Modern videos games are enormous. Gone are the days where an entire AAA game would only take up 2GB of hard disk space (and some of us remember when games used to fit on floppy disks).
With games like Red Dead Redemption 2 stealing upwards of 150GB of our precious disk space, using an external hard drive to store your games has never been a more attractive option.
With many now opting for SSDs as their main boot drives, gamers long for more storage to store games and personal files whilst keeping the speed and responsiveness of a solid-stage OS drive.
USB External Drives offer the flexibility of a flash drive and the high capacity of a standard internal HDD (hard disk drive). They can be an enticing option for both PC and console gamers looking for some more spaces to download games. But, can you use an external USB hard drive for gaming? And more importantly, should you?
Can you use an external hard drive for gaming?
External hard drives, also known as portable hard drives, are portable mass storage devices usually connected by USB or Thunderbolt. Internally, these portable hard drives are essentially internal HDDs in a USB enclosure, making it easier to disconnect and reconnect drives and protect the fragile drives from knocks and bumps.
For PC users, these hard drives, when plugged into your computer’s USB port, will function almost identically to any other storage drive. You can store game files on these drivers and use shortcuts on your desktop to launch them easily.
How to Use an External Hard Drive For Gaming on PC:
Installing Games on to an External Hard Drive
The first thing you’ll need to do when using your brand-new portable drive is to check the ‘Quick Start’ guide included in the packaging. If your drive is advertised as plug-and-play, you can go ahead and plug the drive into an available USB port and it should appear as a storage drive in ‘My Computer’ (or by Locations on Mac).
Some drives may require you to download drivers before use. Check your manual and consult your manufacturer’s website for downloads.
Format your Drive
Next, you’ll want to format your drive. Not only will this clear the drive of any default files left on by the manufacturer, but it will also ensure the drive is formatted to the correct file system.
Most high-capacity drives will come pre-formatted to NFTS or New Technology File System, and this is the default file system used by Windows. We want to avoid the File Allocation Table or FAT32 file system due to its maximum file size of 4GB. Many game’s .bin files (especially those built for 64-bit systems) will exceed this amount, and FAT32 will prevent you from installing many games onto the drive.
NFTS is native to Windows and if your drive needs to be used cross-platform, consider using the exFAT file system. This removes the 4GB limitation while still allowing files to be read on both Windows and Mac.
Once formatted, you will see the drive will have a drive letter allocated to it. Remember this so you know which directory to install games to.
Install PC Games
For demonstration, we’re going to have a look to see how you can install Steam games to portable drives. The process should be fairly similar with other game launchers like Epic Games and Origin, all you’ll need to do is select the external drive as your default install location.
For Steam, you’ll want to select the ‘Steam’ option in the top toolbar and navigate to ‘Settings’. From there, you’ll be looking for the ‘Downloads’ pane in the sidebar, where you will find the first option ‘Steam Library Folders’.
Using the drop-down menu, select the drive letter assigned to your portable hard drive. Hit ‘New Folder’ to create a folder to store your games and then hit ‘Select’ to add the install location to your Steam Library.
When installing a new game from scratch, you’ll be greeted with a ‘Choose location for install:’ option. Select your external drive and it will install to your external hard drive.
Why should you use an external hard drive for gaming?
Using external hard drives gives you a boost storage capacity to install your games to your drive. It’s perfect for those using a lower-capacity SSD for their OS install, so that gamers avoid clogging up their smaller drive.
Another reason is portability. Using a portable drive will allow you to take your game installs to other devices, such as at a relative or friend’s house. Game launchers like Steam will require you to log in, but you should be able to access your games library from multiple devices.
Why shouldn’t you use an external hard drive for gaming?
If you move games to external drives, you won’t be able to play them if you don’t have the drive with you. If you’ve left your HDD at a friend’s house, you will have to re-install the game on your internal drive and risk not having access to your game saves.
If you disconnect your hard drive or the USB cable falls out while playing, your game will crash instantly, and you risk doing permanent damage to the drive.
A portable mechanical hard drive is bound to be subject to more knocks and drops. Therefore, external HDDs are more prone to hard drive failure due to physical damage, potentially risking data loss. Internal HDDs are much safer.
Finally, external hard drives tend to be more expensive than internal ones. As manufacturers pump money into designing enclosures, packaging, and marketing, prices for external drives tend to be higher than equivalent internal drives. Internal components as a whole tend to be cheaper than mass-market friendly devices like portable drives.
Which external hard drive is best for gaming?
There are two main limiting factors affecting your gaming performance when using USB portable drives: the speed and type of the drive and the speed of the interface.
Using a mechanical hard drive can lead to slow performance in games – leading to texture issues and long load times. The speed of the hard disk drive matters also. Performance is going to worse on a 5400RPM hard drive than a 7200RPM one.
An external SSD helps solve the limitations of mechanical drives, delivering much faster speeds and therefore improved gaming performance. However, portable SSDs are much more expensive per GB than mechanical hard drives, potentially causing another capacity issue later down the line.
The speed of the USB connection can also be a bottleneck for gaming performance. Internal drives use either the SATA III interface providing 500MB/S read/write speeds throughput or PCIe (for M.2/nVME SSDs) clocking up to read speeds of 3GB/s and write speeds of 2GB/s.
USB 2.0 drives have an effective throughput of only 35MB/s. USB 3.0 has a transfer speed of up to 500MB/s. This hits the limit of what an HDD can achieve. However, USB 3.0, may be a bottleneck for SSDs.
For the best gaming performance with external SSDs, you’ll want to turn to USB 3.1 as this interface supports speeds of up to 10Gbps or 1250MB/s. Therefore, the best external drives for gaming are portable SSDs with a USB 3.1 connection.
Can I use external hard drives for my PS5/Xbox Series X/S?
Technically, yes. You can use USB hard drives to store games from the PS4 and XBOX One eras. These are games designed for the mechanical hard drives installed in those last-gen consoles and so will work fine running from the USB interface.
However, both the PS5 and Xbox Series X use propriety ultra-fast SSDs and developers who design games exclusive for next-gen consoles will want to take advantage of the fast drive speeds without worrying about backwards compatibility. Therefore, both Sony and Microsoft have made it impossible to install next-gen games onto portable hard drives. You can, however, install PS4 and XBOX One games.