An external hard drive can provide a place to back up your files so they won't be lost if your computer's internal hard drive crashes, but that's not one's only role. It can also expand your computer's storage capacity, giving you more room for large files such as digital video, high-resolution photos and music collections. In addition, these drives offer a simple way of sharing data between computers by simply unplugging the drive from one machine and plugging it into another.
External hard drives can use two different types of technology. Hard-disk drives (HDD) are mechanical, writing to and reading from spinning platters. This type of drive offers the advantage of higher storage capacity at a relatively low cost per gigabyte (GB). Solid-state drives (SSD), by contrast, use flash memory in place of spinning disks. SSDs are significantly faster than HDDs, as well as quieter and more compact. In addition, their lack of moving parts makes them less vulnerable to physical damage. On the downside, they're also considerably pricier.
Different external hard drives excel at different tasks:
The best external hard drives are reliable, easy to use and reasonably priced. We scrutinized expert tests and owner reviews to find tried-and-true external hard drives that won't let you down.
We all know we should be backing up our data -- but nowadays, that's a massive task. Experts say the Seagate Backup Plus Desktop Drive (Est. $110 and up) makes it easy, quick and affordable.
Inside this unassuming little paperback-sized slab lurks vast storage: 3 TB (Est. $110) or 4 TB (Est. $130), or you can opt for the Seagate Backup Plus Hub version that adds two front USB ports in 4 TB (Est. $130), 6 TB (Est. $190) or a "cavernous" 8 TB (Est. $230) that's ComputerShopper.com's Editors' Choice.
This drive absolutely slays its rivals in tests. It's very fast via USB 3.0 (and backwards compatible with USB 2.0), so backups won't drag on forever. It works with PC, Mac, iOS, and Android, with is supplied with Seagate Dashboard software that makes saving content posted on social networking sites (Facebook, Flickr and YouTube) a snap. It even throws in 200 GB of cloud storage for free.
And it costs just pennies per gigabyte. "It's an easy recommendation," CNET's Dong Ngo says. It's the top desktop drive at both PCMag.com and TheWirecutter.com, and it earns rave reviews from owners at BestBuy.com, Amazon.com and BHPhotoVideo.com.
Seagate backs the drive with a two-year warranty, but that doesn't include data recovery. "Just be sure your most crucial data is backed up somewhere else, too -- 8 terabytes of memories is a lot to lose," ComputerShopper.com's Matt Safford warns.
Our former Best Reviewed pick, the Western Digital My Book (Est. $100 and up) with USB 3.0, is "still a good second choice," TheWirecutter.com's Ray Aguilera says -- it's just not as fast overall in tests. It's priced similarly to the Seagate ($105 for the 3 TB version, for example, and $245 for 8 GB), carries a two-year warranty, and boasts reviews from thousands of satisfied customers at retail websites. Aguilera names it his runner-up pick.
Naming the best portable hard drive was a tough call this time around. We found two models that both get excellent reviews from professionals and users: the Seagate Backup Plus Portable Drive (Est. $125) and the WD My Passport Ultra (Est. $55 and up). Both amass thousands of glowing reviews at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com, and both earn 4 out of 5 stars at CNET.
However, in head-to-head speed tests at PCMag.com and TheWirecutter.com, the Seagate Backup Plus Portable outruns the WD My Passport Ultra. It costs less per gigabyte, too, at less than $125 for 4 TB of capacity (the only size offered for this particular drive). On top of that, Seagate throws in 200 GB of free cloud storage. Those factors combine to earn the Seagate its Best Reviewed status.
For similar performance in a slimmer package, the Seagate Backup Plus Portable Slim (Est. $50 and up) and Seagate Backup Plus Portable Ultra Slim (Est. $70 and up) earn equally high marks from experts and owners. They're 12.1 and 9.6 mm thick, respectively (compared with 20.35 mm for the regular Seagate Backup Plus Portable). Capacities range from 500 GB to 2 TB for the Slim, and from 1 to 2 TB for the Ultra Slim.
WD offers a slightly longer warranty on its portable drive than Seagate -- three years, versus two. However, TheWirecutter.com notes that while both drives have fairly low failure rates as reported by Amazon.com users, the Seagate drive's is slightly lower.
