There are many, many good reasons to get the best external hard drive you can buy.
You may constantly move back and forth between computers that have less-than-perfect internet connections, yet you need easy access to a many large files in multiple places.
Maybe you’re paranoid that something will happen to the main internal drive on your computer, and you want to keep a backup with you at all times. Maybe you already have one backup of your key files, but you want another one without needing to rely on (increasingly expensive and restrictive) cloud storage.
External storage solutions can solve all these problems — and more. They deserve a place among any serious computer user’s most cherished tech possessions.
In stark contrast to the slow, doorstop-like drives of years past, today’s external and portable hard drives and solid state drives (SSDs) can store a lot of your most sensitive data at a price you’ll find tolerable, at speeds you’ll appreciate and with looks closer to high fashion or sporty chic than to ancient, utilitarian sedateness.
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What are the best external hard drives?
Your best external hard drive is the WD My Book, which offers the best balance of cost, capacity and other features for your needs. The drive works only while plugged in to a power outlet, but it’s fast and there are tons of capacity options all the way up to 18TB.
If you want something more portable, the best external hard drive is the G-Technology ArmorATD. It boasts heavy-duty protection against shock, falls, water, dust and crushing. It’s also speedy for a portable hard drive.
If you’re willing to pay a premium for a faster SSD, the best portable hard drive for you is the SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD. It’s designed inside and out to easily use anywhere.
The best external hard drives you can buy today
So it’s shaped like a monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The WD My Book is the best external hard drive for the money. It offers hardware-based 256-bit AES encryption and WD Backup software, and it gives you 4TB of space for about $100. Plus, capacities up to 18TB are available.
The My Book might not be the latest and greatest in terms of drive technology, but it makes the absolute most of tried-and-true methods—and will only cost you pennies per gigabyte. Sure, it’s on the bulky side, and it has to be plugged into a power outlet. But if speed and portability aren’t of utmost importance, this is storage peace of mind you can’t afford not to have.
Designed to be rugged, the G-Technology ArmorATD portable hard drive boasts three-tier shock resistance, with internal shock mounts, an aluminum enclosure, and a removable rubber bumper for additional drop protection; it’s also resistant to rain, dust, and crushing (up to 1,000 pounds).
The 2TB and 4TB models are both sized to be easily portable, and include a USB Type-A adapter for use with their USB Type-C interface, so they should work with nearly every computer.
We tested the 2TB and 4TB capacities; neither is notably fast (though the 2TB is rated for marginally higher speeds), and the drive comes with no file management software. But factor in the price, and one of these drives could be a reasonable choice if you and your data into unpredictable territory.
No matter what you want from the best external hard drive, the SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD delivers it. Convenient design? It’s small and light enough to fit in your hand but not get lost in your pocket or bag. Suave looks? Its rounded corners, black-and-red coloration, delicately pockmarked front and soft-touch back give it an appearance and feel that are both thoroughly modern and refreshingly classic.
Ok, how about speed? The Extreme Pro Portable SSD is rated for sequential reads of 1,050MBps, and it routinely came out at or near the top of the rankings in all of our performance tests. The SanDisk Secure Access application applies general encryption, too.
The drive is a shade expensive. And the integrated carrying loop is too big to easily fit on a standard keychain. Otherwise, this is an excellent storage device ideal for heavy everyday use.
The Adata SE800 External SSD Ultra Fast measures just 2.8 x 1.7 x 0.4 inches and weighs 1.4 ounces, is rated for IP68 protection against dust and 30 minutes of submersion in 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) of water, and it meets the MIL-STD-810G 516.6 standard for impact resistance when dropped from 4 feet (1.22 meters). You can use either a USB Type-A or a Type-C cable to connect this Type-C drive to your computer.
We didn’t quite see the drive’s 1,000MBps-rated speeds in our test, but the drive proved fast anyway. It’s also pretty affordable, with the 1TB version we tested available online for under $130and the 512GB version findable for under $80.
Those two capacities are your only options, and there’s no pre-installed software, but the SE800 is otherwise an outstanding value that lives up to the promise of its name, whether compared with the noticeably slower Adata SC685 or many other smaller drives on the market.
If your computer has a Thunderbolt 3 port, and if money is (more or less) no object, the Samsung X5 Thunderbolt 3 Portable SSD is the best external hard drive for you.
It’s rated for stratospheric speeds (2,800 MBps read, 2,300 MBps write) and delivered on them in our tests. It’s larger and heavier than a typical external SSD, but sportscar stylish, with a glossy exterior, sloping lines, and a fiery-red undercarriage.
The catches? The Samsung X5’s performance was inconsistent, veering between mind-blowing and merely above average (and it did not top every test). If you don’t have Thunderbolt 3, you won't see all it can do.
And, yikes, is this drive expensive, starting at $200 for 500GB. You can save money on other drives that will still be darn fast, so the X5 won’t be worth it for most people. But there’s no better choice if you want the bleeding edge are willing to pay for it.
The WD My Passport SSD doesn’t look like its travel-enabling namesake, the My Passport Go, but it’s all ready to go places. It’s small (3.9x 2.2x 0.4 inches) and attractive, with its shiny ridged surface and choice of five snazzy colors (blue, gold, gray, red, and silver).
