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I will be playing PC games on external memory via a USB 3.0 connection. Ignoring price and memory capacity differences, which of these options is better for gameplay purposes?:

  • a Flash USB (generally better at transferring many small files), or
  • an External Hard Disk Drive (HDD) (generally better at transferring large files)

I've been told that the main downside to gaming externally is slower load times. In general, is loading, mainly heaps of small files or a couple of large files?

If it matters, the type of game I will be playing is Fallout 4, a large open world game.

I'm using a MacBook Pro, Retina, Mid 2012. Running Windows 8.1 via Boot Camp. I have SSD internal storage, but only about 35GB left on the partition for Windows.

Which memory type should I use if I'm gaming externally? Flash or external HDD?

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    Have you ever considered an SSD instead? – nine Aug 9 '15 at 16:21
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    To qualify as USB 3.0 a device only needs to run at a speed higher than USB 2.0 allows, which is not fast at all. Specific devices for comparison will play a role in the answer, as differences between them, even in the same class, can be great. It would also seem that neither will match internal HDD connected with SATA, but who knows, it might prove to be enough. – Deltharis Aug 9 '15 at 16:28
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    You really don't even need that much space anyways. Hell, many people tend to simply invest in a smaller size and install Windows only on that and the rest on an HDD. That makes things a lot speedier. – nine Aug 9 '15 at 16:37
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    Could you clarify your use case? Do you need an external drive because upgrading or replacing an internal is not an option? If you go external you'd need to pay carefuly attention to the USB controller of whatever device/enclosure you're using as they might very well throttle to SATA 3 speeds or lower. – Lilienthal Aug 10 '15 at 14:36
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    I suppose this is on-topic here but you'd be more likely to get in-depth and sourced answers on SuperUser. – Lilienthal Aug 10 '15 at 14:49
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I believe neither are good options.

Running Fallout 4 will most likely keep the drive active for the entire duration of your playtime. Neither external flash nor HDD have sufficient heat dissipation to handle that. You will most likely destroy your drive very quickly.

Unfortunately you probably won't know this is happening because the external drive are typically housed in a box. You will have to take the device apart to notice this.

If you are still considering this, look for a high quality, metal external drive, with an active heat sink (has a fan) and also heat sink fins on the box. However, these are significantly more expensive.

As an alternative, the 1.8"/2.5" format is usually safer. The HDD itself are designed for laptops, and usually generates less heat because the "boxed in" environment are exactly how they operate in a laptop. However, do look for a metal one that feels cool to the touch (heat dissipation), and avoid plastic ones.

Note: your HDD itself will most like be fine, but the enclosure is usually a cheap plastic box with no holes. Cheap plastic electronic + heat is usually a combination to stay away from :)

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Invader Skoodge Aug 10 '15 at 16:41
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    If it wasn't clear from my last comment, further discussion should be done in chat – Invader Skoodge Aug 11 '15 at 13:06
  • @StrixVaria: Righto, clear. Is there any chance the discussion that happened in the last 20 hours could be moved to the chat? [I am aware that comments do not have history, etc, so it's unlikely that they're still stored/accessible] – Jeeva Aug 11 '15 at 13:25
  • @Jeeva Unfortunately, no; comments can only be chat-migrated once per post. – Invader Skoodge Aug 11 '15 at 13:30
  • @StrixVaria Unfortunate, but it makes sense. Thanks! – Jeeva Aug 11 '15 at 13:30
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These are your options in order from best to worst:

Solid State Drive (SSD)

A solid state drive will provide much faster access than a mechanical hard drive. Amazon shows that in August 2015 you can get 250GB external SSD for around $150. According to Game Debate Fallout 4 requires 28GB of hard drive space so you could target an even smaller drive to reduce costs. You may also choose to assemble your own drive by purchasing an internal SSD and a 2.5 inch USB 3 Enclosure to contain the drive. The enclosure should be able to be found for around $10.

You should be able to assemble a 120GB drive for under $70 and a 60GB drive for around $50 from either Amazon or your local computer parts store. My examples above are assuming you are in the USA, but as another example here in Australia I could assemble a 120GB SSD in a USB 3 enclosure for under $90 AUD.

Powered 3.5 Inch Mechanical Drive

A powered external drive will be larger than a portable drive (and not very useful if you are on the go) but it will provide ample space (multiple terabytes) and should perform similar to a mechanical hard drive that you would have found inside a desktop PC a few years ago. Note that these days most "gaming" PCs will be built with Solid State Drives internally.

