External portable hard drives are powered via your computer, making them ideal for laptop users or anyone else who needs data on the go. They are compact compared to desktop external hard drives, but they also tend to come in smaller capacities. Not needing to plug them into an AC wall socket helps when you are working remotely, but don't forget that portable external hard drives can suck up a bit of juice from your laptop's battery.
The Western Digital My Passport (Est. $90 for 1 TB) outscores most portable hard drives on the strengths of its easy-to-use backup software, modest per-GB cost and compact design. CNET's Dong Ngo tests the external drive's USB 3.0 interface. He says speeds are "very fast" but "not the fastest." Lab tests at HardwareZone.com echo these findings, citing "above average speeds" with USB 3.0. USB 2.0 data speeds are slower, but not unacceptably so according to most reports. This Western Digital portable hard drive earns the Best Portability nod from Wired.com, where editors say it works well with both Windows and Macs.
While the experts laud the included backup software, many user reviews indicate that it's not necessary. That's a good thing, since that software -- as is often the case with portable external hard drives -- is Windows only. Instead, many owners use third-party software -- Time Machine in the case of Apple users -- or just manually drag and drop files to the portable hard drive as needed, and that works very well.
The Seagate Backup Plus (Est. $90 for 1 TB) is similar in price to the Western Digital My Passport and is easily its closest competitor among portable hard drives. While the My Passport is our pick among portable external hard drives overall, the Backup Plus is not without some virtues.
For starters, it's faster. In testing at CNET, the Seagate Backup Plus landed in third place out of 20 backup drives. For those with older systems, USB 2.0 performance is more middle-of-the-road. PCMag.com grants the Seagate Backup Plus an Editors' Choice award. Ahmer Kazi praises it for offering "a killer combination of speed, ease of use and versatility." Its interface supports interchangeable USM (Universal Storage Module) adapters. The Backup Plus ships with a USB 3.0 adapter, with FireWire and Thunderbolt varieties available at extra-cost (Est. $30 to $100 each).
Seagate customer service also gets some kudos. We noticed lots of interaction with users, particularly at Amazon.com; company support representatives reach out to those who post issues and either offer solutions to problems or invite further dialog with the company. However, we also noted a little more aggravation among users than voiced for the Western Digital My Passport. Problems are varied, and most are not unusual for a backup drive. However, one constant gripe is about the Windows-only backup software -- particularly about it bogging down the system over time. You can use the drive manually (by dragging and dropping files) or turn to third-party software if you want to set up frustration-free automatic backups.
While the portable external hard drives above are designed for life on the road, that doesn't mean that they are built to withstand lots of abuse should that road turn rough. If that's a concern, the LaCie Rugged USB 3.0 Thunderbolt (Est. $200 for120 GB) external solid state drive is a great choice.
PCMag.com's Joel Santo Domingo awards this external portable hard drive the site's Editors' Choice award for its "speedy" performance, "ruggedized" build and Thunderbolt interface," and he recommends it for "speed demons" with a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac or PC. This external SSD drive also includes a USB 3.0 port, and CNET's Dong Ngo finds that both interfaces perform "excellently" in testing.
The LaCie Rugged USB 3.0 Thunderbolt sports an aluminum enclosure, which experts say is quite sturdy, as well as an orange bumper for added protection around the edges. Because of the bumper, it's less compact than the My Passport, but it can still fit in a pocket. The portable SSD hard drive is rated to withstand falls of up to 4 feet.
Most experts review the 120 GB or 256 GB (Est. $350) versions of this portable hard drive. Both of those use flash memory, which is better able to stand bumps and bruises than the spinning platters of a conventional hard drive, such as the Western Digital My Passport. The LaCie Rugged USB 3.0 Thunderbolt is also available in a 1 TB version (Est. $250); however, that external portable hard drive uses conventional disk technology (though it carries the same drop rating). We saw relatively little expert or user feedback on that largest version of the Rugged USB 3.0 Thunderbolt.
Note that while the LaCie Rugged USB 3.0 Thunderbolt is better able to withstand modest drops than other portable hard drives, it's not the toughest external hard drive you can buy. With its size, weight and need for AC power, you won't be able to take the IoSafe Solo G3 on the road with you. However, if portability isn't a must in a backup drive, the Solo G3 is nearly bulletproof -- literally -- and can withstand fires and floods. It's discussed more in our section on best external hard drives.