At the beginning of this month, I received a frantic phone call from a long time friend who teaches ninth grade English. She had just been given the news that she would have to start teaching from home. Her school district gave out Zoom accounts and external hard drives to some of the teachers in order to have them transfer their lesson plans from their school computers to the personal devices they have at home, and sent them on their way.
My friend never had to use an external hard drive before since she saved everything to the computer she used at work or on to a Google Drive account. She was nervous about using it incorrectly, breaking it, or even just finding it on her computer.
This is a reality for thousands of teachers and employees who are being asked to learn new skills at home without the aid of onsite IT help. If you’re one of many folks who are suddenly asking “what is this thing?” and “how will it be helpful to me?” and “I hope I don’t break it”—all while trying to schedule online lesson plans, big meetings, or just trying to continue your connection with your students—you’re not alone! Lots of folks are dealing with this, and we’re here to help with a guide for setting up and protecting your new hard drive.
A Guide to Setting Up Your First External Hard Drive
During this COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have found ourselves in situations where we are handed external hard drives to keep our files safe. We hope these tips will help you understand how to best utilize your external hard drive and protect your data.
While it might seem like a no brainer, the first step for setting up your hard drive is to plug it into your computer. An external hard drive typically has one or two cords, usually one for the computer which transfers the data, and another that may also go into your computer or an electric plug to power the hard drive. Small, external, portable hard drives usually need only one cable for both data and power.
Know What’s On Your External Hard Drive
Store only what’s needed. External hard drives are simple: you plug them in, they appear on your computer, and you can simply click and drag your files onto them to copy the files onto the hard drive. But it’s important to monitor what’s on your external hard drive. You can do this by periodically checking your drive to make sure your files are up to date and still needed.
To find where a connected external drive is located on your Mac, try opening Finder. You can do this either by clicking the default Finder icon at the bottom left end of your Dock, or by pressing Command + Space bar, and searching in Finder, or by pressing Shift + Command + C. Once Finder is open, you should see your drives listed either immediately or in the left-hand navigation column under “Locations.” From here, you can click on specific drives to view their contents.
For a Windows computer, you may see variations depending on the version of Windows you are using. In general, you will find your drives listed in File Explorer by clicking on Computer or This PC in the left-hand navigation bar. If you are unsure on how to open File Explorer, try looking for it in your Start Menu. You can also try clicking on your desktop and pressing Windows Key + E together. Once you have located the drives, you should be able to click on specific drives to view their contents.
Another important thing to remember when reviewing the files on your external hard drive is to delete duplicates. Occasionally we will create a copy of a project or create a final edit of a video and have multiple saved versions of the same file. Deleting the duplicates you do not need can help your drive run faster and free up space for more files. You can manually check your files for duplications or use an application that will find and delete duplicate files on your drive.
Learn How to Clean Your Drive
To keep an external hard drive clean you must clean both the hard drive itself as well as the area around the actual computer. Most important is to keep your drive and surrounding areas free of dust. Keeping the airflow in your device free of dust or other debris makes it less likely to overheat. If you’ve already run your hard drive in a dusty environment, compressed air is the best cleaning tool for remedying your situation.
To know where to blow the compressed air you should look for the fan vent, check where the USB ports are, and find other spots on the external hard drive that could collect dust over time.
Finally, it’s important to keep the area around your external hard drive uncluttered to allow for maximum airflow. Be sure to move anything around your drive that may be blocking its airflow like books, papers, etc.
While storing information in the cloud has become second nature to most, there’s still nothing like having everything saved on a physical device. A 3-2-1 backup strategy means having at least three total copies of your data, two of which are located locally but on different types of media (like an external hard drive), and at least one copy that is offsite. So, if you have your files on your computer and your hard drive (which you should store separately from your computer when not in use), you need one other copy stored separately from your house. That’s where the cloud comes in.
There are numerous cloud backup services that will service your computer and your attached drives. We’re partial to our own, of course, and, with Backblaze’s Yearly and Forever Version History features, you can back up your external hard drive easily without having to worry about plugging it in every 30 days.
Keep Your Operating System Up to Date
Your operating system (OS) is the interface of the computer that your external hard drive connects to. We have all hit “remind me later” on an update dialog from our computer at some point in our lives, but updating your OS will ensure that your computer is secure, that your system can run better, and that hard drives are able to properly connect to your files. Updating your OS can vary depending on what kind of computer you have. The best place to look for how to update your OS is in your system’s preferences.
Depending on the age of your computer, however, you should reach out to your local IT person before updating. Some older computers are not able to run, or run very poorly on newer systems.
Prepare for a Drive Failure
Don’t wait until it’s too late. The average hard drive manufacturer’s warranty is only three to five years, and budget hard drives can be even less. This number does not take into consideration physical damage, make or model, or conditions that they are stored in.
When using an external hard drive, you have to prepare for the day that it fails. There are several different ways you can monitor your external hard drive’s health. When it’s near its end, you’ll see or hear the signs like strange clicking or screeching noises, slower performance, and encountering lots of errors when trying to open folders on the drive. You can manually check the status of your drives on your computer.
For a Windows computer, you’ll use a simple command prompt that will tell your computer where to look and what to check. Just right-click the Start menu on your computer, select Run, and type “cmd” or type “cmd” into the search bar. In the Command Prompt window that opens, copy and paste “wmic diskdrive get model,status” without the quotation marks and hit enter. This command will run and it will return “Pred Fail” if your drive is not performing, or “OK” if the drive is performing well.
For a Mac computer, you can monitor the status of your external hard drive by opening Disk Utility by going to Applications and then Utilities. Next, you will click on the drive you would like to test to see how it’s performing. Once you click the drive you would like to check on in the top right corner, click on First Aid. If your drive is performing well, you’ll be able to scroll until you find where it says the volume appears to be OK. If it is not performing well, this process will automatically notify you of any problems like file corruption, an external device not working properly, or that your computer won’t start up. Disk Utility will not detect or repair all problems that a disk may have, but it can give you a general picture.
There are tools or apps you can download to monitor your external hard drive’s health on a Mac using S.M.A.R.T (Self-Monitoring, Analysis, and Reporting Technology) diagnostics. One tool that does a good job is an app called DriveDx, which costs $20 (but you can test it out with a free trial first). DriveDx will help you continuously monitor your drive with a menu bar item that you can pull down and check the status of your drive.
Starting out with an external hard drive is exactly like starting out with any piece of technology you might own. The more you educate yourself on the ins and outs of taking care of it, the better it will run for you, hopefully. But if something bad were to happen, you should always have a backup plan (we suggest Backblaze, but you probably already know that) to protect your new piece of equipment.
Are you a hard drive expert? Are there any tips you would like to share with beginners? Be sure to share them in the comments below.