"Pocket" 2.5 Inch Mechanical Drive

A pocket drive is still usable, and can be found quite readily and cheaply. Be prepared for long loading times and transitions, and also long install times when using Steam as it will have to pause during downloading to wait for all the files to be unpacked to the disk. I had significant success using one of these drives a few years ago to play games under Boot Camp on a MacBook Pro, allowing me to install lots of games but keep a small (20GB) Boot Camp partition.

Flash Drives / Memory Cards

Even though flash drives have no moving parts like an SSD, there is still a large performance difference between the two types of drives, especially when reading or writing multiple files at the same time. The performance can be improved by purchasing a high quality (and expensive) memory stick, but at that stage you would be far better off getting a 120 or 240GB SSD.

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    In August 2015 you should be able to get a 250GB SSD for under $100. – Raimondas the Insane Aug 10 '15 at 7:12
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    +1. Flash drives also have higher failure rates, and can have faster random access than a HDD. – Peter Aug 10 '15 at 8:53
  • A quality flash drive can perform 90MB/s read without too much problem, and its easy to carry. It can very easily outperform an average HDD. – akaltar Aug 10 '15 at 9:32
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    -1 for unsourced and doubtful claims. This answer just outlines the commonly known performance differences between SDD and HDD (3.5/2.5") but the performance and impact of the USB3 enclosure and controller are not even mentioned. I'm also not sure how Steam enters into the equation and I doubt that all flash drives are strictly worse than a connected 2.5" enclosure. – Lilienthal Aug 10 '15 at 14:45
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    Great guide. Talks a lot about price and size, which OP explicitly asks to disregard. – user106385 Aug 12 '15 at 23:20
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Realistically, the speed of the drive won't affect gameplay much. The main benefit to a HDD would be capacity and price, as an external SSD will not run nearly at the speed the price would imply when connected via USB 3.0. I gamed for quite a while on a USB 2 external HDD, and I never experienced any major issues, save for slightly extended load times.

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    Slow HDD performance is awful for games that don't have loading screens. You can encounter a lot of stuttering and freezing while just moving around because it is waiting to load some resource from disk. – dss539 Aug 11 '15 at 13:32
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If you ruled out an SSD due to price, it's very unlikely that you will get a flash drive with adequate performance. There are fast flash drives, yes. But I never saw a really fast flash drive significantly cheaper than a SSD (per GiB).

Also: Flash Drives don't support the TRIM command, so they will get slower over time and there is not much one can do (depending on controller: total wipe and write zeroes). Your use case will delete and write much more than the typical flash drive usage of puting some files there and reading them back, irregularly. So after some time (depending on the amount written during your usage and the free space left on the device) every part of the flash will be used, and there is no way to tell the drive that something is not needed any more. This means on every write the drive has to erase the flash before and copy some data. Performance will be quite bad then.

If you buy a HDD, you should buy a external case with a fan or at least made of aluminium, to spread the heat from the drive.

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An SSD or flash drive is not significantly faster for gaming than a traditional hard drive because game assets are packed into big files in the right order for sequential access, negating the SSD's major advantage.

The answer then is "it doesn't matter", whichever is convenient to you.

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    Yes, but this is not an answer. – o0'. Aug 10 '15 at 12:24
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    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post. – Jonathan Drapeau Aug 10 '15 at 12:39
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    @JonathanDrapeau I beg to differ, it IS an answer. You get no benefit with an SSD or any type of flash for this type of use so there is no point in paying extra to do that. – JamesRyan Aug 10 '15 at 14:17
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    @Timelord64 an SSD uses flash memory. Better quality flash sticks have the same type of wear levelling, the distinction is mainly about marketing and whether it is packaged as a 'stick' or a 'drive' rather than a true difference in capability or performance. I can understand that you might be confused if you think they are two entirely different things. – JamesRyan Aug 10 '15 at 14:21
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    @Mel: Ignoring price, max speed, capacity... It seems like this isn't much of a question, if I'm honest. I'd still root for a (emphasis) good flash drive (see my link, above) or a small SSD in a USB3 enclosure as in open-world or other non-linear games (such as Skyrim, Fallout 4, etc) you can't rely on everything being packed in the correct order for loading, and will get random models loaded at random times. – Jeeva Aug 10 '15 at 18:32
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I'll start off by recognizing that the OP said they were not concerned about price, but then in a comment said they ruled out using an SSD because of price. I think the OP has mistakenly assumed that a spinning disk or flash drive will be cheaper than an equivalently or better performing SSD.

They're wrong, especially given they only need about 64 or 128G, an SSD is the fastest and most economical option. I'm interpreting the OP's need as "I need an external drive for gaming on a tight budget".

