The best external hard drives: Expand your file storage

The most secure and versatile hard drives for your data-protection needs.

No matter your specific reason for seeking out an external hard drive—security, portability, storage capacity—you have more options than you may realize. Unless you have the highest-end computer, most models simply don’t have enough storage space, and even the 1 terabyte of storage you get in-game systems like the PS4 or Xbox One max out before you know it. Not to mention that any computer can experience hard drive failure, and the loss of data or important documents can be potentially devastating. Rather than trusting everything to cloud services, it’s always a good idea to have a solid, physical backup.

Most external hard drives are platform agnostic, meaning that as long as they are correctly formatted, they should be able to play nicely with Windows, Mac, PlayStation, Xbox, or anything else. But you should note that some of the best external hard drives do have platform-specific software, so be sure that whichever one you choose is compatible with your intended system.

Things to consider when buying an external hard drive

Before you make an effort to purchase an external drive, it helps if you have a firm grasp not only on what you need to store but how much of it you have and how accessible it needs to be. Your answers will directly inform which make and model is right for you and also affect your bottom line. Options range from massive industrial storage vessels to small, portable, lightweight drives, and they vary enormously in price and capabilities. When you have a sense of your specific needs, consider these key factors.

Is security paramount?

Perhaps one of the single most important reasons to invest in an external hard drive is the peace of mind that comes from knowing your data and documents are stored in a secure physical place. While cloud storage systems have certainly gotten more secure over time, you can never back things up too much. External drives can be password protected and encrypted to guarantee the highest levels of security.

Since it can be easily removed from your computer and kept offline, an external hard drive allows you to safely and securely store files without any risk of remote intrusion. That said, keeping all of your vital data in a physical drive does bring with it the risk of damage to or loss of the device itself, so, again, backing up is always recommended, even when your external drive touts maximum protection.

Best SSD external hard drive: Samsung T7 Touch Portable SSD

Shock-Resistant Beauty

An external hard drive that goes the extra mile when it comes to security. Amazon

BUY NOW

Honored with the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show Innovation Award, the Samsung T7 SSD external hard drive features not only traditional password protection and encryption, but it also adds an extra level of security with advanced fingerprint-scanning technology. It also lacks moving parts, so it’s shock-resistant and very durable.

Will you be taking it on the go?

Just as the television eventually ceased to be the focal point of home entertainment, “the computer” no longer means one main desktop that handles all your work and play. People jump around from device to device, creating a personal network from desktop to laptop to tablet to phone. Such stretched resources demand a secure, centralized backup.

Finding an external hard drive that easily gels with all your devices will save you a lot of headache and, potentially, a lot of lost data. You’ll need to consider things like how the HDD connects—most external hard drives connect via USB-B, but others may use Micro-USB or some other variation that requires an adaptor—and whether or not its internal software is formatted specifically for Windows or Mac, or is platform-agnostic.

Best portable external hard drive: Seagate Backup Plus Slim

Reliability That Goes With You

Easily portable, without sacrificing any other functionality. Amazon

BUY NOW

This slim hard drive is no more cumbersome than a smartphone and can hold up to 4TB of data. Its aluminum casing is solid and durable, and it connects to devices via a USB 3.0 that takes care of both connection to your device and power. It’s also compatible with Windows and Mac. It’s a powerful and incredibly convenient way to store and transfer data.

Do you need your external hard drive to be a speed demon?

When you start connecting devices with new and sometimes more advanced interfaces, download and connection speeds can really vary. Your computer will move data as quickly as it can, taking into account the speeds of the source disk, the interface over which the data is flowing, and the capabilities of the destination disk. In some cases, the source disk is more advanced than the destination disk and will push data quicker than it can be written in the new location. Conversely, the destination disk and the interface might be newer and able to write data faster than the source sending it; that’s where data can bottleneck and potentially cause problems.

It’s difficult to ensure that every single device you’re connecting is running at optimum speed, so there will typically be unavoidable lags or congestion. However, getting an external hard drive with maximum speed capabilities will help ensure smooth transfers and less waiting around watching progress bars.

Fastest portable hard drive: Adata SD700

Rugged Chioce

A fast, sleek, and portable solution that offers versatility and efficiency. Amazon

BUY NOW

Able to transfer data (under optimal conditions) at 440 MBps—meaning it can transfer 55 MB per second—the Adata SD700 is one of the faster portable hard drives available. It’s small enough to fit easily in a knapsack or pocket, and the durable rubber outside edge guards it against banging around too much.

