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Whether you’re working on a laptop or a tablet, a lack of internal storage can literally clog up your day. You can run a disk cleanup to clear up some clutter, but if you’re simply out of precious memory, then you may need to add more space.
If you’re running low on storage space, an external hard drive can boost space. Depending on your needs, external hard drives take the form of a traditional hard drive or a solid-state drive. Based on expert advice, we outlined what to look for when shopping for an external hard drive. As a tech expert with years of experience using various hard drive models, I also included some of my top picks for various storage needs.
SKIP AHEAD The best external hard drives
How to buy the right external hard drive
Almost every device in your work space comes with storage falling under one of three categories: a hard drive, an embedded multimedia controller (usually shortened to eMMC) or a solid-state drive (commonly referred to as an SSD). Each of these determines how much data you can store on your laptop and even how quickly you can access it.
Mainly, the two most common types of storage are the hard drive and the solid-state drive. The good news is that unless you’re on a Chromebook, you won’t have to worry about eMMCs, which operate at a very low storage threshold.
In a nutshell, hard drives make your computer run slower but have high-capacity storage for archiving high-resolution photos and important videos. Solid-state drives provide the speedy responses that gamers require, but that speed comes at a steeper price.
Like the rest of your computer setup, choosing an external hard drive depends on your needs. We’ve summarized what to look for in an external hard drive.
You may just need a small boost, but if you need a lot of storage, you’ll want to pay attention to a hard drive’s bytes: 1 terabyte is equal to 1,000 gigabytes of space. These days, that may not be enough for what you need. Some external hard drives will only come in 1TB or 2TB models, while others go as high as 5TB or as low as 500GB.
Standard hard drives provide a plethora of storage for all of your needs, but they rely on slower data transfer speeds. As such, if you’re a gamer, you’ll want to shy away from a traditional hard drive, as they have much slower read/write speeds for transferring information from the drive to the computer. And if there are multiple people working on a project or if you need to access the storage space from multiple computer spaces, a network-attached storage device, or NAS device, would be a better choice, as it will deliver files to your local network and can be accessed remotely.
“If you are backing up your data regularly in the background, large, inexpensive hard drives are your best bet,” said Avi Greengart, president of Techsponential, a research and advisory services company focused on consumer technology. “More sophisticated users will want to get a NAS device with at least two drives in it and software that manages the drives to ensure there is no redundancy.”
If you’re a serious gamer and require the fastest speeds, the solid-state drive is the storage for you. Greengart also recommended this kind of external hard drive for storing videos. “If you want to move files – like video – back and forth, you should pay for a solid-state drive with the highest transfer speeds your devices can support,” he said.
Keep in mind that any solid-state drive will cost more than a traditional hard drive, so while the type may seem appealing, it’s worth weighing which storage type is best for what you need it for.
Computer ports are becoming more confusing — not only with the more widespread adoption of the USB-C in lieu of its cousin the USB-Micro A, but also with legislation coming out to require the USB-C port. While it may not make sense to purchase an external hard drive with a USB-Micro A, older computers and laptops may require this kind of connection — or a general USB-A connection — in order to function.
This kind of connection also affects the speed of the hard drive. “This will impact file transfer speeds as you move from USB-A, USB-C 3.1, 3.2 and Thunderbolt,” said Sagi Shilo, creator of YouTube channel Tech Gear Talk.
Newer computer ports, like the latest USB-C models, offer faster transfer speeds than their USB-A counterparts. Working in conjunction with read/write speeds, this speed can help boost the transfer of larger files such as videos or games. If you have a newer computer, it’s best to invest in a hard drive with a USB-C connection.
If you’re considering storing sensitive information on your external hard drive, you’ll want to keep it properly protected. Some devices will provide encryption and other security measures for peace of mind. Others will simply offer password protection, which is still a way to ease security concerns.
There are a plethora of different formats, and by far the most common one is the New Technology File System, or NTFS. This one is the most widespread because it runs on most Windows applications, and Windows users will be pleased by its ease of use. NTFS will not necessarily work with Mac systems, though. Apple users should opt for the iOS-compatible Apple File System, or APFS.
Read/write speeds go hand in hand with the different kinds of drives. The faster the speeds, the faster files are transferred, which is measured in megabytes per second, or Mbps. Since solid-state drives operate with significantly higher read/write speeds, they are faster in transferring information and reflect higher Mbps. Traditional external hard drives have lower Mbps transfer speeds, and it will take you longer to move big files.
Best external hard drives
There’s no real one-size-fits-all to external hard drives. Depending on your needs for space, storage type, format and even port compatibility, you may decide that while one external hard drive has great storage size, another one will suit your particular situation better. Shilo recommended looking at three specs: the storage capacity, the speed and the physical size.
“Then it’s a matter of priority,” he said. “For the vast majority of users who are using this drive for storing documents, almost any SSD is fast enough, so it comes down to how much storage they need, and then, do they need this drive to be portable or not.”
Look at the options below to see if one is right for you. If you find an external hard drive is too slow for your needs or an SSD doesn’t have enough space, you can return it and find one that makes more sense for you.
The Seagate Portable hard drive offers up to 5TB of storage space, but the 2TB option works great at a reasonable price point. You can expect it to be compatible with both Windows and Mac computers as well as USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 computers. It’s considered plug-and-play, meaning that once you plug it in, the installation drivers automatically install the software and you can transfer files within seconds. Because it’s an external hard drive, you can expect slower speeds for transferring files, around 120Mbps, but overall, this is a solid device with large amounts of storage space for most needs.
Another plug-and-play external hard drive, this traditional external hard drive is best suited for Windows users — it requires reformatting for those with Mac systems. It’s a no-frills, basic external hard drive with up to 4TB of storage and USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 compatibility. This device is a good option for those who don’t want to worry about anything besides plugging in their hard drive and transferring information. You can expect 140Mpbs speeds for this hard drive, too.
If you prefer the Toshiba line of products and are a heavy gamer, the company offers a similar SSD external drive designed for PlayStations, Xboxes and gaming PCs.
Samsung’s solid-state drive doesn’t hold as much as its external hard drive siblings, but the 500GB it does have significantly increases storage space for both gamers and general computer users alike. Its small size makes it perfect for smartphones, PCs, laptops and Macs, and it comes with USB-C-to-USB-C and USB-C-to-USB-A cords for compatibility among most devices on the market (you would have to buy a Thunderbolt-compatible cord for Macs separately). This one is great for those who want extra space and fast speeds and don’t want to pay the high price that accompanies most SSDs.
“If you are looking to add storage to a game console, there are external drives specifically designed for that use that are guaranteed to work,” Greengart said. “Western Digital has a line of WD Black drives that take the guesswork out.”
This solid-state drive combines durability, portability and speed for a great all-around storage device. Its 6-foot drop resistance is great for those on the go. It has significantly more storage — up to 2TB — that, naturally, comes with a higher price point. However, it’s a solid investment, especially taking into consideration its 400Mbps read/write speeds.
If you need a portable external hard drive that’s tough as nails, this is a great option. The design factors in a carabiner loop so it’s easy to add to a keychain. You can also expect drop protection and IP55-grade dust and water resistance. SanDisk also provides 256-bit AES hardware encryption for extra security. This solid-state drive is best for those who work in more rugged conditions, such as photographers who need to take their image files with them from shoot to shoot.