Need more space or a safe place for your data? Just connect a USB HDD
Laptops and PCs keep getting smaller and lighter, but storage space has never seemed so tight. High-res audio files, 4K videos and 20-megapixel photos can quickly fill the average laptop’s 256GB SSD, and if you’re working on a project or holding on to your music files and photos, you’ll soon run out of space. Gamers get it even harder – we’re seeing some big titles demanding more than 50GB of space, rising to over 90GB in some cases. This isn’t just hitting PC gamers, but the Xbox One and PS4 crowd, too.
External HDDs and SSDs are the answer. They’re cheap, capacious and increasingly speedy – and all you need to do is plug them in. USB 3 drives are fast enough for nearly every purpose, while you can pair the latest USB 3.1 and USB-C drives with a laptop that supports them and get enough speed for 4K video editing or anything else. We’ve picked out some of the best external drives – both SSD and HDD – to cover all requirements, including desktop models, slimline portables and matchbox-sized SSDs. Whatever your needs, whatever your budget, we’ve got the right external storage for you.
How to buy the best external drive for you
What type of drive should I buy?
Today, external drives come in three basic forms, the biggest and most popular category of which is the portable HDD. These feature 2.5in, 5,400rpm drives of the sort we used to see in laptops, housed in a toughened casing and using a single USB connection for both power and data transfer. Just plug one in and you’re ready to go. USB 3.0, 3.1 and USB-C connectivity deliver respectable transfer speeds, so the biggest bottleneck will be the performance of the HDD itself. You can easily pick up a 1TB drive for under £50 and a 2TB drive for around £20 more. You can even find 5TB drives for less than £100.
If you need more space, then you’ll need to look at desktop drives. These use larger 3.5in hard disks and require a dedicated power supply, which makes them less convenient. To make up for this, you’ll often get better performance, with drives that spin at speeds of up to 7,200rpm and a larger cache to make file transfers smoother. You can easily find 6TB drives for under £100 and 10TB for around £200.
Should I buy an SSD?
External SSDs used to be prohibitively expensive, but a highly competitive market is now bringing the price right down. You still won’t get a whole lot of storage without spending major money – even a 1TB drive will set you back close to £200 – but if you want something that can hold, say, 500GB of video or photos, then you can find something fast and relatively affordable, coming in at around £100.
SSDs are small and extremely robust, which makes them great for moving media libraries or big projects between PCs or transferring Steam games from your PC to your laptop. And with read speeds anywhere between 500MB/sec and a staggering 2.4GB/sec (with the right connectivity), you’ll be amazed how fast these things can go. Transfers that used to take 10 or 20 minutes suddenly happen in a minute or less.
What kind of connectivity should I look for?
USB 3 is your baseline standard. It gives you a theoretical transfer rate of up to 5Gbits/sec, although real-world speeds are closer to 300MB/sec. Given that only SSDs can read or write data at that rate, that’s fast enough for an external HDD – and many PCs and laptops still don’t support the newer USB-C and USB 3.1 Gen 2 standards. These offer faster connections at 10Gbits/sec or 1.2GB/sec – and while even the fastest SSDs won’t reach those levels, it’s worth looking for a USB 3.1 or USB-C drive if you have a PC or laptop with the appropriate ports.
Some professional portable HDDs support Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 connections, with maximum speeds of 40Gbits/sec (4.8GB/sec). Your bottleneck is more likely to be the drive rather than the connection, but the fastest drives offer incredible transfer speeds.
Are there any extra features worth having?
While Windows 10 has its own backup tools (System Image and File History), many users still prefer a good old-fashioned daily backup tool, and many manufacturers include software to help you do just that. Otherwise, some drives will come with management tools, and some with built-in password protection or file encryption, with the drive’s contents protected by codes and physical number pads or by locks activated and deactivated using a smartphone app.
The best external hard drives to buy in 2019
1. Seagate Backup Plus 2019: A great external HDD, now with 5TB capacities
If you want proof that mobile USB drives are now the mainstream, you only have to look at the updated Seagate Backup Plus. This compact, USB-powered drive now comes in 1TB to 5TB capacities, giving you a whole lot of storage with minimal hassle, size and weight. It’s surprisingly speedy, too, delivering sequential read speeds of 151MB/sec and write speeds of 134MB/sec – both faster than the WD competition. It’s a bit of a barebones effort in terms of style and features, with only a USB Type-A cable and drive utilities, though we like the new fabric finishes and the bundled month’s subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud. If all you want is good, solid, fast and reliable storage, these chunky little drives have you covered.
Key specs – Type: Portable HDD; Connectivity: USB 3.1; Spindle speed: 5400rpm
2. WD MyPassport: Best value external HDD
It’s not the slimmest or lightest portable drive, but this compact little brick, just 110mm long by 82mm wide, is impressively practical. As well as feeling extremely robust, it’s whisper-quiet and the 4TB version is excellent value, making it one of the best options both for general backup use and for Xbox One and PS4 gamers looking to house their games library. It’s easy to set up and format, while WD’s Backup and Security tools give you not just basic backup capabilities, but optional password protection and 256-bit AES hardware encryption.
