person using an external hard drive with a laptop
Nor Gal/shutterstock.com

What to Look for in an External Hard Drive in 2021

External hard drives (or HDDs) come in many shapes and sizes and are designed for different use cases. They all provide extra storage for backups and can easily be moved from one device to another, but several key areas shape which drive is right for you.

First, is it a desktop external drive or a portable external drive? Portable drives get all the power they need from the USB connection. There’s no need to look for a power outlet to use them. They also tend to be smaller and pocketable, making them great travel companions. The downside is that they can be slower compared to the full-size desktop external drives.

Performance in an external drive depends on several things, such as the rotational speed of the drive, the drive interface (e.g., SATA II vs. SATA III), and the speed of the interface of the external connection (e.g., USB 2, USB 3, or Thunderbolt). Typical mechanical drive speeds fall somewhere between 100-150MB/s, with high-end drives reaching 250MB/s. Drives that use methods such as RAID can go significantly faster, and, of course, non-mechanical Solid State Drives (SSDs) are the fastest option possible.

Durability is another factor. Ruggedized drives are designed to take more punishment with water, shock, and dust protection. That makes them ideal for creative professionals in the field that aren’t always in ideal conditions. Of course, this isn’t a factor for everyone, and you can always get a padded case for portable drives if you’re worried but don’t work outdoors. The most durable drives are SSDs, but it will be some time before the price per gigabyte competes with mechanical drives HDDs.

Speaking of which, if you’re budget-conscious, you may want to take note of how many dollars each gigabyte of storage costs for a given drive. Although higher capacity drives may cost more in total, they can actually be cheaper than smaller drives on a per-gigabyte basis. That’s partly because mechanical drives have a price floor regardless of size, so bang-for-buck tends to improve the bigger you go.

Now that we’ve handled the fundamental considerations, let’s look at some awesome drives.

Best External Hard Drive Overall: WD My Book Duo Desktop RAID

WD My Book Duo on office desk
Western Digital

Pros

  • Dual-drive RAID 0 for significantly more speed than standard external drives
  • NAS-grade drives for 24/7 operation
  • USB-C Compatible
  • Integrated 2-port USB 3 hub
  • 3-year warranty

Cons

  • RAID 0 offers no redundancy, if one disk fails you lose everything

External hard drives are varied and specialized for certain purposes, so choosing the “best overall” drive is tricky. The WD My Book Duo is not a portable drive, so it would be a poor choice if you need the specific strengths of the portable form factor. What makes it the best external HDD in our books is its fundamental performance improvement over other mechanical external drives and the careful choices Western Digital has made to balance performance, cost, and reliability.

The My Book Duo contains two WD Red NAS (Network-Attached Storage) drives. On paper, they seem quite slow, considering they are 5400rpm drives. But, that’s because these drives prioritize long-term reliability and always-on availability over raw speed.

Yet, by using two of these drives in RAID 0, Western Digital manages to offer the full capacity of both drives and up to 360 MB/s transfer speed, assuming you use the USB-C port. The clever part is that NAS-grade drives do compensate for RAID 0’s lack of data redundancy. In other words, if either drive fails in RAID 0, you’ll lose all of your data, but NAS-grade drives are much less likely to fail in the first place. It’s a smart tradeoff between cost, performance, and reliability.

If you’re worried about data loss, though, you also have the option to switch to RAID 1, which will halve the capacity and speed but offers full redundancy if a drive fails.

Other nice features include 256-bit AES encryption and the inclusion of a two-port USB 3.0 hub. The My Book Duo starts at 3TB sizes and can go all the way to a whopping 28TB, so there’s a capacity option for everyone.

Best External Hard Drive Overall

WD My Book Duo RAID

This external hard drive can really do it all, except being portable. With two WD Red drives, you can back up all your data twice over to prevent loss, or use them separately for double the storage space.

Best Budget External Hard Drive: WD My Passport Ultra Blue

WD My Passport Blue on a pink background
Western Digital

Pros

  • USB C and A compatible out of the box
  • A good mix of capacity and price
  • It looks more expensive than it is
  • 3-year warranty

Cons

  • 5400rpm drive, relatively slow
  • Needs to be reformatted from NTFS if you want to write to the disk with Mac

It’s not hard to find external hard drives that cost very little and have unknown drives, dubious electronics, and questionable reliability and support. We don’t recommend buying drives without a well-known manufacturer behind them and we certainly wouldn’t trust them with important information.

That’s why instead we have the WD My Passport Ultra Blue Portable. While available in sizes up to 5TB, we feel the 2TB drive is the sweet spot for a low price and usable capacity.

The drive comes with a USB-C cable and includes a USB-A adapter in the box, so it should be easy to use with modern ultrabooks and desktop systems. It’s a good basic drive, comes with a 3-year warranty, and its design and materials aren’t cheap-looking.

The main downside is that Mac users will have to reformat the drive if they want to write data onto it. The My Passport Ultra Blue is also unlikely to win in any performance competitions, so it’s better suited to store files rather than running applications or directly editing videos. If you’re looking to run files directly from the HDD, there are better, but pricier options available.

