Best External Hard Drives

Updated August 2019
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
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How we decided

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

118 Models Considered
36 Hours Researched
3 Experts Interviewed
132 Consumers Consulted
Zero products received from manufacturers.

We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

Why trust BestReviews?
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
We may earn a commission if you purchase a product through our links.

Buying guide for best external hard drives

Last Updated August 2019
By Jaime Vazquez

We’ve all been there: that moment your laptop or desktop computer tells you it’s running out of hard drive space. In some circumstances, this can be panic-inducing because a lack of space can prevent you from creating or saving new files. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to be. If your computer is running out of storage space, you can always add more with an external hard drive.

External hard drives are small, nondescript boxes with extra storage that connect to your computer via one or more USB cables. While they may not look like much, they can be essential tools for keeping your files backed up, and they’re ideal for transporting files that are too large to transfer over the internet.

Most external hard drives look the same, but there are some big differences when it comes to capacity, stability, and speed, so it pays to know what to look for ahead of time. That’s where we come in. Read on for everything you need to know to find your ideal external hard drive, and then check out a few of our favorites before you buy.

About the author

Jaime Vazquez has been writing about technology and geeking out with gadgets since 2000. He loves trying the latest electronics so that his readers don't have to, and using his inner cheapskate to find the best bargains.


Jaime Vazquez  |  Writer
If you buy a portable external hard drive, make sure to password protect any sensitive files on it in case the drive is ever stolen or lost. For more information, search the web for different ways to encrypt your files.

Key considerations

If you’re unsure which external hard drive to buy, answering these questions can help narrow your search considerably:

Will you be using your external hard drive for gaming?

Using an external hard drive with a gaming PC or a video game console can be a little tricky because games need fast access to a lot of data and it can be tough to find one that’s up to the task. If you’re buying an external hard drive specifically for video games, search for models that are explicitly compatible with your setup. For example, hard drives that can work with the Xbox One are usually branded or contain explicit “works with Xbox One” language in the product title or description.

How much storage do you think you’ll need?

The big question with external hard drives is always how big you should go, and we believe that bigger is better. Before you start shopping, take an inventory of how much space you currently have or need so you’re certain to get a drive with enough space. When in doubt, get the biggest drive you can afford.

Do you need portable storage?

Portable drives are handy for taking your files with you anywhere, but as you might expect, they’re more expensive and often less capacious than their non-portable equivalents. If you plan on parking your external hard drive somewhere, you can save money by avoiding portable options. On the other hand, if portable storage is key, you might need to adjust your expectations around cost (or compromise and buy a smaller drive).

Tiny drive, giant capacity

Seagate’s 5TB drive is one of our favorites because it’s a no-nonsense storage solution: it has plenty of room and it’s plug-and-play right out of the box. It’s uber-fast, too, and only requires one available USB port on your computer. If you’re the type to fall in love with a good hard drive, prepare yourself: this might be the one.

TESTING EXTERNAL HARD DRIVES

After spending nearly 36 hours researching over 100 external hard drives we purchased our top pick and tested in our office, storing hundreds of GBs of data.

External hard drive features

It can be a challenge to tell different external hard drives apart. Here’s a cheat sheet to the most important differences between models.

Capacity: The most important feature on an external hard drive is how much storage it has, so prioritize capacity and get the biggest drive you can afford. Just remember that your actual storage will be less than the amount noted on the box (based on the existing files it needs to function), so if you want to know what actual storage different drives have, subtract about 20% from the advertised capacity.
 

Data transfer speed: Another key differentiator is how fast a drive can transfer files back and forth. Transfer speed relies on several different things, including the speed of your computer, but the connectivity options are the biggest factor. If you need the fastest external hard drive available, look for one that can connect via USB-C (if you have a spare USB-C port). If you need to work with the older physical USB standard, stick to external hard drives that support USB 3.0, which is faster than, and backwards-compatible with, USB 2.0 devices as well.
 

Portability: Taking data with you can be critical, so if you’re looking for a mobile storage solution, you’ll need to limit your search to portable models. Portable external hard drives are a little pricier than their desktop, plug-in equivalents, but they can fit in your pocket, and in some cases transfer data just as fast. Consider your own needs, and if you need to take your data with you anywhere, get a portable external hard drive.

EXPERT TIP

Buy a protective case to keep a portable external hard drive safe from any accidents or physical damage. A good case will have plenty of padding as well as cable storage.


