The 9 Best External Hard Drives of 2021

Back up your songs, photos, and files with these external hard drives

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The Rundown
"Weighing less than 2 ounces, the all-metal, shock-resistant enclosure is very portable."
"This travel-ready external hard drive uses 3D NAND technology to pack tons of space into a small form factor."
"If cost is no concern, we recommend taking a close look at the Seagate Backup Plus Hub."
"Features an internal shock sensor that will make sure your data isn’t corrupted if the drive is jostled while in use."
"comes in 3, 4, 6, 8, or 10TB varieties and offers Western Digital’s own backup solution for Windows users."
"A boon for those looking for true plug-and-play simplicity and freedom."
"The A60 reads and writes super fast thanks to the USB 3.0 cable."
"With its distinctive rubber bumpers and brushed aluminum chassis, the drive offers drop resistance up to 5 feet."
"The WD_Black P10 Game Drive offers reliable performance in a chassis whose outward appearance looks fit for a battlefield."

If you've never invested in one of the best external hard drives, they offer a range of advantages compared to their internal counterparts. A great external drive is an incredibly convenient way to add a huge amount of storage to an existing machine without having to pry open your case and tinker around in the internals. They're also portable, and one of the best ways to move huge archives of media, data, and other files, without having to wait hours for terabytes of data to slowly upload.

Given the huge capacity of some of these drives, they're also a great solution for backup. Ever wanted to put your complete music discography on a single drive, or backup that aging collection of DVDs still collecting dust on your shelf? Or maybe you want a digital home for all your personal videos and photos to live that, crucially, isn't always connected to the internet and therefore vulnerable? Maybe you just want to archive every game save you've ever made, or move all your old documents off drives that are currently in active use. In any of the above scenarios, an external hard drive is a perfect fix, especially if you're running out of internal space for drives.

These drives are great for laptops too, which often suffer from limited data capacity and to which it's even more difficult to add more storage. Read on for our picks of the best external hard drives currently available.

Best Overall: Samsung T5 Portable SSD

Samsung T5 SSD
What We Like
  • Compact design

  • Lightning fast transfer speeds

  • Compatible with multiple devices

What We Don't Like
  • Smaller storage space

  • Outdated aesthetic

  • Pricey

The Samsung T5 Portable DDS is on the pricey side (especially in the larger capacities), but, in exchange, offers high speed and durability. Weighing less than 2 ounces, the all-metal, shock-resistant enclosure is very portable. What really makes this device stand out, though, is its super-fast transfer speed thanks to the SSD design, making it ideal for transferring giant files like 4K videos.

In benchmarks, our tester Jordan found read speeds at a consistent 434.8 MB/s and write speeds at 433.1 MB/s, short of the advertised 540 MB/s but excellent nonetheless. He notes that, at 2.3x3 inches (HW), the T5 will slip easily into your pocket and take anywhere. It connects to just about anything, too, with its USB 3.1 Type-C and Type-A ports and works with Windows, Mac, and Android devices. Plus, integrated AES 256-bit hardware encryption ensures the safety of your data, which Jordan noted is a breeze to set up via the Samsung Portable SSD Software.

Capacity: 500GB | Interface: USB 3.0 | Transfer Speeds: 540 MB/s | Form Factor: 2.5 inches

"It’s about half the size of most smartphones, making it easy to carry around wherever you go." Jordan Oloman, Product Tester

Samsung T5 sitting on a table next to a drawing tablet

Samsung

Best for Travel: ADATA SD700 256GB Solid-State Drive

 ADATA SD700
What We Like
  • Military-grade protection

  • Pocket-sized

  • Blazing SSD speeds

What We Don't Like
  • Low capacity

  • Expensive

Most hard drives only claim reliability and durability for mechanical operation over time, but ADATA’s SD700 SSD drive offers more substantial protection. This travel-ready external hard drive uses 3D NAND technology to pack tons of space into a small form factor that allows easy pocket entry and removal. It looks a little wild with the rubber bumper, especially on the yellow model, but that’s key to an engineering job that resulted in IP68 water and dust resistance, plus shock protection from bad drops. Yoona tested ADATA's claim that it could withstand 4-foot drops, dumping it onto both hardwood and cement, and the drive showed no signs of scuffing or damage and no performance issues.

