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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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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 for Macs

Last Updated July 2019

External drives are quick and easy to use, and they’re usually extremely portable. Transferring files from one computer to the next can be much faster with the help of an external hard drive. They’re often used to store backup files or files too large to keep on a primary computer.

If you find that you’re constantly running out of space — or your overall computer performance is beginning to suffer — an external hard drive can be very safe and secure way to move files around.

External hard drives vs. flash drives

External hard drives are basically hard drives (HDD) or solid state drives (SDD) that are wrapped in their own protective casing and connect to your computer from the outside as opposed to the inside. Flash drives are external drives, but they aren’t as fast, and they don’t usually store as much space as their larger external hard drive relatives. Some external hard drives get power directly from the computer connection. Others will need to be plugged into the wall. There are varying levels of storage capacity in an external hard drive, and the overall size of the HDD depends on the model.

There are hard drives that may hold values like 3TB, 6TB, and 10TB, but they are much less common than the standard hard drives that hold: 500GB, 1TB, 2TB, 4TB, and 8TB.

Key considerations

Formatting

For Mac users, buying an external HDD already formatted for your system makes getting started much easier. This is because when you initially connect an external HDD made for Mac (to a Mac computer), you won’t be required to format it before you begin transferring files. External HDDs that are not specific to Macs may also work, but you’ll need to reformat them first, which could take some time.

Even though Mac computers are capable of reading hard drives that are formatted for Windows, if you intend on using your external HDD as a bootable disk or want to use it to backup files with your Mac’s Time Machine, you must format it to be entirely Mac compatible.

Power

Your HDD will need to power itself by either an AC power cord or through its data cable that plugs into your computer. There are obvious benefits to getting power directly from your computer, but hard drives that are larger and more powerful may need the independent power source to optimize efficiency.

Storage capacity

In terms of storage space, 1,000GB is equal to 1TB (terabyte). Typically, 1TB is enough for 250,000 MP3s or 200,000 digital photos. This is also how much space you’d need for about 120 HD videos.

Common storage sizes for external HDDs include:

  • 500GB

  • 1TB

  • 2TB

  • 4TB

  • 8TB
     

Portability

Portable hard drives are designed for travel. They’re lighter, thinner, and will likely have extra protection for the casing. They’re made to easily slip in and out of a laptop case or bookbag, taking up very little space. The best external hard drives should be able to withstand an occasional drop or two.

Desktop

Some external hard drives are meant to stay relatively stationary. They tend to be bigger in size and don’t have as much protection against drops. These drives tend to pack a slightly larger punch than smaller, more portable HDDs.

Trusted for performance and reliability

Advanced encryption and password protection make this a highly secure HDD. It’s slim and professional looking, and it looks good when sitting on the desktop. Western Digital is known for its safe and reliable hard drives, and this one is no different.

Connection types

USB 3.0

This is a common connection type for many external hard drives. USB is very compatible with Mac machines, especially those with older versions. It’s max transfer rate is 10 Gb/s. Most (but not all) Mac computers and will have at least one USB port that supports external memory.

USB-C

This is a newer form of USB connection that delivers more power and slightly faster speeds for Mac users. New hard drives will come with the proper connection cords to ensure compatibility. The max transfer speeds provided by USB is is 20 Gb/s.

Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt connections are the latest in data and power transfer and popular amongst Mac devices. Its strength is in its speed and power as well as its ability to chain more than one device to a single computer. Its max transfer speed is about double that of USB-C at 40 Gb/s.

DID YOU KNOW?

It’s possible to install and run programs or games directly from your external HDD. There are a few downsides, however, such as longer loading speeds and the need to have the drive with you in order to play the game.

DID YOU KNOW?

Often, an internal hard drive can be converted to an external hard drive by simply removing it from the computer and putting it inside a hard drive enclosure.

DID YOU KNOW?

Some external hard drives are not meant to be highly portable. Many times, this is evident in the HDD’s overall size and protective casing. If your drive isn’t meant to travel much, be mindful of moving it around a lot when its plugged in, as this could damage the disk.

External hard drives for Macs: prices

Overall storage space will typically play the main role in the final price you’ll pay for an external hard drive.

$50 and under

In this range, you’ll find quality external drives that hold 500GB to 1TB of storage for Mac computers.

$60 to $80

If you’re looking for anywhere between 2TB and 3TB of storage space, you’ll be spending within this price range.

$100 to $150+

You won’t be able to find many quality HDDs that hold 4TB of space for under $100. As you get closer to 8TB of storage, you’ll be looking at spending $150 or more.

$200+

For those who want hefty amounts of storage — 10TB or more — you’ll need to invest $200 or more.

Portable and budget-friendly

A perfect mixture of affordability, portability, and functionality. Its slim and tight profile makes it a great hard drive to travel with, as it can easily fit in small bags, laptop cases, or even your pockets. It doesn’t require any external power and can hold up to 4TB of space, making this the ultimate digital storage companion.

Tips

  • Avoid unplugging your hard drive before unmounting it from your computer. Disconnecting your HDD while it’s transferring or updating can cause files to become damaged or even lost forever. It can also put unnecessary stress on your computer and the hard drive itself.

  • Even though many external hard drives are built for portability, you’ll still want to take extra care of them so they last. If possible, look to keep them in a traveling pouch or case for greater protection. This will undoubtedly extend the overall life.

Other products we considered

With so many options to choose from, we had to pass up on some quality picks. We had a sharp focus on affordability, but if you’ve got a few extra dollars to spend and are looking for massive amounts of storage, the WD 10TB Elements Desktop Hard Drive is an excellent choice. It’s got a sleek design so it won’t take up tons of space, and it’s USB 3.0 and 2.0 compatible. Mac users will need to format it out of the box before use. A more portable option is the Silicon Power A60 Rugged Portable External Hard Drive. It’s made to travel with built-in cable storage, a water-resistant and anti-scratch casing, and a shockproof body. It’s a bit on the pricier end, but its security features and compact size make it a great buy.

You can partition most HDD to support as many different operating systems and file formats as you’d like. A disk partition is a section of the hard drive that is separated from other segments.

FAQ

Q. How long will files last on a quality external HDD?

A. Typically, the files will remain until you delete or destroy them — intentionally or by accident. Generally, your external HDD for Mac should last anywhere between three to five years. A good indicator is how long your manufacturer's warranty is for, as studies have shown that they are fairly accurate when it comes to HDD lifespan.

Q. Can I use my HDDs with my Mac and Windows computer at the same time?

A. Technically, yes. Mac-compatible hard drives will come formatted for Mac right out of the box. If you want to use if for Windows also, you’ll have to partition your drive and create the needed space to support your windows files or disks.

The team that worked on this review
  • Alvina
    Alvina
    Photographer
  • Amos
    Amos
    Director of Photography
  • Austin
    Austin
    Writer
  • Branson
    Branson
    Videographer
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    Production Assistant
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    Web Producer
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    Eliza
    Production Manager
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    Enid
    Editor
  • Melinda
    Melinda
    Web Producer
  • Melissa
    Melissa
    Senior Editor
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    Taji
    Writer
  • Vukan
    Vukan
    Post Production Editor

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