Best Budget External Hard Drive

WD My Passport Ultra Blue

Need to save money but also need to make sure your data is safe? WD's Ultra Blue will have all the space you need, is portable, and will not break down after a year.

Best External Hard Drive for Mac: Seagate Backup Plus Hub

Seagate HDD on green and blue background
Seagate

Pros

  • Ample room for both standard storage and a Time Machine Partition
  • Offers two USB Ports, scarce on modern Macs

Cons

  • Requires external power
  • Large, only for desktop use
  • May need a reformat to be fully Mac-compatible

Picking the best hard drive for Mac users is tricky because, just like hard drives themselves, Mac users are a diverse bunch. So, we thought to ourselves, “What do modern Macs need?” Since Macs have shifted to SSDs, USB-C, and Thunderbolt 3, the answer to this is “mass storage and USB ports.”

That’s what makes the Seagate Backup Plus Hub the best external hard drive for Mac. It adds both a ton of storage and two USB 3.0 ports to your computer, solving both key shortcomings of modern MacBooks and consumer desktop Macs.

The drive is formatted to NTFS out of the box, which is readable by macOS, but not writeable. At least not without third-party software. We don’t think that’s too much of a problem since you’re probably going to reformat and partition a big drive like this anyway.

In particular, you’ll want to make a partition for Time Machine backups. Many users don’t know this, but you can use a drive for Time Machine backup and file storage simultaneously. That’s the perfect use case for the Backup Plus Hub, but you can use this HDD in plenty of other ways if you need to.

Best External Hard Drive for Mac

Seagate Backup Plus Hub

Seagate's external HDD has a ton of space and, when formatted to write data from a Mac, can be partitioned for Time Machine backups and typical file storage at the same time.

Best External Hard Drive for PS5: WD_BLACK 8TB D10 Game Drive

WD Black on pink background
Western Digital

Pros

  • Fast 250 MB/s speed
  • Offers two USB charging-only ports
  • Plenty of space for PS5 game backups and performance enough for direct PS4 play
  • 3-year warranty from the manufacturer

Cons

  • Still much slower than an external SSD

The storage situation on the PS5 is a little more complicated than it was on PS4. PS5 games can only be played from the relatively small internal SSD. However, they can be archived on an external drive to save you the trouble, time, and bandwidth of a repeat download.

Proper SSD expansion for the PS5 is currently in public beta and more complicated than you’d think. Even after it becomes a finalized feature, the cost of SSDs makes the upgrade a hard sell, especially at higher storage capacities.

The WD Black 8TB D10 Game Drive is, therefore, very much still a relevant product despite being aimed at the PS4. 8TB is the capacity limit for both the PS4 and PS5, so this is as good as it gets in terms of capacity before you have to resort to swapping out multiple drives.

As an external drive for PS5, the D10 shines. It has a fast 250MB/s sequential read speed that will speed up PS5 game restoration and make playing PS4 games directly from the disk much more palatable. At 250MB/s, you’ll be less tempted to use internal SSD space for PS4 titles and save that precious space for the games that require it.

The D10 also comes with two USB ports, but this is not for data. The PS4 and PS5 don’t work with external hard drives that have USB hubs that carry data. This is because these consoles only support external hard drives directly connected to the root port on the console itself, and not a hub. Drives that have hubs have the actual drive connected to the hub internally, so to the PS4 or PS5, this looks just like a drive connected through an external hub.

For example, the Backup Plus Hub drive above won’t work with a PS4 or PS5 at all. That’s not an issue with the D10, and the ports are only there to charge accessories. So, you won’t lose USB ports for charging purposes on your console, and it’s a neat touch most manufacturers wouldn’t think of.

The only real negatives here are that the price on a per-gigabyte basis is a little on the high side, and an external SSD will still be faster. You can get a slower drive of the same capacity for less if the speed doesn’t appeal to you or a much faster external SATA SSD if the capacity isn’t a selling point. But as a middle-ground between speed and capacity, the D10 is a fantastic choice.

Best Hard Drive for PS5

WD_BLACK 8TB D10 Game Drive

PlayStation 5s can only have up to 8TB of external storage, so you can use the 8TB WD_BLACK to store games you aren't playing so you don't need to redownload them in the future.

Best External Hard Drive for Xbox Series X|S: WD_BLACK 12TB D10 Game Drive for Xbox

WD Black Xbox version on green background
Western Digital

Pros

  • Fast 250MB/s drive
  • Offers two USB charging ports
  • Lots of space for game archives
  • Fast enough for a great backwards compatible game experience
  • 3-year warranty

Cons

  • Still much slower than an external SSD

It may feel like déjà vu, but this model of the WD_BLACK D10 isn’t quite the same drive as we’ve just recommended for the PlayStation 5. This 12TB model is better suited to Xbox users since the Xbox One and Xbox Series consoles don’t have the 8TB capacity limit of the PlayStation systems.

