If you use a PC, chances are you have data stored on it that you don’t want to lose. One of the best ways to make sure your data isn’t lost is to save a copy onto an external drive. It’s an inexpensive and handy way to back up your important files or store any overflow. It can also be used to transfer files between devices.
As your data files grow and become more complex, you will always need more storage. An external drive is a great way to protect yourself in an emergency. We’ve tested numerous external drives and curated the best picks below. We’ve included external drives with blazing-fast performance as well as a pick for best budget option, best portable SSD, and everything in between. Below our recommendations you’ll find additional helpful information on what you need to know to choose the best external drive for your needs.
Updated 01/10/2023 Check out our most recent review of the Seagate Skywalker 2TB external HDD. This Star Wars-themed USB hard drive external 2.5-inch has excellent performance and a fun collector edition aesthetic that will appeal fans.
1. Samsung T7 Shield – Best performance USB drive
- Storage up to 10Gbps speed
- Rugged outer skin to IP65 rating
- Capacity up to 2TB
- Svelte styling
- No 20Gbps
- Not full immersion
We’re fans of Samsung’s (still excellent) T7 Touch, and now we’re ever bigger fans of the follow-up T7 Shield. The USB 10Gbps drive can be purchased in two capacities: 1TB or 2TB, and costs $160 or $290, respectively. The Touch had a fingerprint scanner for data security. The Shield, however, focuses on physical protection. It is IP65-rated against particulate matter and water spray. This makes it a good drive for outdoor use. The Shield can be protected with password protection.
We also appreciate that the Shield bests its predecessor in write speeds, giving it the performance boost it needed to supplant SanDisk’s Extreme Pro Portable SSD (below) as our top performance pick.
Please read our full article
Review Samsung T7 Shield
2. SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD – Best performance drive runner-up
- Fastest USB SSD currently available
- Relatively Affordable
- IP55 is rated against dust and mild water streams
- Slightly slower reading files than Samsung’s T7
While we’ve moved SanDisk’s Extreme Pro Portable SSD (1TB) to runner-up status in light of the Samsung T7’s improved write speeds, make no mistake, it’s still one the fastest USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps) external SSD we’ve tested to date. It’s slightly more expensive than the T7 Shield, at $190 for 1GB and $300 for 2GB, and it’s rated at IP55 for slightly less protection from the elements. Both are excellent performers.
Note: There are faster USB 3.2 2×2 (also known as SuperSpeed 20Gbps) SSDs available, such as the WD Black P50 and Seagate Barracuda Fast SSD. However, SuperSpeed 20GbpsAnd USB4 ports are still so rare, we’re not sure it matters. These drives are also not as slimming as the Extreme Pro.
Check out our complete article
Review SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD
3. WD Black P50 Game Drive SSD (1TB) – Best for gaming
- SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps: Up to 2GBps
- Uniquely militaristic styling
- SuperSpeed 10Gbps drives can be more expensive than SuperSpeed 5Gbps drives.
- To achieve maximum performance, the SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps port is required
Today’s games can soak up 50GB or 100GB of storage and more. If you’re looking for a drive to quickly load that game from on your gaming laptop, we recommend WD’s Black P50 Game Drive. It’s true. Just because it’s literally called “Game Drive,” but because we prefer game’s to be launched from an SSD where it can literally be a competitive advantage in some titles. A external SSD is able to load your games much faster than a slow hard drive. While many PCs don’t have the USB SuperSpeed 20Gbps ports needed to make the Black P50 sing, it’s actually becoming fairly standard in newer desktops. Even though USB 10Gbps speeds are slower than hard drives, it still allows for 1,000MBps reads and write speeds. (Learn how we evaluate). the best external SSD for gaming.)
4. SanDisk Professional G-Drive SSD – Best for photographers
- Fastest USB 10Gbps drive to date
- IP67 is rated against water and dust
- The same or lower price than the competition
We’re a little torn between recommending a Thunderbolt-based drive for external storage versus a USB external drive. While a Thunderbolt 3 external SSD typically provides higher performance, that doesn’t help you if your laptop doesn’t have a Thunderbolt port, and many of those drives don’t have any USB support. That makes SanDisk’s G-Drive SSD the preferred drive. It doesn’t support the more advanced, and also rare, USB SuperSpeed 20Gbps speeds, but it’s in the top tier with USB 10Gbps speeds, which is what you’ll mostly find. Its tough shell is perhaps the most important feature for photographers moving files in the field. The drive is built with IP67 water-resistance and dust-resistance ratings and can withstand 2,000 pounds of weight, so you won’t lose that precious photo of a ghost cat in the mountains of Afganistan.
