Anyone who uses a PC should have an external drive. It can back up your precious data or store your overflow, and it can transport or transfer files between computing devices. Xbox One X users, especially, would be wise to invest in an external drive to augment the console’s measly 1TB hard drive (the external drive needs to be USB 3.0-compatible and will be formatted when you insert the drive).
Two things are for sure: No one ever said they wanted less storage space, and no one ever said they wanted a slower drive. Our latest picks for best external performance drive (SanDisk’s Extreme Pro Portable and Samsung’s T7) are blazing-fast—great news if you’re transferring large amounts of data. We’ll also walk you through our other top picks, and everything you need to know to select the best external drive for your needs.
Our latest review explores why anyone would want to purchase a 3.5-inch external hard drive such as Seagate’s Backup Plus Hub.
The best external drives 2021
- Crucial X6 Portable SSD: Best budget external drive
- WD My Passport 4TB: Best external backup drive
- SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD: Best external performance drive
- Samsung Portable SSD X5: Best portable Thunderbolt 3 drive.
Best budget external drive
The Crucial X6 Portable SSD is square to be hip. Or placed in your hip pocket, at any rate. In a sea of portable SSDs whose shape makes them a literal pain when pocketed, the thin, rounded-edge X6 is a sigh of relief. It’s not state-of-the-art fast, but it’s fast enough for most users and extremely affordable.
About this item
- HUGE CAPACITY: 2TB or 1TB storage capacity – enough for up to 10,000 photos, 50 hours of video, 3,000 songs, or 200GB of documents with room to spare
- FAST: Read speeds up to 540MB/s – that’s 3.8×2 faster than most hard drives
- Enables you to connect your Crucial X6 drive to legacy USB-A host devices like older PCs, Macs, PS4s or XBOX Ones
- When you need to add additional storage to a device which only has a USB-A port, the Crucial USB-C to USB-A Adapter provides the connection you need.
Best external backup drive
Our pick for best portable external backup drive for 2021 is Western Digital’s My Passport 5TB drive. Why? Well, you can never have enough, can you? The extra 1TB can be invaluable in the age of 4K. Read our full review of the WD My Passport.
About this item
- Auto backup with Included WD Backup Software
- Password Protection with hardware encryption
- Trusted drive built with WD reliability
- USB 3.0 port; USB 2.0 compatible; System Compatibility: Windows 10, Windows 8.1, Windows 7; Requires reformatting for Mac OS X operating system
- 3 year manufacturer’s limited warranty.
Also see: Fantom Drives 3TB External Hard Drive
Our runner-up for this popular category is Seagate’s Backup Plus Portable. Like the WD above, it’s a USB 3.1 Gen 1 (5Gbps) drive—plenty enough bandwidth for the hard drive inside. Capacity tops out at 5TB, but the drive is also available in 1TB, 2TB, and 4TB capacities.
In our tests of the 4TB version, we found the Seagate to be slightly faster than the WD with large file transfers (think movies), but slower with small file transfers (think Office documents). It’s still a worthy runner-up, though.
About this item
- Store and access 2TB of photos and files on the go with Backup Plus Slim, a portable external hard drive
- This portable hard drive features a minimalist metal enclosure, and is a stylish USB drive
- Simply plug this portable hard drive into a Windows or Mac computer via the included USB 3.0 cable to back up files with a single click or schedule automatic daily, weekly, or monthly backups; Reformatting may be required for use with Time Machine
- Take advantage of a complimentary 2 month membership to the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan for access to awesome photo and video editing apps
- Enjoy long term peace of mind with the included 2 year limited warranty.
Best performance USB drive
This is the one: SanDisk’s Extreme Pro Portable SSD (1TB) is the fastest USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps) external SSD we’ve tested to date. Burst performance is roughly on a par with the runner-up Samsung T7, but it blows its competitor out of the water during long writes.
SanDisk’s drive lacks the T7’s handy (and fun) fingerprint security, but it’s about the same price and offers software-based password protection if security is a concern.