All of the same benefits mentioned for the 8TB drive above still apply here. It’s a fast 250MB/s drive that’s perfect for playing Xbox One, Xbox 360, and original Xbox games on your Series X or S console. The only difference is that you have an extra 33% storage for about the same increase in price, and a free month of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.

Just be careful, as you may not always be able to play Xbox Series games at optimized speeds without restoring them to the console first.

Best External Hard Drive for Xbox

WD_BLACK D10 Game Drive For Xbox

WD_BLACK's 12TB model is perfect for the Xbox, which doesn't have the same capacity limits as Sony's consoles.

Best Portable External Hard Drive: LaCie Rugged Mini

LaCie hard drive in bag
LaCie

Pros

  • Ruggedized against drops, water, and dust
  • Still manages to be small
  • The loud orange color makes it easy to spot if you misplace it

Cons

  • Not the fastest drive in its class

What makes for a great portable drive? It has to be small, run without main power, and needs to be durable. The LaCie Rugged Mini hits all of these targets dead-on and manages to do so at a very reasonable price.

LaCie drives are known for their big orange ruggedized design, and the Mini is no different. The design may not appeal to everyone, but there’s a reason for it. The bright orange color makes it much easier to spot your drive if you drop it in water or the mud!

This drive is physically small, or at least, it’s no larger than the typical non-rugged portable HDD. Storage options go all the way up to 5TB, although we think the 2TB is the sweet spot when balancing price against storage capacity.

The LaCie Mini offers only average performance at 130MB/s, but this should still be more than good enough when doing backups or transferring media files for transport. We did take note of several user reviews complaining about the drives dying for no apparent reason. Still, we can’t find any evidence that this LaCie drive has a failure rate higher than normal for mechanical drives.

The vast majority of users are perfectly happy with the longevity of their drives and the brand is known for its quality, so we recommend the Rugged Mini for whoever needs that extra protection for their hard drive.

Best Portable External Hard Drive

LaCie Rugged Mini External Hard Drive

If you want a truly portable hard drive, you want to make sure it can withstand drops and jostles. LeCie's Rugged Mini HDD can survive that and much, much more.

Best External Solid State Drive: Samsung T7

Samsung T7 on yellow background
Samsung

Pros

  • Samsung NAND memory is market-leading
  • About as fast as USB can go
  • Durable and resistant to physical shock

Cons

  • Cheaper options at slower (yet still fast) speeds are available
  • The drive will throttle speeds to prevent overheating

There’s little doubt that Solid State Drives (SSDs) are taking over the internal drive market. Thanks to their fast read speeds, you can run applications software directly from SSDs. The same goes for creative work such as video editing. There’s no need to copy your footage or other media files to an internal drive to work on your projects, you use them straight from the disk.

The Samsung T7 Portable SSD takes over for the venerable T5 Portable SSD as the best external SSD. If the T5’s price weren’t so close to the T7, it would still be an easy recommendation today, but we can only recommend the older model if you find a good clearance deal. At up to1050MB/s read speeds and up to 1000MB/s write speeds, the T7 offers almost twice the performance of the T5.

That’s not as fast as USB 3.2 Gen 2 SSDs can go, at least in theory, but it’s probably faster than anyone needs an external drive to be. Whether you want to play video games, edit videos or rapidly transfer files between devices, the T7 is excellent in every regard. While the per-gigabyte is many times higher than an HDD, it’s still quite affordable. The drive is tiny, fast, power-efficient, and durable.

It’s hard to find anything negative to say, except that actually getting the advertised speeds depends on several other requirements being in place. You’ll need a high-quality USB-C to USB-C cable and a USB controller in the computer that supports USB 3.2 Gen 2 and UASP (USB-attached SCSI) to get near the advertised numbers.

That being said, even in worst-case scenarios, this drive will be going as fast as the port you’ve attached it to will allow, so you’ll never be wasting available bandwidth.

Best External Solid State Drive

Samsung T7 Portable SSD

Solid State Drives aren't as cost-effective as HDDs yet, but they're worth looking into if you need an external drive with some pep in its step. Samsung's T7 is one of the best!

The Best NAS (Network Attached Storage) Devices

Best NAS Overall
Synology 2 Bay NAS DiskStation DS220+
Best Budget NAS
Synology DS120j 1 Bay NAS DiskStation
Best Home NAS
WD 4TB My Cloud EX2 Ultra
Best NAS for Business
Synology 4 bay NAS DiskStation DS920+
Best NAS for Plex and Media Streaming
Asustor AS5202T
Drobo 5N2
Best NAS for Mac
Profile Photo for Sydney Butler Sydney Butler
Sydney Butler has over 20 years of experience as a freelance PC technician and system builder. He's worked for more than a decade in user education and spends his time explaining technology to professional, educational, and mainstream audiences. His interests include VR, PC, Mac, gaming, 3D printing, consumer electronics, the web, and privacy. He holds a Master of Arts degree in Research Psychology with a focus on Cyberpsychology in particular.
Read Full Bio »

The above article may contain affiliate links, which help support How-To Geek.