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Published Oct. 12, 2021

External hard drives are essential pieces of equipment for anyone looking to store, back up, or transfer large amounts of data between computers. Unlike the internal hard drive that sits inside your computer or laptop, external hard drives are separate devices that connect to a computer or network via a specific interface.

External hard drives are typically classified as either a Hard Disk Drive (HDD) or a Solid State Drive (SSD). Despite having the same overall objective, HDDs and SSDs handle data in different ways. These differences create unique advantages and disadvantages for both types of drives, making the choice about which one is right for you more difficult.   

In this article, we’ll provide some clarity on what to look for when shopping for external hard drives, including which features should be prioritized. We’ll also give specific examples of external hard drives that are best suited for certain applications or uses.

How We Picked the Best External Hard Drives

Methodology 

Having spent the last ten years reviewing computers, laptops, and other consumer tech, I’ve become very familiar with external hard drives, both HDDs and SSDs. When considering which external hard drive was best for a specific type of application or user setup, I used a specific criteria.

  • Storage: Whether it’s for personal use or professional review, the first thing I always look at is the total amount of storage a particular external hard drive has. That number tells me what applications this drive is good for, as well as giving me a baseline value of how much money you’re paying per gigabyte of storage.
  • Speed: Almost as important as storage capacity is how quickly an external drive can read and write files. Unlike storage, though, which is a fairly straightforward metric, the maximum rated speed of an external hard drive is dependent on several factors. You have to consider not only the underlying technology in the hard drive, including the drive type, but also the interface standard used to connect the drive to a computer, and whether or not that computer supports the same technology. Rated speed is not always real-world speed, and that’s something you have to think about when evaluating an external drive.
  • Value: To determine the value of an external hard drive, I like to first start at a very basic level and see how much you’re paying per gigabyte of storage. Once I have that dollar amount, I then look at the other specs and supplemental features to see how they might increase the overall value. 
  • Footprint: Although it’s not the true test of performance, the size of an external drive does matter—especially when you’re considering applications. Many hard drive users, myself included, are very mobile and rely heavily on portable SSDs, so size tells me whether or not a drive can be easily transported. Likewise, a hulking desktop RAID array with multiple disk drives tells me that the drive isn’t portable, nor is it meant for a smaller workspace.

The Best External Hard Drives: Reviews and Recommendations

Best Overall: Samsung T7 1TB Portable SSD 

Style Meets Speed

Small, secure, and incredibly fast, this portable SSD offers something for everyone. Samsung Electronics

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Why It Made the Cut: Thanks to its small footprint, insanely fast transfer speeds, and 1TB of storage, the Samsung T7 Portable SSD will be the best storage solution for many people.

Specs:

  • Storage: 1TB
  • Speed: 1,050 MB/s read, 1,000 MB/s write
  • Interface: USB 3.2 Gen 2 (USB-C)

Pros:

  • Fast read/write speeds can save hours in transfer times
  • Sleek, portable design makes it easy to carry and transport
  • AES 256-bit encryption and password protection safeguards data
  • USB cables included

Cons:

  • More expensive than other external hard drives

The Samsung T7 1TB Portable SSD is that rare external drive that manages to balance speed, size, storage, security, and aesthetics in a single device. Of its many positive traits, the standout is its transfer speed, which is rated up to 1,050MB/s. That’s nearly twice as fast as the T7’s predecessor, the Samsung T5 Portable SSD, which is an excellent drive in its own right.

Breakneck transfer speeds aside, the T7’s compact design and plug-and-play interface make it both a breeze to transport and use. The T7 is also a standout in terms of security: AES 256-bit encryption coupled with the non-moving, non-volatile components inherent to all SSDs, means your data is safe from unwanted eyes and accidental falls.

Although it does throw in some additional features, like the two included USB cables, the T7 isn’t the cheapest drive available. However, if you’re looking for an external hard drive that’s really fast, really secure, and can fit in your back pocket, then the Samsung T7 is well worth its moderate price tag. 

Best Value: WD 4TB My Book External Hard Drive

Most Bang, Least Buck

With a price that breaks down to literal pennies per gigabyte, and performance that holds its own against other desktop hard drives, the WD 4TB My Book External Hard Drive is one of the best deals you’ll find. Western Digital

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Why It Made the Cut: Although its overall performance is commendable, the sheer size of storage offered at such an affordable price makes this drive an incredible value.