The tl;dr version is that spinning disk performance isn't in the same league as flash drives and SSDs. A fast flash drive in the size you need will cost you $140. Instead, for $60 you can buy a cheap SSD that will perform as well as that flash drive, for example the Kingston SSDNow or the OCZ Trion 100. For $75 you can buy an excellent SSD such as the Samsung 850 EVO.

Here's the details.


There's a lot of very cheap, but very slow external drives out there. It's hard to know what's actually inside the enclosure, external drives rarely provide performance information. Let's ignore them and instead focus on putting a bare hard drive into an enclosure.

A decently fast spinning drive will cost you at least $50, for example a Seagate Barracuda, plus another $20 for an enclosure. If price is no object, there is the WD VelociRaptor 600GB, one of the fastest mainstream spinning disk drives, but it's going to cost you $250 and it's going to suck power like nobody's business. You can get a 300GB refurb for about $60. At a max transfer rate of 145Mb/s it's only 1.5 to 2 times faster than the much cheaper Seagate Barracuda. You're just not going to get huge performance gaps with a mature technology like spinning disk drives.

What about a hybrid drive, a spinning disk with a small SSD for cache? In 2012, when SSDs were expensive, they made sense as an economic compromise. In 2015, when SSDs are affordable, they're dead tech. They're only useful when you need a lot of fast disk space on a budget. You can pick one up for about $80. While it will outperform the Velociraptor for small, repetitive, easily cached transfers (usually having to do with the operating system) which will be using the SSD, large or infrequently used files (such as loading a new level) will not do well.

Flash drive performance varies wildly. And you're going to want at least 64 GB to be safe (as a comparison, Battlefield 4 wants 30 GB) which jacks up the price. A fast flash drive of that size is going to be anywhere from $50 to $200 depending on how fast and how big. A Corsair Flash Voyager GTX 128G is a good choice. At $140, it can read three times faster than the Velociraptor.

Here's the "money is no option" lineup from slowest to fastest.

  • Any hybrid drive
  • WD VelociRaptor at $60 to $250 for about 140MB/s
  • Corsair Flash Voyager GTX at $140 for about 450MB/s

Ok, what about an SSD? The OP ruled them out because of price, but there's a number of well performing SSDs for $60. The Kingston SSDNow or the OCZ Trion 100 will both perform better than the Flash Voyager GTX, especially at random reads and writes, at half the price. Bump up to $75-$100 and you can get the amazingly well balanced Samsung 850 EVO.


This is all moot because with a brand new, graphics intensive FPS game like Fallout 4 your bottleneck will likely be your video card. The OP said they have a MacBook Pro Retina Mid 2012 which means, fortunately, a dedicated GeForce GT 650M. This should be better than the minimum requirements. I'm making that assumption based on Battlefield 4 and Arma 3 having a minimum of the inferior GeForce 8800GT. But it's not great.

Before you go spending money on hardware for a game that doesn't exist yet and we don't even know the system requirements, try running a game like Battlefield 4 or Arma 3 and see how that goes.

  • I wouldn't say the "slowest" SSD -- the top end Flash drives are practically small SSD devices (using the same type of memory as SSD even, MLC nand, etc) . With read/write speeds into the 300/400 megabyte per second range recently, they can be on par with current model mid- to low range SSDs. They aren't just for sneakernets anymore. :) – lilbyrdie Aug 11 '15 at 19:45
  • @lilbyrdie It's a moot point for the OP who is concerned about price. That flash drive will cost you at least $150. The SSD will be $50. – Schwern Aug 11 '15 at 23:32
  • Perhaps. SSD + a good enclosure + a good cable -- I've had more enclosures fail than anything over the years -- can add up, in the end. Also, technically, he said to ignore price in the first paragraph. ;) – lilbyrdie Aug 12 '15 at 21:29
  • @lilbyrdie Yeah, I've had particular problems with the WD Elements drives. Move the laptop a bit and they disconnect. I don't have a recommendation for a good enclosure, do you? – Schwern Aug 12 '15 at 21:32
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Why don't you use BOTH.

Introducing the Hybrid Drive! *

You don't really see much in the press about HHDDs these days, and the only company that does them is Seagate, this is because in the majority of cases, users find SSDs to be cheap enough. However there continues to be a small niche in users who want to have fast random access in their humungous storage solutions, the Seagate HHDDs are pretty good.

However I would NOT connect a hybrid drive to a PC using USB3 if at all possible. You would get much better performance by attaching it via a eSATA connector. If your Mac lacks an eSATA connector, I would advise you to fork out for a Thunderbolt-eSATA connector.

*No I don't mean attach a Prius to your laptop.

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    I am fairly sure it's SSHD, not HHDD. – Zeb McCorkle Aug 10 '15 at 18:32

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