The ADATA SD700’s storage capacity options top out at 1TB, which may not be ideal for those looking to archive a heavy assortment of multimedia. This makes it a more niche option for those working in the field, or just to protect themselves from their own clumsiness. No matter your use case, you’ll have blazing speeds thanks to its solid-state nature. In her testing, Yoona recorded read speeds as high as 421MB/s and write speeds of 429MB/s. There’s a limited three-year warranty to back you up, but given the drive's resilience, you may never need it.

Capacity: 256GB to 1TB | Interface: USB 3.0 | Transfer Speeds: 440 MB/s | Form Factor: 3 inches

"The ADATA SD700 is an appealing SSD for its low profile, stable and speedy transfer speeds, and surprising durability." — Yoona Wagener, Product Tester

ADATA SD700

Lifewire / Yoona Wagener

Best Splurge: Seagate Backup Plus Hub 6TB STEL6000100

 Seagate STEL6000100 Backup Plus Hub 6TB External Hard Drive
What We Like
  • Massive capacity

  • Great value for size

  • Solid speed

What We Don't Like
  • A few interrupted connections

  • Must reformat for Mac OS

If cost is no concern, we recommend taking a close look at the Seagate Backup Plus Hub. It houses SMR (Shingled Magnetic Recording) drives, which allow more physical bits of memory in the same space without decreasing the size of the bits. This drive offers a lot of capacity — available in 3TB, 4TB, 6TB, and 8TB versions — and is fast and flexible.

At 4.6 inches tall, it's a bit larger than some portable external drives, but it'll easily slip into a backpack, bag, or briefcase. On the plus side for portability, it's rugged: our reviewer Erika purposely scratched it with a coin and a pen and there were no noticeable marks. Our benchmarks also returned solid results for a 5,400 RPM drive, with steady read rates at around 169 MB/s, and an average write rate around 159 MB/s in CrystalDiskMark.

Capacity: 4TB to 10TB | Interface: USB 3.0 | Transfer Speeds: 160 MB/s | Form Factor: 4.6 inches

"A practical, affordable HDD with extra features that enhance its functionality." — Erika Rawes, Product Tester

Seagate Backup Plus Hub 6TB

 Lifewire / Claire Cohen

Best Portability: Toshiba Canvio Advance 3TB Portable Hard Drive HDTC930XR3CA

 Toshiba Canvio Advance
What We Like
  • Compact

  • Stays cool

  • Good speed

What We Don't Like
  • Must reformat for Mac OS

Not much bigger than a deck of cards, Toshiba’s Canvio Advance portable hard drive offers 1TB, 2TB, 3TB, and 4TB models to fill with as much media as can fit. It plugs into your Mac or PC with USB 3.0 and USB 2.0. It also features an internal shock sensor that will make sure your data isn’t corrupted if the drive is jostled while in use.

The Canvio Advance is compact and sleek; our reviewer called it "the little red dress of hard drives—small and simple, yet eye-catching." It's also extremely quiet: Erika was unable to get a decibel reading over the background noise in her testing space. While its transfer speeds won't blow anyone out of the water, it performed admirably in our benchmarks, clocking in at 143 MB/s read speed and write speed at 144 MB/s for a 1GB file (via CrystalDiskMark).

Capacity: 1TB to 4TB | Interface: USB 3.0, USB 2.0 | Transfer Speeds: Up to 5 GB/s (USB 3.0), Up to 480 MB/s (USB 2.0) | Form Factor: 2.5 inches

"Affordable and portable, the Toshiba Canvio Advance is one of the more versatile hard drives available." — Erika Rawes, Product Tester

Toshiba Canvio Advance

Lifewire / Erika Rawes

Best for Business: WD 8TB My Book Desktop External Hard Drive

 WD 8TB My Book Desktop External Hard Drive
What We Like
  • Automatic backup system

  • Fantastic storage capacity

  • Above average transfer speeds

What We Don't Like
  • Needs external power to function

  • Limited portability

The My Book Desktop External Hard Drive from Western Digital, while large, fits the bill for business owners in need of serious space: It comes in sizes between 3TB and 36TB and offers Western Digital’s own backup solution for Windows users. It’s also compatible with Time Machine for Mac users (though you may need to reformat). It has 256-bit AES hardware encryption for strong security and has both USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports to connect to a wide range of computers.

