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Connecting External Hardware

Even if your computer is built as a standalone unit, you'll likely need to connect external hardware to it. In this tutorial, we look at how to connect extra drives to give more storage capacity, how to set up multiple monitors and virtual desktops to give you more work space, and how to set up printers for when you need hard-copy output.

Connecting External Drives

You can connect one or more external drives when you need extra storage capacity, when you need to back up your computer, or when you need to copy data to or from it.

Making the Physical Connection

These days, most external drives connect via USB, which provides a simple and effective connection. Smaller drives can be powered via the USB connection, which is great for portable drives that you use with laptops or tablets. Larger drives, and those that need more power for greater performance, typically need their own power supply.

If you're buying an external drive with a USB connection, make sure it's USB 3.0 rather than USB 2.0. USB 3.0, assuming your system also has these ports, is much faster than USB 2.0, so USB 3.0 drives can transfer data far more quickly. USB 3.0 ports, which usually have an "SS" marked on their logo, also deliver more power than USB 2.0 ports, enabling you to power a larger drive from your computer rather than using a separate power supply. As you'd imagine, USB 3.0 drives are more expensive than USB 2.0 drives, but the price differential is gradually decreasing.

After you connect a drive to your computer, Windows automatically mounts the drive in your computer's file system, and you can start using it. For example, you can open a File Explorer window and copy files to the drive.

If the drive doesn't appear in File Explorer, you may need to format it, as explained in the next section.

Formatting a Drive

Here's how to format a drive you've connected to your computer:

  1. Right-click or long-press Start to display the shortcut menu.
    Formatting a drive deletes all the files it contains. Before formatting a drive, make sure it contains no files that you want to keep.
  2. Click Disk Management to open a Disk Management window.
  3. Right-click or long-press the drive to display the shortcut menu.
  4. Click New Simple Volume to launch the New Simple Volume Wizard.
  5. Click Next to display the Specify Volume Size screen.
  6. In the Simple Volume Size in MB box, enter the size you want to make the volume. Normally, you'll want to make the volume the full size of the drive, which is the default setting.
  7. Click Next to display the Assign Drive Letter or Path screen.
  8. Select the Assign the Following Drive Letter option button.
  9. Click Next to display the Format Partition screen.
  10. Select the Format This Volume with the Following Settings option button.
  11. Open the File System drop-down menu and choose the file system you want to use.
    The FAT32 file system has extremely wide compatibility, so it is usually a good choice for portable drives. But FAT32 has one limitation you must know about: The maximum file size is 4GB. If you will need to put large video files on the drive, format it as NTFS instead of FAT32.
  12. Open the Allocation Unit Size drop-down menu and specify the allocation unit size if necessary. Usually you'll get good results from using Default, which allows Windows to choose the allocation unit size based on the drive's capacity.
  13. In the Volume Label box, type the name you want to assign to the volume. The default name is New Volume, which you should definitely change. Make your name descriptive so that you can readily identify the drive from it.
  14. Uncheck the Perform a Quick Format check box (which is checked by default) if you want to fully format the drive. Unless you're in a hurry, a full format is a good idea.
    If the Enable File and Folder Compression check box is available, you can check it to turn on compression for the drive. Compression enables you to fit more uncompressed files on the drive but may reduce the drive's performance a little.
  15. Click Next. The Completing the New Simple Volume Wizard screen appears, summarizing the choices you've made.
  16. Review the You Selected the Following Settings list. If you need to make a change, click Back.
  17. Click Finish to finish creating the volume and to format it.

After you format the drive, it appears in the File Explorer window, and you can use it like any other drive.

Configuring an External Drive for Better Performance

Windows enables you to configure an external drive for either quick removal or better performance. Normally, Windows configures USB flash drives, SD cards, and physically small memory devices for quick removal; Windows configures larger drives, such as external hard drives, for better performance.

Better performance uses a technology called write caching, which allows Windows to tell an app that data has been written to disk before it actually has been written. Windows subsequently writes the data to disk while performing other write operations. This improves performance because the app doesn't have to wait for Windows to write the data to disk.

Follow these steps to configure an external drive for better performance (or for quick removal, if that's what you need):

  1. Right-click or long-press Start to display the shortcut menu.
  2. Click Device Manager to open a Device Manager window.
  3. Double-click the Disk Drives heading to display its contents.
  4. Double-click the external drive you want to configure. The Properties dialog box for the drive opens.
  5. Click the Policies tab to display its contents.
    To configure an external drive for better performance, click the Better Performance option button in the Removal Policy box on the Policies tab of the Properties dialog box for the drive.
  6. In the Removal Policy box, click the Better Performance option button. (If you want to configure the drive for quick removal, click the Quick Removal option button instead.)
  7. Click OK to close the Properties dialog box.
After configuring an external drive for better performance, you must use the Safely Remove Hardware and Eject Media feature to eject the drive from your computer's file system before you physically disconnect it. If not, you may lose or corrupt data. This feature is covered in the next section.

Ejecting an External Drive

After using an external drive, you may need to eject it from Windows before physically disconnecting it from your computer.

Whether you need to eject the drive depends on whether the drive is configured for better performance or for quick removal. If you are not certain that the drive is configured for quick removal, eject the drive anyway to make sure that you don't interrupt data transfer.

To eject a drive, click the Safely Remove Hardware and Eject Media icon in the notification area, the icon that shows a device and a green circle containing a white check mark. (If the Safely Remove Hardware and Eject Media icon doesn't appear in the notification area, click Show Hidden Icons, the ^ icon, and then click Safely Remove Hardware and Eject Media.) In the drop-down menu that appears, click the Eject option for the drive you want to remove.