About this item
- Easily store and access 2TB to content on the go with the Seagate Portable Drive, a USB external hard drive
- Designed to work with Windows or Mac computers, this external hard drive makes backup a snap just drag and drop
- To get set up, connect the portable hard drive to a computer for automatic recognition no software required
- This USB drive provides plug and play simplicity with the included 18 inch USB 3.0 cable
- Enjoy long-term peace of mind with the included one-year limited warranty and 1 year rescue data recovery services.
Best portable Thunderbolt 3 drive
If you have Thunderbolt 3 or 4 on your system, you owe it to yourself to check out a portable Thunderbolt 3 drive such as Samsung’s Portable SSD X5. As an NVMe SSD using PCIe over a cable (that’s basically what Thunderbolt 3 is), it’s stupidly fast—over 2.5GBps reading and writing.
The only reason we don’t universally recommend the Portable SSD X5 is the relative rarity of Thunderbolt 3/4 ports on PCs. The advent of USB4 should alleviate this, but only if vendors decide to combine it with the superset technology that is Thunderbolt 4. Or you may simply soon see USB4 drives with the same 40Gbps transfer rates
About this item
- THUNDERBOLT 3 AND NVMe POWER: First ever NVMe-based portable SSD from Samsung featuring Thunderbolt 3 technology, the X5 delivers up to 40Gb/s data transfer speeds
- LIGHTNING FAST READ WRITE SPEEDS: Sequential read and write performance levels of up to 2,800MB/s and 2,300MB/s, respectively
- DURABLE DESIGN: Full metal body with glossy top and non-slip bottom mat withstands drops of up to 2 meters; Shock resistant internal design features Dynamic Thermal Guard technology to help maintain optimal performance and temperature
Capacity and price
For most consumers, the main shopping concerns for external storage are capacity and price. However, while you might think that the lowest-cost drive provides the most value, it often doesn’t. In fact, dollar for dollar, cheaper low-capacity drives are most often the worst deal.
For example, we compared prices of the WD My Passport portable drive in its 1TB, 2TB, 4TB, and 5TB capacities. Keep in mind, this is one drive on one day (May 13, 2021), and just one vendor, Amazon, but it illustrates the point.
A second drive as backup?
In backup, there’s a fundamental maxim appropriately named the Rule of Three. It states that you should always maintain three copies of your irreplaceable data: the original data, a backup, and a backup of the backup. Preferably, the two backups are kept in separate locations, one being offsite
Keeping a copy online is great for smaller amounts of data and certainly meets the offsite criteria. However, for vast photo, audio, and/or video collections,external drives in pairs (or more), are a faster, more practical solution.
Create complete backups alternately to the two drives every few months. True patrons of wisdom might even take the second drive to work, so there’s no chance of losing both drives to the same local disaster.
The vast majority of external drives today are USB drives. Beyond that simple statement, the story gets confusing—largely because of the plethora of variations: USB 3.0, USB 3.1 Gen 1 (5Gbps, which is basically USB 3.0), USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps), and USB 3.1 Gen 2×2 (20Gbps), and now USB 3.2 and USB4. In an attempt to simplify things, the USB Forum has recently changed the nomenclature to indicate throughput speed–Superspeed USB 5Gbps, Superspeed USB 10Gbps, and Superspeed USB 20Gbps–because performance is a priority for most uses. For the sake of brevity (and sanity), we generally shorten those names to USB 10Gbps, or 10Gbps USB, for instance.
No hard drive, unless combined in RAID with others, can outstrip the 5Gbps (roughly 500MBps real world after overhead) throughput of USB 3.1 Gen 1. Don’t worry about Gen 2, 10Gbps, or Thunderbolt with single hard drive enclosures.
If you’d like to learn more about our top picks as well as other options, you can find links below to all the external drives we’ve reviewed. We’ll keep evaluating new ones as they become available, so be sure to check back to see what other drives we’ve put through their paces.
Our latest review explores why anyone would want to purchase a 3.5-inch external hard drive such as Seagate’s Backup Plus Hub. Yes, it’s a big unit, but the upsides are significant: nearly three times the capacity and faster sustained throughput than 2.5-inch models. Worth a look,