Anyone who uses a PC should have an external drive. It can back
up your precious data or store your overflow, and it can transport
or transfer files between computing devices. Xbox One X users, especially, would be wise to
invest in an external drive to augment the console's measly 1TB
hard drive (the external drive needs to be USB 3.0-compatible and
will be formatted when you insert the drive).
Two things are for sure: No one ever said they wanted less
storage space, and no one ever said they wanted a slower drive. Our
latest pick for best external performance drive (SanDisk's Extreme Pro Portable is blazing-fast—great news if you're transferring large amounts of
data. We'll also walk you through our other top picks, and
everything you need to know to select the best external drive for
Latest external drive news:
- Just when you thought hard drives couldn't get bigger, Western
Digital unveiled a 20TB hard drive this month that's a little more
than 11 percent larger than it's previous biggest hard drive. The
drive isn't aimed at consumers yet but you can bet the company has
one in the works.
- The first USB4 products arrived in March, but we have yet to
see a true USB4-based external drive available. Although there are
some drives that claim to be USB4, they are mostly combination
Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.2 SuperSpeed 10Gbps drives. What's the hold
up? The same reason you can't buy a new car and your store is out
of that one thing you need: Supply chain spasms and the long pause
the global pandemic put on development.
The Crucial X6 Portable SSD is square to be hip. Or placed in your hip pocket, at any
rate. In a sea of portable SSDs whose shape makes them a literal
pain when pocketed, the thin, rounded-edge X6 is a sigh of relief.
It's not state-of-the-art fast, but it's fast enough for most users
and extremely affordable.
Our pick for best portable external backup drive for 2021 is Western Digital's My Passport 5TB driveRemove
non-product link. Why? Well, you can never have enough,
can you? The extra 1TB can be invaluable in the age of 4K.
external drive for photographers
We're a little torn between recommending a Thunderbolt-based
drive for external storage versus a USB external drive. While a
Thunderbolt 3 external SSD typically provides higher performance,
that doesn't help you if your laptop doesn't have a Thunderbolt
port, and many of those drives don't have any USB support. That
makes SanDisk's G-Drive SSD the preferred drive. It doesn't support
the more advanced, and also rare, USB SuperSpeed 20Gbps speeds, but
it's in the top tier with USB 10Gbps speeds, which is what you'll
mostly find. Perhaps more importantly for a photographer moving
files in the field, is it's got a tough shell. The drive is built
with IP67 water resistance and dust resistance ratings and can
withstand 2,000 pounds of weight, so you won't lose that precious
photo of a ghost cat in the mountains of Afganistan.
Best SSD for gaming
Today's games can soak up 50GB or 100GB of storage and more. If
you're looking for a drive to quickly load that game from on your
gaming laptop, we'd recommend WD's Black P50 Game Drive. And no,
not just because it's literally called Game Drive but because we
prefer game's to be launched from an SSD where it can literally be
a competitive advantage in some titles. Running an external SSD for
your games also means far, far faster level loads, too, compared to
a plodding hard drive. While many PCs don't have the USB SuperSpeed
20Gbps ports needed to make the Black P50 sing, it's actually
becoming fairly standard in newer desktops. The good news is, even
running a game at USB 10Gbps speeds means reads and writes up to
1,000MBps, which is still a huge improvement over a hard drive.
This is the one: SanDisk's Extreme Pro Portable SSD (1TB) is the
fastest USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps) external SSD we've tested to date.
Burst performance is roughly on a par with the runner-up Samsung
T7, but it blows its competitor out of the water during long
SanDisk's drive lacks the T7's handy (and fun) fingerprint
security, but it's about the same price and offers software-based
password protection if security is a concern.
Note: There are faster USB 3.2 2×2
(also known as Superspeed 20Gbps) SSDs available, such as the WD Black P50 and Seagate Barracuda Fast SSD. However, SuperSpeed
20Gbps and USB4 ports are still so rare, we're not sure it matters.
Those drives are also just not as svelte as the Extreme Pro
portable Thunderbolt 3 drive
If you have Thunderbolt 3 or 4 on your system, you owe it to
yourself to check out a portable Thunderbolt 3 drive such as Samsung's Portable SSD X5. As an NVMe SSD using PCIe over a cable (that's
basically what Thunderbolt 3 is), it's stupidly fast—over 2.5GBps
reading and writing.
