USB External Drive Not Recognized On Surface? Troubleshooting Tips

Here’s the scenario:

You’ve decided to get an external USB drive to store and back up your data. You did your research, read the reviews and finally chose one. You get it home, plug it into your Surface and…… NOTHING happens!

What the heck?

Well, believe it or not, this is a pretty common occurrence. It actually happened to me at my day job this week. As a result, I decided to write up a quick troubleshooting guide to help you, in the event that you run into the same problem.

In this post you will find:

  • The basics on how to get the Surface to recognize a USB external drive
  • How to run the Hardware Troubleshooter
  • How to reinstall USB drivers
  • Reported known problems
  • List of USB external drives that work (as tested by us)

USB External Drive Not Recognized On Surface: Try the basics first

  • Make sure your connection is not obstructed by anything
  • Make sure the USB external drive is powered
  • Unplug Everything from the Surface and Restart it
  • Check for recent Microsoft updates
  • Check the Microsoft Compatibility list to make sure the device should work (especially if you have a Surface RT/2).
  • Try another USB drive (if you have access to one), thumb drive, etc. to make sure other USB devices are working – if nothing works via USB, contact Microsoft
  • Plug in the USB external drive to another computer and see if it works – if it doesn’t replace the drive

If your USB port works fine with other devices and if you confirmed that the USB external drive works on other devices, proceed to the below steps.

USB External Drive Not Recognized On Surface: Run the Hardware and Devices Troubleshooter

Note: for this step to work well, make sure your Surface is plugged in and connected to the internet. Be aware that you may be asked for an admin password during this process.

  • Windows key + Q
  • Type in Troubleshooting in the search box
  • Tap on Troubleshooting
  • Choose Hardware and Sound from the window that openstroubleshooting1
  • Tap on Hardware and Devicestroubleshooting2
  • Click Next and follow the prompts

If the above produced no favorable results, try uninstalling the USB drivers next.

USB External Drive Not Recognized On Surface: Uninstall the USB Drivers

  • Disconnect the USB external drive from your Surface
  • Press Windows + X key  and select Device Manager
  • Locate the USB driver (Universal Serial Bus controller)
  • Right-click on the Intel(R) USB 3.0 driver icon and select Uninstalltroubleshooting4
  • Restart the Surface. After restarting the computer, the USB driver will automatically reinstall

Reconnect the external hard drive through the USB and see if it responds now. If not, go on to the next step.

USB External Drive Not Recognized On Surface: Be aware of existing, known problems

I have personally run into some issues with Seagate USB 3.0 external drives. They seem to be particularity problematic for devices with USB 2.0 ports. The Surface RT and Surface Pro (first gen) both have USB 2.0 and they don’t seem to work with these drives. There is lots of information available online about this issue. So, my advice would be to do your research about any potential problems before you choose a drive.

Note: According to the Microsoft Compatibility Center, many of the USB external drives only have “Limited Functionality” on the Windows RT devices, this includes Surface RT and Surface 2 but we’ve had good luck with the Western Digital drives.

USB External Drive Not Recognized On Surface: Drives that work

Here are the external drives that we’ve personally tested and they worked with our Surfaces:

Model Size Cost
WD My Passport Ultra 1 TB $69.99
WD Elements Portable 1 TB $64.00
WD My Passport Ultra 2 TB $109.00
LaCie Rugged Mini Disk
(not XL!)
1 TB $119.99

In conclusion:

It’s a great idea to have an external drive for backups and files storage. So, don’t be discouraged if you have some trouble configuring one, with a little tweaking you should be able to use it. However, if you’ve tried everything above and nothing is working, you may need to get either a different drive or contact Microsoft for help with your Surface. Either way, don’t give up because it’s worth it!

You may also like our posts on how to free up space on your Surface Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Joanna-

62 Comments

  • Thank you Tim,

    That’s good information to have

    It is rare, but if I plug in a USB drive and it does display, then I do the following:

    1. run diskmgmt.msc
    2. find the drive (it usually displays, but does NOT have a drive letter); and
    3. assign it a letter.
    4. suddenly the drive appears in the refreshed explorer window.

