What is a Wireless Hard Drive?

Is a Wireless External Hard Drive Really Worth the Extra Money?

A grey colored wireless external hard drive

 Vincent Huijgens / EyeEm, Getty Images

An internal hard drive is essential to your PC or Mac. It's where your operating system, software, and other files are stored. Alongside that, it's often useful to have an external hard drive that plugs in via USB, so you can backup your files elsewhere in case the original device fails.

One step further is to use a wireless external hard drive to store your files without having to plug it into your desktop or laptop. Here's everything you need to know about wireless hard drives and why they're useful purchases for many people. 

What Is a Wireless External Hard Drive?

A wireless external hard drive looks a lot like a regular external hard drive. It's a standard hard drive placed inside its own case so it's safe to exist outside of your computer. The difference here is how it connects to everything else. They're designed to be powered via a physical cable yet mostly be independent of needing any other cables or physical tethering. 

All wireless external hard drives come with a power cable, but sometimes that's all they offer. It depends on the type of wireless external hard drive you buy, with different manufacturers (such as Western Digital and Seagate) offering different features. 

Some wireless external hard drives may include extra cables for occasional connecting to a USB socket or for plugging into your Wi-Fi router via an ethernet cable. Other wireless external hard drives create their own network so it works completely independently of your wireless network if you want it to. 

Wireless external hard drives also vary in size, with some more portable than others. It's worth researching and considering exactly what you need it for, much like with a regular external hard drive. 

While a traditional external hard drive is limited because it requires you to physically plug it into your computer or other devices, a wireless external hard drive is a lot more flexible. 

You can place it anywhere in your home (provided it's connected to your Wi-Fi network) and still access it from all your devices. Like the best technology, it's the kind of thing you can install and not think too much about again. 

How Does a Wireless Hard Drive Work? 

The hard drive part of a wireless external hard drive works exactly the same as inside your computer. It's how it connects to your system that changes its nature. 

It can connect either directly to your Wi-Fi network (such as by plugging it into your router) or by creating its own network for you to join with your devices. 

In many cases, it takes a matter of minutes to set up, then you're good to go. Simply join it with other devices like you would a regular Wi-Fi network, such as by entering a password. It'll even show up as a separate hard drive on your PC or Mac so you can easily browse your files just like if it was right next to you. 

Some of the latest wireless external hard drives also have NFC technology built-in so you can touch your NFC-supported smartphone or tablet to the hard drive and immediately browse your files without having to join the Wi-Fi network. 

Why Use a Wireless External Hard Drive?

A hard-wired solution like a conventional external hard drive is certainly cheaper, but that doesn't mean it's better. There are plenty of great reasons for why a wireless external hard drive can be a better option, depending on your situation. 

  • Flexibility: If you have a laptop you move around the home often, you don't have to worry about taking the external hard drive around with you. It'll stay connected at all times without you needing to plug and unplug it often. 
  • Worldwide use: Many wireless external hard drives are accessible from any Wi-Fi network, meaning you could be located somewhere else in the world, away from home, and simply log into your hard drive to access key files. It's like your own personal cloud service, but without worrying the company will close down or leak your data. 

Make sure your security settings are up to date and safe so strangers can't do the same thing.

  • Streaming capabilities: Most wireless external hard drives don't just offer networking capabilities — they also offer ways in which you can stream your media files across devices. Depending on your home setup, that could mean streaming all your family photos to a smart photo frame, using it to stream your iTunes library, or simply giving you a place to store all your home movies that's easily accessible from any device. 
  • Multiple computers can use it: Because it's like anything else on your wireless network, multiple people can use it at the same time. You can back up files to it while your partner is streaming a film from it. You're not constrained to just one computer using it like you would be with a regular external hard drive. 
  • It's ideal for a small business: Many large businesses use NAS devices to keep their data safe, yet accessible by all the computers within the office. Such units are a central location for all your data, but they're often expensive and complex. For a small business, a wireless external hard drive is a good inexpensive alternative anyone can figure out. It'll keep the company data safe while making it easy for working collaboratively.

Wireless Hard Drive Buying Tips

  • Capacity: Make sure you buy a wireless external hard drive with a larger capacity than you need. Plan ahead and future proof how much space you might require. 
  • Needs: You should also consider what you need it for. Do you need it for music files or backups of important documents? That affects the capacity you might need, as well as the wireless speeds you should be looking for when researching the item. 
  • Features: While it's always worthwhile buying a larger capacity, don't buy a hard drive with more features than you require; you won't need streaming capabilities and apps when you're planning on just backing up your laptop's hard drive regularly. 
  • Security: Remember to set up the security features correctly when you first get it. The main disadvantage to a wireless external hard drive is the risk of someone else accessing it. With a strong password, this is far less likely to occur.