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Best external drives for backup, storage, and portability

Your desktop setup is incomplete without an assist from external storage.

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Anyone who uses a PC should have an external drive. It can back up your precious data or store your overflow, and it can transport or transfer files between computing devices. Xbox One X users, especially, would be wise to invest in an external drive to augment the console’s measly 1TB hard drive (the external drive needs to be USB 3.0-compatible and will be formatted when you insert the drive). 

Two things are for sure: No one ever said they wanted less storage space, and no one ever said they wanted a slower drive. Our latest picks for best external performance drive (SanDisk’s Extreme Pro Portable and Samsung’s T7) are blazing-fast—great news if you’re transferring large amounts of data. We’ll also walk you through our other top picks, and everything you need to know to select the best external drive for your needs.

Our latest review explores why anyone would want to purchase a 3.5-inch external hard drive such as Seagate’s Backup Plus Hub. Yes, it's a big unit, but the upsides are significant: nearly three times the capacity and faster sustained throughput than 2.5-inch models. Worth a look, we'd say. Read our full review.

While we’re talking about storage, learn how to monitor the health of your hard drives—the preservation of your precious data may depend on it.

The best external drives 2021

Best budget external drive

The Crucial X6 Portable SSD is square to be hip. Or placed in your hip pocket, at any rate. In a sea of portable SSDs whose shape makes them a literal pain when pocketed, the thin, rounded-edge X6 is a sigh of relief. It’s not state-of-the-art fast, but it’s fast enough for most users and extremely affordable. Read our full review of the Crucial X6 Portable SSD.

Best external backup drive

Our pick for best portable external backup drive for 2021 is Western Digital’s My Passport 5TB drive. Why? Well, you can never have enough, can you? The extra 1TB can be invaluable in the age of 4K. Read our full review of the WD My Passport.

Runner-up

Our runner-up for this popular category is Seagate’s Backup Plus Portable. Like the WD above, it’s a USB 3.1 Gen 1 (5Gbps) drive—plenty enough bandwidth for the hard drive inside. Capacity tops out at 5TB, but the drive is also available in 1TB, 2TB, and 4TB capacities. 

In our tests of the 4TB version, we found the Seagate to be slightly faster than the WD with large file transfers (think movies), but slower with small file transfers (think Office documents). It’s still a worthy runner-up, though. Read our full review of Seagate’s Backup Plus Portable.

Best performance USB drive

This is the one: SanDisk’s Extreme Pro Portable SSD (1TB) is the fastest USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps) external SSD we’ve tested to date. Burst performance is roughly on a par with the runner-up Samsung T7, but it blows its competitor out of the water during long writes.

SanDisk’s drive lacks the T7’s handy (and fun) fingerprint security, but it’s about the same price and offers software-based password protection if security is a concern. Read our full review

Note: There are faster USB 3.2 2x2 (also known as Superspeed 20Gbps) SSDs available, such as the WD Black P50 and Seagate Barracuda Fast SSD. However, SuperSpeed 20Gbps and USB4 ports are still so rare, we’ve left such drives out of the discussion for now.

Runner-up

Samsung’s Portable SSD T7 Touch runs a close second to the SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable. Compared to its predecessor the T5 (which will still be available), it’s thinner, a significantly faster reader, and it also sports a fingerprint scanner.

Sure, you could get a FIPS-certified secure drive (some businesses and government require it), but those cost far more than the T7, which provides some extra security while remaining within the price range (currently $80 on Amazon for the 500GB model we tested) of a normal USB SSD. That makes it a sweet deal for the average user who still wants effective data protection. Read our full review.

Best portable Thunderbolt 3 drive

If you have Thunderbolt 3 or 4 on your system, you owe it to yourself to check out a portable Thunderbolt 3 drive such as Samsung’s Portable SSD X5. As an NVMe SSD using PCIe over a cable (that’s basically what Thunderbolt 3 is), it’s stupidly fast—over 2.5GBps reading and writing. 

The only reason we don’t universally recommend the Portable SSD X5 is the relative rarity of Thunderbolt 3/4 ports on PCs. The advent of USB4 should alleviate this, but only if vendors decide to combine it with the superset technology that is Thunderbolt 4. Or you may simply soon see USB4 drives with the same 40Gbps transfer rates. It gets complicated

See the full review of the Portable SSD X5 on our sister site Macworld.

