If you run your laptop has run out of storage space, or if you need to backup your data and keep that list of videos you’re going to edit one day (I swear), an external hard drive can solve your problem. The problem is, there are hundreds of storage options out there, from very cheap to outrageously expensive – which one is right for your needs? I’ve tested dozens of different use cases to find the best portable drives for your workflow.
Be sure to check out our other guides, including How to back up and move photos between services, How to back up your digital life, and How to back up your iPhone.
Updated January 2023: We’ve added the new Western Digital P40 Game Drive. We’ve also added the latest drive statistics report from Backblaze and updated pricing.
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I know what this guide is for portable hard drives and it’s definitely not portable, but bear with me. For the incremental backups we recommend, portability is not your top priority. And typically, your backup software will run all night, so speed isn’t a big factor either. That’s why the first CD I recommend is Western Digital Elements.
I’ve been using some of the WD Elements desktop hard drive options to create incremental backups of my data for over a decade. They are large and require external power, but they are one of the cheapest and most reliable drives I have used. Storage options go up to 20 terabytes. Just make sure you check the prices; sometimes you can get a 10 or even 12 terabyte drive for a little more.
Other great backup drives:
These Crucial drives are my favorite portable drives. They are affordable (for a portable SSD) and very fast. The only drive I’ve tested with faster read speeds is the SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD (see below). They are lightweight, which means they are perfect for working away from home. I use one to store video clips and it’s fast enough to edit straight from disk.
The only downside is the plastic construction. Don’t expect it to withstand many drops. If you’re afraid it will break into your bag, get a soft-lined case. I haven’t tried it but there are many. this one for $14.
This new portable drive from SanDisk outperforms everything I’ve tested. It’s lightweight, with an IP22-rated housing, so it’s built to withstand the rigors of the road. It’s not the cheapest drive, but if you’re backing up in the field and want to get it done as quickly as possible, this is your best bet. I also like that it’s less compact than some of these drives – it’s easier to keep track of in my bag.
Other high speed drives
If you need a drive that can survive life in a backpack or camera bag, get wet, or survive being dropped on a hard surface, OWC drives are your best bet. It’s hard to pick a winner here because there are so many solid options out there, but the OWC Elektron drive barely outperformed the others in performance tests. I also like that you can replace the drive inside the aluminum case (it’s easy to unscrew), which means two years from now you can take a faster bare SSD and throw it at Elektron.
If you need a larger drive, both physically and in terms of capacity, Envoy Pro FX by OWC ($280 for 1TB) also a great choice. It’s even faster and comes in sizes up to 4TB, though the latter will set you back a staggering $900. For most, the 2TB model is enough, although it still costs $400. It has an IP67 rating and is fairly drop-proof. (Take all “military standard” claims with a grain of salt – yes no one actually does independent testsi.e. don’t nitpick OWC, as every manufacturer of “protected” drives claims things like this.) What impressed me the most about this drive is how incredibly cool it stays even under heavy load (e.g. when editing 4K videos). ). straight from the drive).
Other durable options:
The aforementioned portable drives are a solid solution for people who need to take backups in the field, such as photographers and videographers. But if you’re looking for an extra level of comfort, this soft disc from LaCie has long been a traveler’s favorite. LaCie manufactures both a solid state drive version and a traditional spinning drive version. If speed is not an issue, as with nightly backups, then cheaper rotary drive makes more sense. If you’re actually backing up during a photo shoot or similar situation where it needs to happen quickly, the SSD version is the way to go.
Other soft options:
Take this category with a grain of salt. Most of the drives here are great for gaming (just stick with the fastest ones you can afford). However, Western Digital’s new P40 has some cool RGB lighting on the bottom if you like it. Surprisingly, in my testing, this did not affect power consumption in any way.
In terms of speed, my tests were very inconsistent. This drive was capable of speeds that easily outperformed the Envoy Pro and Samsung T7, but otherwise seemed to stutter (at least in tests). In the real world, the only bottleneck that I constantly ran into was some latency when transferring huge amounts of data. For some, this can be a hindrance, but for the price, it remains a very good choice.
If you’re looking to install a larger SSD in your laptop, all you need is a bare drive, which is usually cheaper than the encased drives listed above. The first thing to figure out is which drive your computer is using. Consult your manufacturer’s documentation to find out. In my experience, the most common form factor is the M.2 2280, which is the long, thin disk in the image above. More compact laptops may use the similar but shorter M.2 2242 design. Again, test your computer to confirm which drive it needs before buying. There are plenty of these on the market, and I haven’t had time to test many of them yet, but so far, out of the half-dozen drives I’ve tried, Western Digital’s WD Black series stands out for its speed, and they don’t run very hot.
In my testing, the SN 770 M.2 2280 delivered 5100MB per second, which is lightning fast. If you do a lot of disk-intensive tasks like video editing or gaming, this disk is worth the money. The largest version you can get right now is 2TB, but the price is reasonable considering the speed increase. I’ve used it as my primary drive for a few months and found it to be fast enough for everything I do, including editing 5.2K video footage and compiling software. My favorite part? It gives off very little heat. My old Dell XPS 13 got too hot to be used without something between it and my knees. Now it doesn’t heat up until I start trying to export video, but cools down quickly once it’s done.
Choosing the right hard drive comes down to balancing three things: speed, the sizeand price. If you’re backing up every night, then speed probably doesn’t matter. Choose the cheapest drive you can find – up to a point. Discs don’t last forever, but some definitely last longer than others. I suggest sticking with reputable brands such as Seagate, Western Digital, and others featured here. This is based partly on experience and partly on disk failure data that Backblaze has. published for many years. Backblaze uses a huge amount of hard drives to back up customer data, and his report is well worth reading. The conclusion is simple: stick to the names you know.
If speed is more important than price, you should consider the SSDs listed here. SSDs have more than just a speed advantage. They also have no moving parts, which means they will withstand bumps and drops in your travel bag better than rotating drives. The downside is that they can wear out faster. Every write operation to an SSD, that is, when you save something to it, slightly degrades the condition of the individual NAND cells that make up the drive, which is why it wears out somewhat faster than a spinning drive. How much faster depends on how you use it. However, I have several SSDs that are over 5 years old and have been using them for daily backups all this time. None of them had any problems.
When do you need an SSD instead of a spinning disk? The answer is almost always yes, if you can afford it. But they’re especially useful for any drive you work with regularly: your main boot drive, an external drive you use to edit documents, and even backups if you need them to run fast.