If you’re running out of storage space on your laptop, or you need to back up your data and save the backlog of videos you’ll edit someday (I swear), an external hard drive can solve your problem. The problem is that there are hundreds of drive options ranging from dirt cheap to insanely expensive – which one is right for your needs? I tested dozens with different use cases to find the best portable storage drives for your workflow.
Be sure to check out our other guides including How to Backup and Move Your Photos Between Services, How to Secure Your Digital Life and How to Backup Your iPhone.
Updated January 2023: We’ve added Western Digital’s new P40 gaming drive. We’ve also added Backblaze’s latest drive stats report and updated prices consistently.
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I know this guide is for portable hard drives and this is definitely not portable, but bear with me. With incremental backups, which we recommend, portability is not your top priority. And typically your backup software runs overnight, so speed isn’t a big factor either. That’s why the first drive I recommend is this Western Digital Elements.
I’ve been using a variant of the WD Elements desktop hard drive to create incremental backups of my data for more than a decade. They’re big and require external power, but these are some of the cheapest and most reliable drives I’ve ever 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 not much more.
Other Great Backup Drives:
Seagate Portable HDD 8TB for $180: Seagate is another reliable hard drive manufacturer. It never hurts to have more backups and if you want multiple backups use different brands of drives as it reduces the chances of both failing at the same time. This 8 terabyte model often retails for around $150. Western Digital Elements Portable 5TB Hard Drive for $110: You can also get a much more portable version of the Western Digital drive for a lot less, and it doesn’t require an external power supply. The 4 terabyte model is often available for under $100.
These Crucial drives are my favorite portable drives. They are inexpensive (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). These are lightweight, which means they’re ideal when you’re not working from home. I use one to save video clips and it’s fast enough to edit straight from disk.
The only drawback is the plastic construction. Don’t expect it to survive many falls. If you’re worried about it getting into your pocket, grab a padded bag. I haven’t tried it, but there are many like this for $14.
This new portable drive from SanDisk outperforms everything else I’ve tested. It’s lightweight and built with IP22-rated housings to withstand life on the go. It’s not the cheapest ride, but if you’re backing up in the field and want to get it done as quickly as possible, it’s your best bet. I also like that it’s less compact than some of these drives – it makes it easier to keep organized in my bag.
Other fast drives
When you need a drive that can stand up to life in a backpack or camera bag, get wet, or take a fall onto hard surfaces, OWC drives are your best bet. It’s difficult to pick a winner here, as there are many solid options, but OWC’s Elektron drive has narrowly beat others in benchmark tests. I also like that you can swap out the drive in the aluminum case (it unscrews easily), which means in two years you can take a faster bare SSD and throw it in the Elektron.
If you want a larger drive, both physically and in terms of storage capacity, OWC’s Envoy Pro FX ($280 for 1TB) is also a good choice. It’s even faster and available in sizes up to 4TB, although the latter will set you back a whopping $900. For most, the 2TB model is sufficient, although it’s still pricey at $400. It’s IP67 rated and reasonably drop-proof. (Take any “military-grade” claims with a grain of salt — no one actually does independent testing, which doesn’t mean picking at OWC, as every “rugged” drive manufacturer makes such claims.) What I love the most However, this drive is so incredibly cool that it stays put even under heavy loads (like editing 4K video footage straight from the drive).
Other robust options:
Sabrent Rocket Nano SSD 1TB for $120: I really like these. It’s smaller and slightly faster than the OWC, but has two disadvantages. The first is that it can get very hot. If you try to work with it on your lap, it can be downright uncomfortable. The other problem is that sometimes it is slow to be recognized by my PC. I couldn’t find a pattern for it; Sometimes it appeared immediately, sometimes it took a few minutes. If those things don’t bother you, this drive is tiny, cheaper, and comes with a padded rubber case.