What you need to know before you buy

2880px certified usb4 40gbps logo.svg USB Forum

Yes, USB4 will provide the same massive throughput as Thunderbolt 3 (with more possibly to come), though without some of the latter’s features, such as daisy-chaining.

Capacity and price

For most consumers, the main shopping concerns for external storage are capacity and price. However, while you might think that the lowest-cost drive provides the most value, it often doesn’t. In fact, dollar for dollar, cheaper low-capacity drives are most often the worst deal.

For example, we compared prices of the WD My Passport portable drive in its 1TB, 2TB, 4TB, and 5TB capacities. Keep in mind, this is one drive on one day (May 13, 2021), and just one vendor, Amazon, but it illustrates the point.

chart for external hard drives capacity comparison IDG

The 1TB drive may seem like the best deal, but in terms of price per gigabyte, the 4TB and 5TB drives are far better deals. You may also need the extra space eventually.

As you can see in the chart above, while the $50/1TB is the most affordable initially, it’s by far the worst deal in terms of cost per TB/GB. Save your pennies and get one, or two of the larger drives. Remember, if you’re storing important data, you need a backup—online, or if the data is copious, on a second drive. See the discussion on backup below.

Interface

The vast majority of external drives today are USB drives. Beyond that simple  statement, the story gets confusing—largely because of the plethora of variations: USB 3.0, USB 3.1 Gen 1 (5Gbps, which is basically USB 3.0), USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps), and USB 3.1 Gen 2x2 (20Gbps), and now USB 3.2 and USB4. In an attempt to simplify things, the USB Forum has recently changed the nomenclature to indicate throughput speed--Superspeed USB 5Gbps, Superspeed USB 10Gbps, and Superspeed USB 20Gbps--because performance is a priority for most uses. For the sake of brevity (and sanity), we generally shorten those names to USB 10Gbps, or 10Gbps USB, for instance.

No hard drive, unless combined in RAID with others, can outstrip the 5Gbps (roughly 500MBps real world after overhead) throughput of USB 3.1 Gen 1. Don’t worry about Gen 2, 10Gbps, or Thunderbolt with single hard drive enclosures.

Where Superspeed 10Gbps/20Gbps, USB4, or Thunderbolt will definitely help is with the aforementioned RAID setups, or more likely—an SSD. The good news is that while USB 3.1 Gen 2, which is more than fast enough for most users at 10Gbps, used to be expensive, it’s fairly affordable today. A SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD that is our runner-up for portable storage can be had for $90 in a 500GB capacity.

Now it's Superspeed USB 20Gbps (Gen 2x2) that’s the high-priced blend, with the Seagate Firecuda Gaming SSD costing $200 for the same 500GB of storage. There aren’t a lot of 2x2 ports out there, but these drives will also work with USB4 at the same 20Gbps pace.

Thunderbolt has always come at a premium. Our recommended portable, the Samsung Portable SSD X5, is also $200 for 500GB of capacity. A 1TB Samsung T5 on USB is only $125.

To summarize: USB 5Gbps/10Gbps is cheaper and fast enough for most users and applications. 

usb portable drives IDG/Gordon Mah Ung

The top drive uses the older, slower Mini-USB interface. The second drive features the connector that replaced it: Micro B SuperSpeed. The Orange drive features both a SuperSpeed Micro B and Thunderbolt 2 (mini DisplayPort connector). The bottom drive features USB-C or USB Type C.

Ports

External drives come with a variety of ports, though they’re gradually consolidating on the Type-C connector. Here’s what you need to care about:

USB 3 Micro-B Superspeed. This is still a very common port on portable backup hard drives today. It’s actually the same Micro USB port used on your phone, but beefed up with more data lines to hit USB 3.0 speeds. It’ll do 5Gbps and is fine for hard drives and SATA (internally) SSDs.. 

USB 3 Type-B is the larger, blocky version of USB 3.0 Micro B. Type B ports are becoming rare, though you might find one on enclosures supporting 5.25-inch hard drives or optical drives. It supports speeds up to 5Gbps. 

