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The Best External Hard Drives and Portable SSDs of 2020

(Image credit: Tom's Hardware)

An external hard drive or SSD is the do-it-all device of storage. It’s a pocketable device that lets you carry huge files (or lots of small ones) between computers, back up essential data, offload footage from your DSLR or drone while on the go and more.

But with dozens of models on the market, how do you know which to buy? And should you opt for a faster, more rugged (and more-expensive) external SSD instead instead of a hard drive made up of fragile moving parts? To help you pick the best portable external drive for your needs, we thoroughly test and review key drives and publish our list of specific recommendations on this page.

If you're curious about the kinds of speed and features that will be available with future external drives, check out our stories on USB 3.2 and Everything We Know So Far about USB 4.0.

Quick Shopping Tips

When shopping for an external drive or SSD, consider the following:

Portable Hard Drive or SSD? Drives that have spinning storage platters inside are very affordable, with 1TB models often selling for under $50 (£40). But they’re also much slower and more fragile than solid-state drives. If you don’t need terabytes of storage and you often travel with your drive, a portable SSD is worth paying extra for. A portable SSD will also be much faster at reading and writing lots of data. But if you need cavernous amounts of external storage, a hard is a better option for most, as multi-terabyte external SSDs sell for several hundred dollars, but 4TB portable hard drives often sell for under $100 (£90).

Don’t Use a Portable Hard Drive as Your Only Backup. Portable hard drives are made up of spinning glass or metal platters, making them a poor choice as a primary backup of your data--especially if you carry them around. Portable SSDs are better here, but you should still keep your irreplacable data backed up on a desktop drive and / or on a cloud service. Because hardware failure is always possible, and portable drives are often small enough to lose or leave behind by accident.

Interface Shorthand

Thunderbolt 3 drives offer the fastest speed, but you won’t be able to use a Thunderbolt 3 drive on a device that doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3, even though it’s the same physical port as USB-C.

USB 3.1 Gen2 is the latest version of this familiar interface, and offers the fastest speed for USB-only devices. But you’ll need devices with USB 3.1 Gen2 ports for maximum speed.

USB 3.0/3.1 Gen1 (effectively the same thing when it comes to bandwidth) is still reasonably fast for external storage (theoretically capable of speeds up to 640MBps), and more than capable of handling hard drive speeds, even in RAID.

Also note that, if you have a spare drive, you can easily make your own portable. Dozens of 2.5-inch drive enclosures can be found online for between $10-$25 (£15-25) that will let you drop in an old drive easily, and turn it into an external hard drive or SSD.

And if you have an M.2 drive that you've swapped out of a laptop or upgraded away from in your desktop, we've recently looked at NVMe enclosures from MyDigitalSSD and Pluggable. If you have a SATA-based M.2 drive that you'd like to turn into a portable drive, Silverstone's MS09 enclosure lets you do just that. And if you're keen on building your own speedy external SSD but don't have a drive handy to use, the recent WD Blue SN500 is a good candidate for that task. It's only available in 256 and 500GB capacities, but it's plenty speedy for external storage, and the more spacious model is already selling for less than $70 at various online outlets. The 250GB model is a tougher sell, with half the capacity and a price that's sticking close to $55 as we wrote this.

Just make sure you get an enclosure that matches your drive, be that SATA or NVMe. And also keep in mind that DIY external drives usually aren't sealed, so they're not as likely to stand up to dust and dampness as well as some external SSDs and portable hard drives that are designed to do so.

The Best Portable SSD

(Image credit: SanDisk)

SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD (1TB)

The Best Portable SSD

Capacities: 500GB, 1TB, 2TB | Drive Type: SSD | Transfer Protocol: USB 3.1 Gen 2 | Sequential Reads: 1050 MBps | Warranty: 5 Years

10GBps performance
Consistent write performance
Attractive aesthetics
Weather-resistant
5 year warranty
Expensive
No power indicator light

Most external SSDs, like most internal SSDs, feature a fast write cache. Once you transfer 10s to 100s of gigabytes, depending on the specific device, that write cache will fill. Once it does, write performance degrades severely in most cases. That’s a big problem for a creative pro or just someone like me performing lots of large file transfers on a daily basis. The result can set back a workflow schedule significantly. That is why SanDisk’s Extreme Pro is our top pick; it doesn’t slow down.