5. Crucial X6 Portable SSD (2TB) – Best budget option
- Ergonomic design
- Good performance every day
- External SSDs very affordable
- Performance tanks when cache runs low
The Crucial 6 Portable SSD is square for hip. You can also keep it in your hip pocket. The thin, rounded-edge, X6 is a breath of relief in a sea portable SSDs that’s shape makes them difficult to pocket. It’s not state-of-the-art fast, but it’s fast enough for most users and extremely affordable.
Please read our full article
Review Crucial X6 Portable SSD (2TB)
6. Adata Elite SE880 SSD – Most portable external drive
- USB connection at over 20Gbps, very fast
- Extremely low form factor
- 5-year warranty
- Long, contiguous write sessions can slow down significantly
- Very low TBW rating
No external SSD we’ve seen can match Adata’s Elite SE880 for portability. It is actually smaller than an external SSD, measuring only 2.55 inches in length, 1.38 inches width, and 0.48 inch thick. It is lightweight at just 1.1 ounces, so it practically disappears in your pocket.
The Elite SE880 is very fast for everyday tasks, but slows down when writing long files. The drive performed well in real-world 48GB transfer testing, beating other competitors on this list. However, it lost significant ground in longer contiguous write tests. This shows that photo and video professionals with large files might want to consider alternative options.
Check out our complete article
Review Adata Elite SE880 SSD
7. Kingston XS200 USB SSD – Most portable high-capacity drive
- Super svelte
- Good 20Gbps performance
- Available in capacities up to 4TB
- Slower than the rest of the competition
- A looker is not necessary
The Kingston XS2000 is an admirable blend of size, capacity, and speed—all for a reasonable price. It is comparable to larger drives, but it can be carried around in your pocket.
The Kingston XS2000 also has data transfer rates of up to 20Gbps, which isn’t lightning fast, but it beats the 10Gbps of some competitors. This SSD is small, affordable, and fast. It’s a great product if you need to carry a lot.
Check out our complete article
Review Kingston XS200 USB SSD
8. Portable SSD X5 – Best Thunderbolt 3 drive
- Thunderbolt 3 is limited to Thunderbolt 3 because it lacks an AC jack
- NVMe SSDs are expensive, but not outrageously so
If you have Thunderbolt 3 or 4 on your system, you owe it to yourself to check out a portable Thunderbolt 3 drive such as Samsung’s SSD X5. As an NVMe SSD using PCIe over a cable (that’s basically what Thunderbolt 3 is), it’s stupidly fast—over 2.5GBps reading and writing.
The only reason we don’t universally recommend the Portable SSD X5 is the relative rarity of Thunderbolt 3/4 ports on PCs. Although USB4 is expected to reduce this issue, vendors will need to combine it and Thunderbolt 4 technology. Or, you might soon see USB4 drives capable of transferring 40Gbps. It gets complicated.
9. WD My Passport 5TB – Best for backups
- Excellent cost per gigabyte
- Beautiful styling
- Comprehensive software suite
- Large files are slower than average, making it slower than the average
You want to know why we chose WD’s My Passport 5TB for backups? It’s right there in the name—that extra 1TB can be invaluable in the age of 4K.
Check out our complete article
Review WD My Passport 5TB
10. Seagate Backup Plus Portable – Best for backups runner-up
- In a 2.5-inch box, up to 5TB can be stored
- Slowly writing small files and/or folders
Like the WD above, Seagate’s Backup Plus Portable is a USB 3.1 Gen 1 (5Gbps) drive—plenty enough bandwidth for the hard drive inside. Although the maximum capacity is 5TB, the drive is also available with 1TB, 2TB and 4TB options.
The 4TB version of our tests showed that the Seagate was slightly faster with large file transfers (think movies), and slower with smaller file transfers (think Office files). The Seagate is a worthy runnerup.
Check out our complete article
Review Seagate Backup Plus Portable
Before you buy
Capacity and Price
Most consumers are concerned about price and capacity when shopping for external storage. However, while you might think that the lowest-cost drive provides the most value, it often doesn’t. Dollar for dollar, lower-capacity drives with higher capacity are historically the worst deal. We’ve been doing this comparison for years and it’s always been the worst value.
Below you can see how we compare the most popular WD Elements desktop hard drive’s Prices and available capacities. You’re paying more than twice as much for the lowest-capacity drive versus the next step up. It’s almost equally as bad on the WD Elements Portable drive.
What capacity do you require?
