This guide will help you make sense of all the options. Here are the key questions to ask as you shop. Solid-state drives SSD have fewer moving parts than a traditional hard drive, and they offer the speediest access to your data. For an in-depth look at exactly how this cell-based storage works, check out this tech explainer from sister site ExtremeTech. Just how much faster is it to access data stored in flash cells than those stored on a spinning platter? Typical read and write speeds for consumer drives with a single spinning platter are in the MBps to MBps range, depending on their USB interface and whether they spin at 5,rpm more common or 7,rpm more expensive and less common.
External SSDs offer twice that speed and sometimes much more, with typical results on our benchmark tests in excess of MBps.
Practically speaking, this means you can move gigabytes of data say, a 4GB feature-length film, or a year's worth of family photos to your external SSD in seconds rather than the minutes it would take with an external spinning drive. Not only is it faster to read and write data stored in flash cells than those stored on a spinning platter, but it's also safer. Because there is no spinning platter or moving magnetic head, if you bump the SSD while you're accessing its data, there is no risk that your files will become corrupted and unreadable.
While external SSDs are now readily available and cheaper than they were a few years ago, they're not a complete replacement for spinning drives. Larger external drives designed to stay on your desk or in a server closet still mostly use spinning drives, taking advantage of their higher capacities and lower prices compared with SSDs. Want to know more about how hard drives and SSDs compare? Check out our explainer SSD vs. What's the Difference? So your best option is a desktop-class drive. We define these as having one or more spinning-platter drives inside and requiring its own dedicated power cable.
Of course, in this scenario, your files are going to have to stay at your desk. A desktop drive with a single platter mechanism inside will typically use a 3. In addition to storing large media collections, these drives can also serve as inexpensive repositories for backups of your computer's hard drive that you schedule using either the software that came with the drive or a third-party backup utility. The next size up for consumer desktop drives is about the same height but twice as wide to accommodate additional drive mechanisms in the chassis, such as with the Western Digital My Book Duo.
These larger drives are more expensive but also much more capacious; the highest-capacity current models employ two drives for up to 20TB of storage. In the case of these and single-platter-drive products, you're not meant to swap out the drive or drives inside.
The largest desktop drives are often much, much larger than the first two categories, so large that you'll want to stick them under your desk or in a dedicated server closet. They're mostly intended for professional use in editing studios, surveillance control rooms, and the like. Their defining characteristic is the ability to swap drives in and out easily, so they provide quick access to the drive bays at the front of the device. Most are sold without drives included, so you can install any drive you want usually, 3.
Their total storage capacities are usually limited only by their number of available bays and the capacities of the drives you put in them. At the other end of the physical-size spectrum are portable drives, some of which now use an SSD inside instead of a spinning platter to save space, as well as to increase throughput and durability.
These drives can be truly tiny, weighing just a few ounces and with their largest sides measuring less than 3 inches long, like with the Samsung Portable SSD T5. Others use spinning platters and are a bit larger, like the LaCie Porsche Design Mobile Drive , but they still fit easily in a purse or even a coat pocket. Portable drives get their power from the computer to which you connect them, through the interface cable, so there's no need for a spare wall outlet. If you buy a larger desktop drive with two or more spinning platters, you'll almost certainly have the ability to configure the drive as a RAID array using included software.
Depending on which RAID level you choose, you can prioritize capacity, speed, or data redundancy, or some combination thereof. A collection of spinning drives configured with a RAID level designed for faster access can approximate the speeds of an SSD, while you should consider a drive with support for RAID levels 1, 5, or 10 if you're storing really important data that you can't afford to lose.
Hit the link above for explanation of the strengths of each RAID level. How an external drive connects to your PC or Mac is second only to the type of storage mechanism it uses in determining how fast you'll be able to access data. Unfortunately, these connection types are constantly changing, and the internet is littered with outdated references to legacy interface types such as eSATA and FireWire.
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Right now, the fastest mainstream connection type is Thunderbolt 3, which is handy assuming you have a newer laptop or desktop with a Thunderbolt 3 port. All late-model Apple laptops have them, but they're much scarcer on Windows machines. As an added bonus, a desktop drive that supports Thunderbolt 3 might also come with additional DisplayPort and USB connections that allow you to use the drive box as a hub for your keyboard, mouse, monitor, and other peripherals.
If you'd rather save money than time transferring your data, if you're buying a desktop drive with a single platter-based mechanism inside, or if you have a PC that lacks Thunderbolt 3, you'll want to make sure your drive has a USB 3. Nearly every recent drive we reviewed supports USB 3. If you carry your drive around frequently, you'll want to pay attention to how rugged the drive is. Some models include plastic bumpers, and some even meet military standards for shock and dust protection. And of course, if you're carrying your drive around with you, you want it to look nice.
Perhaps the only thing you don't need to pay much attention to is the warranty. If your drive breaks because you damaged it, the warranty likely won't cover it. Even if the drive fails because of a manufacturing defect, most warranties simply replace the drive and don't cover the cost of recovery services that attempt to rescue your data from the broken drive. Also know that you can find external drives that do way more than just store your data.
Some include SD card readers to offload footage from a camera or drone in the field, while others have built-in Wi-Fi and can double as an all-in-one home media server. See our roundup of the best wireless hard drives and SSDs. Some of that kind even come with extra-large batteries that can charge your smartphone while you're on the go.
Some are SSD-based, while others are platter. For more options, also take a look at our guides to the best network-attached storage NAS devices , the top cloud storage services we've tested, and, for PC builders and upgraders, the best internal M.
The 9 Best External Hard Drives to Buy in
Physical Size Matters: Desktop or Portable Drive? Need Redundancy or Extreme Speed? Do You Need to Go Rugged? More About Our Top Picks. Rated to survive 4-foot drops. Certified waterproof and dustproof. Comes with USB 3. Warranty limited to two years.
Find the best external hard drive for your PC or Mac
SSD option is still unreleased. Bottom Line: Comes in a variety of large capacities. Three-year warranty.
Requires external power adapter. Excellent performance. Includes USB 3. Android-, Mac-, and Windows-compatible. While a comparable good per-gigabyte value, the drive itself is expensive. Spiffy look. Pocket-size, all-metal shell. USB Type-C interface at both ends of cable. There's also a USB 3. USB 2.
More About Our Top Picks
This is one of the fastest high capacity hard drives you can plug into your Mac, with a huge 4TB of storage space that zips along its USB 3. The all-aluminium enclosure gives the drive a premium look and fell, while also protecting your data from knocks and drops, and keeping the drive cool when used. As it uses a solid state drive, the read and write speeds of this drive are much faster than external hard drives that use traditional hard drives. It does mean the price is higher, but if transfer speed is the most important consideration when looking for the best external hard drive for your Mac, then this is the drive to go for.
Not only is your data kept protected from knocks and drops with the rugged shell, but it's also got bit AES security features and NFC Near Field Communication features as well. This is a great external hard drive for your Mac if you are concerned about keeping your data safe and secure. USB 3. If you really want your data to zip between your Mac and an external hard drive, then the Seagate Innov8 8TB is a brilliant choice.
It is expensive, however, but the fast speeds, and large capacity, make this a worthwhile investment. With MacBooks coming with USB Type-C connections, this is an excellent - and stylish - external hard drive that makes the most of this speedy new port. If you're worried about people getting access to your data if your external hard drive is stolen, than you'll like the iStorage drive here. If someone tries to tamper with your iStorage drive, you can configure it to self-desturct.
What's more, the data is encrypted by the bit AES protocol, with multiple forms of protection in place to ensure the bad guys don't get in no matter how persistent.