The Best External Hard Drive
The external drives you can trust with your digital life
When it comes to keeping personal data safe, many find themselves up against Murphy’s Law — phones in the toilet, vanishing luggage, and laptops swimming in chai tea. Backing up personal data (like childhood photos and important documents) from your gadgets to a separate device is the number-one way to ensure the security of your information, and that’s why choosing the right external hard drive is an absolute must.
As a practiced technology writer and seasoned external hard drive user, I know what features and specs I’ve come to appreciate. But to find out what configurations are most important for everyone — including those who aren’t especially tech savvy — I spent almost two weeks researching the most popular models, reading buyers guides from some of the top tech publications, and interviewing Geek Squad gadget experts.
After hours of hands-on testing and a ridiculous number of data backups, I determined that Seagate's Backup Plus Slim is the overall best external hard drive. It’s portable, affordable, and easy to use thanks to Seagate’s top-notch software.
The Backup Plus Slim might be the best drive for most users, but read on for our other recommendations for specific needs, including larger desktop drives, extra storage for your Xbox One, options for Mac users, solutions for small-business owners, and more.
The 7 Best External Hard Drives
How We Chose the Best External Hard Drive
My search began with scouring buyers guides from trustworthy online tech publications like CNET, The Wirecutter, and several others to find top-rated external hard drives. I also spent almost 20 hours reading reviews, compiling consumer use cases, and investigating hundreds of customer ratings on BestBuy.com and Amazon.
I spoke with a few agents from my local Best Buy Geek Squad about which external hard drives customers prefer, as well as their experiences repairing devices from various manufacturers, including Seagate, Western Digital, and LaCie. I personally tested nine of the most popular drives by using Time Machine (Mac), File History (Windows), and various proprietary software options to back up data from my phone, MacBook Air, and desktop PC.
Throughout my research, customer reviews and ratings made it clear that most consumers look for slim, wallet-sized drives to back up personal data and free up space on their laptops, phones, and tablets. And — surprise! — no one enjoys installing additional drivers or reformatting their new drive to be compatible with their devices.
With this in mind, I determined that the overall best external hard drive for casual users needed to have:
- A slim, durable build
- Easy-to-use software and preloaded drivers
- A solid warranty, complemented by excellent customer service
- Wireless mobile backup features
- An affordable price (sub $100)
After testing around 30 of the most popular drives against these parameters, I narrowed my selection down to the top three contenders. From there, homing in on the winner was a bit tricky, honestly.
All three finalists start at $70 and have similar specs, leaving software as the single defining factor. So, after installing a bunch of apps and familiarizing myself with their features, it became obvious that Seagate’s Backup Plus Slim is the current gold standard for pocket-sized external hard drives.
Other External Hard Drives to Consider
Each of our top picks is readily available at a wide variety of online and brick-and-mortar retailers, and some have multiple configurations.
The Best External Hard Drive for Mac
Seagate Backup Plus Slim for Mac
The uber-portable Seagate Backup Plus Slim for Mac is essentially a carbon copy of the regular Backup Plus Slim, only it’s formatted to work with Time Machine right out of the box. And with up to 2TB of storage for $130, it’s capacious enough for system-level backups of your MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.
The Best External Hard Drive for Your Home Office
WD My Book
Starting at $100 for the 2TB model, Western Digital’s My Book isn’t flashy or riddled with features, but it is the most affordable desktop solution for backing up your entire PC. This barebones drive comes in both a Windows and OS X (Mac) flavor, and makes transitioning your files to a new or upgraded machine a breeze.
The Best External Hard Drive for Small Businesses
Synology DiskStation DS214+
Synology’s DiskStation DS214+ is a two-bay NAS unit with more than enough power to satisfy the digital needs of a small business. Between its $400 price tag, award-winning management interface, and robust line of complementary mobile apps, the DS214+ is as versatile as it is affordable.
The Best External Hard Drive for Your Mobile Devices
The Best External Hard Drive for Security
AEGIS Bio 3.0
Nothing is more secure than hardware-based encryption, and that’s why the AEGIS Bio 3.0 is the number-one pick for ensuring confidential data is kept under wraps. It’s a bit more expensive than most drives ($150 for the 500GB model), but that’s a small price to pay for biometric protection.
The Best External SSD
Samsung 250GB Portable T1 SSD
The Best Rugged Hard Drive
ADATA DashDrive Durable HD710
Ruggedness often comes at a hefty price. Not so with ADATA’s USB 2.0-powered DashDrive Durable HD710. It might not be the fastest external drive around, but this $70 tank of a device passes military shockproof standards and can survive underwater for up to 30 minutes. It’s also the “best all-purpose” external hard drive recommendation by Gear Patrol.
The Best Disaster-Ready External Hard Drive
ioSafe SOLO G3
Looking for a drive that can withstand almost any disaster? The ioSafe SOLO G3 is fireproof, can survive in 10 feet of water (fresh or saltwater) for up to 72 hours, and features a cable mount so you lock or bolt it down. Plus, it includes a free one-year subscription to ioSafe’s Data Recovery Service.