    I am sure this process won’t work all the time, but it’s a fast first step!

    Mark

    • Great tip Mark!
      Thanks for commenting. I’m planning on writing a separate post on disk management and formatting drives in the near future.

      Joanna-

    • This helped. I forgot about this trick. And to correct the author, the Surface Pro has USB 3.0, otherwise its drivers wouldn’t explicitly say “USB 3.0” as you shared in the screenshots. The drive I had issues with was a Samsung 64gb FIT drive (tiny little thing, barely larger than the USB connector itself), and this drive showed up fine when I got it, but after I did some Linux live action on it, I guess I never got it back to normal, but it still showed up on my Win10 desktop.
      Anyways, thanks!

  • This is very stupid, how is that Microsoft intended to replace the laptop with the Surface if the device can not even recognize an external disk…. WELL DONE MICROJERKS !!

    • Hi Billy,
      Thanks for commenting. Sounds like you’re not happy with Microsoft. Unfortunately this is not a problem unique to Surfaces, I have seen this problem on laptops both Windows and Apple. But since this is a Surface blog, I’m addressing it in that context.
      Joanna-

    • OK, it’s not so much stupid as much as an OS hardware software hiccup/ anomaly. Certainly, it’s not Surface-specific…

      I can attest to Joanna’s point that this is more common, and not limited to Surface.

      My not-so-old Asus windows 8 /8.1 laptop experienced it; also, my really old Dell desktop I7 using windows 7 pro, sometimes had this situation. In both cases, the USB drive did not display in explorer, even though it was connected (you could even hear the connection sound/beep!).

      At those times, I searched and followed the steps mentioned above, and thanks to Joanna, I now have additional /alternative steps or approaches to use too! 🙂

      As for this occurring in other OS, well I saw this once or twice in my Macs (MPB, Mini) when I was trying to plug in an NFTS formatted drive, but can’t recall many other times. [And] for Linux, I only recall that I always had to physical do a command to mount the drive, via “mount.” A bit of a hassle that may not be a problem in newer Linux packages (not using it now).

      Anyway, I did experience this phenomenon once on my Surface Pro 3 (never on the Surface Pro 2 BTW!). Once I did the “diskmgmt” drill, it displayed. Also, future hook ups of that same usb drive never again had the problem! -even though the drive letter changed since I added another drive/device in the interim.

      Surface Pro 3 continues to be an excellent, quality choice for most future computing needs. It has been every bit as stable and reliable in the six-seven weeks I’ve used it as my super-great and wonderful Surface Pro 2 was before. (And it has a nicer screen and a more functional pen!).

      It is a great laptop -and (non gaming) desktop replacement!

  • Re-reading the article, it notes the problem and some solutions and advice or warnings but does not identify the specific cause. (Sorry if I misread it!)

    Wonder if this could be a power issue?
    Maybe if these problematic USB drives were connected to the Surface RT/Surface 2/ Surface Pro 2/3 THROUGH a POWERED usb 3 or powered usb2 external hub, they might work?

    Could that reduce the compatibility issues?
    Put another way, is it a power issue?

    • Hi Mark,
      Thanks for commenting. The Seagate drive I’ve tried was powered on its own. The drive was USB 3.0 but the SP (first gen) only has a USB 2.0 port. In theory this should work fine, and it did on the Wester Digital drives. I suspect that the problem is either with Seagate driver or the underlying controller on the Surface Pro port.

      Either way, there are lots of reports of this happening, not just on the Surface Pro but many other Windows 8.1 devices.

      Joanna-

  • I made the mistake of following the directions here on my Surface Pro 3.

    In particular, I followed the direction under “USB External Drive Not Recognized On Surface: Uninstall the USB Drivers”.

    When my SP3 rebooted, while the USB extensible host controller was reinstalled, the keyboard, trackpad and USB 3.0 port no longer worked. In the device manager these were listed as “Port Reset Failed”. I spent an hour trying to fix this. You cannot directly install the USB drivers under Windows 8.1.

    I finally resolved this by using Windows Restore to go to an early restore point before I did this.

    I would seriously suggest to make a note above regarding the dangers of uninstalling the USB drivers on the SP3, especially after all the firmware updates have been applied by Windows update.