If money is no object -- or your need for speed (and miniaturization) trumps it -- consider the Samsung Portable SSD T3 (Est. $100 and up). "'That's a hard drive?' my wife asked me, after seeing the T3," writes Justin Pot at DigitalTrends.com. "It looks more like a plus-sized thumb drive." It's roughly the size of a business card, and weighs about as much as four sheets of paper.
It's rugged, too. Samsung says its aluminum-cased drive can survive repeated 6.6-foot drops onto concrete, and temperatures from 32 to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. As for speed, expect the T3 to write data nearly twice as fast as our Best Reviewed Seagate Backup Plus Portable Drive (although read speed are fairly close), according to tests at CNET and PCMag.com. It connects with an included compact USB-C-to-USB 3.0 cable.
Inside this little wafer, you can store up to 2 TB of data, but you'll pay dearly for the privilege: Where the Best Reviewed Seagate drive will run around $120 for 4 TB of capacity, the highest capacity (2 TB) Samsung T3 will cost you around $690. If that doesn't faze you, or if you only need modest storage (the 250 GB version costs a more modest $100), it's worth noting that Amazon.com customers love this tiny SSD; it earns 4.7 out of 5 stars with more than 400 reviews posted. The drive is covered by a three-year warranty.
Most external hard drives are connected directly to your computer by a USB cable. Wireless external hard drives use Wi-Fi instead, and they can be accessed from a computer, smartphone or tablet. Because there's no cord, wireless drives are more convenient to use with laptops and tablets than a desktop drive (which keeps you tethered to a desk or table) or even a wired portable hard drive. Wireless drives are also small enough to carry with you on the go.
By far, the most recommended wireless hard drive is the Seagate Wireless Plus (Est. $140 and up). This drive provides 1 TB of storage -- and a version with a capacity of 2 TB (Est. $180) is also available -- that you can access wirelessly from up to eight devices at once. It works with PC, Mac, iOS, Android and Kindle Fire devices.
The Seagate Wireless Plus not only allows you to wirelessly back up your files (including photos and videos from your smartphone or tablet), but can also act as a Wi-Fi hub (so you can share a Wi-Fi connection with seven other devices) and video streamer (stream three different HD movies to three different devices simultaneously, including your home Blu-ray player, gaming console or smart TV). The drive syncs with Dropbox and Google Drive automatically.
The Seagate Wireless Plus is one of the top-rated hard drives at CNET, and it's a customer favorite at BestBuy.com and BHPhotoVideo.com. Reviewers like its versatility, large capacity and long battery life (up to 10 hours). However, they say its Wi-Fi transfer speeds aren't terribly fast. That's not a surprise, however, since, as CNET notes, the drive only uses the slower 2.4 GHz band, which limits transfer via Wi-Fi to a maximum of 150 MB/s. "It's a delicate balance Seagate has to juggle here, however, since supporting faster Wi-Fi speeds also would mean shorter battery life, a larger physical design, or both," Ngo says. If you want a physical connection for a faster transfer, you can use the USB 3.0 cable that comes in the box.
While most reviews describe it as simple and intuitive, CNET has a different take and notes that the Wireless Plus "doesn't natively support all popular digital video formats." Reviewers at Amazon.com seem to agree with CNET. While they like the drive's functionality, we saw many complaints that it's not intuitive to use. Some users also complain that the Wi-Fi connection can be glitchy and unstable.
To identify the best hard drives in each category, we studied reviews from a variety of computer publications and websites, such as PCMag.com, CNET, ComputerShopper.com, DigitalTrends.com and TheWirecutter.com. These sources conduct detailed, in-house tests of external hard drives to determine how fast they are at reading and writing various types of files. Reviewers also talk in detail about usability, evaluating the setup process, the software that comes with the drive, and the ease of using it with various types of third-party software. In addition, they offer comparisons of value, noting how a particular hard drive compares to others in its price range. The one factor that professionals can't always evaluate is long-term durability. To fill in that gap, we turned to the hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of individual user reviews posted at retail sites such as Amazon.com, BestBuy.com and BHPhotoVideo.com.