The Best Hard Drive for Xbox One
Seagate Backup Plus
These days, games eat up a ton of space. That’s why Seagate’s 5TB Backup Plus is the best companion for your Xbox One. At just $140, it offers the most gigabytes per dollar of any desktop drive on the market. And fortunately, using an external drive with your console can actually decrease loading times.
A Full Review of the Best External Hard Drive
External hard drives are straightforward devices. We fill them with data, and expect to retrieve that data each time we plug them in. Seagate’s Backup Plus Slim may have a shorter warranty (two years) than its competitors, but it’s capacious, totally affordable, powered by USB 3.0, and most importantly, user-friendly.
Software ultimately is one of the defining factors in this review, and it’s what gives the Backup Plus Slim a leg-up on close competitors like WD’s My Passport line and the Toshiba Canvio Slim II. Seagate Dashboard (the company’s desktop application) is an intuitive backup-and-restore utility easily managed by someone with no experience partitioning a drive. Plus, it includes several very useful features: You can back up your phone (or tablet), automatically save photos from social media, and automate backups of specific folders on your computer to a linked Google Drive or Dropbox account.
To back up my phone, I made sure the drive was plugged into my laptop and that each device was connected to the same WiFi network. After that, it was as simple as booting up Seagate’s Backup app on my phone and choosing what I wanted to include (contacts, text messages, photos). You’re also given the option to delete data from your device once the backup is complete — a huge deal for those whose phones are jam-packed with selfies and pet pics. I chose everything except video, and the entire process was complete in less than a minute. Easy peasy. (Note: My OnePlus One bit the dust while I was writing this article. Fortunately, I didn’t lose anything thanks to those backups!)
What about hardware? For the price, you won’t find a thinner portable drive with a 2TB option. The Backup Plus Slim also has a compact build that feels more solid in the hand than its WD-made rival.
The Backup Plus Slim is more than just a standard portable drive: It gives zippy speeds, has top capacity, and is affordable.
But don’t just take my word for it. Out of 4,500 customer reviews from Best Buy and Amazon combined, the Backup Plus Slim maintains a 4.5-star rating. It’s the top recommendation from both PC Mag and Storage Review, and The Wirecutter calls it the “best portable drive around.” CNET gave it an 8.3 out of 10 Editor’s Choice rating, and in terms of customer service, Seagate was the number-one recommendation from experts at my local Geek Squad.
Who is it best for?
- Those who need to free up space on a phone or tablet. Too familiar with those “Not Enough Storage" errors? If that's you, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim is a seriously affordable option with a wonderfully simplistic mobile-backup utility.
- Folks who need lots of portable storage. If you're a photographer, producer, or videographer, you probably (A) travel, and (B) work with extremely large files (RAW, 4K video, DAW projects, etc.). The Backup Plus Slim is the smallest, most affordable drive you can get.
- Those who need system-level backups of their laptop. Unless you own a seriously souped-up machine, the 1TB version of the Backup Plus should be more than enough space for a system-level backup (continue reading for more info) of your laptop or Ultrabook.
Who should skip it?
- Anyone with sensitive data. If you want out-of-the-box password protection, the Backup Plus Slim is not for you. Unlike many competitors, it doesn't come standard with a security utility, which leaves users with one option: Encrypt its contents with third-party software.
- Those who need system-level backups of their desktop computer. Sure, 2TB is a lot of data, but there are less-portable options for your workspace that have much more space — and sometimes even a lower price.
How to best use it?
External hard drives are primarily used for one of three things: A complete backup of a computer or mobile device (keep reading for more info on that), creating extra storage space, or for keeping personal data safe. Here are a few real-world scenarios that might help you decide how to fit an external hard drive into your workflow.
- Storing client photos and portfolios
- Freeing up space on your primary workstation
- Backing up Adobe Lightroom
- Preserving notes and assignments in case your laptop is stolen or damaged
For Digital Photo Albums
- Designating a drive as the hub for all your family photos and precious childhood videos
For File Security
- Keeping confidential documents (tax info, digital copies of a birth certificate) secure on an external hard drive
The Runners-Up for the Best External Hard Drive
Don’t dismiss these external hard drives just because they weren’t crowned king. Below are the runners-up, along with my input on why they should be considered.
WD My Passport Ultra
In terms of specs, the 1TB WD My Passport Ultra and Seagate Backup Plus Slim are nearly the same product — not to mention they both start at $70. In the end, though, WD’s management doesn’t offer as many mobile features, nor is it as easy to use as the top pick.
G-Technology G-Drive Mobile USB
G-Technology’s 1TB G-Drive Mobile USB is slim, built out of metal, and sports impressively fast transfer rates. However, that extra boost in speed and durability isn’t enough for me to recommend it over the 1TB Backup Plus Slim, which is $30 cheaper.
LaCie Porsche Design Mobile Drive
The LaCie Porsche Design Mobile Drive is a stylish and powerful USB 3.0-powered device that works with OS X devices out of the box. However, it requires reformatting to work with a Windows machine. So, even considering its recent price drop ($94 for the 1TB model), the Porsche Design is still a harder sell than the Backup Plus Slim.