    • Hi Joe,
      Sorry that happened and glad you found a way to fix it. The uninstalling of USB controller is actually a step suggested by Microsoft. If you reach out to their tech support, they will have you do this, and they even suggest it on some of their forums. And the keyboard and trackpad should not be relying on the USB controller. So, I am not sure what happened in your case.

      With that said, you’re right, there have been an awful lot of firmware updates and so I don’t know exactly what workarounds Microsoft is implementing and if they are changing things to be more tied together.

      Joanna-

      • I had the same issue, trackpad and keyboard would not work, had to restore my computer and had to install all software packages that windows could not do on their own. It would appear your solution is out of date for the issue.

        • hi, same problem here! not amused about learning i have to restore my surface and download all software again! please, please, update your tip and include a warning.

  • does WD drive which is not powered on its own and only usb powered work with pro 3 cause this may b deal breaker… plz check and tell

        • Timbuktoo,

          What model is it? I do know that some models aren’t happy with the amount of power coming from the Surface USB port.

          A quick way to work around that is to get a powered USB hub (one that also has a power cord) then plug it into your Surface and plug the CD/DVD drive into the hub.

          I’ll see about a video but it might be a while.

          Hope this helps,
          Tim

  • Hi Guys,

    First of all, thank you for your very useful tips about Surface, I like your site very much.

    Regarding the use of external USB 3.0 HDD. I would like to add that I ran into some issues with Inateck enclosure FEU3NS-1E with an SSD 2.5″ Crucial MX100 inside.
    I have indeed experienced HDD disconnections and very unstable transfer leading to no data transfer at all.

    I have tested with a WD My Passport 2.5″ USB 3.0 and have not experienced any problem (with no additional power source from the Surface AC adapter or any other like Y cable…).

    I suspect also that this enclosure use an USB SCSI controller, “USB Attached SCSI”, to Boost (as said by Inateck) the transfer rate and would require more power (maybe the problem is not there while using their other enclosure without the USB Attached SCSI but standard USB 3.0).

    Inateck support answered me that:
    – WD hard drive have also the same problem
    – The SP3 USB port was under powered
    – I should try with a powered USB hub (which it is not I intend to do as I need a portable setup or at the very least if I found an USB Hub which can be powered with the USB plug of the SP3 AC Adapter. Any clue?)

    I would like to thank you once more for your article which helped me to test and, after struggling a little, to get rid of the “The USB set address request failed” in device manager.

    In conclusion, do not buy Inateck enclosure of that model to use on surface for the moment.

    I you are interested I will keep you posted I have found a correct solution.

    Greets,

    Yop

      • Dear Tim,

        As a follow up to this issue, unfortunately the Inateck FEU3NS-1E I bought still does not work with the SP3.
        I have also tweaked the SP3 power scheme with disabling the USB Selective suspend settings to disable, in order to get more power from the USB, with no luck.
        It ended with a messed up file system on the external drive.
        I have tried a chkdsk to repair the file system but it did not worked, chkdsk stucked and the enclosure disconnecting itself (even on my Windows 10 Laptop)

        Maybe:
        – I have received a defective unit, as I have experienced the same problem on my Laptop with Windows 10
        – It is OS/Driver related with Windows 8 and greater (not tests done on Win7)
        But please note to be careful if you plan to buy this USB Attached Storage (UAS) enclosure.

        In conclusion, I will return the unit and get a refund from Inateck and try with an other enclosure. I do not know at this moment if I will give a second chance to the FEU3NS-1E model…

        Anyway if someone already have a good experience with and USB 3.0 enclosure I am interested 🙂

        I will keep you informed when I found a correct solution, maybe you could add it to your list.

        Regards,

        Yop

  • Oh By the way if anyone would know about a working USB 3.0 had enclosure I would be really happy.
    Why an enclosure? To put an SSD inside.

    Thanks in advance,

    Kr

  • Hello Guys,

    A little update of the situation 🙂

    Regarding the Inateck enclosure:
    To cut a long story short, I received (free of charge) the same enclosure from Inateck to test.
    -> Same issue with Crucial MX100 512GB, disconnection on SP3 !
    With a standard HDD, no problem of disappearing drive (I tested with an old SATA 80GB so the perf were not fantastic).

