How to Optimize Data Transfer Speeds to and From External Drives

Transferring data between a PC’s internal storage and an external drive is one of the most common tasks a user performs. Photos, videos, important files, and data backups; they all need to be transferred to and from, sometimes multiple times.


That’s why slow transfer speeds can be so frustrating. No one wants to wait ten minutes for a few gigabytes of data to transfer, and it can be particularly troublesome if you’re late for a meeting or appointment and need the data now. Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to improve transfer speeds.

1. Close Some Running Apps

The more apps you have running on your computer, the more resources your system is using. If you’re using an older computer, with limited resources, closing apps that you don’t need anymore will speed up data transfer to and from external devices.

2. Set Your USB Drive to the Better Performance Option

Windows defaults USB drives to use a “Quick removal” data transfer policy. This disables write caching, which slows down transfer speeds, but lets you disconnect a device safely without using the “Safely Remove Hardware” prompt.

Follow these steps to disable the Quick removal feature and improve your data transfer speed:

  1. Launch Control Panel.
  2. Head to System and Security > Administrative Tools and open Computer Management.
  3. From the left-hand menu, select Disk Management.
  4. Right-click the drive’s icon and select Properties.
  5. In the Policies tab, select the Better performance option. If your device supports it, check the Enable write caching on the device feature.
  6. Click OK to save the new settings.

Remember, if you enable this feature, you will have to remove the device from within Windows before unplugging it. Failure to do so can result in data loss.

To make this easier for you, right-click on your desktop and create a new shortcut, then enter the following as its path:

%windir%System32control.exe hotplug.dll

This creates a shortcut that takes you directly to the Safely Remove Hardware menu.

3. Change the File System

The file system you use to format your drive can have an impact on performance. Many come from the factory with conservative formatting that allocates data in small chunks, which in turn maximizes the drive’s storage capacity. Increasing the size of these chunks, however, can improve performance.

If you use Windows, you’ll want to use the NTFS file format with an allocation size of 64 kilobytes. This is the quickest configuration for a modern Windows PC. If you also need to use the drive with DOS, Mac OS X, Linux, or a device like your TV, FAT32 is the right choice, and it too can be set to an allocation size of 64 kilobytes.

Formatting via Windows is simple. Right-click the USB drive, and click Format. A menu will open in which you can change the file system and allocation unit size. Set each to what you desire, then click Start to begin formatting. Remember, as with any format, this will delete all data on the drive – make sure nothing important is on it before you begin!

4. Disable USB Selective Suspend

In Windows 10, the USB Selective Suspend feature is designed to extend your laptop’s battery life. It works by putting your USB devices in a low-power state when you’re not using them.

However, the USB Selective Suspend feature might cause USB port malfunctions such as Unknown USB device or USB ports randomly disconnecting. In this case, it’s better to disable it:

  1. Right-click the Battery icon on the taskbar and select Power Options.
  2. Select Change plan settings > Change advanced power settings.
  3. Extend the USB settings menu.
  4. For USB selective suspend setting, select Disabled and click Apply > OK to save the new settings.

5. Disable Legacy Mode in BIOS

Extremely slow transfer speeds are sometimes caused by a BIOS feature called USB Legacy Mode. This feature is meant to provide compatibility with old USB devices that otherwise might not work, but it can restrict transfer speeds.

The exact steps for disabling Legacy Mode will depend on your motherboard, but here are some guidelines. First you’ll need to enter the BIOS, which in most cases is performed by pressing F12 or Del when your computer boots (if you get to the Windows loading screen, it’s too late; restart and try again).

Once in BIOS, look for an Advanced or Drives section, and then look for the Legacy USB Support setting. It’ll be either disabled or enabled; if enabled, disable it. Then save your settings and restart your PC.

For more specific instructions, consult the support website of the company that made your motherboard or, if you own a name brand PC, consult the brand’s support page.

Note that disabling Legacy Mode could make some aging devices, particularly keyboards and mice, non-functional.

6. Upgrade to USB 3.0

While the improved USB standard, USB 3.0 has been around for a while, many people are still using their 2.0 devices. The 3.0 devices may be a bit more expensive, but it’s worth it to upgrade your device.

As long as your computer supports USB 3.0, you shouldn’t have any problem speeding up the USB data transfer on Windows.

Desktop users can upgrade by buying a new motherboard or, if your current motherboard still serves your needs, buying and installing a USB 3.0 PCIe card. Laptop users can upgrade using ExpressCard; however, many laptops do not support this feature, so you may have no choice but to buy an entirely new system.

7. Replace an Old Drive With a New One

Solid-state drives become slower as they age because repeated read/write cycles wear down the available cells of memory, rendering some inoperable. The drive’s controller can compensate for this, but doing so takes more thought on its part, thus decreasing speed. Eventually, after heavy wear, the drive will stop working altogether.

This is not really an issue for consumer SSDs, but flash drives are built to a low price point and often not rated for as many read/write cycles as an internal drive. Most users still won’t manage to eat through a significant portion of a flash drive’s life before it’s lost, broken or succumbs to some other death, but heavy use can wear the drive down.

If your drive is slow, and the typical solutions do not work, replacing it may be the only option.

Speed Up Your Transfers

These are just a few tips to ensure smooth data transfer from and to external devices on your Windows 10 computer. You should combine upgrading to USB 3.0 and tweaking your system settings for best results.

Depending on the files, using an external device to transfer data might not be the best idea. There are more efficient methods you can use to move your important files.

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