The best “value” are typically for the largest hard drives as you can see, but it brings considerably higher prices and not everyone needs that much capacity. So how big do you need? We recommend at least twice the capacity of your PC’s backup drive. 2TB is sufficient to backup your entire PC’s storage. You can also keep historical backups on the same drive if you have 1TB. You can keep more historical files in your PC, or use the same drive to back up additional PCs.
While the desktop drive provides a far higher capacity, they also require more cables, weigh more, and generally may not be quite as shock resistant as a portable hard drive that’s designed to take a few more bumps, even when on.
Today, the majority of external drives are USB drives. Beyond that simple statement, the story gets confusing—largely because of the plethora of variations: USB 3.0, USB 3.1 Gen 1 (5Gbps, which is basically USB 3.0), USB 3.2 Gen 2 (10Gbps), and USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 (20Gbps), and now the up-and-coming USB4. In an attempt to simplify things, the USB Forum has recently changed the nomenclature to indicate throughput speed—SuperSpeed USB 5Gbps, SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps, and SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps—because performance is a priority for most uses. We usually reduce those names to USB 10Gbps or USB 10Gbps USB for brevity (and our sanity).
If a hard drive is not combined in RAID with other hard drives, it cannot outstrip the 5Gbps (roughly $500MBps real world after overhead) throughput USB 3.1 Gen 1. Don’t worry about Gen 2, 10Gbps, or Thunderbolt with single hard drive enclosures because it doesn’t really matter.
Where SuperSpeed 10Gbps/20Gbps, USB4, or Thunderbolt will definitely help is with the aforementioned RAID hard drive setups, or more likely—an SSD. The good news is that while USB 3.1 Gen 2, which is more than fast enough for most users at 10Gbps, used to be expensive, it’s basically the standard today. You can get a SanDisk Extreme Portable SATA SSD, our runnerup for portable storage. $90 in a 500GB capacity.
The faster USB 3.2 SuperSpeed 20Gbps (Gen 2×2) moves you into a higher-price bracket, with the Seagate Firecuda Gaming SSDFor the same 500GB storage, it costs $200 Although faster than the typical USB 3.2 SuperSpeed 10Gbps, there aren’t a lot of USB 20Gbps gen 2×2 ports out there, but these drives should work with the upcoming USB4 at the same 20Gbps pace.
Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 are the most powerful interfaces for external storage. However, they have a price premium and are not compatible with the much more popular USB 3.0 ports. If you need the best performance, you can get it with drives such as our recommended portable, The. Samsung Portable SSD X5, which is $200500GB capacity A slower version of the same capacity is available. 1TB Samsung T5 on USB is only $125.
External drives come with a variety of ports, though they’re gradually consolidating on the Type-C connector. Here’s what you need to care about:
USB 3 Micro-B Superspeed. This is still a very common port on many lower-cost portable and desktop external hard drives today. It’s actually the same Micro USB port used on your phone, but beefed up with more data lines to hit USB 3.0 speeds. It’ll do 5Gbps and is fine for hard drives and SATA (internally) SSDs.
USB 3 Type-B is the larger, blocky version of USB 3.0 Micro B. Although you may not find Type B ports anymore, enclosures with 5.25-inch hard drives, optical drives, or other drives might have them. It supports speeds of up to 5Gbps.
USB-C The latest USB connector the world is moving towards is the newest. It can be found in everything, from smartphones to laptops. Remember that USB-C does not refer to the connector. There are many things that can be carried over the wires. For data transfers to an external drive, a USB 3.2 SuperSpeed 20Gbps port could be used. Any higher performance port today should be USB-C—just remember that just because it’s USB-C doesn’t mean the actual electronics inside the PC or drive can hit the highest speeds of what a USB-C port can do.
USB Type A You won’t find this port on any drive, but you will find this familiar rectangular port on PCs and laptops. It is important to mention that any drive with Type-C ports should come with a Type C-to-Type-A cable or adapter. We hope most computers have those.
Thunderbolt 2It is now considered dead port. The mini-DisplayPort connector was only popular on Macs. Apple eventually put it out of business in 2017. There’s no need to invest in a Thunderbolt 2 drive unless it’s for legacy support issues.
Apple has a number of different products. bi-directional Thunderbolt 1/2 to 3 adapterIf you need to connect one to the other. It does not transfer power, however, so you can’t use it on its own with bus-powered external drives. You’ll need a powered dock for that.
eSATA is another legacy port that’s basically disappeared. Created for attaching external storage to your computer’s SATA bus, eSATA was a cheap way in its day to get beyond the 60MBps performance of USB 2.0. USB 3.0 was the final nail in its coffin. Thunderbolt 2 was the last nail in its coffin. An eSATA drive can only be used with older computers.