Toshiba Canvio Slim II
If you’re simply looking for a chunk of storage to house select files and folders, the 1TB Toshiba Canvio Slim II is a great option. However, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim is the same price ($70), and offers more features.
Seagate Backup Plus
The Seagate Backup Plus is essentially a larger version of the Backup Plus Slim that offers up to 5TB of space. However, it’s much less portable than the Backup Plus Slim.
WD My Book
The 2TB WD My Book is one of the most popular desktop drives available, by far. And in that same respect, it’s better-suited parked next to your PC, not in a laptop bag — it’s about the size of a novel and sits upright.
Choosing the Right External Hard Drive for You
Before we dive into the key considerations for choosing the best external hard drive for your needs, here are a few terms you’ll need to be familiar with.
- Reformatting: Different drives use different formats (FAT32, exFat, NTFS, HFS+, etc.). Depending on which OS you're running, you may need to reformat the hard drive so that it will be compatible with your device. There are several tools that can do this on both major desktop operating systems. Lifehacker has a wonderful tutorial on the subject.
- System-level backup: There are two ways to back up data: Copying specific folders and files to a drive, or performing a system-level backup by copying the device's entire hard drive as it stands. The latter makes it incredibly easy to migrate all of your software, data, and settings to a brand-new machine. Time Machine (OS X) and File History (Windows) are the two main software systems used to perform system-level backups.
- HDD, SSD, and HHD: For the uninitiated, SSD stands for “solid state drive" and HDD stands for “hard disk drive." Besides their fundamentally different technology, SSDs are faster, lighter, cooler, quieter, more durable, and altogether better in almost every way... except for price. For instance, Samsung's 500GB Portable T1 SSD costs almost $300, which is $230 more than a 1TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim. But if money is no object, you can't go wrong with an SSD. What about HHDs? Hybrid hard drives are, as you may have guessed, a combination of both HDD and SSD technology.
What is RAID?
If you’ve been researching external hard drives for your small business, you’ve probably come across the term RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks). Simply put, RAID is the technology that allows systems (servers and hard drive arrays) like the Synology DiskStation DS214+ and G-RAID Studio to combine multiple hard disk drives into one massive chunk of storage.
The benefit of RAID arrays is called “redundancy,” which means that multiple copies of the same information are stored in different locations. That way, if one drive fails, all of your transaction records and company documents aren’t gone with it.
Want to learn more? Check out PC World‘s in-depth explainer.
There’s only one thing you can do with a hard drive — store data. That makes choosing the right one for you relatively simple. Before making a purchase, consider the following four factors:
- Mobility. If you plan on carrying your drive around or using it to save photos from your phone, you'll do well to invest in a portable HDD. If you're looking for a more stationary device that'll perform routine backups of your PC, a desktop drive is most suitable.
- Connectors. A USB 3.0 connection is always a safe bet, but before dropping any cash, make sure the drive you intend to purchase is equipped with the right hardware connectors. For example, Thunderbolt ports are fast, but not commonly found on Windows laptops.
- Software. If you have a Mac but have zero experience formatting or reformatting HDDs, an Apple-oriented drive (like the Backup Plus Slim for Mac) will make your life less stressful. Second, if you want to wirelessly backup your mobile devices, make sure the drive's proprietary software has a mobile utility.
- Capacity. If you plan to perform system-level backups, I'd recommend a drive with at least twice the capacity of your device's internal HDD. But, if your main purpose is to store media, here's a handy chart that'll help you visualize how much space you'll actually need. Just remember: Bigger is always better.
What makes a good external hard drive?
The 5 Most Important Features
- Capacious storage options. Remember when 30GB was plenty of space? Not anymore. Today's world is filled with 4K video and high-res photos, which means any top drive should have at least 1TB of storage.
- USB 3.0 connector. Firewire and Thunderbolt are great for professional workstations, but aren't commonplace on your average laptop or desktop PC. USB 3.0 is a must for any great drive.
- Mobile device utility. We live in the connected age, and a majority of our digital lives resides in our smartphones and tablets. With that in mind, it makes sense for portable HDD manufacturers to include a mobile backup utility.
- Easy-to-use software. Proprietary backup software should be intuitive, easily manageable, and should come preloaded on the device. No one enjoys searching the internet for drivers and user manuals.
- Durable build. No external hard drive should rattle, creak, or feel like cheap plastic. Waterproof and shockproof certifications are an added bonus.
Right now, Seagate’s 1TB Backup Plus Slim is the best overall drive because it offers the most features and space for the least amount of money. Don’t let that keep you from shopping around, though. We’ll update this article regularly, but prices are always changing — you might stumble upon a better deal before we do.
Our Favorite External Hard Drive Reviews From Around the Web
CNET. Craving more information about a particular drive? CNET has probably reviewed it. Plus, its Storage Device Reviews tool make it easy to find devices according to price, capacity, and more.
StorageReview. If you want the techiest, most in-depth info on all things storage (consumer or enterprise), StorageReview is the place that you should go.