    Fyi:
    I tested the SSD + Inateck enclosure on my Windows 10 laptop on an usb3.0 port an everything worked.
    I have tested the SSD + USB 2.0 enclosure with success on the SP3.
    I have tested with a traditional HDD + Inateck enclosure on SP3 and it worked.

    I would say that it could come from the Surface USB Port not enough powered or the driver not stable enough in Windows 8.1 to use an SSD with an UASP USB3.0 enclosure.

    The last test I have to do is, to get another enclosure with ext power supply to connect to the SP3 AC charger and try if it works (or upgrade SP3 to Windows 10)

    The strange thing is that it works with an old hungrier traditional HDD…kind of a paradox.

    So in conclusion, I would say: avoid the mix of SP3 + Ext. USB3.0 enclosure with UASP + SSD (for the moment)

    Stay tuned 🙂

    Greets,

    Yop

    • Hi Yop,
      That’s great info! Thanks for sharing it.
      I suspect you’re right and this is a combo issue power-driver. Keep us posted on what you learn.
      Joanna

      • I will Joanna.

        Regarding the same hdd setup it seems, reading comments from other forum, that all the USB3.0 UASP ext enclosure seems to have the same problem not only on SP3 but with Win 8 & 8.1.

        Did someone tested Windows 10 on SP3 😛 ?
        From what i have read it works.

        Last but not least, I know itit a bit out of the article scope but it might be interesting to know as well: Trim seems not to be supported throught USB 3.0. Beware if your ssd tend to be full…

        Greets

        Yop

        • Yop, thanks for your detailed reporting. I can say I have the same exact issue. My Surface Pro 3 is unable to properly read/write to a Crucial MX100 SSD in an Inateck FE2005 USB 3.0 external enclosure. In particular, I work in a Hyper-V VM which I store on this external drive. It works flawlessly on two desktop computers, but the SP3 can’t deal with it.

          When I plug in the Inateck enclosure and start my VM, it starts booting but then freezes. The entire host system becomes unstable and unresponsive. If I try just copying a large file (like a disc ISO) to the external drive, it will start out very fast and then suddenly, after just 2 or 3 seconds, drop to zero and hang.

          When this happens, the Windows event log is full of errors stating that the external drive was reset, that an IO operation was retried, and that errors occurred during paging operations. Sometimes I see where just 1 second after I plug in the drive, the event log reports that it was “surprise disconnected” but it’s still visible and accessible in Windows Explorer.

          I went out and bought a HornetTek Shark enclosure to try, but experienced the same problem. Both enclosures are SATA III with UASP (USB Attached SCSI) so maybe that is related?

          A Western Digital Passport 1 TB USB 3.0 spindle disk, when connected to my Surface, showed no such problems. Far too slow to boot my VM from, though — performance was laughably bad, in fact unexpectedly so.

          I have not tried (as I do not have) a USB Y-cable for the extra power or a powered USB 3 hub, as both solutions are untenable for me. The whole point of the Surface was to be an ultraportable work machine to use when no AC power is available, and the machine itself only has one USB port.

          As it stands, it appears the SP3 cannot handle my use case and will have to be returned for a more “normal” laptop. Which annoys me to no end, because otherwise I’ve found the Surface Pro 3 to be a phenomenal device.

          If anyone has any ideas to turn me back from the brink, I’m all ears.

          • I hate to say it but, this is where Microsoft screwed up. Most of what I’ve read/seen on the problem is that the SP3 under powers the USB port by about 10% (probably to extend battery life)

            So, it’s not really a direct fix but, you could look at battery-powered wireless storage devices like the LaCie Fuel.

            It will let you access your storage on the go without power cords but, I imagine it won’t be quite as convenient until you get it working with all of your “normal” wifi locations.

            Just a thought, hope it helps.

            Tim

          • Thanks Tim. I find myself liking the SP3 so much that I’m going to set it up as a distinct environment so I can work on it even without my VM. I’m going to use a MicroSD card to hold some of the larger, more static files that I need so they don’t clog up any more of the the internal 256 GB storage than necessary.