The go-anywhere drives above are a solid solution for people who need to backup on the go, like photographers and videographers. However, if you want an extra level of comfort, this cushioned drive from LaCie has long been a traveller’s favourite. LaCie makes both an SSD version and a traditional spinning drive version. If speed isn’t an issue, like nightly backups, then the cheaper spinning drive makes more sense. If you’re actually backing up in the middle of a photo shoot or similar situation where you need something quick, the SSD version is for you.
Other upholstered options:
Samsung T7 Shield 2TB for $180: It’s not as cushioned as LaCie’s rugged drives, but it’s cheaper and delivers almost the same speed. It’s got an IP65 rating, meaning it’ll be fine in the rain and protected from dust and sand, and Samsung says it’ll survive a 9.8ft drop. The T7 line boasts built-in security features like hardware-based encryption, but unlike the Touch model, the Shield doesn’t have a fingerprint reader. However, if you don’t need the full padded protection of the LaCie and want to save a little money, the T7 Shield is a good option.
Take this category with caution. Most drives here work well for gaming (just stick with the fastest you can afford). That said, Western Digital’s new P40 has some cool RGB lights on the bottom, if that’s your jam. Surprisingly, this didn’t seem to have any impact on power consumption in my tests.
In terms of speed, my tests were very inconsistent. This drive was capable of speeds that easily surpassed both the Envoy Pro and the Samsung T7, but at other times it seemed to falter (at least in benchmarks). In practice, the only bottleneck I kept encountering was some delay when transferring large amounts of data. That might be a deal breaker for some, but for the price this remains a very solid choice.
If you want to add a larger SSD to your laptop, all you need is a blank drive, which is generally cheaper than the cased drives listed above. The first thing you need to do is find out what drive your PC is using. Consult your manufacturer’s documentation to find out. In my experience, the most common form factor is M.2 2280, which is the long, skinny drive in the image above. More compact laptops can use the similar but shorter M.2 2242 design. Check your PC again to confirm the drive you need before purchasing. There are loads of these on the market and I haven’t had time to test many, but so far Western Digital’s WD Black series has stood out for speed out of the half dozen I’ve tried, and they don’t run very hot.
The SN 770 M.2 2280 hit speeds of 5,100MB per second in my tests, which is lightning fast. If you do a lot of disk-intensive tasks like editing videos or playing games, this drive is worth the money. The biggest version you can get right now is 2TB, but the price is reasonable given the increase in speed. I’ve been using it as my main drive for several months and have found it to be fast enough for everything I do, including editing 5.2K video footage and compiling software. My favorite section? It generates very little heat. My older Dell XPS 13 used to get too hot to use without something between it and my lap. Now it doesn’t get hot until I try to export video but cools down quickly once it’s done.
Choosing the right hard drive comes down to balancing three things: speed, size, and price. If you’re doing nightly backups, speed probably doesn’t matter. Go for the cheapest drive you can find—up to a point. Drives don’t last forever, but some definitely last longer than others. I suggest sticking with well known brands that have a good reputation like Seagate, Western Digital and the others featured here. This is based partly on past experience and partly on drive failure data that Backblaze has published for years. Backblaze searches massive amounts of hard drives to secure customer data and its report is worth reading. The bottom line is simple: stick with names you know.
If speed trumps price, you should check out the solid state drives we’ve listed here. SSDs don’t just have a speed advantage. They also lack moving parts, meaning they’ll withstand the knocks and drops of life in a bag on the road better than spinning drives. The disadvantage is that they can wear out faster. Every write to an SSD — that is, when you store something on it — slightly degrades the individual NAND cells that make up the drive, causing it to wear out a little faster than a spinning drive. How much faster depends on how you use it. However, I have several SSDs that are more than 5 years old and I have used them for daily backups during that time. None of them had any problems.
When do you want an SSD over a spinning drive? The answer is almost always yes – if you can afford it. But they’re especially useful for any drive you work with on a regular basis: your main startup drive, an external drive you use for editing documents, and even for backups when you’re in a hurry.