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Our team of tech experts researched over 40 of the best external hard drives available today before purchasing 12 of the best. During our comparative tests, we tested speeds across a Mac and Windows system, with different USB outlets and a host of pressure settings. We manually dragged and dropped files of differing sizes to see which moved quickly and extensively tested durability. The result is a well-researched and tested review with an array of recommendations designed to help you find exactly what you need.
The SanDisk Extreme Portable V2 stands on top of the podium in the realm of external SSDs. During our speed assessment, this device shows superior results to any other model in our review. If you're looking for a hard drive that you can travel with or throw in a laptop bag, the V2 is a solid option — it's one of the most compact and lightest versions we've seen. The designers of this model even thought to integrate a hoop into the device's body so that a carabiner or clip can be attached. The rubber coating on the device's casing helps keep the drive from slipping around while in use and also adds a degree of shock protection.
Although we didn't find many flaws while testing the SanDisk Extreme Portable V2, we must mention that it's very pricey. A one-terabyte model will already dent your bank account, but if you're looking at a two or four-terabyte version, be prepared to drop extra funds for the added memory capacity. That said, we often find that in the tech world, if you want the best, it will cost you. Despite the price, this is the best external SSD that we've seen to date.
Compatible with Windows, Mac, PS4, Xbox with no formatting
REASONS TO AVOID
No impact protection certification
Faster drives available
If you're looking for an external HDD, we can't say enough good things about the Western Digital P10. Wrapped up in a sleek metal-plated body, this model was about as fast as the other models of comparable physical size during our read and write performance assessment. We love that it's ready to go right out of the box whether you're planning to use it for Mac, Windows, or gaming. Unlike many HDDs that offer this much storage, the P10 is entirely powered by USB, freeing you from an AC adapter.
If you need the storage capacity of an HDD but want something that's also lightning fast, there are more extensive AC-powered options that are faster than the Western Digital P10. We like the size and portability attributes of this device, but be careful with it. Although Western Digital claims that the P10 is "durable," it lacks genuine certifications, while some models offer military-grade shock protection. If you're prone to damaging gear or plan on traveling with your hard drive often, it'd be wise to go with a burlier model. Shortcomings aside, we highly recommend the P10 for those in the market for a high-performance HDD that's easy to use and looks great.
Not everyone needs a top-of-the-line high-performance external hard drive. If you're looking for a simple, easy-to-use model with many storage capacity options, look no further than the Western Digital Elements. The Elements does not use AC power as it is entirely powered by USB. Although this model is far from the fastest, it shows comparable results to most HDD models during our write and read speed assessment. Best of all, it's affordable. While some external hard drives can cost several hundred dollars, the lower memory capacity versions of the WD Elements will hardly hit your pocketbook.
Although the Western Digital Elements shows similar speeds to most of the other HDD models, it was substantially slower than the best. It's also only offered in one to five terabyte versions. If you know that you need a lot of memory and want to write and read your data quickly, you will need to invest in a higher-performing drive. We are a bit wary of the construction of the Elements. While several other models boast rubber coating, metal plating, or actual shockproof certifications, this device seems to be a bit susceptible to damage if dropped on a hard surface. Despite our small list of flaws, we think the Western Digital Elements is a fantastic option for those shopping for a quality external HDD on a tighter budget.
If you're seeking a backup for your desktop that'll update automatically, the Western Digital My Book should be on your radar. It features consistent read and write speeds, a performance feature you'll be hard-pressed to find in the external hard drive world. Optimal rates were measured at 192 MB per second on Windows. Actual speed tests averaged 150 MB second, the fastest HDD speeds in this review. Moreover, these speeds stayed pretty consistent across all file sizes and didn't slow down with larger files. Another remarkable finding is that it has some drop resistance despite its large and seemingly fragile design. We dropped it (cringing the whole time) on both carpeted and hard surfaces from waist height, and it survived. This impressed us because it's not rated to withstand these tests.
