The Best External Hard Drive – The New York Times

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Whether you need to back up your computer or get more space for a growing media library, external hard drives are the easiest, most cost-effective option for more storage. Portable drives like the Toshiba Canvio Flex (4 TB) require only a single USB cable attached to your computer, so they’re convenient to use and carry with a laptop in more than one place. Desktop drives like the Seagate Backup Plus Hub (4 TB) require both a USB cable and a power outlet but are generally faster, so they’re better suited to everyday work with files on the drive, not just occasional access or backups.
The Toshiba Canvio Flex offers the best mix of versatility, speed, and affordability, which makes it a good choice whether you’re backing up the computer at your desk or using it with your laptop at the office (or on the couch).
At the time of publishing, the price was $110.
Of all the portable hard drives we tested, the Toshiba Canvio Flex was the only one that produced consistently fast performance across all tasks. It’s just as light and small as competing models, so you can take it with you when you aren’t spending time at your desk. And it’s still one of the most affordable drives we considered with this much storage. It’s ready to use right out of the box with both Windows computers and Macs, and it comes with both USB-C and USB-A cables plus a three-year warranty.
The Seagate Backup Plus Hub is faster than our main pick, making it the best option if you work directly from your external drive on more drive-intensive tasks. But it needs power from a wall outlet and should stay in one place on your desk.
May be out of stock
At the time of publishing, the price was $110.
If you work directly from your external drive, handle large audio, photo, or video files, or need more than 4 TB of storage, get the Seagate Backup Plus Hub. It’s faster than most desktop hard drives we tested, and it took roughly 20% to 30% less time on average than the Toshiba Canvio Flex portable drive to perform all of our real-world transfers—a difference that those working with more demanding files will notice. Unlike the Canvio Flex, the Backup Plus Hub requires a connection to both your computer and an outlet, and you can’t take it on the go. Two front-mounted USB ports capable of charging small devices are a thoughtful perk for a drive that’s likely to sit on your desk.
The Toshiba Canvio Flex offers the best mix of versatility, speed, and affordability, which makes it a good choice whether you’re backing up the computer at your desk or using it with your laptop at the office (or on the couch).
At the time of publishing, the price was $110.
The Seagate Backup Plus Hub is faster than our main pick, making it the best option if you work directly from your external drive on more drive-intensive tasks. But it needs power from a wall outlet and should stay in one place on your desk.
May be out of stock
At the time of publishing, the price was $110.
Wirecutter has researched and recommended hard drives since early 2012. For this guide update, we spent 60 hours researching and testing 20 different external hard drives, both portable and desktop, to recommend the best options for a variety of needs. To find out how portable and desktop drives differ in quality and build, we spoke to product experts from Western Digital and Seagate—companies that manufacture both types of drives. We also spoke to Andy Klein of Backblaze, a cloud-backup company that publishes statistics on hard drive failure rates each year.
You can use an external drive to back up important files or to add storage to your PC without opening it. For most people performing regular backups or quick transfers from one computer to another, a portable hard drive that receives power and transfers data over a single cable is the best option because such drives have a much smaller desk footprint and don’t need an external power cable. But if you work with large music, image, or video files, you should opt for a desktop hard drive or splurge on a portable SSD instead. Both types are faster than a portable hard drive, but SSDs are more expensive, and because desktop drives are designed to be stationary, they may not withstand bumps or jolts as well, and they require an external power brick.
If you’re not backing up the important documents and photos on your computer, you should start doing so. Your computer’s internal drive will stop working someday, and unless your data is backed up, it’ll be gone forever at that point. Fortunately, backing up your data is easy, and getting started takes only a few minutes: We have advice to help you set up a system that will back up your files automatically both to an external hard drive and the cloud. Just backing up to one or the other isn’t enough; having both on-site and cloud backups ensures that your data stays safe from internet outages or disruptions to the cloud backup provider, as well as localized threats such as fire, theft, or natural disaster.