Esther  | Technology, Product Review Researcher

External hard drive prices

Inexpensive: Most basic external hard drives cost between $50 and $100. In this price range, you’ll find drives around the 1GB to 2GB range, which can be perfect for users who typically deal with smaller files. Many of the drives in this price range are portable, so you can still find a deal even if you need to take your data to lots of different places.

Mid-range: If you look in the $100 to $200 range, you’ll see increased capacities and more portable options. Drives at this price typically have capacities ranging from 4TB to 8TB, and often come in multiple colors. If you need enough storage to last you for at least a year or two, you’ll need to spend at least this much.

Expensive: Between $200 and $300, you’ll encounter external hard drives that have the highest storage capacities. Some models in this range justify the price by including an extra-rugged enclosure, but the truth is that most of them are simply overpriced. Avoid overpaying for your external hard drive, and only spend this much if you absolutely need the space.

The perfect mobile storage solution

The Western Digital My Passport external hard drives are some of the MVPs of mobile storage. They come in different capacities and different colors, so you can find one that matches your unique style, and they’re some of the most affordable drives available. The 1TB My Passport is perfect for anyone who needs a modest amount of storage you can take anywhere.

Tips

  • Always buy more storage than you think you need. When you’re shopping for an external drive, it’s important to plan for both your current and your future needs, so buy one that gives you room to grow. Our recommendation is to buy a hard drive with enough room for all the data you have today and a few terabytes to spare.
     
  • Never unplug an external hard drive while it’s transferring files. All external hard drives have the same weakness: they have big problems if you disconnect them while they’re sending or receiving data. When it’s time to disconnect your external drive from your computer, eject it in the operating system first, or power down your computer entirely, before pulling the cable out. Doing it any other way can result in data loss or other malfunctions.
     
  • Don’t bother with the software that comes with your external hard drive. Most hard drive manufacturers include applications that are designed to help you use your drive. These applications aren’t required; in fact, your computer’s operating system will do a better job of interacting with your drive. Your hard drive will likely include software setup files on the drive itself, but those can be safely deleted.

 

DID YOU KNOW?

Most external hard drives connect to your computer by USB cables. Check to see if your USB slots are the USB 2.0 standard or the newer USB 3.0, which transfer data much faster than USB 2.0 ports.

DID YOU KNOW?

Hard drive space gets used up quickly, so check the available storage periodically to make sure you’re not running out. If you’re almost out of space, you can always delete files you don’t need to make room for new ones or buy a larger drive with more capacity.

Other products we considered

If you need the biggest external hard drive available, consider the Western Digital Elements drive. It’s one of the most capacious hard drives out there, and it includes a large enclosure, so it’s perfect for sitting on any desktop. We love the whisper-quiet operation, but the 10TB capacity is its biggest selling point. If you’re looking for an external hard drive that uses the new USB-C (aka USB 3.1) standard, the Oyen Digital MiniPro Dura RAID comes in capacities ranging from 2TB to 10TB. We prefer the 10TB model because it’s the best cost-per-gigabyte value. The rugged outer shell is also a big bonus. It’s so sturdy that you won’t even need to buy a carrying case for the drive.

Before you buy a specific external hard drive, check that your computer has the necessary available ports. Some hard drives require multiple USB ports, and you may already have other peripherals taking up your computer’s existing ones.

FAQ

Q. Will most external hard drives work with my Mac?
A. 
Yes. External hard drives typically come in OS-agnostic formats, so you can plug them into any computer and start using them right away. In some rare occasions, you may find an external drive that comes in a Windows-only format, but you can use your Mac’s Disk Utility software to reformat the drive to a compatible format. (If you do reformat your drive, do so with caution because the process will completely delete any data saved on it.)


Q. Are external hard drives noisy?
A.
Some of them are, but it’s rare. Most external hard drives operate silently, but some models, particularly those that have multiple physical drives inside and are made to plug into the wall, have built-in fans to keep them from overheating. Fans like these aren’t typically very loud, but they’re persistent, leading some users to prefer fanless models.


Q. Why do some external hard drives use two USB ports to connect to a computer while others just use one?
A.
Some external hard drives plug into the wall with an AC adapter to get power, while others can receive a charge over USB. If you find an external hard drive that requires two USB ports, that means one of the connections is used to transfer data while the other transfers power.

The team that worked on this review
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