            A friend of mine has an SP3 with the docking station, so we conducted some tests today to see if his exhibited the same issues. It does. However, when we plugged the external USB 3.0 SSD enclosure into a USB 3 port on the docking station, there were no problems whatsoever. This really speaks to it being a power issue with the onboard USB port. Sadly, even with the Surface docked and powered, the external disk still could not be used reliably when connected to the onboard port.

            I suspect that a powered USB 3.0 hub will take care of the problem as well, so I’ll be ordering one of those. I’m also going to try a Samsung 840 SSD in my external enclosure, just in case the drive itself has some effect on this. (The power draw on the label is lower than the Crucial MX100.) Will keep you all posted.

  • Hello. am not the administrator of my computer. I cant do any changes for update the driver. what can I do in this situation please?? Thanks.. 🙂

  • Hi Joanna, I have been having the same issue with my surface pro I have a WD My Passport 1t external drive which i hold all my business files. I was working really well with the surface but then just stopped identifying it. Other flash devises work ok. I ran through the options you provided above and finally removed the USB driver, but it did not reload, now my clip on key board does not work and the external drive does not get recognised. Can you help please?

    • Hi Kevin,

      Hmmm… Interesting…. The Surface should have detected the USB controller after the restart and re-installed the drivers.

      If you go into the devices screen, is the Universal Serial Bus controller device listed? If it is listed, does it have any weird icons on it like a yellow triangle or black “x”?

      Tim

  • Hello Time and Joanna,

    Thanks again for this valuable forum! With your guidance, I successfully installed a 128MB card. Now, I have another issue…

    I tried to plug 2 external drive via a USB 2.0 hub & I got the ‘Power surge’ error message. I tried to look for a powered USB 3.0 hub but the ones I saw clearly state that Windows 8.1 is not supported. Would you happen to know a hub unit compabible with a MS Surface 3 Pro? My apologies if this message is not displayed at the right spot! Regards, François (from Montreal)

    • I haven’t personally tried it but, someone I know with a SP3 said he was using the Plugable USB-HUB7 and it was working for him.

      I can’t verify with hands on experience but, the manufacturer does claim that it’s Windows compatible so, it should do the job.

      Tim

  • so i uninstalled the usb driver and now my usb port doesnt work at all for anything and my surface keybpard is not connwcting at all. great

  • I’ve tried your procedure and it hasn’t work at all. I’ve uninstall the diver as you say, but it hasn’t reinstalled it after a restart of the Surface.

    From now on, either my USB keys or external disk doesn’t work and also my keyboard cover.

    HELP!

    • Unfortunately you have to refresh you Surface, her instructions are out of date as it would appear MS must have changed something in a firmware update.

    • Sorry for the delay… Easter vacation….

      Anyway, before trying a refresh or restore…. are you doing a full shutdown or are you just hitting the power button?

      If you’re just hitting the power button, it won’t trigger Windows to do a hardware scan. So, make sure you’re doing a full shutdown.

      If that doesn’t work, you can manually kickoff a hardware scan by going back into device manager, right clicking on the top icon and choosing “scan for hardware changes”

      Tim

  • I have a drive with many files on it, that I use primarily with my main work computer, a Mac Mini. However, I often need to transfer or access files between my work computer and my portable set-up, which has recently taken the form of the Surface Pro 3. It seems there is no way to access these files on this Surface. I have followed the steps above (except for the uninstalling of the USB driver, that appears to be unrelated and only cause issues with the 3 Pro). When assigning a letter to the drive, it did cause it to be recognized and appear on my hardware list. However it asked me to reformat the drive, and to do this I would have to erase everything. Everything, really? How is it this complicated to have a drive, which only acts as a giant thumbdrive and is not used for automatic backup or anything, to be accessed by both Windows and Apple? Is there a way I can reformat my drive to be used by both, without having to take everything off of it? I really need to be able to use something with a large amount of storage between these two machines.