Ideally, an external hard drive is something you don’t notice much. It should sit on your desk, quietly spinning away, storing and backing up your data without a lot of setup or ongoing maintenance. Because desktop drives can be big, bulky, and sometimes an eyesore, we wanted to see if smaller, portable drives could perform the same functions well enough for most people. These are the features we looked for in an external hard drive:
Input: The drives we considered had a variety of USB port types—USB Type-B, Micro-B, or Type-C—but regardless of the port we looked at only those drives that support the most current USB speed, USB 3.2 Gen 2. Drives using older USB standards take longer to transfer data back and forth. We dismissed drives built exclusively for Thunderbolt 3 because they cost too much and don’t perform noticeably better for most people.
Performance: Transfer speed is the feature that most people notice on a daily basis. We evaluated each drive with tests that replicated different real-world uses, and we focused on the drives that consistently outperformed the other contenders. Drives that did well on some tests but failed others were too unreliable to recommend. We outline our testing procedure below.
Price: Although we considered drives of all prices, we limited our testing to models priced below $150, and we compared their value on a dollar-per-terabyte basis. We dismissed drives that cost more because they didn’t offer standout features that suggested better performance or superiority in build or design.
Capacity: We focused on 4 TB hard drives because of the balance they strike between value and total cost. Most people don’t need more storage than that, but many desktop hard drives are available in capacities of 14 TB or more.
Reliability: All hard drives die eventually, and there’s no definitive answer on when that day will come. We recommend replacing your backup drives between the third and sixth years of use, if possible. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get metrics on which hard drive models are more reliable over the long run, and even so, there will always be outliers and failures that occur sooner than expected. Although we examined Amazon reviews to decipher which drives might survive for longer, we also outline the limitations of customer reviews in our testing section below. In addition, we analyzed Backblaze’s hard drive failure reports, which have their own shortcomings. To best protect your files from being lost in a hard drive failure, double up with a cloud backup service, avoid third-party sellers when you’re shopping for a drive, and purchase a drive that carries a warranty you’re happy with.
Durability: For the most part, we don’t recommend buying one hard drive over another based on an expectation of durability—no hard drive should be tossed around. Because a hard drive contains physical moving parts, it’s more prone to failure due to jostling or drops than a solid state drive, which has no mechanical parts and inside bears a closer resemblance to a computer chip. You should get an SSD if you want your drive to have extra protection against getting knocked around, and if you don’t mind spending significantly more for it. In most cases, the material of the drive’s outer case doesn’t affect durability much, either: “Product enclosure materials do not necessarily directly translate to durability,” Kevin Brangan, the director of global marketing for Seagate, told us. “It simply does not matter whether we use plastic surface or metal surface on the product, since they are all required to meet the same durability standard.”
If you’re deciding between an external desktop hard drive and a portable hard drive, ask yourself how often you’ll be moving it around and how careful you are. “Since portable drives are meant to be taken with you, they are designed to be more durable in terms of the everyday wear and tear of taking them along with you. Desktop drives may be less resistant to drops and are designed to be stationary,” a product expert from Western Digital told us.
Nice-to-have features: Desktop drives generally have power switches so you can be sure they’re off when you’re moving them, and such switches may also help the drives waste a little less energy when they’re not in use; in contrast, portable drives generally lack power switches. Backup software is another nice perk, but you can find lots of free alternatives and other great options among online backup services. If you don’t need the extra features that such software provides, setting it up on every computer you use isn’t worth the time and effort. Dragging and dropping files works just fine for performing manual backups, and your OS’s built-in backup utility suffices for running automatic ones.
Warranty: Almost every drive we tested had either a two- or three-year warranty. If all else were equal, we’d always recommend a longer warranty. But because we’ve read some customer reviews complaining about warranty claims being unexpectedly rejected, we wouldn’t value this over other aspects of a great drive.