Specs:

  • Storage: 4TB
  • Speed: 5,400 rpm
  • Interface: USB 3.0 (USB Micro-B)

Pros:                          

  • Massive storage equals unbeatable value
  • Automatic backup software ensures your files never get lost
  • 256-bit AES encryption keeps your private data private
  • Made by Western Digital, one of the most trusted brands in the world

Cons:

  • Transfer speeds not as fast as an SSD
  • Not portable

For those who prioritize storage capacity over all else, or anyone who simply can’t pass up an incredible deal, the WD 4TB My Book External Hard Drive offers a ton of storage and the best overall value. The My Book is definitely a desktop drive, one that needs to be plugged into a power outlet to function, so it’s not meant to be portable. Instead, think of it as a near-endless digital library that automatically backs up and stores all your files regardless of whether you’re working on a Windows or Mac computer.

All data stored on the WD 4TB My Book is password-protected using the drive’s 256-bit AES hardware encryption. This high level of security, combined with the renowned reliability of the WD brand, should give users peace of mind that their files are safe and secure.

Best Rugged: LaCie Rugged 500GB SSD

Fast and Durable

With its trademark bright-orange bumper, the LaCie Rugged SSD is a paragon of durability, with blazing fast transfer speeds to boot. LaCie

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Why It Made the Cut: True to its name, the LaCie Rugged is an IP67-rated SSD that is water-resistant, dust resistant, shock-resistant up to 9.8 feet, and offers up to two tons of crush resistance.

Specs:

  • Storage: 500GB
  • Speed: 950 MB/s read, 950 MB/s write
  • Interface: USB 3.2 Gen 2 (USB-C)

Pros:                          

  • Fast transfer speeds up to 950MB/s
  • Rugged build stands up to virtually any terrain
  • Self-encrypting technology safeguards all your private data
  • USB cables included

Cons:

  • On the pricier side
  • Not everyone loves bright orange

With fast transfer speeds and an indomitable design, the LaCie Rugged 500GB SSD is an excellent choice for on-the-go users who need the fastest transfer times in any environment. Thanks to its IP67-rated, bright-orange encasement, the Rugged SSD is resistant to water, dust, drops up to 9.8 feet, and two tons of crush resistance. True story: I once tested the durability claims of the Rugged SSD by running it over with an SUV and it survived without so much as a dent.

Of course, the Rugged has a lot more going for it than sheer durability. Its remarkably fast transfer speeds are rated up to 950MB/s, making it ideal for working with large data files, such as 4K video. The Rugged’s 500GB of storage isn’t as large as some of the other SSDs on our list, but there are additional storage options available, all the way up to 2TB. Regardless of what storage capacity you choose, all your files will be secured using patented self-encrypting technology and a password system.

Best for Creators: LaCie  2big RAID 8TB External Hard Drive

Made for Content Creators

With tons of storage and fast transfer speeds, the LaCie 2big RAID array is great for content creators regularly working with large digital files and libraries. LaCie

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Why It Made the Cut: The LaCie 2big RAID 8TB External Hard Drive is perfect for 

professional content creators, with 8TB of space, the ability to perform high-speed-transfers, and connectivity with a range of devices.

Specs:

  • Storage: 8TB
  • Speed: 7200rpm (per platter)
  • Interface: USB 3.1 (USB-C), Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C), USB 3.1 (USB-A), DisplayPort 1.2 (DisplayPort)

Pros:                          

  • Two hot-swappable 4TB drives deliver 8TB of total storage
  • Supports RAID 0, 1, and JBOD
  • Dual 7,200rpm platters
  • Comes with 5 years of Rescue Data Recovery Services

Cons:

  • Fairly costly, even for a RAID

For anyone regularly working with massive data files and libraries, including videographers and other content creators, the LaCie 2big RAID 8TB External Hard Drive is an ideal solution. With two hot-swappable 4TB drives spinning at 7,200rpm, the 2big RAID offers both the volume and potential transfer speeds professional workflows often require. Speaking of speed: The 2big RAID supports RAID 0 and 1 settings, allowing you to prioritize data redundancy (RAID 1) or high-speed transfers (RAID 0). When using RAID 0, both drives in the array are striped together, allowing each to work simultaneously, effectively doubling your transfer speeds.

