit versus a passive one. Active cooling enclosures are more prominent in build-your-own external enclosures.

Note that an internal SATA drive paired with an external enclosure can utilize any external interface (USB, Firewire, or eSATA): it simply depends on enclosure you choose, and what ports are available on your PC.

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