Speed (in rpm): Hard drives contain spinning disks, or platters, that read and write your data. The faster these platters spin—rated in rotations per minute—the faster the drive can access data and transfer it to your computer. Some of our readers in the past have asked us to recommend drives with 7,200 rpm speeds, but we’ve found that rotations per minute isn’t an important criterion to judge by. As Seagate’s website says, “A 7200-RPM hard drive is obviously faster than a 5400-RPM hard drive. But with external drives, you’ll hardly notice a difference between the two RPM speeds.”
Going by our initial research and criteria, we settled on nine external desktop hard drives and five portable models to test. We first tested them using the benchmarking program HD Tune. For a more real-world measurement, we then timed the transfer of a 15 GB Blu-ray movie and a 31 GB folder of music. We performed each test six times, and we determined the average read and write speeds to rule out performance hiccups. After comparing results for each drive, we took the top performers and timed their backups on a 2019 MacBook Pro using Time Machine.
Once we finished testing, we sifted through hundreds of Amazon reviews for our finalists. We eliminated drives for which 5% or more of the total reviews were only one-star ratings, because that many complaints was disproportionate to what we saw for most drives. Although you can find negative reviews for every drive complaining about an unexpected failure or incompatibility with a computer, we selected models that kept such reviews to a minimum.
Assessing negative customer reviews has its shortcomings. For one, people are more likely to post a review when they have a problem. Also, because of the limited information available in some reviews, it can be hard to differentiate between hardware failures and software issues or user errors that could cause problems with a drive. Looking at the proportion of reviews, rather than the totals, helped us account for that. But all the drives shared the same basic complaints no matter which one we looked at: All had reports of failure spanning anywhere from day one to a few years in. Still, we used the information in owner reviews to the best of our ability to weed out drives that seemed especially unreliable.
The Toshiba Canvio Flex offers the best mix of versatility, speed, and affordability, which makes it a good choice whether you’re backing up the computer at your desk or using it with your laptop at the office (or on the couch).
At the time of publishing, the price was $110.
We recommend a portable hard drive for most people because portables offer simplicity and versatility whether you’re backing up files on a laptop, expanding your computer’s storage capacity, or transferring files from one computer to another. The best portable hard drive for most people is the Toshiba Canvio Flex (4 TB) because it’s the fastest of all the portable models we tested and also one of the most affordable—its cost per terabyte makes it a better value than most. It has cables to connect to USB-A and USB-C ports depending on which one you need for your laptop, and unlike a desktop drive, it doesn’t need to be plugged into a wall outlet.
Portable hard drive real-world transfer test results
In our real-world transfer tests, the Toshiba Canvio Flex consistently performed faster than the other portable drives we tested. All the drives in our test group were rated for the latest, USB 3.2 Gen 2 transfer speeds, so in many cases the differences were negligible. But each of the portable drives other than the Canvio Flex had at least one major shortcoming in our testing: The Toshiba Canvio Gaming (4 TB) failed to perform three of our initial benchmark tests in a row, the LaCie Mobile Drive (5 TB) took nearly 10 times as long on both the large- and small-file read tests, and the Seagate Backup Plus Slim (2 TB) took roughly five times as long as the others on the small-file write test.
In addition to consistently being the fastest drive we tested, the Canvio Flex is at this writing the cheapest per terabyte. Whereas some of the other portable drives we evaluated tend to cost up to $40 per terabyte, the Flex typically costs about $25 per terabyte. Note that the Canvio Flex maxes out at 4 TB, which should be enough to back up most laptops a few times over or to hold large media libraries. If you need a larger drive, though, you’ll need to consider another option, and in that case your cost per terabyte may come down.
