How to Use an External Drive With a Chromebook

To save files locally, here's what to do

Google designed Chrome OS as a lightweight, secure platform for laptops, meaning Chromebooks initially didn't need lots of storage. Now they support Android and the limited storage can be problematic. To help overcome this problem, here's how to use Chromebook with external storage, whether it's an external hard drive or a memory card.

Android the Space Hog

The whole idea behind Chrome OS was to create a platform that supports web-based apps. You didn't need to download and install these apps, which required relatively no space on the Chromebook's local drive. The internal storage, instead, hosted the operating system and your files.

Now that Google Play appears on most modern Chromebooks, Android apps go directly to the internal storage, meaning you need additional space to house your downloaded media, photos, and files. That’s where external storage comes in.

Here are the supported file systems, according to Google:

  • FAT (FAT16, FAT32, exFAT)
  • HFS+ (read-only on journaled HFS+)
  • ISO9660 (read-only)
  • MTP
  • NTFS
  • UDF (read-only)

As shown above, your Chromebook can read and write to any external drive formatted on a Windows-based PC. It can also read a drive formatted on a Mac, but it can’t write. It also supports the Media Transfer Protocol used by media devices, like DSLRs and mobile devices.

Here are the types of external drives supported by Chrome OS:

  • USB hard drives (HDD or SSD)
  • USB thumb drives
  • USB CD-ROM (read-only)
  • USB DVD-ROM (read-only)
  • SD Card
  • MicroSD Card

How to Connect Chromebook to External Storage

There are four ways to connect an external drive, depending on your Chromebook’s configuration:

  • USB-A: The older, rectangular USB port with square corners. You can only insert the male connector one way.
  • USB-C: The newer, smaller USB port with rounded corners. You can insert the male connector up or down.
  • SD card slot: This thin slot typically measures 24mm across. You can use a MicroSD card, but it requires an adapter.
  • MicroSD card slot: This thin slot typically measures 11mm across.
Chromebook USB Ports

How to Access an External Drive on Chromebook

As long as you have an external storage device that has the connections mentioned above, you can connect your drive to your Chromebook. Here's how:

  1. Connect your external drive or insert your card into the appropriate port.

    Chromebook USB and MicroSD Card Ports
  2. Chrome OS detects the drive and presents a notification. Click Open Files App.

    Chrome OS Notification
  3. Alternatively, if you missed the notification, click the Files app located on the shelf.

    Files in Chrome OS.

How to Use Your Chromebook External Hard Drive

With the Files app open, locate your external drive listed on the left. In this example, both a MicroSD card and a thumb drive are available. Select the listed external drive to view its contents.

You can move files to and from the new drive just like you can in Windows using the mouse or keyboard commands. For example, here's how to move screenshots from the Chromebook’s external storage to a USB thumb drive.

  1. In the Files app, select your external drive.

  2. Right-click within the drive’s contents listed on the right, then select New Folder. Alternatively, you can press the CTRL+E to create a new folder.

    Files App Create New Folder
  3. Type the folder’s name and press Enter.

    Naming a folder
  4. Click Images listed on the left. This is where screenshots you capture with your Chromebook will be stored.

    Selecting Images folder.
  5. Select a batch of screenshots by holding down the mouse button to create a rectangle around the files you want to copy or move. Alternatively, you can select the first item, then press Shift and select the other items to add to your selection.

    Release the mouse button to complete the selection.

    Files App Select Files
  6. With your files highlighted, click and hold in the highlighted area to drag them all to the new folder on your drive. If you’d rather just copy and paste, right-click the selected files, then click Copy. You can also press the CRTL+C.

    Files App Copy Files
  7. If you’re using the copy and paste method, go back into the external drive’s new folder and press the CTRL+V to paste. Otherwise, you can click and drag the files from one location to another.

    Files App Paste Files

How to Format the External Storage Drive With Chromebook

If you want to wipe the new drive before transferring your Chromebook’s files, formatting is easy. Here's what you need to do

  1. Open the Files app and select the drive.

  2. Right-click the drive, then select Format Device. Alternatively, click the three-dot More icon in the top right corner.

    Chrome OS Format Drive
  3. In the pop-up window, name your drive using the keyboard (if needed) and select a file type. You only have three options: FAT32, exFAT, and NTFS. If you plan to use the drive on Windows too, select NTFS. Click Erase and Format to proceed.

    Chrome OS Format Drive Options

How to Check the Drive’s Capacity

Unlike Windows, Chrome OS doesn’t provide a visual measurement of the drive’s storage capacity within the Files app. That said, you can still find out how much space you have left.

  1. With the drive already connected, open the Files app and select it.

  2. Click the three-dot More icon in the top right corner.

    The More menu
  3. You’ll see the amount of available space at the bottom of the drop-down menu.

    Chrome OS Find Drive Capacity

Properly Eject a Drive

While you can certainly remove the device at any time, data loss may occur. Instead, you should be sure to properly eject the device to ensure Chrome OS isn’t writing to the drive.

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