Playing Games From an External Hard Drive: Can You?

Here’s whether you can play games from an external hard drive:

You can play games from an external hard drive on a PC. In order to do this, the computer just needs to know where to find the game when it is on another drive. 

When you install the game, you have the opportunity to select where it is saved and ensure that your computer can find it.

So if you want to know how to play games from an external hard drive, then you’re in the right place.

Keep reading!

Table of Contents

How Do You Play Games From an External Hard Drive?

There are a number of ways to install a game on an external drive. We’ll focus on the easiest, and that is to use the game installer to install it on the drive of your choice. 

We’ll talk more about what kinds of drives work later. For this part, let’s assume you have an external USB hard drive, and that’s what you want to use for the game. Even if you’re actually using a different type of device, the steps in this section will be the same.

The first step is to connect the external hard drive. Make sure it is properly connected and that the computer can communicate with it. The easiest way to do this is to pull up File Explorer (represented by a folder icon in Windows 10). 

Navigate to your external hard drive and make sure you can open it and access the information on it. As long as this works, you can move on to the next step.

Now, you want to pull up the game installer. There are countless different installers, so we’ll use Steam as an example. If you are trying to do this with something other than Steam, you should be able to look up the steps on the game launcher’s website.

Log into Steam and browse your library to find the game you want to put on the external drive. When you go through the installation steps, it should ask you where you want to install the folder. 

It’s not obvious, but there is a drop-down menu at the bottom of the window that pops up when you start the installation. Use that drop-down menu to pick the right folder on your external drive.

If you can’t find the folder that you want, you may need to add it. In that case, cancel the installation. Instead, go into your Steam settings. Under the settings will be an option for “downloads.” 

In the window, you can choose “Steam library folders.” Click on the + sign and create a folder where you want to store your games. To do this, you will first have to select the external hard drive. You can then select the folder of your choice. You can also create a new folder right there in the menu if you want to.

Now, you can try the installation again and choose the correct folder. The game installer will go through its process and install your game on the drive that you selected. That’s all it takes. 

You can use the game launcher to play the game. You can even create a game shortcut on the internal hard drive that still runs the game that is actually installed on your external drive (although, in some cases, it can be a little complicated).

If you are installing a game that does not use a third-party launcher, the steps are pretty simple. When the game is walking you through installation, it should ask you where you want to install the information. 

You can choose your external drive and folder of your choice during this step. The installation will otherwise run normally, and your game will be on the external drive when it completes.

Can You Move Games That Are Already Installed to an External Hard Drive?

Yes. You can move already installed games to your external drive. Once again, the methods involved depend on how you launch the game, so we’ll use Steam as an example this time around too. Ultimately, this can be done for any PC game; it’s just a matter of finding the right process.

You can start by signing into Steam. Click on “Steam” in the top left corner of the window, and then choose “settings.” In the settings window that pops up, click on “Downloads.” 

At the top of that window is “Steam library folders.” Click it, and a new window will pop up. At this point, the steps look pretty familiar, but this is where it changes.

In this window, you should see a list of your Steam games. Find the game that you want to move and click on it. It will check a box, and you will now see an option to “move” the game. 

Click that button and select the folder of your choice listed above (you can still create a new folder here if you want to). Once you do that, Steam will handle the rest.

There is an important note here. The methods for moving a game depend on how the game launches, but in the vast majority of cases, you cannot simply drag a game folder from one hard drive to the other. While that will move most of the game information, it will not build pathways that the launcher needs to find the file locations. 

In other words, the game will fail to launch because the software doesn’t know where the game is actually located on your computer (or external drive).

Are There Any Limitations on Which External Hard Drives You Can Use?

You cannot use any drive for this purpose. Instead, you want to find the right external hard drive. The good news is that there is only one hard limitation. We’ll cover some soft limitations too.

In order to install a game on an external drive, you need to have enough space for the game. That sounds obvious, but plenty of new games can be well over 100 GB in size. They can eat up hard drive space faster than you might think, so your external drive might not be up to the task. As long as you have enough storage space, you’ll be ok.

Other than that, you have freedom here. As long as the computer can talk to the drive, you’re in good shape.

With all of that said, there are types of drives and connections that are better than others. Most external drives connect via USB. USB is very common, but it comes in a few different speeds. Older USB (2.0) is universal, but it isn’t very fast. Connecting a USB 2.0 drive will not be fast enough for high-end games to run well.

If you upgrade to USB 3.0, the vast majority of games will play just fine. You can go even further and use USB-C. That’s even better, and can play even more demanding games without any issues.

You can also use drives that aren’t classified as hard drives. Flash drives, SD (or micro SD) cards, and any other storage media can work. They just need enough space.

You can even use a hard drive enclosure with a traditional internal drive in it that connects to the computer externally. Another method that is a little outside the scope of the original question is that you can install multiple internal hard drives in your computer and pick from any of them. None of this will prevent the game from working.

Why Would Someone Play From an External Hard Drive?

There are two main reasons to install games on an external drive. The first is portability. If your game is installed on a flash drive or any other small device, you can take it with you. That means you can plug that storage device into another computer and play your game (as long as the computer is compatible and capable of running the game).

Let’s go back to Steam as an example. If you are visiting friends or family and want to show them your game, you can take your drive. Sign in to Steam on their computer and plug in your drive. 

It should be able to launch the game just fine (although you might have to reset the folders in the settings to help it find the game). What’s more, is that it will have all of your individual save states. It’s pretty convenient.

While that’s nice, it’s not the primary reason that people do this. The bigger motivator is to save storage space on your internal drive. Every drive has limited space, and upgrading to a bigger drive costs money (and can be a huge nuisance). This is especially true if you opt for some of the fastest hard drives on the market. 

Getting more storage pushes up the cost pretty quickly. So, if you’re trying to save space, you can throw your games on a less-expensive external drive. It’s pretty simple.

Are There Any Reasons Not to Play Games From an External Hard Drive?

All of that said, there is one compelling reason to avoid putting your games on an external drive: performance. The best hard drives in the business right now connect directly to the motherboard using PCI connectors. These are the fastest connections you can get on a consumer-grade computer. 

The incredible hard drive speeds you get from this technology can help with game performance in general.

Most external hard drives are considerably slower. You can get solid state external drives that are reasonably fast, but they don’t match the speeds of PCI drives. The same can be said of large flash drives and other flash storage media.

One of the limiting factors is how external drives connect to your computer. Typically, they will interface via some form of USB. Even the fastest USB connection (USB-C) is noticeably slower than a PCI connection. So, if you want the best performance, you put games on the internal drive.

Still, plenty of USB drives are fast enough to play a game with no noticeable problems. It’s only games that push the envelope of your computer’s performance that truly benefit from being on the internal drive. 

You can absolutely try some games on the external drive to see if you like the performance. If you do, then take advantage of it.

If you’re getting mixed results from your external drive, then you can follow a simple rule. Put the games that need the most performance on your fastest drive. Everything else can go on the external drive and save you space.