You probably aren’t getting your data back if your drive fails—regardless of the warranty coverage—but Toshiba covers the Canvio Flex with a three-year warranty, which may help you save some money if the drive does die early. Most other drives have a two-year warranty. When we looked at Amazon customer reviews regarding reliability, the Canvio Flex had a lower proportion of one-star drive-failure complaints than the competition did. But there are always outliers, which is why we recommend that you use a cloud backup service in conjunction with your external drive to protect your most important data. Or consider the more expensive portable solid-state drive option if you want an SSD’s longer lifespan.
We like that the Canvio Flex comes with two Micro-B cables, one with a USB-A connector and the other with a USB-C connector, to match whichever port your computer has (or whichever one your next computer may have). The only other drive we tested that came with both kinds of cables was the LaCie Mobile Drive, which we dismissed for other reasons. But the Canvio Flex’s cables are short—less than 3 feet in length—so you may have to buy a longer cable if you use the drive with a desktop computer. Like other portable drives, however, the Canvio Flex is small enough that you can more easily tuck it away in tighter spaces than a bulky desktop drive.
The Toshiba Canvio Flex came out on top in our portable hard drive tests, but compared with the desktop hard drives, it was still a bit slower. It’s normal for desktop drives to be faster, and we think the convenience of a portable drive is worth a small sacrifice in transfer speed. Another drawback: The Canvio Flex doesn’t come in capacities larger than 4 TB—in fact, 5 TB is the largest you’ll find among most portable drives—so if you think you’ll need more space, you should consider our other recommendation.
The Seagate Backup Plus Hub is faster than our main pick, making it the best option if you work directly from your external drive on more drive-intensive tasks. But it needs power from a wall outlet and should stay in one place on your desk.
May be out of stock
At the time of publishing, the price was $110.
An external desktop hard drive is great for those working more regularly from their external drives or transferring large files frequently. We like the Seagate Backup Plus Hub (4 TB) because it offers speedy performance at a low price and comes in a range of capacities up to 10 TB. Although it requires a free outlet for its power supply and is bulkier than our portable pick, the Toshiba Canvio Flex, this desktop model is noticeably faster at transferring all kinds of data. It also has two USB Type-A ports on the front that can charge devices, so it’s well suited to pairing with a desktop computer.
The Seagate Backup Plus Hub didn’t top the charts in every category of our tests, but a few seconds’ difference, as we saw during our transfers, would be negligible in day-to-day work. And all of the other drives we tested had drawbacks where the Backup Plus didn’t: They either cost more per terabyte, performed inconsistently by succeeding in some tests but failing others, or had a concerning percentage of one-star Amazon reviews.
Desktop hard drive real-world transfer test results
Considering such similar test results, the Backup Plus Hub’s excellent cost per terabyte of roughly $25 makes it a good value—other drives we considered cost up to $43 per terabyte. It ships with only a USB Type-A–to–Micro-B cable, which is fine for use with most desktop computers, but if you’re using a newer MacBook or laptop with only USB-C ports, you’ll need to provide your own USB-C–to–Type-A adapter, USB-C–to–Micro-B (male) cable, or USB-C hub.
Although a warranty won’t get your data back if a hard drive fails, it might help you save some money if the drive does die early. Seagate gives you a two-year warranty for the Backup Plus Hub; most drives we looked at had two or three years of coverage. This model also has a relatively low percentage of one-star Amazon complaints related to drive failure. Looking for the proportion of bad reviews isn’t a perfect measure of reliability by any means, but we’ve found it a helpful step in our efforts to uncover products with major flaws. If you’re using your drive for expanded storage, you should always have another copy of your data; we recommend using a cloud backup service for redundancy.
Some external hard drives lie flat, but the Backup Plus Hub can stand upright like a book on a shelf, taking up a little less space on a desk. It’s not the biggest eyesore, but it’s not particularly pretty, either—it’s just a simple black box made of plastic, with a honeycomb panel on the top. The G-Technology G-Drive USB 3.0 (in our Other good hard drives section) is more modern and appealing, made of sleek, silver metal with a design akin to Apple’s aesthetic, but it lies flat and takes up more space, and its clean lines don’t make up for concerns we had about reliability. And people who want the smallest, most discreet option would be better off with our portable pick, anyway.