The only reason we don't universally recommend the Portable SSD
X5 is the relative rarity of Thunderbolt 3/4 ports on PCs. The
advent of USB4 should alleviate this, but only if vendors decide to
combine it with the superset technology that is Thunderbolt 4. Or
you may simply soon see USB4 drives with the same 40Gbps transfer
rates. It gets complicated.
See the full review of the Portable SSD X5 on our
sister site Macworld.
What you need to know
before you buy
Yes, USB4 will provide the same massive throughput as
Thunderbolt 3 at lower prices eventually, and likely far more
Capacity and price
For most consumers, the main shopping concerns for external
storage are capacity and price. However, while you might think that
the lowest-cost drive provides the most value, it often doesn't. In
fact, dollar for dollar, cheaper low-capacity drives are most often
the worst deal historically. We've been doing this comparison for
years and it's always been the worst value.
You can see that below where we compare the popular WD Elements desktop hard drive's available
capacities and prices. You're paying more than twice as much for
the lowest-capacity drive versus the next step up. It's almost
equally as bad on the WD Elements Portable drive.
How much capacity do you
The best value are typically for the largest hard drives as you
can see, but it brings considerably higher prices and not everyone
needs that much capacity. So how much do you need? We recommend a
backup drive at least twice as large as the total capacity of your
PC. If you have 1TB of storage in your PC, 2TB will allow you to
make a full backup while keeping historical backups on the same
drive. Having more storage allows you to keep more historical files
should you need them or use the same drive to backup additional
While the desktop drive provides a far higher capacity, they
also require more cables, weigh more, and generally may not be
quite as shock resistant as a portable hard drive that's designed
to take a few more bumps, even when on.
The worst value for an external hard drive is typically the
The vast majority of external drives today are USB drives.
Beyond that simple statement, the story gets confusing—largely
because of the plethora of variations: USB 3.0, USB 3.1 Gen 1
(5Gbps, which is basically USB 3.0), USB 3.2 Gen 2 (10Gbps), and
USB 3.2 Gen 2×2 (20Gbps), and now the up-and-coming USB4. In an
attempt to simplify things, the USB Forum has recently changed the
nomenclature to indicate throughput speed—SuperSpeed USB 5Gbps,
SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps, and SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps—because
performance is a priority for most uses. For the sake of brevity
(and sanity), we generally shorten those names to USB 10Gbps, or
10Gbps USB, for instance.
No hard drive, unless combined in RAID with others, can outstrip
the 5Gbps (roughly 500MBps real-world after overhead) throughput of
USB 3.1 Gen 1. Don't worry about Gen 2, 10Gbps, or Thunderbolt with
single hard drive enclosures because it doesn't really matter.
Where SuperSpeed 10Gbps/20Gbps, USB4, or Thunderbolt will
definitely help is with the aforementioned RAID hard drive setups,
or more likely—an SSD. The good news is that while USB 3.1 Gen 2,
which is more than fast enough for most users at 10Gbps, used to be
expensive, it's basically the standard today. A SanDisk Extreme
Portable SSD, our runner-up for portable storage, can be had for US$90 in a 500GB capacity.
The faster USB 3.2 SuperSpeed 20Gbps (Gen 2×2) moves you into a
higher-price bracket, with the Seagate
Firecuda Gaming SSD costing US$200 for the same 500GB of storage.
Although faster than the typical USB 3.2 SuperSpeed 10Gbps, there
aren't a lot of USB 20Gbps gen 2×2 ports out there, but these
drives should work with the upcoming USB4 at the same 20Gbps
Thunderbolt 3 and the newer Thunderbolt 4 typically are the
highest-performing interfaces for external storage, with the key
limitation being a premium price and a general lack of
compatibility with the far more popular USB 3.2 ports in the world.
Still, if you want the most performance, you can get it in drives
such as our recommended portable, the Samsung
Portable SSD X5, which is US$200 for 500GB of capacity. For
comparison, a slower 1TB
Samsung T5 on USB is only US$125.