This drive is not meant for travel. It's heavy, scratches easily, and requires an additional power source to use, so it's best when it lives attached to a desktop, stationary in your home office. Although we didn't test water resistance (it's not rated to deal with water), we suspect it wouldn't survive because the case has many ventilation holes that lead directly to the hard drive inside. However, if you want automatic backups, it's the one we recommend.
Some of us are extra hard on our gear. The cause may be from constant traveling, a job requiring you to use your electronics in the field, or everyday wear and tear, but sometimes stuff gets broken no matter how careful you are. If this sounds familiar, we highly recommend the Adata SE800. This model has a waterproof rating of IEC IP68, meaning it can be submerged in 1.5 meters of water for up to thirty minutes. In addition to the waterproofing, it also meets the military-standard rating MIL-STD-810. This certifies that it can withstand a swath of environmental conditions, including high pressure, low pressure, humidity, an extensive range of temperatures, dust, sand, acceleration, shock, and even gunfire vibration — needless to say, the SE800 is tough as nails. To top it off, it's been engineered to fit in an impressively small body.
Although the Adata SE800 is most definitely what we would consider a high-performance model, this drive's read and write speeds are a bit slower than the other SSDs in our review. One tradeoff for the waterproof and shockproof attributes is a lack of memory capacity. The model with the most storage space is only one terabyte, so if you have lots to store, you will need to look elsewhere. The other tradeoff is the price. The cost of life-proofing your data puts the SE800 high on the list of the most expensive models in our review. Although it doesn't store as much as some drives and is far from a budget model, some data is priceless. If you beat up your gear or know you're going to be facing the elements on your excursions, this is the external hard drive for you.
This review is brought to you by experienced gear testers Matt Spencer and Ross Patton. Matt has built his own computers and has been managing hard drive storage for video game play since age nine. His passion for architecture and C.A.D. (computer aided design) has kept him juggling storage needs and he has tested over 100 tech products in the last few years. Ross has spearheaded many categories for GearLab, including Wifi extenders, iPhone gimbals, and jump starters. His background is in Environmental Science, so he is no stranger to neither the field nor the lab. Eddie is a software engineer that's been at it for over six years. He provided consultation for the testing procedures in this review.
To start our review process, we researched more than 40 different drives. We chose twelve highly rated hard disk drives (HDD) and solid-state drives (SSD) that offer outstanding performance and high popularity. We then purchased each one and began our comprehensive testing regiment. We tested read and write speeds using both sequential and random tests. We did this on PC and Mac computers, using all USB ports on each. Reported optimal rates are averaged using three different GB loads. We also performed "actual" speed tests where we dropped files of three different sizes, 1 GB, 5 GB, and 10 GB. Averaging these results, we learn how different "optimal" speeds can be from "actual" speeds. This really defines performance differences. For any 'rugged' drive that claimed water, dust, pressure, or drop ratings, we actually tested it to see if they'd hold up. Yes, we even drove over two of them with a car! Finally, we weighed and measured each, so you have the info you need if you're shopping for a travel drive.
Analysis and Test Results
This review features a group of Solid State Drives (SSD) and Hard Disk Drives (HDD). We chose this selection to reflect the best options on the market. After all the hands-on testing, we rated each based on three critical metrics; drive speed (including optimal and actual read and write speeds), convenience, and portability. Using these metrics, we provide our recommendations to help you find the best option for your needs.
SSD vs. HDD — HDDs or hard disk drives are mechanical devices with a motor and a spinning disk inside. SSDs or solid-state drives use non-mechanical flash memory; thus, no moving parts. HDDs are generally more affordable, slower, and offer a larger memory capacity than SSDs, while the latter is more expensive, substantially faster, but has limited storage capacities. The mechanical parts make HDDs more fragile, while SSDs are more shock resistant. Most tech nerds will tell you that HDDs are best for backing up large files, movies, games, and photos, while SSDs are superior when it comes to frequently used files and operating systems.