You'll have to rely on the device's wall-based power supply, but according to our tester, that’s worth the trade-off for this spacious vault that holds your invaluable digital data. Size is a bit of a caveat, if you're looking for something portable, however. Jordan calls out that at 5.5x6.7 inches (HW), it’s about the size of a thick hardback book. In this case, though, bigger is better, not only in terms of the massive capacity but also in read/write speeds, an impressive 190.6 MB/s and 200 MB/s respectively in our CrystalDiskMark bench.

Capacity: 3TB to 36TB | Interface: USB 3.0, USB 2.0 | Transfer Speeds: 90.6 MB/s (read) and 200 MB/s (write) | Form Factor: 5.5 inches

"My Book managed a read speed of 190.6 Mb/s and a write speed of 189.5 Mb/s, which is more than above average." Jordan Oloman, Product Tester

WD 8TB My Book

Lifewire / Jordan Oloman 

Best Storage Capacity: Western Digital Elements 10TB Desktop

 WD 10TB Elements Desktop Hard Drive
What We Like
  • Tons of space

  • Relatively cheap

  • Simple to use

What We Don't Like
  • Bulky design

  • Needs external power

For documents, music, and a little light gaming, a 2TB hard drive is perfect, but storage needs can bubble in no time if you’re a heavier user, especially when you add 4K video to your bottomless nests of folders. That’s why products like Western Digital’s Elements drive are awesome. The 10TB model is not a throwaway purchase in terms of price, but represents a strong value in the realm of supplemental storage. 

This thing is bulky — it weighs a hair over two pounds and measures out like a meaty book — but beware if you intend to use it upright. Our tester found that at only two inches wide it was easily to accidentally bump and topple it on her desk. In some ways, however, the bulk is a plus: a more spacious interior ultimately allows heat to dissipate faster. It's also a pretty speedy workhorse for an external HDD; Yoona benched write and read speeds of 180MB/s and 186MB/s, respectively, and was able to move the 98GB of NBA 2K in an hour and seven minutes.

Capacity: 3TB to 18TB | Interface: USB 3.0 | Transfer Speeds: 180MB/s (write) and 186MB/s (read) | Form Factor: 6.5 inches

"Bundles a generous amount of space at a reasonable price for relatively fast and convenient file management, but it’s design is a bit bulky and requires careful handling." — Yoona Wagener, Product Tester

WD Elements Desktop

Lifewire / Yoona Wagener

Best Durability: Silicon Power 1TB Rugged Armor A60 Military-Grade

 Silicon Power Black
What We Like
  • Water resistant

  • Drop-proof and shockproof

  • Reasonable price

What We Don't Like
  • A little bulky

Silicon Power’s Armor A60 external hard drive, in 32GB and 1, 2, or 4 TB versions, offers a tough, drop-proof (up to 4 feet) exterior with a shockproof design andIPX4 water-resistant protection. The textured casing is also scratch and slip-proof, with a silicon bumper around the sides.

The A60 takes advantage of a USB 3.0 cable, which conveniently affixes to the drive itself, and is compatible with Mac and PC devices courtesy of the FAT32 file system. That said, our benchmarks found it delivered fairly modest, though reasonable, transfer speeds: between 128 and 132 MB/s read and 118 and 120 MB/s writes for a 1GB file. The durability is the highlight here—Erika tested the water resistance by placing 15 droplets of water on random areas of the unit, and the drive came away unscathed and completely functional.

Capacity: 32GB to 4TB | Interface: USB 3.0 | Transfer Speeds: Between 128 and 132 MB/s read and 118 and 120 MB/s writes for a 1GB file | Form Factor: Portable

"An ideal choice for gamers, students, or travelers, the A60 optimizes durability without sacrificing in other areas like speed, storage capacity, or affordability." — Erika Rawes, Product Tester

Silicon Power Armor A60

Lifewire / Erika Rawes

Best for Apple: LaCie Rugged 2TB Thunderbolt USB-C Portable Hard Drive

LaCie 4TB Rugged RAID
What We Like
  • Extremely durable

  • Integrated connecting cable

  • Large capacity

What We Don't Like
  • Expensive

  • Easily disconnects

With its distinctive rubber bumpers and brushed aluminum chassis, LaCie's Rugged 2TB drive offers drop resistance up to 5 feet, crush resistance that can withstand up to a 1-ton car, and IP54 water and dust resistance. Our reviewer, Andy, calls out that some of the drive's durability is reliant on a detachable silicon seal over the Thunderbolt port, which is easy to forget when you're walking out the door.

