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Shopping Guide: Best External Hard Drives

Everything we do on our computers and laptops takes up space. Depending on what you’re working on, that content can be minimal or it can be massive. More often than not, you need a storage device at the ready to handle whatever you may need.

Thankfully, we have external hard drives which we can use as our own personal “library” systems.

Today’s hard drives don’t just act as storage for tax files, photo galleries, and the like.

You can use an external hard drive for video and game storage. You can place downloaded media on your external drive to save space on your computer.

You can even use an external hard drive’s extra space to run a program.

There’s no denying that an external hard drive comes in handy. But there are so many on the market, it can be a hassle to figure out which one would work best for you.

If you store 1,000 hours of music, that time cuts into how much you have left for movies. Measure the size of the files on your computer before loading them, and be aware of how much space you intend to take up. A little can go a long way, but that little can also fill quickly if you’re not careful.

That’s where we come in. At BestReviews, our goal is to provide consumers with honest, unbiased reviews.

We spent hours scrutinizing the external hard drive market to determine which products are the absolute best. We avoid bias by refusing all “free” manufacturer samples and purchasing products off of store shelves with our own money.

If you’re looking for a great hard drive and you’re ready to buy, please see our product matrix, above, for our top recommendations.

If you’d like to learn more about external hard drives before diving into a purchase, please continue reading this shopping guide.

EXPERT TIP

Music files are usually small and compact, but when integrating large libraries, data can add up. MP3 files are one of the best ways for storage space capacity, but if you intend to use your hard drive as a music catalog, a smaller drive may run out of space faster than you think.


Matthew  | IT Professional, Product Manager

Space

When shopping for an external hard drive, the immediate spec that everyone’s eyes go to is space. How much space is on that hard drive? In fact, 90% of consumers looking to purchase an external hard drive focus squarely on this single piece of info, with everything else being secondary.

We’ll cover the “everything else” below, but since space is a critical factor, we’ll address it first.

External hard drive space is measured in terabytes. One terabyte holds approximately one trillion bytes.

DID YOU KNOW?

Many video games are now downloads. An external hard drive is a good place to store these files, but games in storage disconnected from their drive can cause errors.

  • The Seagate 5TB offers the largest storage capacity on our list at five terabytes. At a cost of $169, it’s the winner of our “Best of the Best” title. A hard drive of this size could potentially hold 2,500 hours of films, 1.5 million photos, 5,000 hours of raw video, or 85,000 hours of music. (Bear in mind that these are only estimates.)

  • The Toshiba Portable clocks in at three terabytes. This hard drive costs $94 and could potentially hold hundreds of hours of films and television shows, thousands of hours of music, and an entire library of books.

  • The other three external hard drives on our list contain one terabyte of space. You could potentially store about 17,000 hours of music, 1,000 hours of raw video, over 300,000 photos, or 500 hours of films on a hard drive with one terabyte of space.

All of that said, having an external drive with the most space isn’t always what’s important. You must also consider what you’ll be storing on the drive. The figures above are estimates that might apply if you only stored that kind of data. If you use a drive to store multiple items in different file formats, the space changes.

EXPERT TIP

External drives are a necessity for editors or directors for storing footage files which can be massive because we haven’t upgraded the technology to make video capturing smaller sized. If you work in this kind of medium, always go for maximum capacity.


Esther  | Technology, Product Review Researcher

Weight

Pretty much every system on this list is light enough to carry around, if necessary. The Seagate 5TB is the heaviest at two pounds. The other models on our list range between five and nine ounces, not including connecting parts.

If you need a stationary model that won’t leave your home, the Seagate 5TB is probably your best choice. However, it’s still light enough to be disconnected if you need to take it somewhere.

If you’re storing files such as documents, PDFs, pictures, and other smaller files, a single terabyte would probably serve you well for years. PDF files in particular have a low storage capacity and can be filed away easily with a proper naming system.

Mobility

Speaking of mobility, most devices are designed to be taken “on the go” so you can transfer files anywhere you may need them. The Seagate 1TB, Silicon Power Rugged Armor A60, and Toshiba Canvio Connect II are the best for this, as their design is much more sleek and compact. They easily fit into a pocket or a side pouch, as it may be.

The WD My Passport is a fine model, but its bulky design is a major flaw in this specific area.

Power

All of these devices require a power connection; none are self-contained. In other words, none of them charge and save power with an independent battery source.

