Any portable drive will let you store, backup, and transport files. But getting the best external hard drive or best portable SSD for your needs is important. An external hard drive or SSD is a do-it-all storage device. It’s a pocket-friendly gadget that lets you carry huge files (or lots of small ones) between PCs and Android devices, back up essential data, offload footage from your DSLR or drone while on the go and more.
But with dozens of models available, how do you know which is the best external drive 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 headed back to college or school soon (whether virtually or in person), you may need a roomy drive to tote around large files. (If you're participating in distance learning, check out our must-have tech for students and teachers alike.) You may already know how much you're willing to spend on a storage drive and how much space you need. But there are still things to think about, like how rugged your drive needs to be or what connections will be available in places where you'll want to use your drive.
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 drive is a better option for most, as multi-terabyte external SSDs sell for several hundred dollars, but 4TB portable hard drives can 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.
Best External Hard Drives and Portable SSDs You Can Buy Today
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.
If you’re on the hunt for a new external hard drive, WD’s My Passport is an excellent choice. With a solid track record, password protection, and capacities of up to 5TB, it’s prepared to store a lot -- if not all -- of your data and keep it safe.
As street prices have started to fall, it;s become a better value than ever. It looks good and comes backed by a plentiful 3-year warranty. To top things off, it boasts top-notch AES 256-bit hardware encryption password protection to keep your content secure from prying eyes.
For those looking to spend a little less on an portable hard drive, who also don't need 5TB 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.
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.
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.
That said, if money is less of an issue than durability, versatility, and data retention, the LaCie Rugged SSD Pro is worth considering. It has a rubberized, weather-resistant shell, competitive performance, and the ability to work with USB-C devices that lack Thunderbolt.
With QLC NAND, Sabrent’s Rocket XTRM-Q aims to undercut most of its TLC-based competition while still delivering the storage goods. Not only does it come in high capacities, but the Rocket XRTM-Q is also very fast, performing well on both Thunderbolt 3 and USB hosts.
The Rocket XTRM-Q is an excellent pick if you plan on using it with a multitude of devices and across platforms. At lower capacities, it’s surprisingly affordable, undercutting most other TB3 drives. And if you are in the market for something as high in density as Sabrent’s Rocket XTRM-Q, we must say that without much competition at the moment this is the drive for you.
While it is expensive at 8TB and the QLC NAND flash can be slow at times, competitive pricing, fast performance, and attractive, durable design prop Sabrent’s Rocket XTRM-Q up as one of the best portable SSDs available.
Also note that, if you have a spare drive, you can easily make your own portable drive. 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 SN550 is a good candidate for that task. It's only available in capacities up to 1TB, but it's plenty speedy for external storage, and the more spacious model is already selling for as little as $115 at various online outlets.
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 external SSDs and portable hard drives that are designed to do so.
MORE: Best SSDs
MORE: All SSD Content