You’ll never worry about losing your connecting cable, however, as the LaCie (available in 2 to 8 TB capacities) has an attached USB cord in your favorite standard (USB-C, USB-C Thunderbolt, Thunderbolt, or USB 3.0). While the SSD version is rated at up to 510 MB/s, the HDD version is on the slower side of the scale in our testing, delivering 130 Mb/s read/write speed in our benchmarks. The main advantages here are the broad compatibility (particularly with Apple devices), and the excellent durability, though set up can be a bit of a bear. Only after extensive trial and error did Andy realize a formatting issue was preventing it from working on PC.

Capacity: 2TB to 8TB | Interface: USB-C, Thunderbolt | Transfer Speeds: 130 MB/s | Form Factor: Portable

"The LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt hard drive impressed me with its design and apparent durability, though only after a very rocky start." — Andy Zahn, Product Tester

LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt

Lifewire / Andy Zahn 

Best for Gaming: Western Digital Black P10

 Western Digital_Black 5TB P10-Game Drive
What We Like
  • High capacity options

  • Bold rugged design

  • Fast performance

What We Don't Like
  • Pricey

One of the most recognizable names in persistent storage, Western Digital’s Black line is back with a gaming-centric hard drive that offers reliable performance in a chassis that looks fit for a battlefield. The rugged exterior — complete with industrial screws — lends itself well to travel, so don’t sweat toting it to a friend’s house. 

A standard hard drive in a 2.5-inch enclosure, you can get the WD Black P10 as low as 500GB, but it may be worth stretching up to 5TB if you've got an expansive game library. In our testing, the P10 offered decent but unexceptional transfer speeds, 92MB/s write and 93MB/s read speeds via Black Magic Design Speed Test on a MacBook. In-game performance, on the other hand, was impressive, with the P10 rivaling the internal SSD in our tester's laptop, with zero lag.

Western Digital offers the drive in both generic and Xbox-branded varieties, the latter of which is just as suitable for any other console or PC. The difference is that the Xbox version comes with two months of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which offers tons of free games on both PC and Xbox One, including multiplayer access.

Capacity: 500GB to 5TB | Interface: USB 3 | Transfer Speeds: 92MB/s (write) and 93MB/s (read) | Form Factor: 2.5 inches

"A gaming-specific external hard drive, but its hearty design and generous storage capacity will appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike." — Yoona Wagener, Product Tester

WD Black P10

Lifewire / Yoona Wagener  

Final Verdict

We chose the Samsung T5 Portable SSD as your top choice because of how perfectly it balances speed, price, and convenience. If what you really need is a massive, capacious drive to stash a ton of media or games, or you're looking for a dedicated backup solution for a large amount of data, the Western Digital Elements drive and its roomy 10TB has you covered.

About Our Trusted Experts

Patrick Hyde has written about consumer technology for over four years. He's previously worked in Seattle's booming tech industry, and has a lot of familiarity with consumer electronics.

Jordan Oloman has previously written for Kotaku, Eurogamer, IGN, GamesRadar, and other publications. He has lots of background in gaming and tech, and knows a good external hard drive when he sees one. He liked the Western Digital My Passport for its bang for the buck, and the Samsung T5 SSD for its speedy transfer speeds.

Yoona Wagener reviews a variety of tech gadgets for Lifewire, such as computer peripherals, smartwatches and fitness trackers, and hard drives. She's also an enthusiastic researcher and shopper of home gadget solutions such as robot vacuums, air purifiers, and Bluetooth speakers, and has experience providing technical support and help documentation to end users.

Erika Rawes has been writing professionally for more than a decade, and she’s spent the last five years writing about consumer technology. Erika has reviewed over 125 gadgets, including computers, peripherals, A/V equipment, mobile devices, and smart home gadgets. Erika currently writes for Digital Trends and Lifewire.

Andy Zahn has worked with Lifewire testing and reviewing hard drives and other tech since 2019. Andy has always had a passion for computers and has built several desktop PCs himself. He has a deep fascination with computers and loves nothing more than keeping up with the cutting edge of technology.