Seagate’s warranty is two years, in contrast to Toshiba’s three years of coverage. The Backup Plus Hub also does not have an on/off switch, a feature we like but was available only on drives that suffered from other, bigger issues.
If you’re willing to spend a bit more for more storage: Try the WD Elements, which was our previous runner-up pick and is still a solid option especially if it’s on sale. It’s slightly more expensive than our current picks, but it has the widest range of capacities (from 3 TB to 18 TB), and it performed decently in our tests. Get it if you want a hard drive for your desktop and the Seagate Backup Plus Hub is out of stock, or if you need a capacity larger than 10 TB.
If you want the fastest transfers: Get the G-Technology G-Drive USB 3.0, which blew all of the desktop and portable hard drives we tested out of the water on transfer speeds, rising to the top of every benchmark and transfer test. Its speed is impressive and we love its design, but it’s more expensive than our picks and has a concerning amount of reliability complaints on Amazon. Considering performance alone, it’s the best option for professionals working with hefty files or people who simply want the fastest drive and perhaps have additional backups in case of a failure.
The Seagate Expansion drive performed fine in our large-file transfer tests but had the slowest speeds of any desktop drive we tested in our small-file transfer tests. It also disconnected itself from our PC without warning in the midst of testing and failed to connect again afterward.
Buffalo’s DriveStation Velocity HD-LXU3 performed just as well as the Seagate Backup Plus Hub in every test, but it tends to be a bit more expensive, and its reliability complaints on Amazon are copious.
Although the Fantom Drives Gforce 3 Pro is a 7,200 rpm drive, its transfer speeds were mediocre. It’s also heavy, more expensive than our main pick, and selective about which computer ports it connects to, a problem we didn’t have with any other drive. We dismissed the Fantom Drives Gforce 3 because it cost more than the Pro model at the time of our research and offered a slower rotations-per-minute speed.
The WD My Book was our previous main pick, but it didn’t stack up well against the models we tested most recently. Compared with our new picks, it had slower transfer speeds across the board, and it took significantly longer to perform Time Machine backups on macOS.
We dismissed the WD Easystore because its smallest storage capacity is 8 TB, which is overkill—and not worth the money—for most people.
As the name indicates, the G-Technology G-Drive USB-C offers USB-C compatibility, but it’s expensive, and in our tests its transfer speeds in every category were unremarkable. We also dismissed the G-Technology G-Drive Thunderbolt 3 because we don’t think Thunderbolt 3 is worth the exorbitant price for most people.
The Seagate Backup Plus Slim was our previous portable hard drive pick, but we bumped it in favor of the Toshiba Canvio Flex because the Seagate model is more expensive per terabyte, its warranty is shorter, and it offers only up to 2 TB of space.
The Toshiba Canvio Gaming has firmware to improve performance when it’s attached to a game console, but it produced mediocre results in our standard testing. If you find it on sale, it’s not the worst portable drive you can buy.
We dismissed the Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Touch and the Toshiba Canvio Slim because both models were too expensive per terabyte at the time of our research and capped out at 2 TB of storage. We also dismissed the Toshiba Canvio Basics USB-C because it was difficult to find in stock.
LaCie’s Mobile Drive costs way too much for a drive that doesn’t offer unique benefits, and it performed atrociously in most of our testing.
We dismissed the LaCie Rugged USB-C because it cost more than the LaCie Mobile Drive, and we thought the performance would be comparable. If you’re drawn to a “rugged” drive, consider buying a portable SSD instead, since it lacks moving parts and will survive rough handling better than most hard drives.
Haley Perry
Haley Perry is an associate staff writer at Wirecutter covering video games and technology. She used to review video games full-time, and she’s also a big fan of mezcal. If you get enough in her, she may just admit that she still plays The Sims … a lot.
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