A portable hard drive or solid-state drive (SSD) is the Swiss Army knife of storage. It’s a pocketable device that lets you carry massive 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 choose 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.
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.
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.
1. SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD (500GB)
The Best Portable SSD
Rating: 4/5 (Editor's Choice)
Capacities: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB | Drive Type: SSD | Transfer Protocol: USB 3.1 Gen2 | Sequential Reads: 550 MBps | Warranty: 3 Years
Pros: Compact • USB 3.1 Gen 2 to maximize performance • Sleek design with nice styling • USB Type-A and Type-C connectivity
Cons: Expensive • No pouch or travel bag • Detachable cable plus adapter
For most users who don't need terabytes of storage, we recommend a portable SSD over a portable hard drive, for both the much-increased durability of solid-state storage, plus generally much-faster speeds.
When it comes to pure transfer performance, the SanDisk Extreme Portable is a tier above many similar models on the market. Pricing is also very competitive with other premium models like the Samsung T5 Portable SSD.
Read Review: SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD (1TB)
2. 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
Pros: Excellent performance for a hard drive • Class-leading pricing; Large 4TB option • Variety of colors; Excellent software package
Cons: 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)
3. LaCie Rugged RAID Pro (4TB)
The Best Rugged Portable Hard Drive
Capacities: RAID0: 4 TB, RAID1: 2 TB | Drive Type: HDD | Transfer Protocols: Thunderbolt 3 , USB 3.1 Gen 1 | Sequential Reads: Depends on configuration | Warranty: 3 Years
Pros: Solid sequential performance • Rugged Build • Data recovery service free within the warranty period • Easy-to-use and effective software suite
Cons: 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)
4. G-Technology G-Drive mobile Pro SSD (1TB)
The Best External Thunderbolt 3 SSD
Capacities: RAID0: 500GB, 1 TB | Drive Type: SSD | Transfer Protocol: Thunderbolt 3 | Sequential Reads: 2,800MBps | Warranty: 5 Years
Pros: Sleek aesthetics • Thunderbolt 3 interface • Stunning media file transfer/editing performance
Cons: Expensive • Small file transfer performance could be improved • No hardware-based encryption support
G-Technology's G-Drive mobile Pro SSD is pricey, but its peak speed of 2.8GBps can crunch through multi-stream 4K, 8K, and VR media editing with ease. The durable drive is bigger than competitors like Samsung's Portable SSD X5, but the extra bulk helps in cooling, leading to better sustained performance. The G-Drive speeds up workflows, making this Thunderbolt 3 drive particularly attractive for professionals.
Read Review: G-Technology G-Drive mobile Pro SSD (1TB)
MORE: Best SSDs
MORE: All SSD Content