How to make your own external hard drive (and why you should)

How to make your own external hard drive (and why you should)


It is difficult to buy an external hard drive with reasonable performance these days. Many USB options use a slow hard drive technology called SMR which can be difficult to spot. If you want good transfer speeds at a reasonable price, you’ll have to do it yourself. That’s how.

Why build your record?

Since at least 2020, external USB hard drive manufacturers have been using a technology called Shingled Magnetic Recording (SMR) in their products that increases capacity and reduces costs, but drastically limits the performance of the drives. SMR uses a special method to partially overwrite previously written tracks on a hard drive (such as shingles on a house roof). In contrast, conventional magnetic recording (CMR) hard drives use conventional parallel writing methods that don’t overlap tracks, so they don’t suffer the same performance penalties.

Manufacturers love SMR because the units require fewer platters than a CMR-based unit and this saves them money. Unfortunately, these same manufacturers have also sparked controversy by selling these arguably inferior SMR drives, especially in USB hard drives, without publicly advertising this fact.

A trace diagram of CMR and SMR in hard drives
Writing tracks to hard drive with CMR (top) and SMR (bottom). Seagate

Fortunately, you can take the guesswork out of buying an external USB hard drive by building a drive yourself. Using a CMR clearly marked from a reputable supplier and an affordable USB hard drive enclosure, you’ll be up and running in no time.

It is important to note that there are many avenues you can take when it comes to rolling your external storage, including choosing different drive sizes (2.5 ″), SSDs or RAID arrays that greatly increase performance. For now, we will continue to build a simple USB 3.0 external USB drive that uses a 3.5 “CMR hard drive. It will be ideal for home backups.

First, choose an internal hard drive model

The heart and soul of your custom USB hard drive is an internal SATA hard drive, the kind you’d fit into a custom PC or NAS. In this situation, we will focus on traditional 3.5 ″ drives because they offer a wide variety of storage options at a reasonable price and performance.

What’s critical when choosing a hard drive is to choose one that uses CMR technology (and avoid SMR drives, as described above). While some manufacturers aren’t open about which drives use SMR, Seagate provides a handy chart showing which of its hard drive models use CMR or SMR technology.

In our drive build, we chose an 8TB IronWolf hard drive for its balance of capacity and price. As of April 2022, all IronWolf drives are using CMR, which is what you want for a higher performance storage or backup drive. They also run at 7200 RPM, which results in faster access times.

And like almost all modern hard drives, IronWolf drives use the Serial ATA (SATA) connection standard. This is important to note because of the attachment we will choose below.

Of course, you can choose any 3.5 ″ SATA hard drive you want. Just make sure it uses CMR for its recording technique and know that sometimes manufacturers label it “PMR” instead, for parallel magnetic recording. PMR is basically the same as CMR.

So, choose a USB hard drive case

Now that you’ve chosen your 3.5 ″ SATA hard drive, it’s time to buy a USB enclosure. There are dozens on the market, mostly from generic OEM suppliers with different badges. Choosing the USB enclosure has a big effect on performance because each enclosure includes an interface card which translates between the SATA standard used by the hard drive and the USB standard used to connect it to the PC. We’re aiming for USB 3.0 enclosures here for price reasons, but it’s also possible to find enclosures that support faster standards like USB 3.2.

For our build, we chose ORICO Toolfree 3.5 “external hard drive enclosure USB 3.0 to SATA, because it includes everything you need (apart from hard drive), it is easy to assemble, supports speed of USB 3.0 transfer, includes a power button and retails for just $ 24 or so.

The ORICO case is a worthwhile purchase for a non-rugged environment, such as a desktop in a clean, air-conditioned home. Otherwise, it has a few drawbacks, including a plastic casing that doesn’t conduct heat well and no mechanical mounting inside the drive (the drive slides into place easily, as you’ll see later). If you want a slightly more rugged case for high-performance environments, you might want to try the Inateck 3.5 “Hard Drive Enclosure (for around $ 30) instead.

Another alternative to the metal enclosure is the OWC Mercury Elite Pro storage cabinet. It supports USB 3.2 and is a little more expensive at around $ 55. Each of these enclosures will work on PC, Mac or Linux once formatted there. drive you will insert with the correct file system.

Finally, put them together

Now that you have the USB case and the SATA drive, it’s time to put the two parts together. For the ORICO case, all you need to do is take off the plastic cover, insert the hard drive into the SATA slot inside, then replace the case. You will notice that nothing protects the hard drive aside from the SATA connector and the plastic case around it, so to make the fit more snug, use the foam inserts that come with the ORICO case to position the drive in place.

A USB hard drive being assembled.

As discussed above, the ORICO design has pros and cons. The upside is that it’s more like a SATA dock, where it would be easy to swap out hard drives if needed. The downside is that it is not mechanically safe for harsh environments. Whether you’ve purchased the Inateck or OWC case for a more secure fit, mounting the hard drive is easy with just a few screws.

Once assembled, connect the drive to your PC or Mac using the supplied USB cable and turn it on. In some cases, the hard drive may already be formatted and ready for use. If not, you can use Disk Management on Windows or Disk Utility on Mac to partition and format the drive. On Windows, you should choose the NTFS file system and choose AFS on a Mac. If you want to format the drive for use on Mac and Windows, choose exFAT as the file system.

For backups on Windows, the built-in File History feature is simple and easy to use. On a Mac, you can use the new USB drive with Time Machine to easily make backups. Enjoy your new journey!

RELATED: How to use Windows File History to back up your data

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