Best external drives for backup, storage, and portability
Your PC setup is incomplete without an assist from external storage.
By Gordon Mah Ung and Jon L. Jacobi
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.
Updated 11/19/21 to add two new categories to our external drive recommendations: best external drives for photographers, and the best for gamers. Read on to find out why we choose the drives we did. Below our selection of best picks, you can learn about what to look for when shopping for an external drive, and how we test them. To see links for all of our external drive reviews (besides those we have featured as our best picks), scroll to the bottom of this article.
Latest external drive news:
Just when you thought hard drives couldn’t get bigger, Western Digital unveiled a 20TB hard drive this month that’s a little more than 11 percent larger than it’s previous biggest hard drive. The drive isn’t aimed at consumers yet but you can bet the company has one in the works.
The first USB4 products arrived in March, but we have yet to see a true USB4-based external drive available. Although there are some drives that claim to be “USB4,” they are mostly combination Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.2 SuperSpeed 10Gbps drives. What’s the hold up? The same reason you can’t buy a new car and your store is out of that one thing you need: Supply chain spasms and the long pause the global pandemic put on development.
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.
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.
We’re a little torn between recommending a Thunderbolt-based drive for external storage versus a USB external drive. While a Thunderbolt 3 external SSD typically provides higher performance, that doesn’t help you if your laptop doesn’t have a Thunderbolt port, and many of those drives don’t have any USB support. That makes SanDisk’s G-Drive SSD the preferred drive. It doesn’t support the more advanced, and also rare, USB SuperSpeed 20Gbps speeds, but it’s in the top tier with USB 10Gbps speeds, which is what you’ll mostly find. Perhaps more importantly for a photographer moving files in the field, is it’s got a tough shell. The drive is built with IP67 water resistance and dust resistance ratings and can withstand 2,000 pounds of weight, so you won’t lose that precious photo of a ghost cat in the mountains of Afganistan.
Today’s games can soak up 50GB or 100GB of storage and more. If you’re looking for a drive to quickly load that game from on your gaming laptop, we’d recommend WD’s Black P50 Game Drive. And no, not just because it’s literally called “Game Drive” but because we prefer game’s to be launched from an SSD where it can literally be a competitive advantage in some titles. Running an external SSD for your games also means far, far faster level loads, too, compared to a plodding hard drive. While many PCs don’t have the USB SuperSpeed 20Gbps ports needed to make the Black P50 sing, it’s actually becoming fairly standard in newer desktops. The good news is, even running a game at USB 10Gbps speeds means reads and writes up to 1,000MBps, which is still a huge improvement over a hard 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.
Note: There are faster USB 3.2 2×2 (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’re not sure it matters. Those drives are also just not as svelte as the Extreme Pro either.
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.
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.
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 historically. We’ve been doing this comparison for years and it’s always been the worst value.
The best “value” are typically for the largest hard drives as you can see, but it brings considerably higher prices and not everyone needs that much capacity. So how much do you need? We recommend a backup drive at least twice as large as the total capacity of your PC. If you have 1TB of storage in your PC, 2TB will allow you to make a full backup while keeping historical backups on the same drive. Having more storage allows you to keep more historical files should you need them or use the same drive to backup additional PCs.
While the desktop drive provides a far higher capacity, they also require more cables, weigh more, and generally may not be quite as shock resistant as a portable hard drive that’s designed to take a few more bumps, even when on.
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 3.2 Gen 2 (10Gbps), and USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 (20Gbps), and now the up-and-coming 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 because it doesn’t really matter.
Where SuperSpeed 10Gbps/20Gbps, USB4, or Thunderbolt will definitely help is with the aforementioned RAID hard drive 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 basically the standard today. A SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD, our runner-up for portable storage, can be had for $90 in a 500GB capacity.
The faster USB 3.2 SuperSpeed 20Gbps (Gen 2×2) moves you into a higher-price bracket, with the Seagate Firecuda Gaming SSD costing $200 for the same 500GB of storage. Although faster than the typical USB 3.2 SuperSpeed 10Gbps, there aren’t a lot of USB 20Gbps gen 2×2 ports out there, but these drives should work with the upcoming USB4 at the same 20Gbps pace.
Thunderbolt 3 and the newer Thunderbolt 4 typically are the highest-performing interfaces for external storage, with the key limitation being a premium price and a general lack of compatibility with the far more popular USB 3.2 ports in the world. Still, if you want the most performance, you can get it in drives such as our recommended portable, the Samsung Portable SSD X5, which is $200 for 500GB of capacity. For comparison, a slower 1TB Samsung T5 on USB is only $125.
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-BSuperspeed. This is still a very common port on many lower-cost portable and desktop external 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 is the latest of the USB connectors the world is coalescing around. You see it in everything from phones to laptops. Keep in mind, USB-C refers only to the connector itself. What is carried over the wires varies greatly. For example, for data transfers from an external drive, a USB-C port could mean everything from USB 2.0 High Speed (480Mbps) to USB 3.2 SuperSpeed 20Gbps as well as USB4 and Thunderbolt 3. Any higher performance port today should be USB-C—just remember that just because it’s USB-C doesn’t mean the actual electronics inside the PC or drive can hit the highest speeds of what a USB-C port can do.
USB Type-A You won’t find this port on any drive, but you will find this familiar rectangular port 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, hopefully, since most PCs have those.
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.
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 2×2 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.