What if you need loads of storage space in a hard drive?

This is, essentially, what it’s all about, right? The most essential specification to consider when buying an external drive is probably storage space. What good is a high-speed device with encryption and remote access if it’s not big enough to store your information? Of course, the question of “big enough” depends on a few factors.

Some of the largest commercial external drives can handle up to 6TB of data, but unless you’re transferring and storing massive files (like heavy graphics) you might not need to go that high. If you want a device that’s good for transferring documents, photos, or other media from one device to another, or you just want to expand the storage space of your low-end laptop or tablet, then a mid-range flash drive may be your best bet. That said, if you are storing a lot of big files and hoping to keep them long-term—say, for example, a library of digital movies or copies of your DVD collection—you’ll want to think about maxing out.

Best external hard drive for storage: G-Technology 18TB G-DRIVE

Store More

Built to handle large files; perfect for graphic artists and gamers. Amazon

BUY NOW

Available with up to a staggering 18TB storage space, the G-Technology 18TB G-DRIVE has been designed with gamers, video editors, graphic designers, and others dealing with large HD files in mind. It also features decent transfer speeds up to 195MBs.

Are you looking for something stylish?

It may not be the absolute most important feature, but finding a hard drive that doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb among your other devices (or give you unsightly bulges in your shoulder bag) is something to consider. There’s no reason your data can’t be stored in style.

External hard drives have long been associated with large brick-like monsters that weigh down the corners of your workspace like cinder blocks. But as technology has advanced, HDDs have slimmed down and become more portable, and now resemble wallets more than Brutalist buildings.

Best SSD if you like your gear to look nice: LaCie Portable SSD

Super Sleek

Slim and secure, it does its job without needing to be the center of attention. Amazon

BUY NOW

Available in 500GB, 1TB and, 2TB models, the LaCie Portable SSD is as slim as a wallet or notepad, and can easily go from pouch to pocket to desktop without requiring any (literal) heavy lifting. Extremely light and also shock resistant, it has fast transfer speeds (540MBs) and simple connectivity.

FAQ: Everything you need to know about your new external hard drive

Now that you have a pretty firm grasp on your needs and expectations, there may still be a few lingering questions. As we’ve mentioned, external hard drives involve more than just plugging in and dragging files, so it’s important to know if the one you’re focusing on is really equipped to handle your specific jobs. Here are few common questions that come up, which may help you narrow your field even further.

Q. Can you leave external hard drives on all the time?

Some believe that leaving an external hard drive running all the time not only wastes energy but puts needless strain on the drive’s internal mechanisms, while others think it’s fine to leave them connected. You do have to be concerned, however, that an HDD that’s connected and “on” all the time is more vulnerable to attack or breach.

Q. How do I preserve an external hard drive?

Avoid overloading it, be aware of the surface it’s placed on (level, flat, non-slip surfaces are best), be sure to defrag the drive periodically, and, of course, be careful to avoid physical damage to the drive and USB connectors.

Q. Do external hard drives go bad if not used?

Since hard drives are typically magnetic, magnetic fields can break down over time. Most sources say that permanent magnets lose their field strength at a rate of 1% per year.

Q. How do I transfer everything from my computer to an external hard drive?

If the drive is connected via USB, formatted, and recognized by your computer, it should be a matter of simple cut and paste or drag and place.

Q. How long do external hard drives last?

Typically, a good rule of thumb is that an external drive is best for about three to five years, after which you will want to consider replacing it.

What you get for under $50

The Toshiba Canvio Basics 1TB Portable External Hard Drive delivers a not insubstantial 1TB of storage for under $50, making it not only affordable but extremely useful. (Its 4TB model is under $100, which is also impressive.) Compact and sleek, it’s easily portable and comes in a variety of styles. Just note that it is Windows PC-formatted only.

A final word on the best external hard drives out there

With more and more of our lives existing as digital files rather than physical items, it’s vital that we back up important data, sentimental photos, and once-in-a-lifetime videos on external hard drives to preserve and protect them. The right external drive needs to be compatible with all of your devices, have enough storage space for your heaviest files, and be portable enough to not weigh you down.

Finding the right hard drive will save you a lot of headache—an unexpected crash or power outage isn’t nearly as devastating when you know you can replace files or data with a single USB plug-in—and offer an extra layer of security. It always pays to have a backup.