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It’s easy to trust the cloud to keep duplicates of your most important data, but there are still a lot of benefits to keeping a full backup of your computer on an external hard drive. You don’t need to remember passwords to access it, or rely on the speed of your internet connection to upload and download files.
Most importantly, if your computer completely crashes, you can fully restore all of your data instead of just retrieving bits and pieces of it. Keeping an extra copy of your priceless photos, important documents, or well-curated music library can’t hurt, either.
If you’re ready to get an external hard drive, but don’t know where to start, we’ve broken down the best options for you below.
What Are the Best External Portable Hard Drives?
There are many factors to consider when choosing the best external hard drive for you; below are the most important ones, which we considered while we were researching this list.
Storage capacity: External hard drive space is measured in terabytes, and it’s a good rule to get one that has twice the storage capacity of your internal drive. That way, you can set your computer to make continuous backups and store multiple versions of the same files. I’m only going to recommend drives that can store at least 2TB (terabytes), but I’ll note when the same type of drive comes in a larger size.
Read and write speed: The speed at which an external hard drive reads and writes data is important to consider because it ultimately determines its performance. We chose drives that support the USB 3.0 standard, which has a maximum data transfer speed of 640mbps, or USB 3.1 standard, which has a maximum data transfer speed of 1,280mbps. Your actual speeds will vary based on how many files you’re trying to transfer at once, or the size of the files you’re transferring.
Connector: All external hard drives will connect to your computer via a USB cable, but some modern machines only have USB-C ports, so we made sure to pick drives that can accommodate both newer and older computers.
Portable vs. Desktop: Some external hard drives can be powered by your computer’s USB port (they’re called BUS powered drives), while others need to be plugged into an outlet. In general, drives with larger storage capacities will need to be plugged in.
Compatibility: External hard drives are one of the few tech accessories that are universally compatible, which means all of the ones we recommend in this guide can be used on either a PC or Mac. Keep in mind both MacOS and Windows use different file systems, so you may have some difficulty moving files back and forth between a Mac and PC.
SSD vs Hard Drive: Newer external hard drivers are called Solid State Drives. They hold your files on memory chips rather than a spinning plate. SSDs are significantly faster at reading and writing data, and are less error-prone because they have no moving parts. The downside is that most of them have a lower storage capacity than traditional external hard drives. That’s changing, but the changeover hasn’t happened yet.
1. WD 2TB My Passport Ultra Portable External Hard Drive
In many ways, Western Digital’s’ My Passport series of external hard drives have set the standard for the rest of the industry. They’re reliable, come in sizes up to 5TB, and are well-known for their ease of use.
I’m recommending the 2TB version because it’s physically smaller than the larger capacity drives in its family, which makes it a lot more portable. It comes with a USB-C cable and an adapter that allows you to plug it into a USB-A port, so it’ll work with older and newer computers.
Western Digital bundles the My Passport Ultra with its own backup program, which you can use to encrypt password protect your data if it’s highly sensitive.
The only thing this external hard drive doesn’t have is support for USB 3.1, which may cap its maximum read and write speed on some newer computers. This won’t be a hindrance on older computers, but it’s worth considering.
2. LaCie Rugged Mini 4TB External Hard Drive Portable HDD
If you do a lot a field work (or are afraid of accidents), your best bet is LaCie’s Rugged Mini, an external hard drive built to keep your data safe from a lot of common hazards.
The hard drive is covered in a rubberized casing that LaCie says can withstand drops of up to 1.2 meters (four feet). The company says the casing has earned an IP67 durability rating, which means it’s dust-proof and can survive being submerged under 3.3 feet of water for up to 30 minutes.
To be clear, it’s not recommended that you dunk this hard drive in water, or toss it in sand. These are “in case of emergency” features that may help keep your data safe in case of emergency situations.
The Rugged Mini’s outer coating is its biggest strength, but it comes with some drawbacks. The drive is larger than most other portable hard drives, which is why I recommend the 4TB version over the 2TB one. It also uses a larger, older Micro-B 3.0 connector instead of USB-C.
These connectors are large, and in my experience they’re a lot more fragile than the ones on USB-C drives. The cable also terminates into a standard USB connector, so you’ll need an adapter to plug it into a computer with USB-C ports.
Still, if you’re worried about losing your data to the elements, this is the best choice.
3. Samsung T7 Touch 500GB SSD
I mentioned earlier that portable SSDs were smaller, faster, and less susceptible to wear and tear than traditional external hard drives, and Samsung’s T7 Touch showcases all of these upsides perfectly.
The T7 supports the USB 3.2 standard, which Samsung says it to be nearly 9.5x faster than an average external hard drive. It has a USB-C port on it, and Samsung includes both a USB-C to USB-C, and USB-C to USB-A cable in the box, so you can connect this drive to any computer without a problem.
Some of the other external hard drives in this guide supports encryption, but this one takes it a step further. You can set up a password to protect your files or unlock it using the fingerprint sensor on top of the T7.
The only drawback to the T7 is its lower capacity. 500GB is enough space to back up a laptop’s hard drive, but you won’t want to rely on the T7 if you have a lot of media, or want additional copies of your most important files.
Note, there is a 2TB version of this drive available on Amazon for $399.99.
4. Seagate Backup Plus Hub 10TB
If you need to back up a ton of data, or primarily use a desktop computer, you’ll appreciate the extra features found on Seagate’s Backup Plus Hub.
The drive can hold 10TB of data, which is more than enough space to hold several copies of all your files, including high resolution video or image files. It supports USB 3.0 speeds, but uses a Micro-B connector like LaCie’s drive.
That’s less of a problem for an external hard drive designed for desktops because you’re less likely to be disconnecting and reconnecting it very often, but it’s still a little annoying. Seagate’s cable terminates into a USB-A jack, so you’ll need to get an adapter to connect it to a computer with USB-C ports.
The Backup Plus Hub gets its name because of the two USB-A ports on its front. You can plug your phone into one of those ports to charge it, or even connect a flash drive to access even more storage. This external hard drive can support those features because it needs to be plugged into the wall to work. This lack of portability may be a dealbreaker, but it’s the price you pay for having an external hard drive with this much space.
5. Cable Matters Aluminum USB C Hard Drive Enclosure and Hard Drive or SSD
An external hard drive is just a regular hard drive in a casing, so you can easily make your own by pairing Cable Matters’ Hard Drive Enclosure with the 2.5 inch hard drive or SSD of your choice.
What that means: you have hundreds of drive options from over a dozen companies, some of which don’t even make external hard drives. You can also swap drives in and out of the enclosure if you find one you like better, or if you need more storage.
Cable Matters’ enclosure has a USB-C port on it, and comes with both a USB-C to USB-C, and USB-C to USB-A cable, so you can connect it to any computer. It also supports USB 3.1 speeds, so using the enclosure won’t slow down the drive you use.
The benefit of going with this method is you get to pick your own drive, but I’m going to recommend this 1TB SSD from Samsung. It has faster maximum read and write speeds than the traditional hard drives on this list, and twice the capacity of Samsung’s T7 drive for the same price.
Putting together your own external hard drive requires no tools, and only about five minutes to assemble, but you do have to spend time researching the drive to put inside. If you don’t mind a little DIY project, it’s well worth considering, but it is easier to have all the choices made for you.