The value of an external hard drive will significantly depend on the purpose for which you intend to use the device. If you don't have a ton of files to store, you don't plan on using the device all of the time, and you aren't planning to travel with your drive, then there is no reason to spend more than the cost of the WD Elements. If you're looking for a high-performance USB-powered HDD that looks great sitting next to your console, the WD Black P10 is worth every penny. For those in the market for a large capacity AC-powered desktop version, it's hard to beat the byte-to-dollar ratio of the WD My Book. If you're going to be using your external hard drive in the field or just want the absolute ultimate in data protection, it's going to cost you a few extra dollars to protect your files, but the Adata SE800 has you covered. Finally, our top-scoring SSD model, the Sandisk Extreme Portable V2, is undoubtedly pricey, but given the incredible performance, this is no surprise.
Backing up data or playing files right from your external drive should be fast and efficient. To test this, we measured two different things: optimal speed and actual speed. The optimal speeds were measured using AmorphousDiskMark and CrystalDiskMark speed tests for macOS and Windows systems, respectively. The actual speeds are based on manually timed drag and drop tests with five different file sizes. This gave us pertinent information to help us understand the real-world performance of each drive. Overall, the fastest SSDs were the SanDisk Extreme Portable V2 and the Samsung T7 with the Adata SE800 very close behind. The WD My Book Desktop 3.0 is the fastest and most consistent HDD.
Based on our tests, it appears that all manufacturers exaggerate read and write speeds. No product achieved actual speeds that were as high as the manufacturer claimed. It's also important to note that read and write speeds are affected by several variables such as the type of USB port, cord, platform function, computer type, background programs running, and more. For that reason, only use the speeds of these drives as a comparative reference. It's likely that if you test these speeds at home, they will be different, but the same comparative relationships should hold.
This test shows us how fast a drive can perform when only drive performance is isolated, and system functionality is limited. To test Mac systems, we used the AmorphousDiskMark. For Windows PCs, we used the CrystalDiskMark. With this CrystalDiskMark test, we gathered data from both sequential and random tests, as well as speed information on USB-C and USB-A ports. Sequential tests show how well a drive reads a file from point A to point B, while random tests show how well it can access random data points in a large database.
The sequential test should be more important than the random test unless you will be working off your hard drive directly. This tells us how fast the drive can read and write a large chunk of data and how quickly it might transfer from one place to another. The speeds are also much faster than random tests. For SSD versions, the SanDisk Extreme Portable V2 is the best model for this assessment portion, showing a phenomenal high read speed of 1066 MB per second using Windows and 774 MB per second running Mac OS. Showing a commendable 192 MB per second for Windows OS and 191 MB per second for Mac OS, the Western Digital My Book was the fastest HDD.
The random tests tell us how fast it can access random data that lacks a sequential pattern. Basically, it dives into a database of information to find a file, read, and write it. Once again, the SanDisk Extreme Portable V2 drive achieved the best random speed results with a rate of 271 MB per second with Windows and 30 MB per second using Mac OS, making it an incredible external drive to work from directly. The Samsung T7 Portable was only sightly slower than the V2 with recorded rates of 20 MB per second with Mac OS and 222 MB per second with Windows.
Actual Speed Tests
While the AmorphousDiskMark and CrystalMark tests gave us significant data to see how these drives would perform in optimal conditions, perhaps the more critical test was the 'actual speed test.' For this test, we built three different file sizes of 1 GB, 5 GB, and 10 GB. We then manually timed each drive to see how long it took to drag and transfer the file from our Mac desktop to the external hard drive. Afterward, we calculated the MB per second and averaged all the different file sizes. Most external drives shows a significant decrease in speed as file size increased. The only drives that stayed relatively consistent across files sizes were the LaCie Rugged Mini and the Western Digital Elements.
For SSDs, the SanDisk Extreme Portable V2 offers the fastest actual speed while using Windows OS at 422 MB per second. While testing Mac OC, we recorded an astonishing rate of 714 MB per second for the Adata SE800. For HDDs, the fastest is, again, the Western Digital My Book with a top speed of 152 MB per second for both Windows and Mac OS. Know that when you buy a drive, you can generally expect the actual speed to be around half the claimed speeds.