SanDisk’s new Extreme Pro is the evolutionary advancement of the Extreme, and it’s not just because of its performance either. Freezing in Iceland for those photos and videos of cute little Puffins? Trekking in the woods for days on end looking for that perfect landscape shot? Or even enduring a hostile desert as part of your adventure? With a tough, protective design that is IP55 rated, this drive is built to keep up with you no matter what the condition. And, it can connect to almost any computer with its USB interface, unlike most Thunderbolt 3 devices. So you can backup and edit on almost any platform.

Read Review: SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD (1TB)

The Best External Hard Drive

(Image credit: WD)

WD My Passport Ultra (4TB)

The Best External Hard Drive

Capacities: 1TB, 2TB, 3TB, 4TB | Drive Type: HDD | Transfer Protocol: USB 3.0 | Sequential Reads: 120MBps | Warranty: 3 Years

Excellent performance for a hard drive
Class-leading pricing
Large 4TB option
Variety of colors
Excellent software package
2TB, 3TB, and 4TB models are slightly thicker

Performance between competing portable hard drives doesn't vary much. In some sense, you can just choose whatever drive from a well-known brand that's on sale or that you like the design or features of. That being said, Western Digital's My Passport Ultra is a very balanced portable hard drive. You get an excellent design backed by class-leading software and good performance for this category. If you want to save a little money, opt for the single color non-Ultra model.

Read Review: WD My Passport Ultra (4TB)

For those looking to spend a little less on an portable hard drive, who also don't need 4TB of storage, should also consider Seagate's Backup Plus Ultra, which features a good software suite AES 256-bit encryption, and USB-A and USB-C support via an adapter.

The Best Rugged Portable Hard Drive

LaCie Rugged RAID Pro (4TB)

The Best Rugged Portable Hard Drive

Capacities: RAID0 | Drive Type: HDD | Transfer Protocols: Thunderbolt 3 , USB 3.1 Gen 1 | Sequential Reads: Depends on configuration | Warranty: 3 Years

Solid sequential performance
Rugged Build
Data recovery service free within the warranty period
Easy-to-use and effective software suite
Expensive
Uses wall power for systems without Thunderbolt 3 / USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type C

While it is on the pricey side, LaCie’s Rugged RAID Pro isn’t too overpriced considering its market placement and the peace of mind of data redundancy. LaCie includes one month of all Adobe apps for free, a $79.49 (£61) value. More importantly, the drive comes with three years of free data recovery protection. That service can (at times) cost thousands of dollars.

If you are a creative professional in the market for an external HDD, be sure to check this drive out. There aren't many competitors: Most other HDD solutions are much larger, and flash-based SSDs don’t yet offer similarly-priced capacity, nor the same value-adds. The LaCie Rugged RAID Pro 4TB has a unique blend of features and accessories that make it easy to use and quite the versatile travel companion.

Read Review: Lacie Rugged RAID Pro (4TB)

The Best External Thunderbolt 3 SSD

(Image credit: Plugable)

Plugable 2TB Thunderbolt 3 External SSD NVMe Drive

The Best External Thunderbolt 3 SSD

Capacities: 480GB, 1TB, 2TB | Drive Type: SSD | Transfer Protocol: Thunderbolt 3 | Sequential Reads: 2,800MBps | Warranty: 3 Years

High-performance
Good looks and cooling
Competitive pricing
Up to 2TB capacities
Short integrated cable

Plugable’s TB3 NVMe external SSD is one of the best-priced Thunderbolt 3 externals on the market. It's priced comparable to noticeably slower USB-C type products, but offers much higher performance. If you're looking for a drive of the Thunderbolt 3 flavor for your next upgrade, but have been put off by the pricing of drives from more familiar brands like Samsung and G-Technology, this drive should be on your very short list.

Read Review: Plugable Thunderbolt 3 NVMe External SSD

MORE: Best SSDs

MORE: How We Test HDDs And SSDs

MORE: All SSD Content

  • Gingecat
    I thought the first item seemed too good to be true at £8.59 and I was right. I clicked on the Amazon link and turned out it was
    Khanka hard case carrying bag for SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD
    Did the reviewer have too much to dream last night?
    Reply
  • Ksdomino
    4TB hard drive is the best in 2020? Are you not aware that seagate released a portable (very good and equally reliable) 5TB drive in 2017?!?
    nearly 3 years later and we're still stuck with 5TB (apart from the reviewer that is stuck even lower at 4TB).. Am really hoping the 8TB portables don't take too long.

    Edit: Also if you're going to recommend WD drives in Jan 2020 you might wanna look into the new WD Black drives. They also come in 5TB capacity but cost a bit more because performance.
    Reply