    • What file system is your external drive using? If it was initialized on your Mac Mini, then it may be using HFS+, as this is the default on OS X. HFS+ isn’t compatible with Windows at all, which would explain why your Surface wants you to reformat it before you can use it.

      If you were to reformat the drive using the exFAT file system instead, this would be both readable and writable by your Mac and your Surface.

      Unfortunately, I believe you would have to back up the data on the drive, reformat it as exFAT and then copy the data back. I’m not aware of a way to convert the file system from HFS+ to exFAT in-place — though there might be third-party software that could do it.

      • Thank you for clarifying! Yes I was exclusively on a Mac when I purchased the drive, so I imagine that is the case..

        I can set aside time to take the files off and add them back after, I just didn’t want to start doing that without knowing I could allow it to be read and written by both.

        Thanks again, this will relieve a major headache for my new workflow!

        • Hi, I have a LaCie my surface doedn t recognize it and does not likely. But I have seen the suggested one for sale and LaCie is one of them . I m not getting it

          Anyone ?

          Dee

    • Depends on what format you chose when you formatted it. If it’s HFS+ then no but, if you chose FAT32 or exFAT, it will work fine.

  • I mostly solved this issue by taking off the files I wanted to save, and completely reformatting the drive. I now have most of it formatted for Mac OS Extended (Journaled) to be my Time Machine backup, but left a third or so partitioned as exFAT so that it could still be used for both my mac and my PC, without the 4GB limit. No problems so far, fingers crossed!

    • Thank you ! I decided to try just reformatting 1 partition with exFAT and it works…so far …how I want it to!

  • I’m thinking of getting a 5TB WD elements, and I’m wondering if there might be any compatibility issues with the sp3. I thought I read somewhere that it only supports 2TB. Is this true? And if so, Would it work if i make 3 separate partitions?

    • You should be fine. While there was a 2TB limit to NTFS in the past, Microsoft says Windows Pro is capable of supporting either 16TB or 32TB volumes (I don’t remember which).

  • Just throwing this in, but when I had this issue before, the problem was that I was using a USB-powered DVD drive. The Surface’s USB ports are underpowered compared to a regular laptop’s. I ended up using a Y cable for additional power and had no other issues.

  • Now in 2017 this problem still exists.
    Often when I connect some device to the Dock by USB it is not recognized/connected (I don’t know what the correct wording should be, since the I don’t know the exact cause of the problem).
    Whether I connect my Android phone to the Dock or some external hard drive, most of the time it gives problems. However when I connect that same device through the USB on the SP4 itself, it always connects properly.
    This basically reduces the Dock to a very heavy and expensive charger for the SP4.
    Microsoft should fix this problem and not have support personal suggest work arounds.
    Understand me correctly, this is not the fault of the support personel.
    It seems more a lack of interest in its customers by Microsoft.

  • When I took my SP3 to the Microsoft store they told me that you just have to restart your device. Its annoying af when you’re in the middle of doing something, but my surface restarts so quickly its not an issue most of the time.

  • Was at the stage where I was going to throw my surface pro up against the wall and buy myself a new computer. Every few months an update loaded and every few months another problem.
    Followed your steps and fixed several issues. Great work!!!

  • I have a Surface Pro 4 and a WD My Passport Ultra 1TB. The external HDD is powered through USB. It does not work on the SP4. I have tested on two SP4 and both did not work. I believe it is a power issue as it connects then disconnects in an infinite loop.
    I have contacted Microsoft tech and they have not been able to solve the problem even when reinstalled USB etc etc. However my thumb drives and usb powered mice work.
    I have tested the drive on a surface RT, Xbox one, desktop computer and MacBook pro and it works as intended on all those devices.
    Pretty annoying that the SP4 USB port cannot supply enough power to the drive.

  • I have the same problem with my surface pro book. I followed the instructions to unistall the usb and then shut down and it worked. BUT this is annoying! Every time I shut my surface to let it sleep or turn it off , when it reopens it does not recognize or find my wd passport. UHHH. I had a different brand external hd before this one and I initially thought the external hard drive had a problem and returned it. Now I see it’s the computer. I am thinking I should take it back to Microsoft and get another as I am going to heavily rely on my external drive. Is there any permanent fix??

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