I will never fault someone for asking a tech question that feels “basic,” because we all had to get our start somewhere. Few of us popped out of the womb knowing how to access a network share in Windows, what a workgroup was, or how to map a network drive.
In this week’s Tech 911 Q&A, Lifehacker reader Matthew asks a relatively simple, but important question about home networking. Let’s dig in:
“I’m interested in setting up a very basic home network — really just a shared harddrive that I can access from any of the computers in my home — but I’m not sure how to get started.
Is it as simple as just plugging in an external harddrive to the USB port on the back of my router? That seems too easy. Or do I need a special harddrive that connects via an ethernet port? How do I configure it to “appear” on my devices? I wouldn’t expect it to be automatic, but I’m not familiar with the configuration settings required to make it work. Is special software needed, or are all the tools necessary built into Windows?
I’m eager to learn more.”
I’m thrilled that you’re excited to learn more about the wide world of networking, Matthew. I got my start in technology journalism covering hard drives, and really hit it big with my router guides at Wirecutter. Your question tickles two of my big, geeky interests, and I’m happy to help you out.
You have two primary options to share a hard drive with the other computers in your home. You can connect this hard drive to your desktop PC (internally or externally), or to your laptop (likely externally), and then share that hard drive to your network via Windows. Everything you’ll need for this is built directly into Windows, and I’m happy to walk you through that process right now.
For the sake of argument, and since I don’t have a spare external enclosure sitting around, I’m going to assume you already connected this drive to your system somehow. You’ll get the best performance if you go internal, using one of your system’s free SATA ports; an external enclosure will perform best over a USB 3.0 or USB-C connection, and is a lot more portable, but it likely won’t perform as well.
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Now that you’ve done that, you’ll probably have to hit up Windows’ Computer Management screen to assign your hard drive a letter. (If you purchased an external hard drive that comes in its own enclosure, it’s probably already initialized for you, and you’ll be able to find it right in File Explorer. If not, continue with these steps.)
Type “Computer Management” into your start menu, and then click on “Disk Management” under “Storage” in the screen that appears:
Find your drive in the bottom section of this window, which should be labelled as “Unallocated” space if it’s a brand-new drive. Right-click, select “New Simple Volume,” and click through the screens until you’re given the option to assign it a drive letter (whatever you want) and a file system (go with “NTFS”).
Now, when you pull up File Explorer, you’ll see your new hard drive, ready for all the data you want to dump on it. But you really want to share it on your network, which requires us to jump through a few more hoops.
You should now be able to right-click on any folder or drive in File Explorer, select “Give Access to,” and click on “Advanced sharing.”
In the screen that appears, click on the “Advanced Sharing” button, check the “Share this folder” box, and feel free to give your drive or folder an exciting name.
After doing these steps, I pulled up File Explorer on another Windows system connected to my network. Even though I’m signed into the same Microsoft ID on both—an important fact for this scenario—I couldn’t see this network share at first. I had to click on the address bar and type in “\” followed by my first system’s name (“Paladin”) to pull up the share. From there, it was easy enough to right-click on it and select “Map network drive,” which makes it always appear beneath my second system’s list of drives in File Explorer.
(If you forgot your first system’s name, just visit Control Panel > System and look for your “Device Name.”)
Got it? Good. Remember, with this method, people must have accounts on the original system in question in order to access the shared drive/folder. Otherwise, you’ll have to go to your Control Panel > Network and Sharing Center > Change Advanced Sharing Settings, and turn off “password protected sharing” under “All Networks.” This should then let anyone on your network access said folder, which is probably what you’ll want to do in most cases at home.
Now that we’ve talked about option one—what a trip that was—let’s talk about option two: network-attached storage.
I read an article the other day where someone was shitting on network-attached storage, and I couldn’t even get through it all because their incredible amount of wrong started seeping into my desktop computer and giving me anxiety. I kid, of course, but they were still pretty incorrect. They argued network-attached storage is stupid and that it’s better to use USB-attached storage and set up a software RAID through Windows, of all things.
Sure, you can go that route. And, yes, NAS boxes can get expensive, especially when you factor in the cost of the drives. But they also don’t have to be prohibitively pricey. I think of them as an investment. At least, the QNAP NAS box I purchased back in, gosh, 2013, is still going strong. I’ve only upgraded the memory, which cost me around $20 or so, and have had zero issues using it to store terabytes of data and stream way too many (legal) movies.
A NAS box allows you to stick hard drives into an easily accessible enclosure, which holds them and keeps them safe. You place the NAS box wherever you want in your house, connect it to your network, and its included operating system should do most of the heavy lifting. It’ll find your drives, help you initialize them, and give you an easy way to share their contents. I have always found it incredibly easy to set up sharing for all the various folders on my NAS box and, if I needed to, setting up access limits for different users on a per-folder basis would be a breeze.
And the other beauty of having a NAS box is that I don’t have to power up my desktop or laptop every time I want to share something to another system (or stream it around my house). With the first scenario I outlined, you’re always going to have to have your desktop or laptop system powered up for someone else to access your shared folders. And if you, say, restart your system while they’re copying files—or if it crashes—you just stuck it to that person.
You can leave a NAS box powered on all day if you want (and I suspect it’ll eat up fewer resources, especially if you engage its power-savings modes, than a beefed-up desktop or laptop computer). Or, you can use any decent NAS box’s settings to power it on and off based on whatever schedule you want. You can probably even wake and sleep your NAS using a phone app, if you’re so inclined, which is a lot easier to deal with than a desktop or a laptop.
If you’re looking to combine multiple drives together for one gigantic storage array (or one that includes extra redundancy to protect you in case of drive failures), I think a NAS box is a lot better than any kind of Windows-based RAID setup you’d apply to a simpler external USB-based enclosure.
Let’s get down to it. If you need an always-available network share for multiple people in your house to access, I’d go with a dedicated network-attached storage device. I wouldn’t put my trust in a USB-based enclosure for 24/7 use, nor would I just leave my desktop PC (and especially not my laptop PC) running all day long. At that point, you might as well invest in a low-power server—and a NAS box is basically an idiot-proof way to get that.
However, if you don’t think you’ll need that much firepower, and you only see yourself occasionally needing to access the contents of a hard drive from your other computers and devices, I’d first simply add and share the drive from my desktop PC. If that wasn’t an option, I’d look into something external I can connect to whatever system I want.
Of course, if you’re doing that, why even fuss with a network share? If someone in your house needs files on the “universal USB drive,” just walk over, get it, and plug it in. Or, you could share your files between systems using something like a shared Google Drive account, a Dropbox, or whatever other storage service you prefer. Heck, you could even create your own file-syncing setup at home that doesn’t require the use of any extra hard drives or network setup.
But that’s kind of the fun of having a lot of options, at least; you can now isolate to a solution that works perfectly for you. Ideally, it’s the one that saves you the most time, money, and technological headache. Let me know if you still have the latter, and I’ll happily keep helping.
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