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Buying guide for Best external hard drives for Macs

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 a very safe and secure way to move files around.

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There are hard drives that may hold volumes like 3TB, 6TB, and 10TB, but they are much less common than the standard hard drives that hold: 1TB, 2TB, 4TB, 8TB, and 18TB.

External hard drives vs. flash drives

External hard drives are basically hard drives (HDD) or solid state drives (SSD) 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.

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.

Expert Tip
Always buy more storage than you think you need. Running out of space can be a major headache!
BestReviews Electronics Expert

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 an independent power source to optimize efficiency.

Storage capacity

In terms of storage space, 1,024GB 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:

  • 1TB

  • 2TB

  • 4TB

  • 8TB

  • 12TB

  • 18TB

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.

Expert Tip
Make sure your external hard drive has space around it so it can properly ventilate. Heat can slow down or cause problems for a hard drive, so make sure it’s not blocked.
BestReviews Electronics Expert

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.

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. Its max transfer rate is 10 Gb/s. Most (but not all) Mac computers 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 speed provided by USB is 20 Gb/s.

Expert Tip
Never disconnect any cables from your external hard drive when it’s connected--and especially not when you’re transferring data. Doing so can cause data loss and might require you to completely reformat the drive.
BestReviews Electronics Expert

Thunderbolt

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

Prices of external hard drives for Macs

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

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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 protection 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.

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