Other standout features include the 2big RAID’s numerous connectivity options, which allow it to seamlessly interface with USB-C and USB 3.0 (USB-A) computers. Also included with the 2big RAID are five years of data recovery services, which can deliver tremendous peace of mind, especially if you’re someone working with voluminous amounts of data.

Best for Speed: Samsung X5 External SSD

No Time to Wait

Transfer files at insanely fast speeds with the Samsung X5 External SSD. Samsung Electronics

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Why It Made the Cut: With unbelievable transfer speeds of up to 2,800MB/s, the Samsung X5 External SSD is the drive you want when the only thing that matters is how quickly your files are transferred.

Specs:

  • Storage: 500GB
  • Data Transfer Speeds: 2,800 MB/s read, 2,100 MB/s write
  • Interface: Thunderbolt 3 USB-C)

Pros:                          

  • Insanely fast transfer speeds up to 2800MB/s
  • Shock-resistant design resists falls up to 6’
  • Thermal guard and built-in heatsink prevent throttling
  • 256-bit AES encryption keeps data safe and secure

Cons:

  • Top performance dependent on Thunderbolt 3
  • High speeds means higher costs

Rated for mind-boggling transfer speeds to the tune of 2,800 MB/s read and 2,100 MB/s write, the Samsung X5 External SSD is a rocket of a hard drive. Complementing its racecar-like performance is a streamlined, full-metal body, with a glossy finish and bright red flourish. The metal body is more than just aesthetics, however, as it ensures drop protection from up to 6 feet in the air. Underneath the hood, the X5 features both a heatsink and thermal guard technology designed to keep temperatures low. Other protections include 256-bit AES encryption, which will protect all your data no matter how fast it’s flying.

One thing to keep in mind when considering the X5 Eternal SSD is compatibility. There’s only one port on the X5 and it’s a Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C). That means to realize those incredible speeds, the computer or laptop you connect it to must also be Thunderbolt 3. The X5 will still work even if the computer you connect it to isn’t Thunderbolt 3, but you won’t see the same blistering speeds.

Things to Consider Before Buying an External Hard Drive

When deciding which external hard drive is best for you, be sure to consider the following:

Storage

Storage capacity should be one of your top concerns when thinking about what you’ll be using this drive for. If, for example, you’re a content creator who regularly works with gigantic files, you need to find a drive that can support that amount of data. Likewise, if you’re just transferring a couple of projects to and from the office, something smaller in the 500GB range should do just fine.

Speed

Like storage, you should consider what your needs are in terms of speed. High transfer speeds can shave hours off workflows and projects, allowing you to do more in less time.

Compatibility

One thing you want to make certain of is that the computer you plan on connecting the hard drive to supports the same underlying technologies. Your new drive might feature the latest and greatest tech in the world, but if the computer you plug it into doesn’t, then you won’t get the best performance possible.

Work Environment

Is this external hard drive something you plan to take with you or something you’re going to set up in your home office? Knowing where you intend to use your new hard drive can help you narrow down the list between desktop and portable drives.

FAQs

Q: What is an external hard drive used for?

External hard drives are used to store digital files and data from other sources, such as a computer, laptop, or even another external drive.

Q: Is an external hard drive good for storing photos? 

Yes. External hard drives are excellent storage solutions for digital photographs. With an external hard drive, you can back up all your photographs, transfer them from workstation to workstation, or just quickly access them.

Q: How long do external hard drives last? 

There is no exact number, but the current consensus is that a hard disk drive will likely last 3 to 5 years, while an SSD, which doesn’t have the same moving parts, will likely last up to about 10 years.

Final Thoughts

The best external drive is one that comes with plenty of storage, offers fast read/write speeds, and is portable enough to carry with you. That’s why the T7 1TB Portable SSD is the best overall choice. Both its storage capacity and speed seem like the best option for most people. 1TB of storage won’t be enough for everyone, but it’s likely enough for most of us. It’s also really easy to carry. The T7 is about the size of a credit card and taking it with you is as simple as sliding it into your back pocket. Add to that the fact it looks great and is so easy to use, and you pretty much have a perfect hard drive. If there’s a problem with it, it’s that the included USB cables are too short, but otherwise, the T7 1TB SSD is your best overall external hard drive.

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