External hard drives do more than safeguard your data
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
Different external hard drives
excel at different tasks:
- Desktop hard drives usually cost the least per GB (about $100
for 3 TB of storage) and offer the biggest capacities. They typically
require an AC connection for their power supplies, and they're meant to
stay on your desktop.
- Portable hard drives are designed to let you take your files on
the go. They're compact and able to run off your computer's battery via a
USB connection. They range from inexpensive spinning-hard-disk models
(about $120 for 4 TB of storage) to extremely fast but relatively
expensive solid state portable drives (around $110 for 250 GB).
- Wireless hard drives are truly cordless. There's no power cord
(they're rechargeable) and no USB cord (you send files from your computer
or mobile device to the drive by Wi-Fi). However, they're pricey -- about
$140 for 1 TB of storage.
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.
Desktop external hard drives
We all know we
should be backing up our data -- but nowadays, that's a massive task. Experts
say the (Est. $110 and up) makes it easy, quick and
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.
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
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 (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.
Portable hard drives: Take your data
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 (Est. $125) and the (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.
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.
performance in a slimmer package, the (Est. $50 and up) and (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
If money is no
object -- or your need for speed (and miniaturization) trumps it -- consider
the (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
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.
Wireless drive to back up all your
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 (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.
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.
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.
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.
Expert & User Review Sources
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.