FAQs

Should I buy an external hard drive or a USB flash drive?
If you're looking for a large amount of storage, faster transfer speeds, and don't mind a large form factor and higher cost, an external drive is the best option. For smaller amounts of data in the most portable size available (and even greater plug and play convenience), check out our list of the best USB flash drives.

Are external hard drives good for backing up data?
For long term backup, traditional HDDs, including external options, are the best solution, providing the most data stability and capacity for the price (or for a faster solution at a higher price tag, an SSD, possibly an SSD in an external enclosure).

What's the difference between USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB-C, etc. external drives?
The USB standard an drive relies upon to connect to your devices will determine a number of things about its potential performance, including maximum transfer rate. The transfer ceiling for USB 3.0, for instance, is theoretically ten times higher than 2.0. Letters following a USB designation (like USB-A, USB-B, or USB-C) indicate the physical type of connection; USB-A is the familiar rectangle most associated with the standard, while USB-C is a reversible flat oval.

What to Look For in an External Hard Drive

Digital storage is changing. Internal storage drives are getting bigger, cloud storage is getting cheaper, and USB drives are getting less common. But that doesn’t necessarily negate the need for a good external hard drive — in fact, sometimes they’re the best way to go.

Buying a hard drive isn’t as simple as purchasing the first (or cheapest) one you see. There are a number of factors to consider when buying an external storage drive, and the kind of drive you ultimately end up buying could dictate what you’re able to do with it.

So what should you keep in mind? For starters, you’ll want to decide between a hard drive and a solid-state drive, both of which offer some major advantages and disadvantages. You’ll also want to think about drive speed, hard drive format, connectivity, and special protection features.

Before diving into our guide, there are a few terms you should know. You'll most likely be deciding between a drive of multiple gigabytes (GB), or multiple terabytes (TB). One terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes, and one gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes (MB). An MP3 file takes around 3.5MB, meaning that one gigabyte can store around 285 songs. One HD movie takes up around 3.5GB — so one terabyte can store 285 HD movies.

Here’s everything to consider when buying an external drive.

Western Digital My Passport
Lifewire / Quentin Washington 

Storage Size

The most important thing to consider is the size of your drive. We’re not talking how physically big, but rather, how much storage you want. It’s hard to recommend a storage size because it varies from person to person and largely depends on what you plan on storing. A good rule of thumb, however, is to determine how much storage you think you’ll need and then buy a drive that’s double.

If you plan on storing documents only, you probably don’t need much more than 80GB. If you’re storing a small to medium music collection and photos, then up to 256GB should be fine. For storing movies and other video content, the amount you need could range into the multiple terabytes, especially if the movies are in 4K. Ultimately, it’s always good to get more storage than you think you’ll need — even if it means shelling out more money.

Types of External Drives

Next, it’s time to decide on the kind of storage drive you want. There are two main types of external storage drives, and while they ultimately serve the same purpose, the way they store files is markedly different.

Hard Drive (HDD)

Traditionally, if you wanted a storage drive it meant buying a hard disk drive. There are some advantages and some disadvantages to this. For starters, hard disk drives have been around for quite some time, so they’ve become relatively cheap. They function by storing files on an electromagnetic disk that spins around and is read by a moving arm.

Because of those moving parts, they’re much more likely to break with a lot of movement. The speed of a hard disk drive is essentially dictated by how fast the electromagnetic disk spins, and they're generally slower than solid-state drives. (We’ll get more into the different speeds later.) Hard disk drives are the way to go, however, if you want a lot of storage at a cheap price and don’t plan on moving them a lot.

Solid-State Drive (SSD)

Solid state drives do away with the moving electromagnetic disk, and replace it with what’s called “flash storage.” That’s the same kind of storage that’s used in smartphones, RAM in computers, and, these days, many of the internal storage drives in computers. Solid-state storage essentially uses microchips to store information, and as a result, there are no moving parts. That means there’s a lower failure rate, higher speed, and simply better overall performance. In particular, that means they’re great for running software or an operating system off of.

Of course, there is a downside to all of those advantages — and that’s price. Solid-state drives are much more expensive than hard disk drives, and while they are going down in price, you simply can’t get multi-terabyte solid-state drives without spending at least a few hundred dollars.

Performance

There are a few things that can affect the performance of a hard drive beyond simply what type of hard drive it is. That’s truer of a hard disk drive than a solid-state drive, but solid-state drives still have performance-related metrics that you should pay attention to.