The My Passport SSD's software application gives you access to My Cloud Home Storage and lets you download other WD utilities. Best of all, it’s fast: The My Passport zoomed through all of our performance tests, invariably showing up somewhere in the winner’s circle for each.
With a price per gigabyte of $0.19, the 1TB model is one of the most expensive drives we tested. And its included USB Type-C cable is exceedingly short: 6.5 inches, which makes using this drive a bit of a hassle on either laptop or desktop computers. (A Type-A adapter comes in the package to ensure the drive will work with a wide variety of systems.) But these are small nitpicks that don’t detract from one of the best external hard drives around.
The Samsung Portable SSD T7 looks like the T5, with its rectangular figure adorned by rounded corners, though it’s a little bigger and heavier; and its software is identical. It comes in somewhat more exciting color choices, with Indigo Blue, Titan Gray, and Metallic Red variations available for its 500GB, 1TB, and 2TB capacities. The biggest difference is that Samsung rates the drive at 1,050 MBps, and we saw much higher results in our tests; it completed our file copy test 20 seconds faster, for example.
But with a cost of $0.23 per gigabyte, this is one of the most expensive drives we’ve seen (though you may be able to find it online for cheaper). If you care more about the Samsung name, the drive’s design, and the speed than you do about value, the T7 delivers more than enough to appreciate and justify itself.
Rated for 540 MBps (read) and 500 MBps (write), the Seagate BarraCuda Fast SSD is a midprice portable SSD that doesn’t dishonor its name. In most of our performance tests, its results were at the top edge of the midrange. It looks cool, too: a svelte, rectangular slab of black metal with a raised square in the center, beneath which a flash of green may be glimpsed. (This lights up in a satisfying sci-fi way when the drive is connected.)
Like other Seagate drives, it’s pretty bare-bones in terms of software, but includes that two-month membership to the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan. And the BarraCuda Fast isn’t the cheapest drive out there: If raw space is all you’re concerned with, you can do better. But factoring together the storage space, speed, and visual spark, the BarraCuda Fast SSD gives you quite a bit for your money.
The Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Touch is a portable hard drive for people who care at least as much about how their drive looks as how it functions (and maybe more). It blends the traditional boxy look of a hard drive with a more contemporary, yet still restrained, aesthetic comprising solid-color sides and back with a carpeted-feeling front panel. (A color-coordinated 19.3-inch USB Type-A cable is included for connecting to your computer, as is a Type-C adapter.)
The software is all the same as with the Backup Plus Portable, though in many cases this drive’s performance was a little better. The Backup Plus Ultra Touch’s two capacity options are highly affordable, so you can adopt the drive’s style without spending like it’s going out of style.
Despite measuring only 4.5 x3.2 x 0.8 inches—only slightly larger than a deck of cards—the Seagate Backup Plus Portable packs either 4TB or 5TB of storage. (Our review unit was the former.) After your drive is registered, you can download Toolkit to enable automatic file backups or Mylio, for organizing your photos. (A two-month membership to the Adobe CC Photography Plan, which includes Lightroom and Photoshop for organizing and editing your photos, is provided as well.)
But with square corners and an antiquated, two-tone design, the drive isn’t a looker. And it finished near the bottom of all of our performance tests. That’s been the thing about spinning hard drives for a decade: You pay for the cheap space with all the time you won’t save. But if you need a spacious drive, but don’t mind if it’s simple and slow, too, the Backup Plus Portable is not a terrible choice.
How to choose the best external hard drive for you
Do you care more about speed, capacity, or price? If it’s the first, SSDs store data in flash memory rather than on spinning platters the way traditional hard drives do and thus operate a whole lot faster. The interface can also make a difference; Thunderbolt 3 will be a lot faster than USB, for example.
For capacity, hard drives offer a lot more options and SSDs are generally able to house the same amount of storage in a smaller amount of space.
As for price, it’s possible to find huge hard drives (think 4TB) for $100 or less. SSDs are nowhere near that inexpensive, but smaller drives (1-2TB) can be found from just over $100 to $200 or more.
If a drive’s looks matter to you, you’ll definitely have choices: Manufacturers these days frequently market portable drives as fashion accessories, selling them in various sizes, shapes, and colors.
How we test external hard drives
We hooked up each external hard drive drive to a current-generation Dell XPS 17 laptop, using the best connection interface available to that drive, always in the same port, to minimize performance differentials. Then we ran the same series of synthetic and real-world tests on the drives in the same order, so every drive would function as much like the others as possible. Our test suite comprised:
- BlackMagic Disk Speed Test 3.2.1 (5GB stress loads)
- CrystalDiskMark 7.0.0 (8GB workloads, single-thread sequential read and write, queue depths of 1 and 8)
- PCMark 10 Data Drive Benchmark
- Future File Transfer Test (25GB)
Finally, we delve into the drives’ technology, features, aesthetics, cables and adapters, and other characteristics to get a broader picture of what the drives offer. Where necessary, we run other tests on the drives’ unique features to see how well they worked under real-life conditions and whether they’re likely to benefit you.