External Hard Drive vs. Flash Drive: What’s the Difference?

When to use a flash vs. external hard drive?

When you are looking for more memory, the options can be overwhelming. There are so many different combinations of drives, cables, brands, and ports you might not know what to do. One of the questions you might be asking is, external hard drive vs. flash drive: What’s the difference? When to use a flash vs. external hard drive? 

An external hard drive and a flash drive.

Overall Findings

Flash Drive
  • More portable.

  • Shorter life-span.

  • Less capacity.

  • Less expensive.

  • Better for transferring files.

External Hard Drive
  • Less portable.

  • Longer life-span.

  • More capacity.

  • More expensive.

  • Better for working on files.

External hard drives and flash drives both have their place. The flash drive is designed for short-term storage and ease of transport. The technology that makes it inexpensive and portable makes it less reliable for constant use but perfect for transferring large files when a network isn't feasible.

Hard drives are designed to read and write files regularly, so they last longer under constant use. They are also more expensive than flash drives, but they have more capacity. Use these to store files, applications, and other tasks and items you regularly use.

Is an External Hard Drive the Same as a Flash Drive?

Flash Drive
  • Small storage capacity.

  • Smaller size.

  • More portable.

External Hard Drive
  • Large storage capacity.

  • Larger size.

  • Less portable.

When most people think of a flash drive, they think about USB pen drives or stick drives. They are small, portable devices that easily plug into standard USB ports. They are so common and inexpensive that companies often give them away as swag. Their portability makes them excellent for transferring large files when using a network isn’t practical.

A hard drive is a larger-capacity external storage unit that plugs into a computer or console to extend long-term storage. These devices typically have more storage capacity, are larger, and aren’t as portable. Their size, capacity, and stability make external hard drives ideal for storing files and applications.

Which Is More Reliable Flash Drive or External Hard Drive?

Flash Drive
  • More physical durability.

  • Long lifespan when not being used.

  • Degrades faster.

External Hard Drive
  • Less physically durable.

  • Degrades slower.

  • Designed for frequent read/write cycles.

A flash drive is more reliable for carrying files from one place to another. That’s because flash drives don’t depend on any moving hardware. So, they are very stable. Even the inexpensive flash drives can survive a fall or rumble around in a box for a year. They are not very reliable for long-term storage, though. 

External hard drives are typically designed to store files and applications for longer than flash drives. Because of the underlying technology in a flash drive, they quickly degrade when you use them repeatedly—external hard drives, whether Hard Disk Drives or Solid State Drives, can stand up to more use. Even SSD external hard drives will degrade faster than HDD ones. 

Which Lasts Longer Flash Drive or External Hard Drive?

This question has a complicated answer because the technology behind flash drives and external hard drives can be the same. There are two external hard drive types, solid-state drives (SSD) and hard disk drives (HDD). While not all HDDs are external hard drives, both flash drives and external hard drives can incorporate SSD technology. HDDs tend to last longer than SSD external drives because the physical storage method is more reliable. The magnetic disks don't degrade the same way solid-state drives do. They do, however, have moving parts that can fail.

The insides of a magnetic hard disk external drive

SSD's come in different formats, QLC, TLC, SLC, and MLC. QLC and TLC are the least expensive, but they also degrade faster than the others. MLC lasts longer, but it is also more costly. SLC lasts the longest, but only the highest-end drives use it because it's so expensive.

Flash drives usually use the least expensive options and degrade much faster than even the better SSD external hard drives. Most SSD external hard drives will last longer than your average flash drive, so they will keep going under regular use for far longer.

Can I Use a Flash Drive Instead of an External Hard Drive?

You can use a flash drive instead of an external drive, but you might not want to. Since a flash drive isn't designed to read and write files over and over again, it will deteriorate much more quickly than an external hard drive would. While the price of a flash drive might be tempting in the short term, it will go bad on you faster than an external drive under normal conditions. They also aren't speedy compared to high-end spinning drives and SSDs.

If you want to only read files from your drive and not write and rewrite to it, a flash drive can last a very long time. For example, if you use a flash drive only to carry around movies or music, your flash drive might last a very long time. In any other situation, it's best to use an external hard drive to expand storage for a computer or a console.

Final Verdict

Both flash drives and external hard drives have a place in a computer's life, but they aren't interchangeable. Both of them can pack a lot of memory into a small package, but the similarities end there.

A flash drive's durability against physical damage and its portability makes it a simple way to carry a file from one place to another. If you decide to work on a flash drive for an extended period, it may give out on you.

An external hard drive thrives when you use it as a working drive. It can stand up to the rigors of daily work. Hard disk drives don't degrade every time you rewrite a file and last longer under everyday use. Solid State Drives tend to be faster, which helps when read and write speed is essential.

  • How do I back up a Mac to an external hard drive?

    You can back up a Mac to an external hard drive using Time Machine. Connect the external drive and go to your Mac's Apple menu > System Preferences > Time Machine > Select Backup Disk. Click Use Disk on your drive, and select Show Time Machine in menu bar. Click the Time Machine icon in the menu bar, and select Back Up Now.

  • How do I back up an iPhone to an external hard drive?

    To back up your iPhone to an external hard drive, you'll first need to locate the current backup. Go to Finder > Locations > Manage Backups. Hold Control and choose a name, and then select Show in Finder. Next, go to Finder and drag the Backup folder to the external hard drive listed under Locations. Rename the new and old backup folders. Your iPhone backups will now go to the external hard drive.

  • How do I transfer photos from an Android phone to a USB flash drive?

    Connect your USB drive to your Android phone and launch the My Files app. Navigate to your photos folder and long-press it. Tap Move or Copy, and then tap the back button to go back to the My Files page. Tap USB Storage 1 > Move Here or Copy Here. When the transfer is complete, unmount the USB drive.

  • How do I encrypt a flash drive?

    To encrypt a flash drive, you can use a tool called Veracrypt. Download and install Veracrypt on your computer, insert the USB drive, and launch Veracrypt. Choose Create Volume > Encrypt a non-system partition/drive > Next. Choose Select Device, click your USB drive, and select OK > Next. Choose Create encrypted volume and format it > Next, and then follow the prompts.

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