External hard drives are easy to connect, hold a lot of data and can be stored off site.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983


Turn a bare drive into an external unit for $19.99

November 13, 2011

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2011, The Post-Standard

Forget floppy disks -- if you even remember floppy disks -- and blank CDs or even blank DVDs. Backing up is not hard to do any more.

You simply use an extra disk drive or two. Floppies are dinosaurs. CDs don't have the capacity to hold your important files any longer, and even DVDs can't store enough stuff these days. (Early this year, before leaving on a long trip, I backed up all my photos on DVDs and ended up burning 27 double-density disks. I'll never volunteer to do that again.)

External hard drives make up the secret sauce for our backup recipe. They're easy to connect (you just plug in a USB cable), hold a lot of data and can be stored off site, away from your computer. This gives you a safe backup if something like a fire or flood ruins your home or office.

But external 3.5-inch (standard size) hard drives carry a penalty. They're more expensive than bare drives because they need a case and a power supply. Making the situation worse is a practice by Chinese factories, where nearly all hard drives are made, to cheapen their products by skimping on the quality of the power supplies for external drives and by leaving out once-ubiquitous cooling fans.

This almost guarantees that many of the cheap 3.5-inch external hard drives that are flooding the market will be less reliable than bare drives, which use the beefier power supplies within computers and are nearly always fan-fed as well.

Smaller external drives with 2.5-inch platters, the size laptops use, have another power-supply problem. Nearly all of them are powered through their USB cable by the computer's own USB circuitry. If this gets overloaded -- something that can easily happen -- the drive can fail for lack of power. And all of them lack a cooling fan.

All in all, this is a bad situation indeed. But it has an easy fix. Suppose you could use any old (or new) bare hard drive as an external drive? All you'd need is a way to plug it into something like a docking station that could sit on your desk. When you're not using it, you could pop it out and store it in a safe place.

Sound like something somebody should make? You're right. In fact, companies have been making hard drive docks for years. Geeks loved them, but they were too expensive for everyone else. But now they're cheap enough for everybody.

The model I like is only $19.99 from NewEgg. It's the Rosewill RX-DU101 USB. 2.0 Docking Station. You just slide a bare hard drive (both sizes will fit) into a slot at the top of the chunky dock and turn the unit on. Turn off the dock and pop the drive out for storage.

The Rosewill dock has a minor limitation -- its drive-interface chip can't handle bare drives of more than 2 TB -- but otherwise it's splendid. (And let's be straight about this -- 2 TB, or terabytes, is 2,000 gigabytes. That's a lot. But if you need a docking station that can handle 3 TB drives, get the Rosewill RX-DU300 for $10 more.)

Go directly to the NewEgg page for the Rosewill dock with this shortened link: tinyurl.com/4ykg98l. NewEgg usually ships free.

Note: Since this article was written, hard drive prices have tripled because of the floods in Thailand, where two-thirds of all hard drives are made. They should come back down in a few months.