Turn Unused Hard Drives & SSDs Into External Drives


Storage devices can last for a very long time when they are looked after. But what about all of the old computers you have discarded over the years? Could their storage devices be reused? They certainly can!

Let’s take a look at how you can turn any HDD or SSD into an external drive that can be used with your current computers, smartphones, and other devices.

What Are HDDs and SSDs?

hard drive internals

Before diving into the work you will have to do to get your external drive working, it makes sense to explore the differences between HDDs and SSDs. While these devices are both used to store data, the way they work couldn’t be more distinct.

  • Hard Disk Drives: HDDs are mechanical devices that use spinning magnetic platters to store their data. An arm moves back and forth along these platters, reading data as they spin beneath it. HDDs are relatively slow and are susceptible to impact damage, though it is possible to recover data from them when they break.
  • Solid-State Drives: SSDs are digital devices that use microchips called NAND flash to store data. While far faster, resistant to damage, and quieter than HDDs, SSDs diminish with the more data that is written to their chips. Alongside this, it can also be much harder to recover data from a broken SSD.

Alongside the differences between HDDs and SSDs, you will find distinct groups of devices within these two categories. For example, some SSDs use a SATA interface, while others use a newer connection called M.2. It will be important to know how your drive connects to a PC before moving onto the next section.

What Will You Need?

What you need to build an external drive

Now that you have an idea of the differences between HDDs and SSDs, it’s time to look at the parts and tools that you will need to build your external drive. The components required will depend on the exact drive you are using.

The Drive

You will need a functioning drive to start this process. The can be an HDD or an SSD, but it needs to work properly and have plenty of life left in it. Of course, you should also choose a drive that doesn’t contain data that you want to keep or belongs to someone else.

The Enclosure

The enclosure is just as essential as your drive, and the type of enclosure you choose will be determined by the drive you have. There are several elements to consider when choosing your external drive enclosure.

  • The Drive Type: The type of drive you are using will dictate the type of enclosure you buy for it. For example, if you have a 3.5” SATA hard drive, you will need an enclosure to fit a 3.5” SATA hard drive. Or, if you have an M.2 SSD, you will need to find an enclosure with an M.2 interface that is the right length for the drive you’re using.
  • The PC Interface: Most external drives use standard USB 3.0 ports to connect to your PC. This limits your transfer speeds to 640 MB/s. If your computer has a USB 3.2 Type-C port, though, you will be able to double this speed to 1280 MB/s. You should pick an enclosure that has the fastest connector that you can use with your other devices.
  • Powering Your Drive: 3.5” hard drives can benefit from having an external power source when they are using a USB 3.0 port, and some enclosures come with this capability. This isn’t required for SSDs.
  • Protecting Your Drive: While hard drives require greater physical protection than SSDs, it makes sense to choose an enclosure that will offer as much protection as possible for whatever drive you use.

Most enclosures come with the cable you will need to use them, but it can be worth checking this before you choose the one you buy.

A Screwdriver

As the last component you will need, it’s time to think about the humble screwdriver. Many drive enclosures will come with a screwdriver, but these are usually uncomfortable and fiddly to use. It’s well worth having your own screwdriver to hand to make this job much easier for yourself.

Building Your External Drive

With all of your parts ready, it’s finally time to construct your external drive. Thankfully, this process is quite straightforward, and most PC users will be able to build their own drive like this within a few minutes.

  • Step 1: Read the Instructions: Your drive enclosure will come with instructions to help you with the build process. Read these before you get started to make the process easier for yourself and ensure that you don’t miss any crucial steps.
  • Step 2: Open the Enclosure: Next, it will be time to open the enclosure. Some external drive enclosures have clips for this, while others will have screws. Refer to your instructions and make sure that you open your enclosure using your screwdriver or your hands.

open drive enclosure
  • Step 3: Install the Drive: Most drive enclosures have a backplane with an interface that connects to your drive attached to it. Gently push the drive into the connector, taking care to make sure that the drive is oriented correctly.
Image Gallery (2 Images)

  • Step 4: Secure the Drive: Both SATA and M.2 drives have screw holes to secure them. 3.5” SATA drives have these on the bottom, while 2.5” SATA drives have them on the sides. M.2 drives have a single screw point at the end opposite the connector. If your enclosure has holes for these screws, install them in the correct positions with a screwdriver to keep your drive secure.
  • Step 5: Close the Enclosure: Now you can close your enclosure and replace any screws that were removed to open it. Congratulations; you now have an external drive!
drive enclosure closed

That was easy, wasn’t it? This isn’t the final step in this process, though.

Using Windows and macOS to Prepare Your External Drive

preparing external drive

If your drive has been used in a computer, it’s likely that you will want to format it to remove the data that was stored within. Most new drives will be ready to go as soon as you install them, but it’s worth taking the time to make sure that you have partitioned your drive to suit your needs before finishing with this project.

You will need to plug your cable into the connector on your external drive and the computer you are using to prepare it before you start.

  • Preparing an External Drive With Windows: Windows gives users several options when formatting and adding partitions to drives. You can read about how to format and partition your drive using Powershell.
  • Preparing an External Drive With macOS: macOS also provides you with the tools to format and prepare your external drive using the built-in Disk Utility tool. This is just as easy as this process in Windows, though it can be more time-consuming.

Using Your DIY External Drive

External drives are extremely useful, providing you with a storage device that you can take with you and use with any computer. You can use your external drive to store video games, backups of important files, and even your media collection. So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to get started making use of your own unused drives.


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