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What are the power-related limitations of a USB-powered 2.5" hard drive enclosure? Some external hard drives require an extra power source, while my current one does not require one.

Is there a certain limitation (Disk speed/RPM, storage size (500 GB>), specific power consumption) for enclosures where the power source is via the USB?

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Generally, no

Specifically, some enclosures can have limits relating to the SATA/IDE controller built into the enclosure.

All 2.5 inch HDDs I've seen have roughly the same power consumption (depending on 5200 or 7200 RPM mainly). Every single one I could operate with the 2 USB cables included with the external hard drive cases. If I plug it into the back of the PC I often only needed one USB cable. Using plugs on USB hubs will often cause problems, though.

USB sockets, per specification, can output up to 500 mA.

Practically 2.5" hdds could use from 600 to 1100 mA for running up. The high power consumption for this short time is - most of the time - allowed by motherboards. When running they will need about 250 to 400 mA, so they are way into the USB specification there.

3,5" hdds will NEVER work from USB alone, since they need +12V power and for a conversion there just aren't enough ampers!

  • Sorry if I didn't phrase it correctly, but my external hard drive enclosure only has 1 cable - a USB one. Usually they give you a cable that splits into two USB plugs, or one USB cable and one power cable that connects to a power socket, but this one just has one USB cable, and I was wondering whether it would be able to power a 500 or 700GB drive. (Right now it powers 320GB drives perfectly.) – JFW Jul 13 '11 at 8:18
  • Of course, why not? 500 and 700GB drives can still have the same amount of platters (better density). Theres nothing speaking against it. – sinni800 Jul 14 '11 at 20:23
  • How about using USB C? would that allow for excluding the external powersource? – Whitecat Oct 17 '17 at 17:21
  • Pretty much, even for 3.5 inch HDDs. As USB-C (3.1) can deliver up to 100 watts at 20 volts so it can even power a whole computer (within 100w of course). I haven't found an enclosure that can power using the USB-PD (power delivery) spec in USB-C in a short search, but they might start widely existing at some point. The point being normal PCs having USB-C ports with high power delivery as a regular thing. EDIT: found one g-technology.com/products/g-drive-usb-c , it's branded for MAC but should work on Windows PCs with PD just fine. – sinni800 Oct 19 '17 at 10:09
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A few third party 2.5" enclosures I've bought have included "Y" cables with an extra USB connector to help it draw additional power; a Google Images search shows lots of examples.

Even with these enclosures however, from my own experience 2.5" hard drives can get by with the rated power in a single typical USB port, even in the mean old days when USB 1.0 was exciting and 8.4GiB drives seemed luxuriously accommodating. If the enclosure uses Parallel ATA, it can also accept 1.8" adaptors and Microdrives without power issues.

This isn't the case with 3.5" drives, which weren't designed with portable computers and batteries in mind, but rather for desktops with larger and more consistent power supplies.

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If the drive is a 2.5" drive, there should be no limitation. After all, virtually all of them can plug into the same laptop using the same amount of power, regardless of size or speed, no?

I will say this: USB is +5V, and if your USB port is not well-engineered (or not working properly) to put out this expect power, you could have problems as some here have had in the past. We have seen USB ports in questions putting out less than +5V, causing problems for the user. The solution in that case is often a powered USB hub.

Check out this previous post: How do you check how much power a USB port can deliver?

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