Notably, the Seagate 5TB requires its own power adaptor to be plugged into the back. All the other models operate off of the power from the PC or laptop you join it to with your USB connection.

Because of their portability and the fact that they must be next to the device you link them to, all connection cords are less than three feet long. This may seem like an inconvenience at first. Keep in mind, however, that there’s rarely a situation where you need to place a storage device all the way across the room from your computer. If you absolutely need more length for the connection, we suggest you look up the manufacturer's info for additional parts and accessories.

Speed

No matter what kind of hard drive you purchase, you will run into slow download times. It’s just the nature of technology; as you pass a file from one piece of tech to another, there’s no way to guarantee speed for uploading or downloading.

That said, both Seagate models on our list — the Expansion 5TB and the Backup Plus — have been clocked at having some of the best download and upload times available across all forms of media and file transfers.

With the exception of the Toshiba Canvio Connect II, the other models on our list are “middle of the road” in terms of speed. The Toshiba is known to have slow downloading speeds when it comes to bigger files.

Compatibility

Every operating system is different, and because of this, external hard drives interact with each one differently. Most external hard drives indicate on the device itself which systems it can accommodate.

More recently, designers have made a conscious effort to make all hard drives universally adaptable. With a universally adaptable hard drive, you could potentially hook it to your Windows computer, download a music file, and transfer it with ease to a computer that uses iOS or Linux.

EXPERT TIP

iOS and Windows have systems to create copies for an external unit. But an external drive has no internal operating system to run your files.


Staff  | BestReviews

Durability

While all of the models in our matrix have their own unique plastic casing design and features, only one of them has been designed to truly take a beating, and that’s the Silicon Power Rugged Armor A60. This particular model has been created to be shock-resistant and waterproof, so regardless of where you take it or what kind of problems it may run into, it keeps running. Shy of beating the device with a hammer or drowning it in water for an extended period of time, it should work after bad spills of any kind.

Lifespan

External hard drives are designed to run for extended periods of time, but they don’t last forever. If you keep an external hard drive plugged into your computer or laptop continously, the heat and usage will eventually wear down the technology and make the device slow or unresponsive. In the end, this does you no good, because now you have a “brick” with files you can’t access.

The best way to get the most out of your hard drive is to keep it disconnected from your computer when you don’t need to use it. This practice will make the device useful for years to come. If it ever does become sluggish, then you know it’s time to switch to a new one.

Like your computer’s hard drive, your external hard drive is susceptible to viruses and malware. It’s advised that the moment you hook up a device — before downloading anything from it — you run a scan for everything you possibly can on the entire drive. You never know what you’re downloading, and it’s better to play it safe when transferring files from another computer.

Price

When it comes to the price of an external hard drive, your main focus is probably how much space you’re getting for your buck.

The Seagate 5TB may look pricey at $169, but keep in mind that one terabyte of space used to cost the same amount just five years ago.

If you’re looking for something more mobile, however, the Silicon Power Rugged Armor A60 (at $B00LN0P5Q0])  and the Seagate 1TB (at $57) are your best bets. These cost less than the Seagate 5TB, and you can get a ton of use out of them if you’re on the go or need to send stuff to various places.

If you intend to use your new external hard drive for games, download the game to your system; don’t play it off the device.

FAQ

Q: How do I know if the external hard drive I select is compatible with my computer?

A: Every device has a set of specs on the box that tell you what it is compatible with. There are some drives that only work with Windows and are not compatible with iOS. The reverse is also true. There are ways around this through reformatting the device — like using Apple’s Disk Utility option. However, this hack could still fail. Be smart about your purchase, and double check what it can work with before buying.

Q: Could a gamer benefit from an external hard drive? If so, how?

A: An external hard drive is great for storage and transportation, but it’s not so great for frequent use. Game systems these days run off of cloud-based systems or internal storage to prevent errors from occurring.

Q: What is the first thing I do after I take it out of the box?

A: Plug it into the computer or device you intend to use it on the most. Make sure it “recognizes” that you’ve hooked it up and that you’re able to transfer files.

Q: If a drive ever dies, can I get the information off it and put it on a new one?

A: That depends on what caused it to die. Some hard drives save information no matter what, and it would just be a matter of finding a technical expert to retrieve the data files. However, if you cause your drive physical damage or viral damage, it may be harder to pull the files. If you sense your device is wearing down, get a new one immediately and transfer your files.

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