How to choose an external hard drive

Buy the right external hard drive for you with these handy tips

Samsung T5 SSD review

Backing up your most important files to cloud providers is great, but if your internet goes down it’s always good to have a backup close at hand too. That’s where external drives come in, and they even offer a great way to expand your storage for lower-end laptops and portable devices.

With so many drives out there though, how do you know which ones to buy? Which version of USB do you need? Do connectors matter? What about encryption? We’ll answer all that and more in our guide on how to choose an external drive, to make sure you get the most for your money.

If you just want to skip to buying an external drive, here’s our list of the best ones available today.

Storage capacity

Arguably the most important specification to consider when buying an external drive is storage space. It’s no good buying a high-speed device with encryption and remote access if it’s not big enough to actually store the information you need. That said, you also don’t want to pay through the nose for a drive you’ll never even come close to filling, so what size should you be aiming for? It depends what you want to do with it.

If you want a device that’s good for transferring documents, photos, or other media from one device to the other, or just want to expand the storage space of your low-end laptop or tablet, then you might be best off with a mid-range flash drive. While the largest of those can stretch up to 2TB of storage space, they get very expensive and are unnecessarily big for this sort of usage. Really you’re better off saving yourself a lot of money and buying something in the region of 64GB. Some of those can be had for less than $20 and you can get ones double the size for not much more.

If you’re interested in storing a lot more or keeping files and folders on there long term, you’ll want something bigger. A 1TB drive should suit most needs for the foreseeable future, but if you envision storing hundreds of movies (maybe you ripped your DVD collection?), or just never want to run out of space, there are drives available today that offer multiple terabytes of space. The Seagate Backup Plus is available in sizes from 1TB all the way up to 5TB and even then it’s not much more than $100.

SSD vs. HDD

built on a fast ssd lacies computer free backup drive just got much better lacie rugged screen 1

One of the most common choices buyers have to make after thinking about storage is SSD or HDD. We talk more in-depth about the differences between the two here in this article and below where it affects specs, but essentially they are two different ways of storing and accessing data.

HDDs (hard drive disk) use a spinning magnetic disk to store data, and read/write heads to change this data when necessary — which is why they are known for their iconic spinning sounds. SSDs (solid state drives) use tiny gate transistors in cells that can flip on or off based on electric pulses. They have no moving parts, hence the name.

Broadly speaking, SSDs are significantly faster than HDDs, but can grow very expensive. HDDs are cheaper, but also larger, slower, and more easily damaged. For external drives, it’s usually best to choose an SSD except in particular circumstances.

Transfer speed

Size isn’t everything, even when it comes to external drives. Transfer speed is incredibly important too, because if you transfer files back and forth to a huge drive on a regular basis, you don’t want to have to wait an age for them to complete.

There are two main factors that play a role in how fast your drive can operate at: The storage technology and the connector it uses. Although some drives are faster than others (and if you want bleeding edge speed, make sure to check reviews of your options) in general, solid state drives (SSD) can process data faster than hard drives (HDD). External SSDs tend to be more expensive than their HDD counterparts and often have less storage capacity. You don’t have to have one or the other, as there are larger SSDs out there, but you will have to pay a premium for it.

macbook usb type c
Maurizio Pesce/Flickr

In terms of the connector used to hook up your external drive to your desktop, laptop, or mobile device, there are several common options to consider. Most drives today use a USB interface, but there are several generations that have some distinct differences — most notably with transfer speed. USB 2.0 is an old standard and should be avoided if you’re doing anything but making infrequent small file transfers. USB 3.0 offers a substantial increase in speed (up to 5Gbps), while USB 3.1 (sometimes called USB 3.1 Gen 2) is becoming more common and offers up to 10Gbps transfer speeds. Devices that support Thunderbolt 3 offer the fastest connection medium out there, capable of transferring media at up to 40Gbps.

Some older devices use alternative connectors like eSATA and Firewire, but due to their reduced relevance, they should be avoided.

Portability and durability

LaCie Rugged Type-C
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

If you want to only use your external drive for backups in your own home, you don’t need to consider portability and could even look to network attached storage solutions, for more permanent backup options. If you want to keep your drive with you when you’re out and about though, portability is of paramount importance. You want it to be light and small enough to fit in a bag or pocket so that it can be accessed quickly and easily without weighing you down all day. Ideally, you want one that doesn’t require an external power cable too.

Most external drives are far from weighty and some, like the Samsung T5, are tiny, offering huge digital storage capacity while being physically diminutive. In the inverse of storage space, SSDs tend to be a little smaller than their hard drive counterparts.

Another reason to consider an SSD over an HDD is durability. While modern-day external drives often come equipped with rugged casings to protect them against damage should they be banged or dropped, the two technologies have very different physical makeups. With no moving parts, an SSD is more durable to drop damage than a traditional hard drive. While nobody plans to drop their external drive, if you think you might, SSDs offer a little more protection against such unfortunate events.

Security

If the data you store on your external drive is sensitive in any way, encrypting the data is a good idea. There are many drives out there that are compatible with software encryption solutions and those are fine for most people, but for those who take their data security more seriously, you want to find a drive with hardware encryption. If you’re extremely security conscious, you could even opt for a physical security system like the pin-code input on the Apricorn Aegis Padlock drive.

Some drives will also come with strong casings to prevent physical tampering. While Kingston’s Ironkey flash drives don’t offer the same storage capacity as full-scale drives, they have a secondary security layer in that their drive PCBs are dipped in a resin that makes it hard for anyone to access the internal memory chips.

Compatibility

Hard drives are often sold to be compatible with a specific operating system: A hard drive formatted for Windows 10 may have problems working with MacOS, and vice versa. Some hard drives are formatted specifically for Linux too. This isn’t irreversible — it’s usually possible to reformat a hard drive, or partition a drive so it can have different capabilities. However, if you want to avoid the hassle, make sure your drive matches the operating system that you’ll be using it for.

Gaming

seagate reveals xbox one optimized solid state drive ssd

If you will be using your hard drive for on-the-go gaming or augmenting console storage, your needs may be slightly different than the average user. SSD’s speed is even more important in this case, as a slower drive can affect waiting times and game responsiveness. USB 3.0 is also quite important (although new gaming consoles and computers are likely to upgrade this to faster speeds over USB-C, so be prepared for that). Auto backup features and universal compatibility are also features many gamers should look for. Some models, like the Silicon Power Armor A60 drive, also have built-in storage for cables and military-grade protection, which may fit your requirements.

Oh, and some drives, like the Seagate game drive, are specifically designed to match PS4 colors, and other models are made just for Xbox. If you want a drive that matches your console, there’s probably one out there.

Extra features

While all of the above features and specifications are worth considering before anything else, there are some other neat features you can look out for if you’re still unsure which drive to go for.

Some offer Wi-Fi connectivity for easy file access, and some offer better warranties than others, so if you are at all concerned about reliability, picking one with a long warranty is a good idea. You might also consider the cables that the drive ships with — if your laptop or phone has USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 connections and your drive only comes with a USB-A cable, factor in buying another cable or an adaptor.

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