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Is it safe to disconnect an external drive any time?

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OH Smeg

Depends on how much money you have to spend and how IMPORTANT the files that you have lost actually are.

You can always format a HDD again and have it working but recovering your Lost Data "Cheaply" can be a different story.

While not as common the same also applies to Thumb Drives they can and do stop working or at least the Data on the Drive disappears and to get it recognizable again you have to format it or run a Data Recovery Program over it.