Since most of these external drives are built around platforms supported by different PCs, you'll most likely have faster actual times on a Windows platform than a Mac.
With the current state of technology, we like to deal with the least amount of setup, formatting, driver installation, and overall headache as possible when it comes to our products. For this section of our review, we looked at the out-of-the-box state of each drive, its compatibility capabilities, storage options, and connections.
The highest scoring model for this metric was the Samsung T7 Portable. This drive works seamlessly and interchangeably with Mac OS, Windows, Android, Playstation, and Xbox consoles without any formatting.
For HDDs, the champion of this metric is the Western Digital My Book. This model is compatible with Windows, Mac OS, Android, and gaming consoles right out of the box. It comes with multiple USB cords and offers a limited three-year warranty. Because it is designed to be a desktop device, the lowest memory option provided by the My Book is 4 TB — the highest is a baffling 18 TB. Included with the purchase of this model is a version of Western Digital's WD Backup software which can program your drive to automatically back up your data. If you are running a Mac, it can also perform auto backups using Apple Time Machine.
We found the other Western Digital models, the Elements and the P10, incredibly convenient. Like their larger cousin My Book, these devices can be used with Mac OS, Windows, and phones. The P10 is also specifically compatible with game consoles. It should be noted that the Elements needs to be formatted when switching between the various operating systems. Each of these models is available in up to 5 TB models and includes a three-year warranty.
The Adata SE800 is ready to work with Mac OS, Windows, and most gaming consoles out of the box but needs to be formatted to work with Android. This model only offers a maximum of 1 TB for storage space. This model includes two cords — USB C to USB C and USB C to USB A.
Finally, the LaCie Rugged Mini does not require any formatting, but it only works with Mac OS or PC. If you're looking for a drive for gaming or Android backup storage, you'll need a different model. This model uses the less common Micro-B port on the drive, and it includes a cord for USB A as well as a cord for USB C.
In a fast-moving world of constant traveling, remote work, and the endless quest for adventure, device portability can be a critical factor to consider when shopping for an external hard drive. If you aren't planning on moving your drive, there's no reason to drop extra money on a shockproof device. Conversely, if you're always on the go, you need a drive that can be easily transported and may even have some added durability. For this metric, we look at the physical attributes of each model in our review.
For those that are going to be taking their drive on a real-deal expedition, there is no other choice than the Adata SE800. This model is certified waterproof, military-grade shockproof, and is the size of an old-school iPod. The notion that you could accidentally go swimming with all of your most precious data in your pocket and it would do no harm sounds ridiculous, but that's a reality with the SE800. The SE800 is only 2.9" x 1.7" x .5", and it weighs a mere 1.38 ounces.
The Samsung T7 and SanDisk Extreme Portable V2 are incredibly compact. The V2 weighs 2.02 ounces and is 4" x 2" x 0.4". The T7 is a bit smaller than the V2 at 3.3" x 2.2" x 0.3", but the latter has a hoop for attaching to whatever you please with a carabiner or clip. Both of these models are SSDs, so they have an added degree of durability compared to the HDD models.
If you're looking for a portable HDD, the Seagate Ultra Touch, Toshiba Canvio Basics, and Western Digital My Passport are all in the ballpark of 4.5" x 3" x 0.5" and around five ounces. To put things in perspective, we'd say these three models are about the size of a large wallet.
The market is saturated with different types of external hard drives. To help, we designed unbiased and objective tests and conducted countless tests; this allows us to determine which models outperform the others. We recommend putting your money into a high-quality product; as such, we've noted which are the highest performing, which offer the best value for your dollar, and which fall in the niche category. We hope this review has been helpful and you're able to find the perfect product for your budget and needs.
Need an easy way to keep a lot of files handy? We tested...
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GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.