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External Hard Drive Buying Guide

By: Tara Tuckwiller on September 27, 2017

What the best external hard drive has

  • Ease of use. It should be simple to set up the drive and configure the software (if any), even if you're not that tech-savvy. All of our top-rated drives work with PC, Mac, Android and iOS devices, and some work directly with Kindle Fire and social networking sites like Facebook, Flickr and YouTube (although you'll need to download free apps from the manufacturer for some of these functions).
  • Speed. The best drives will both read and write files quickly, although speed will vary depending on what kind of connection you use. All of the drives in this report are compatible with USB 3.0 and backward compatible with the slower USB 2.0.
  • Long-lasting build quality. You may not need an ultra-tough drive that can withstand fire and flooding, but at the least, you want one that can withstand everyday problems like a power outage or falling off a desk.
  • Good warranty. In addition to protecting you if your external hard drive breaks, a long warranty (at least two years) is a sign of reliability. However, don't expect the warranty to cover data recovery; the manufacturer will try to save your lost data, but it will cost extra.
  • Bang for your buck. Great news: Price-per-terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) keeps plummeting. Expect to pay half what you would have paid just a few years ago: The typical price for 1 TB of storage is around $25 to $30 for a portable or desktop hard drive, though some ultraportable drives are considerably pricier.

Know before you go

How much storage do you need? In general, the bigger the capacity, the less you'll pay per gigabyte, so it makes sense to get the biggest drive you're likely to need. The highest capacity external hard drives for desktop use can have up to 8 TB of storage, whereas portable models rarely offer more than 5 TB. Those who intend to back up a lot of multimedia files like photos and videos should consider a drive with at least 1 TB.

How will you use the drive? If you'll need to take data on the go, consider a portable drive that's small enough to carry with you and doesn't require an external power supply. While these generally hold less data than desktop drives (typically maxing out at 4 or 5 TB), most still offer enough capacity for most personal storage needs. Portable drives pull power solely from the USB port, so they can drain a computer's battery faster than a desktop drive. An external solid state drive (SSD) will be more likely to survive a drop, and slower to fail in general than a regular spinning external hard drive, but it'll cost more.

How will you hook it up? An external hard drive is useless if there's no way to connect it to your computer. Most drives can handle a USB 3.0 connection, and some newer drives can use the faster USB 3.1. If you have an older computer, with support only for USB 2.0, an external hard drive will still work fine, but data will transfer more slowly. A few drives offer wireless connectivity, which can be especially handy for use with a tablet or smartphone, but is typically slower.

What kind of computer do you have? Some external hard drives come with preloaded software that can make backing up files easier. However, in many cases, the supplied software is for Windows only. Mac users need to make sure that the drives they buy are either formatted specifically for a Mac or can work with Mac-compatible third-party software, such as Apple's Time Machine.

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