In backup, there’s a fundamental maxim appropriately named the Rule of Three. It says that you should always keep three copies of your irreplaceable information: the original data (a backup), and the backup of the backup. The backups should be kept in separate locations. One copy should be offsite. For smaller data sets, it is a good idea to keep a copy online. It also meets the offsite criteria. External drives in pairs or more are faster and more practical for large video, audio, and/or photo collections.
Each few months, create complete backups to both drives. True patrons of wisdom might even take the second drive to work, so there’s no chance of losing both drives to the same local disaster.
See our roundups for more information on how to build the best backup plan. best cloud backup servicesBest Windows backup software.
How we tested
To evaluate the performance of each external drive we review, we use our standard storage test bench. It’s a six-core (twelve-thread) Intel Core i7-5820K on an Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard with 64GB of Kingston DDR4 memory running Windows 10.
A discrete Gigabyte Alpine Ridge Thunderbolt 3 card and Ableconn USB 3.2 2×2 20Gbps card (Asmedia 2142 controller) are used for connecting the external drives. Some of the older drives were connected with an Asus USB 3.1/10Gbps card (Asmedia 1142 Controller).
We run synthetic benchmarks such as Crystal Disk Mark 6/7/8 and AS SSD 2 and Iometer. Real-world transfer tests are also performed using a 48GB batch (small files and folders), as well as single 48GB or 450GB files. The testbed boots using a NVMe drive. However, real-world file transfers to Windows (Windows) are done to and from the 58GB RAM disk.
FAQ about External drives
What is the difference between an SSD or an HDD?
HDDs (hard drives) have been around since more than 50 year and rely on spinning discs to read and write data. They are made up of spinning metal platters coated with magnetic coatings, where the data is stored, and a read/write arms that moves across the platters in order to access the data.
SSDs (solid-state drives) use flash memory and don’t have moving parts. Instead, data is stored on flash memory microchips that are interconnected. This interconnectedness enables data to be pulled at once from many places, and significantly increases memory reading speeds.
SSDs are generally a better choice for external drives due to their smaller size and faster speeds. SSDs have one major drawback: they are more expensive than HDDs for the same storage capacity. However, SSDs’ prices will continue to fall as technology improves.
How often should you back-up your data?
It is best to back up your data as often and as often as you can. This is especially true if your data is critical or you cannot afford to lose it.
It is a good idea automate the backup process so that your external hard drive can back up your data at least once an hour. If you travel with your external drive, it is important to backup your data every time you make a change to it.
Why is my actual hard drive storage so small?
This comes down to the perceived size of storage (KB, MB, GB, TB) versus the actual size of that storage. A Kilobyte (KB), which is 1000 bytes, is believed by most consumers to be 1,000 bytes. It is actually 1,024. Many consumers believe that a Megabyte is 1,000 bytes, but it is actually 1,024 bytes. So a manufacturer’s hard drive that claims to have 1TB of storage actually has only 931.31 GB of storage. Manufacturers don’t advertise this because round numbers are easier for consumers to understand.
Another reason storage space may not appear as advertised is the fact that hard drives must be formatted in order to properly read and write data. A portion of the drive’s storage space is used to format the data and store it.
How long does an external hard disk last?
An external hard drive has a life expectancy of three to five year. This is dependent on the make and model of the drive and the storage conditions. The less you use an external hard drive, the less reliable it will be.
One way to guesstimate the lifespan of your hard-drive is to look at the manufacturer’s warranty and the TBW (total terabytes written) number. The daily storage amount you write can be calculated and extrapolated from there to determine how long it can be used every day until reaching the TBW. These numbers are not exact and drives can be much longer than these, but they will give you an idea of when to expect problems.
What happens when external hard drives fail to work?
External hard drives can fail in a variety of ways. They are particularly vulnerable to failure because of frequent mishandling, outdated driver software, disconnecting and connecting, and unsafe or forced expulsions. You can ensure your hard-drive is always working properly by keeping it safe, updating your drivers, making sure you properly connect and disconnect devices, and keeping it in a safe place.
Can I leave my external hard disk plugged in?
For the most part it’s fine to leave your external drive plugged in all of the time. However, there can be some minor drawbacks to this if you aren’t careful. Hard drives will continue emitting heat while they work. If left plugged in constantly, there is a possibility that this heat could cause data damage. This can be avoided by buying a drive with an enclosure that is metal or has good heat dissipation.
There are some benefits to keeping your drive plugged-in all the time. If your data is set to automatically update, then keeping it plugged into will allow you to make frequent backups. You’ll also be able to access your data more easily if the external drive is plugged in.
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