I intend on purchasing a fast laptop (possibly a gaming laptop). I am a programmer, so I enjoy using different programming environments (visual studio with windows, linux, etc) which is why I require a good amount of memory and performance because VS very greedy. My original plan was to dual-boot ubuntu and windows 8.1 on a single laptop, but then I started looking up external hard drives on newegg and amazon. I'm wondering if it would just be easier to purchase 2 different external hard drives, and have a unique programming environment on each drive. Ideally, I would plug in the hard drive in order to switch between operating systems. This also sounds good to me because I can then take these hard drives and boot them up on school computers.

My question is, are there any limitations or concerns I should have in regards to using external hard drives? Should I favor external SSD drives over regular old HDD? Is there a performance penalty I have to pay for using an external hard drive over an internal hard drive? Previously I would boot linux from a flash drive, but this required me to enter bios and mess with the boot order. If I use an external hard drive, will it also have to be booted up through bios?

Here is a link to the laptop I am looking at purchasing: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16834152691

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There are speed limitations, given by the use of an external interface that may not achieve the same speed as internal ones (the most common case is USB3, which has various speeds - all well under the typical SATA speeds). It is also true that magnetic drives will not suffer the difference that much, while SSD are way more usable as external boot drives. There are no other limitations, since all major operating systems can now boot from either an internal or external drive.

As a personal experience, I installed Windows 8 to boot from an external SSD connected via USB, and it was quite fast - somewhat slower than from an internal drive, but quite usable.

In any case booting the computer from an external drive will likely require fiddling with the BIOS settings, either because the computer is a little old and will not automatically boot from external devices first or too new and will have secure boot enabled. There has been a batch of BIOSes configured to boot from external devices first, if available - just before the introduction of secure boot. I don't know which will be the case with the MSI laptop, but I think it will have a secure boot you will want to disable for your external boot devices to work.

You should favor SSD for their speed, and HDD for their capacity - ideally, you would have BOTH; one for booting the OS and the other to keep your documents on.

  • to piggy back some: have the internal (ssd) serve as a OS chainloader (minimal OS install for both ) and have the external(s) serve as dedicated environments (possibly with a minimal OS instance in the event school or other venue lacks the default OS of that dev environment. – linuxdev2013 Apr 18 '15 at 20:23
  • What do you mean by OS chainloader? Could you explain it differently because I don't quite understand. – Jacob Perkins Apr 18 '15 at 20:28
  • Some minimal OS installed may suffice, or you could use suggestion from @whs and use some virtual machines. Keep in mind the overhead of a VM setup, which needs a beefy system with plenty of RAM and CPU. – Alex Mazzariol Apr 18 '15 at 20:29
  • Do you mean to keep the default windows 7/8 OS as empty as possible and install my development environment onto an external hard drive? Wouldn't the external hard drive also require windows to be installed on it before anything could be stored on it? – Jacob Perkins Apr 18 '15 at 20:33
  • No, you can store a program on any drive you want - it will strongly prefer the Programs folder (as per Windows Logo requirements), but it can usually be customized. The typical scenario is MSSQL Server, which by default keeps database files in the program folder, and is usually installed as a whole (program and database files) in drives that do not contain the Programs folder. – Alex Mazzariol Apr 18 '15 at 20:35

Those are several questions. Let me answer them in order:

SSDs are absolutely the best option for your purpose. Recently I saw 120GB SSDs sell for under $50. So price should not be an obstacle.

If you install a system on the external drive, you should have an eSata connection. Only that can boot normal installed operating systems. You cannot boot that from USB.

If you want to boot from USB, you have to make it an OS to Go. That is a bit more tricky. There are several tutorials on the web on how to do that. Here is a tutorial I made myself using Windows 10 as example.

For Linux it is a bit simpler. You can use the Universal USB Installer that works for flash drives and external SSDs Here again I have a tutorial that you can refer to. For that to work you have to change the BIOS settings in a UEFI system (Windows 8.1). Secure boot has to be set off and Legacy mode has to be set on.

In all the above cases you will have to change the BIOS temporary boot order in order to get the systems loaded.

If you want to start another OS on an external SSD from within the running OS, I recommend to install that OS with VMware Player. That supports USB and eSata. You can run both systems side by side and switch between them with 1 click. Here are my tutorials for that version. I would recommend that approach. I run 6 different systems (Windows and Linux) from an external SSD like that.

The performance hits in all those scenarios are minimal provided you run from a SSD attached via USB3 or eSata. An internal disk would be minimally faster, but for a laptop that might not be an option.

When you buy your laptop I recommend you look for plenty of RAM (8GB minimum), plenty of CPU cores (an i7 with 8 cores is good) and fast external connections (USB3, eSata or USB3.1 if available).

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