Speeds aren’t anything special, with sequential transfers peaking at 115MB/sec read and 113MB/sec write, with smaller 4K random read/writes worse at 0.6MB/sec and 1.55MB/sec, but these aren’t unusual figures for an external HDD. The MyPassport is a good, practical and value-oriented drive that gives you exactly what you pay for.
Key specs – Type: Portable HDD; Connectivity: USB 3; Spindle speed: 5,400rpm
3. WD My Passport Ultra: The best external HDD for mainstream users
While it can’t quite match the base My Passport for value, the revamped My Passport Ultra has a couple of points in its favour. Measuring 82 x 110mm it’s still a very compact unit (if a little chunky if you buy the 4TB drive), and like the cheaper My Passport it does its job quietly and unobtrusively without any major noise or fuss. However, that little bit of extra cash buys you slightly better performance, plus a USB Type-C port and cable – with an adaptor provided to cover those with USB Type-A PCs and laptops. Read and write times still aren’t spectacular, peaking at 134MB/sec and 126MB/sec respectively, but they’re perfectly adequate for mainstream users and the drives look a bit more stylish, too. If you have a PC or laptop sporting USB Type C, the small premium is well worth paying.
Key specs – Type: Portable HDD; Connectivity: USB 3.1, USB Type C; Spindle speed: 5400rpm
4. LaCie Mobile Drive USB-C + USB 3.0: The best high-end mobile HDD for creatives
You can trust LaCie to bring a little style to storage, and its latest Mobile Drive is another distinctive effort, with an angular, all-aluminium design enhanced by diamond-cut edges and a choice of space grey and moon silver MacBook-matching finishes. But while the looks are important, they’re not all this drive has to rely on. It’s one of the few mobile drives to offer capacities above 4TB without a desktop format, thanks to a 5TB model, and performance is impressive by HDD standards, with read speeds topping out at 152MB/sec and sequential write speeds of 138MB/sec. Unless you’re editing 30-plus megapixel full-frame photos or 4K videos, you’re not going to find it slow. LaCie throws in its own software toolkit for one-click manual and scheduled backups and folder mirroring across different PCs or laptops, and you even get a month’s free Adobe Creative Cloud subscription. It’s the obvious choice for Mac users, but a great one for Windows creatives too.
Key specs – Type: Portable HDD; Connectivity: USB 3.1, USB Type C; Spindle speed: 5400rpm
5. G-Technology Armor ATD: The top tough USB hard drive
ATD stands for all-terrain drive, and G-Technology’s USB hard disk lives up to the name. Combining a solid aluminium enclosure with internal shock mounts and a chunky rubber bumper, the Armor ATD looks and feels like a piece of sci-fi military hardware – and it can handle rain, dust and pressures of up to 1,000Ibs. The USB port supports both Type-C connections and Type-A through a bundled adaptor, and when not in use it’s protected by a thick flap with a beefy rubber plug.
The ATD isn’t the fastest drive out there: it gave us sequential read/write speeds of 119MB/sec and 141MB/sec in tests, although in random read/write benchmarks it proved faster than many rival conventional HDDs. Most of us will be better off with a faster drive that doesn’t offer quite such extreme levels of protection. But if you’re working with big digital image or video files and need a drive that can take some serious punishment, the Armor ATD won’t let you down.
Key specs – Type: Portable HDD; Connectivity: USB 3.1, USB Type-C; Spindle speed: 5400rpm
6. Seagate Backup Plus Hub: The best high-capacity desktop drive
Our previous go-to for high-capacity desktop drives was the Seagate Expansion series, which is still available in 2TB to 6TB capacities at very reasonable prices. However, the Expansion has now been pipped by its stablemate, the Backup Plus Hub. For a few quid more, you get a slicker, angular case design with a single USB 3 connector at the back – plus two USB 3 ports at the front. These don’t actually do anything for storage, but transform the drive into a convenient USB hub. The drive comes with some other extra features, including backup software and support for Seagate’s mobile app.
The backup app allows you to backup files and photos from your iOS or Android phone to the drive over your home Wi-Fi network (provided your PC is switched on). And if you’re looking for a whopping desktop drive to match your white Xbox One S, you’re in luck: Seagate makes an 8GB special Game Drive Hub edition specifically to do that job. The icing on the cake is that the Backup Plus Hub is reasonably fast, with sequential read/write speeds of 188MB/sec and 153MB/sec, with random read/write speeds of 2.1MB/sec and 7.6MB/sec. It’s also reasonably quiet by desktop HDD standards, with no internal cooling fan.
Key specs – Type: Desktop HDD; Connectivity: USB 3 upstream, 2 x USB 3 downstream; Spindle speed: 5,400rpm