The top drive uses the older, slower Mini-USB interface. The
second drive features the connector that replaced it: Micro B
SuperSpeed. The Orange drive features both a SuperSpeed Micro B and
Thunderbolt 2 (mini DisplayPort connector). The bottom drive
features USB-C or USB Type C.
External drives come with a variety of ports, though they're
gradually consolidating on the Type-C connector. Here's what you
need to care about:
USB 3 Micro-B Superspeed. This
is still a very common port on many lower-cost portable and desktop
external hard drives today. It's actually the same Micro USB port
used on your phone, but beefed up with more data lines to hit USB
3.0 speeds. It'll do 5Gbps and is fine for hard drives and SATA
USB 3 Type-B is the larger, blocky version of
USB 3.0 Micro B. Type B ports are becoming rare, though you might
find one on enclosures supporting 5.25-inch hard drives or optical
drives. It supports speeds up to 5Gbps.
USB-C is the latest of the USB connectors the
world is coalescing around. You see it in everything from phones to
laptops. Keep in mind, USB-C refers only to the connector itself.
What is carried over the wires varies greatly. For example, for
data transfers from an external drive, a USB-C port could mean
everything from USB 2.0 High Speed (480Mbps) to USB 3.2 SuperSpeed
20Gbps as well as USB4 and Thunderbolt 3. Any higher performance
port today should be USB-C—just remember that just because it's
USB-C doesn't mean the actual electronics inside the PC or drive
can hit the highest speeds of what a USB-C port can do.
USB Type-A You won't find this port on any
drive, but you will find this familiar rectangular port on PCs and
laptops. The reason we mention it is that any drive with a Type-C
port should come with a Type-C to Type-A cable or adapter,
hopefully, since most PCs have those.
Thunderbolt 2 is at this point, a dead port.
Using the mini-DisplayPort connector, it only really gained
popularity on Macs, and even Apple put it out to pasture in 2017.
There's no need to invest in a Thunderbolt 2 drive unless it's for
legacy support issues.
Note that Apple makes a bi-directional Thunderbolt 1/2 to 3 adapter if
you need to connect the one to the other. It does not transfer
power, however, so you can't use it on its own with bus-powered
external drives. You'll need a powered dock for that.
eSATA is another legacy port that's basically
disappeared. Created for attaching external storage to your
computer's SATA bus, eSATA was a cheap way in its day to get beyond
the 60MBps performance of USB 2.0. USB 3.0 put the last nail in its
coffin. As with Thunderbolt 2, the only reason to invest in an
eSATA drive is for use with older computers.
A second drive as backup?
In backup, there's a fundamental maxim appropriately named the
Rule of Three. It states that you should always maintain three
copies of your irreplaceable data: the original data, a backup, and
a backup of the backup. Preferably, the two backups are kept in
separate locations, one being offsite. Keeping a copy online is
great for smaller amounts of data and certainly meets the offsite
criteria. However, for vast photo, audio, and/or video collections,
external drives in pairs (or more), are a faster, more practical
Create complete backups alternately to the two drives every few
months. True patrons of wisdom might even take the second drive to
work, so there's no chance of losing both drives to the same local
Our storage testbed is a Core i7-5820K with 64GB of RAM on an
Asus X99 Deluxe board. Older Asus Thunderbolt EX 3 and ATI graphics
cards is shown. Currently a Gigabyte Alpine Ridge Thunderbolt card
and x2 Nvidia 710 GPU card are employed.
How we tested
We use our standard storage test bed to evaluate the performance
of every external drive we review. It's a six-core (twelve-thread)
Intel Core i7-5820K on an Asus X99 Deluxe motherboard with 64GB of
Kingston DDR4 memory running Windows 10.
A discrete Gigabyte Alpine Ridge Thunderbolt 3 card and Ableconn
USB 3.2 2×2 20Gbps card (Asmedia 2142 controller) are used for
connecting the external drives. An Asus USB 3.1/10Gbps (Asmedia
1142 controller) card was employed for some of the older drives on
We run various synthetic benchmarks including Crystal Disk Mark
6/7/8, AS SSD 2, and Iometer. We also perform real-world transfer
tests using a 48GB batch of small files and folders, as well as a
single 48GB and 450GB files. The testbed boots from a NVMe drive,
but the real-world (Windows) file transfers are performed to and
from a 58GB RAM disk.