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For years I've been downloading things onto my Android then transferring them to SD cards via the usb port connected to a card-reader.

Could I use a basic unpowered external hard drive instead, such as a Sonnics? (Phone is not rooted)

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It is possible but not with all devices

  • USB OTG (USB On the Go) capability of the device both from the hardware and ROM (specifically kernel) decides whether your device is capable of connecting to a hard drive.

  • You would need to search on Internet if your device supports it or not. There are apps on Play Store, that can tell you but they require root (usually )

  • Rooting is not required if your device supports OTG connection to hard drive. Rooting helps in flashing a custom kernel that can enable OTG , provided your hardware supports and your device is supported by developers who make custom ROMs and kernels (popular devices are supported (search on XDA for your specific device model)

  • Also be aware that certain devices support OTG capability in terms of connecting a flash drive but not external hard disc (powered externally or not )

For more, see ( tag added to the question ) and frequent questions and How can I determine if my device has USB Host Mode (OTG) support?

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