ADATA SD700

 Lifewire / Yoona Wagener

Transfer Speed

The transfer speed of a hard drive largely has to do with the type of connector that the hard drive comes with. Newer connection standards have higher transfer speeds. The term “transfer speed” is technically a little misleading, as it doesn’t really dictate exactly how fast a hard drive can transfer files to and from your computer. Instead, it tells you how fast a hard drive can theoretically transfer files, based on the connection protocol the hard drive uses.

In the past, the connector was the main limiting factor in how fast a drive could transfer files: USB 2.0 hard drives, in the real world, could transfer data at up to 20 MB/second, while FireWire 800 drives limited things to 85 MB/second. These days, the newer USB 3.0 standard allows for data transfer at up to 460 MB/second, while Thunderbolt allows for speeds of over 1GB/second. Because of that, the connection type isn’t the bottleneck. Instead, the speed is dictated by how fast the hard drive can read and write data, which is referred to as the read/write speed.

Read/Write Speed

Read/write speeds refer to how quickly a hard drive can access the files stored within it — not how quickly those files are transferred to or from a computer. The “read” speed refers to how quickly a hard drive can access a stored file, while the “write” speed refers to how quickly a drive can save a new file. Given the development in transfer protocols, read/write speeds are a much better indicator of how fast your hard drive will be able to actually transfer files than “transfer speed,” especially when it comes to hard disk drives.

Read/write speeds change a lot depending on whether it’s an HDD or SDD, and even within those categories there can be some variation. As mentioned, HDDs have a spinning disk inside of them, and the rate at which drives can access data depends on how quickly that disk spins. Commonly, drives spin at 5,400RPM, or rotations per minute, and drives at that speed generally have a read/write speed of around 100MB/s. Some HDDs have a physical speed of 7,200RPM, which allows for a slightly faster read/write speed of 120MB/s.

Read/write speeds can vary a lot with SSDs, but typically they range from 200MB/s at the slowest to multiple GB per second at the fastest. If all you’re doing is transferring files, then any of those speeds should be more than enough, but if you’re using your drive to store software or your operating system, then something on the fast end might help. In that case, look for speeds of 500MB/s or more.

Western Digital drive
Lifewire / Quentin Washington

Other Features and Considerations

While the type of hard drive and performance of the hard drive are perhaps the most important factors to consider, there are a few other features to keep in mind.

Network Connectivity

While most consumer-level hard drives connect to your computer through a USB cable, some offer network connectivity instead, meaning you can access your hard drive from any computer or phone that’s on the same network. That can be pretty helpful for those who have multiple computers set up and simply want to use an external hard drive to back up files and transfer files between computers.

You can actually give any external hard drive network features by simply plugging it into your router — providing your router has a compatible port on it — but it will require a little more tweaking to get set up properly. Still, special network-connected drives have some advantages. For example, so-called “Network Attached Storage” or NAS, can be used as a media server by apps like Plex, while standard router-connected drives aren’t necessarily able to do so. NAS is a little more expensive, but it’s also often expandable thanks to extra slots in the enclosure, which can accept more actual hard drives.

Check out our guide to the best NAS (Network Attached Storage).

Ports

The kind of port or ports that your hard drive uses to connect to a computer is very much linked to transfer speed. Most hard drives connect to a computer through a form of USB. That could mean the now-outdated USB 2.0 or the newer USB 3.0 or USB 3.1, and if it is USB 3.1, it could also connect through the newer USB-C connector, while still using the USB 3.1 standard.

Other ports, which are increasingly less common, include FireWire 400 and FireWire 800, though fewer and fewer computers support those ports, so you should be wary of that when purchasing.

We recommend looking for a hard drive with USB 3.1 support and a USB-C connector, especially if your computer is relatively new. It might mean having to buy an adapter to use with your current computer that may not have USB-C, but it means that when you upgrade to a new computer, your external hard drive will stay usable.

Check out our guide to the best USB-C adapters available.

Seagate external drive
Lifewire / Claire Cohen

Format

External hard drives come in a few different formats, though it’s very easy to reformat a hard drive if you happen to buy the wrong kind. Hard drive formats are largely linked to the operating system that you’re going to be using the hard drive with. Here’s a quick rundown.