USB-C (nee Type-C) is the latest of the USB connectors and is appreciated first and foremost for not having a "right" or "wrong" way to be inserted, like USB-A. It’s being used increasingly on phones, tablets, PCs, and yes, external drives. It's also the connector used for Thunderbolt 3 and 4. The technology currently supports up to 40Gbps (80Gbps has been mentioned), and it's backward-compatible all the way to USB 1.1 via adapters.

Type-C is a spec for a cable and connector, not for the USB protocol itself. The USB Forum would now like it known as USB-C, which is just as confusing. It’s used by USB, but otherwise tells you nothing about the level or iteration of USB involved. The mere fact that it’s also used for Thunderbolt 3/4 should clue you in. 

The bottom line is, if you see the Lightning icon next to a Type-C port, you can attach Thunderbolt 3/4 and USB (Thunderbolt supports USB) drives. If you see a USB logo or speed, e.g., 10Gbps, it's likely only USB drives will function. If there’s no logo, check the documentation. MacBooks have no logo, but their Type-C ports are Thunderbolt. 

USB Type-A You won’t find this port on any drive, but you will on PCs and laptops. The reason we mention it is that, any drive with a Type-C port should come with a Type-C to Type-A cable or adapter.

Thunderbolt 2 is at this point, a dead port. Using the mini-DisplayPort connector, it only really gained popularity on Macs, and even Apple put it out to pasture in 2017. There’s no need to invest in a Thunderbolt 2 drive unless it’s for legacy support issues.

Note that Apple makes a bi-directional Thunderbolt 1/2 to 3 adapter if you need to connect the one to the other. It does not transfer power, however, so you can’t use it on its own with bus-powered external drives. You’ll need a powered dock for that.

eSATA is another legacy port that’s basically disappeared. Created for attaching external storage to your computer’s SATA bus, eSATA was a cheap way in its day to get beyond the 60MBps performance of USB 2.0. USB 3.0 put the last nail in its coffin. As with Thunderbolt 2, the only reason to invest in an eSATA drive is for use with older computers.

A second drive as backup?

In backup, there’s a fundamental maxim appropriately named the Rule of Three. It states that you should always maintain three copies of your irreplaceable data: the original data, a backup, and a backup of the backup. Preferably, the two backups are kept in separate locations, one being offsite 

Keeping a copy online is great for smaller amounts of data and certainly meets the offsite criteria. However, for vast photo, audio, and/or video collections,external drives in pairs (or more), are a faster, more practical solution.  

Create complete backups alternately to the two drives every few months. True patrons of wisdom might even take the second drive to work, so there’s no chance of losing both drives to the same local disaster.

dsc09424 IDG/Gordon Mah Ung

Our storage testbed is a Core i7-5820K with 64GB of RAM on an Asus X99 Deluxe board. Older Asus Thunderbolt EX 3 and ATI graphics cards is shown. Currently a Gigabyte Alpine Ridge Thunderbolt card and x2 Nvidia 710 GPU card are employed. 

How we tested

We use our standard storage test bed to evaluate the performance of every external drive we review. It’s a six-core (twelve-thread) Intel Core i7-5820K on an Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard with 64GB of Kingston DDR4 memory running Windows 10. 

A discrete Gigabyte Alpine Ridge Thunderbolt 3 card and Ableconn USB 3.2 2x2 20Gbps card (Asmedia 2142 controller) are used for connecting the external drives. An Asus USB 3.1/10Gbps (Asmedia 1142 controller) card was employed for some of the older drives on the chart. 

We run various synthetic benchmarks including Crystal Disk Mark 6/7/8, AS SSD 2, and Iometer. We also perform real-world transfer tests using a 48GB batch of small files and folders, as well as a single 48GB and 450GB files. The testbed boots from a NVMe drive, but the real-world (Windows) file transfers are performed to and from a 58GB RAM disk.

Our external drive reviews

If you’d like to learn more about our top picks as well as other options, you can find links below to all the external drives we’ve reviewed. We’ll keep evaluating new ones as they become available, so be sure to check back to see what other drives we’ve put through their paces.

Note: When you purchase something after clicking links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate link policy for more details.
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