NTFS is the most common format for new external hard drives and can be used with Windows computers. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well with any other operating systems. Macs can read NTFS-formatted hard drives, but can’t write to them.

HFS+, which stands for “Hierarchical File System,” is a hard drive format that works much better with Macs, and it’s an improvement on the older HFS format in that it can support larger file types. Unfortunately, HFS+ drives don’t really work with Windows computers. HFS+ drives are the way to go for those who plan on using them with Macs that are running slightly older versions of macOS.

APFS is a newer hard drive format that works with Mac computers, but it only works with Mac running macOS High Sierra or newer. Like HFS+ drives, APFS drives can’t be read by Windows computers.

exFAT is essentially a mix of NTFS and FAT32, an older drive format that’s not used much anymore. There are a number of advantages to exFAT drives — namely that they can be recognized by both Windows and Mac computers, so if you need support for both, it’s worth formatting your drive to exFAT.

If you’re not sure what hard drive format to go for, then go for exFAT, since it works with most operating systems. Most hard drives come in NTFS, though, so you may need to buy one and then reformat it. Keep in mind it's not as easy to reformat a HFS+ or APFS drive if you need to use it on Windows.

Physical Size

The physical size of an external hard drive doesn't necessarily translate to the amount of storage space, particularly with the advent of flash storage. You really only have a say in the physical size of a hard drive when it comes to solid-state drives, as there are standard sizes for hard disk drives. Hard disk drives’ spinning disks can come in either 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch sizes. A standard size for a portable hard disk drive, for example, is the Western Digital Elements 2TB hard drive, which comes in at 4.35 x 3.23 x 0.59 inches. Smaller desktop hard drives come in at around 7 x 5 inches and range up from there.

Solid-state hard drives can be much smaller, making them much more portable. The SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD, for example, comes in a size of 3.79 x 1.95 x 0.35 inches — a fairly average size for solid-state drives.

Security

External hard drives can come with features designed to keep files more secure, which might be important if you plan on using yours to store sensitive information. For example, some hard drives offer password-protection by default, meaning you can easily set a password to keep all your files safe. Some also offer high-level encryption, rendering your files useless to those who don’t have your password, even if they manage to somehow hack into the drive.

Buffer

A hard drive buffer is essentially storage that exists between the computer and the actual storage in a hard drive. Files stored by the hard drive in the buffer can be accessed far quicker than those stored in the main storage of a hard drive, and the bigger the hard drive buffer — sometimes called the cache — the better the overall performance the drive is likely to have.

Generally speaking, you really only need to care about the size of the buffer if you plan on running software from your hard drive. If all you’re doing is storing files, the type of drive and the speed of the disk will be much more important.

If you do feel as though you need a hard drive with a larger buffer, then we recommend getting one with at least a 64MB cache, though those with 128MB and even 256MB are pretty common, too.

Price

Depending on the type of hard drive and the amount of storage you opt for, the price can vary drastically.

Hard disk drives, as mentioned, are much cheaper than solid-state drives, so if you need a lot of storage at a reasonable price, a HDD might be the way to go. You can expect to pay around as little as 3 cents per GB for a HDD.

On the other hand, it's not uncommon to see a solid-state drive that runs into 25 cents per GB. Lower-capacity SSDs might range up to 40 cents per GB, while 2TB SSDs might come at 20 cents. Of course, that still makes for a drive that costs hundreds of dollars.

Toshiba Canvio Advance

Lifewire / Erika Rawes

Conclusion

While there's a lot to keep in mind when buying an external hard drive, hopefully, this will help you narrow down your selection. Our overall recommendations? If you want lots of storage at a reasonable price, and don’t plan on moving your hard drive around a lot, go for an HDD. If you want fast performance and either don’t need a lot of storage or are willing to spend more, then an SSD is your best best. In both cases, it’s a good idea to find a drive that supports USB 3.0 or later, and a USB-C port might be helpful depending on whether your computer has a USB-C port.

There are a few brands that have built a reputation for quality external hard drives, including Western Digital, SanDisk, and Seagate. It’s often worth buying a hard drive from a reputable brand, as smaller companies may not offer much in the way of support for faulty drives.

Rest assured, no matter what your needs are there’s likely a hard drive out there for you, and hopefully purchasing is a little easier with your new-found knowledge of their key features.

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