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Best external hard drives 2020

Best external hard drives 2020
(Image credit: Samsung)

Having one of the best external hard drives is fast becoming a necessity. While home computers and laptops usually have plenty of space to store all your files, photos, and music, you always need a back-up - especially for important documents and treasured family pictures. Picking up an external HDD or SSD not only gives you peace of mind that your files are safe, but they also allow you to take them with you or transfer them from device to device.

The best external hard drives combine reliability with price, no matter how much storage space you need. Typically, you’ll struggle to find regular HDDs with less than 1TB storage, so we’d recommend getting something with about 2-4TB for around $70-100. That is all the space you’ll likely need unless you’re regularly backing up HD video content, large volumes of professional photos, or a steady flow of modern video games. Even then, 4TB is plenty for the majority of users. 

Reliability really is important, however. Get a cheap, unreliable drive and you could easily lose all your back-up data if it corrupts or breaks. HDDs and even SSDs from the most reputable and reliable manufacturers are mostly inexpensive, so there’s no real need to cut corners here - just pay a few dollars more for something you can trust with your precious data and memories. Almost all external hard drives are compatible with Windows PCs and Macs, so compatibility is rarely an issue, and they’re a cost-effective way to expand the capacity of any of the best laptops, which can be expensive and often come with less than 1TB of internal storage.


1. WD Elements 2TB: Best external hard drive overall

WD Elements 2TB: Best external hard drive overall

(Image credit: Western Digital)

WD Elements 2TB

A best external hard drive when it comes to price and performance

Sizes: 500GB - 5TB | Type: HDD | Works with: PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One | Connection type: USB 3.0

Well priced
Reliable and durable
Good range of sizes and styles
No auto back-up

WD (Western Digital) is the leading name in portable hard drives, and the Elements is one of its most loved and trusted models. You can get a PC or Mac version, and it comes in all sizes from 500GB to 5TB, so there’s a size and version to suit every need. The Elements is compatible with PS4 and Xbox One consoles too, so can be used as a primary storage drive for game saves and installs. It’s a seriously versatile piece of hardware, and you can pick most sizes up for far less than $100, making it one of the best value HDDs out there.

What we especially like about the WD Elements is the design and durability of the HDD. It’s slim and easy to fit into the pocket of a rucksack or laptop bag, and it’ll even fit comfortably into smaller camera bags too. This makes it highly portable and - crucially - it’s unlikely to get damaged or corrupted along the way. It plugs into computers or laptops via a USB 3.0 connection, so is compatible with most devices. If you need USB-C that option is available in other WD hard drives.

The read and write speeds are standard for HDDs, and there’s no need to use any software to copy files across - you’re looking at a few seconds for 100MB of data. The WD MyPassport models - a slight upgrade - do offer auto back-up, but we’re not quite as sold on the design and toughness, even if they are very good HDDs all the same. WD Elements is available in a variety of colors too, to fit with your laptop or your lifestyle.


2. Samsung T7 1TB drive: Best external SSD

Samsung T7 1TB drive: Best external SSD

(Image credit: Samsung)

Samsung T7 Touch 1TB drive

A lightning quick SSD with superb build quality and security

Sizes: 500GB - 2TB | Type: SSD | Works with: PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One, Smartphones, Tablets | Connection type: USB-C to C, and USB-C to A

Very fast speeds
Durable and easy to carry
Touch security
Relatively expensive

If you’re looking to get ultra-fast copy speeds, and a drive that’s super reliable, then an SSD (Solid State Drive) is the way to go. The Samsung T7 Touch (or T5, if you want to save a little money) is currently the best external SSD you can get… but it’s also very expensive. Here you’re paying close to $200 for a 1TB drive, which is about $150 more than the equivalent HDD. For most users, we’d absolutely recommend a regular HDD like the WD Elements, but an SSD like the T7 will suit certain groups that rely on SSD tech.

Because the read and write speeds are superior, an external SSD like the T7 is essential for anyone working with a lot of video editing, as it can shave hours off the time taken to copy large video files from one device to another. Similarly, if you’re looking for the most reliable form of storage, SSDs have no moving parts inside the case, so they’re less likely to malfunction or corrupt completely. If you’re going to be carrying your drive around a lot - for example, if you travel for work - then we’d suggest an SSD. There are rugged HDDs, which we will cover later, for outdoors use.

The T7 is the latest and fastest Samsung drive, and it boasts speeds up to nine times faster than regular HDDs. It has USC to C and A connectivity, and supports USB 3.2, so is fully compatible with all modern laptops, PCs, and smartphones. It has back-up encryption, and Samsung guarantees it against drops of up to 2m height, so it is fairly hardy too. The Touch part refers to the fingerprint scanner, which uses AES 256-bit encryption to protect your data - it's a neat innovation. We love this SSD, but its price is the main reason we didn’t place it in the top spot.


3. LaCie Rugged Mini 2TB: Toughest hard drive

LaCie Rugged Mini 2TB: Toughest hard drive

(Image credit: LaCie)

LaCie Rugged Mini 1TB

A tough little drive perfect for travel

Sizes: 1TB - 5TB | Type: HDD | Works with: PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One | Connection type: USB 3.0, USB-C

Very tough and durable
Compact
Decent value
Design is divisive

The LaCie Rugged has a divisive design, but it’s a tough little HDD that you can 100% trust with your back-ups and files, no matter how you use it, and where you take it. The whole point is that this HDD is tough, and it’s designed to be bashed around inside rucksacks and luggage. More than that, it’s shock and drop resistant up to 1.2m, and can withstand pressure of up to 1000kg. While we’ve not tested this aspect ourselves, we have heard many stories - both online and from colleagues - that it can withstand being rolled over by smaller cars. Please, please don’t try this at home.

Copy and read speeds are equivalent to that of the WD Elements, and other standard HDDs, and it can be bought with both a USB 3.0 A connector and and a USB-C connector for more modern devices. You can buy devices from 1TB to 5TB, with an option for 500GB if you want to use a Thunderbolt connection, but we recommend 1TB or 2TB for purely practical purposes. If you’re buying one of these, you’re likely going to be knocking it around, and we wouldn’t recommend having more than 2TB of data stored on a single HDD if you are going to be that rough with it.

It’s thin, light, and perfectly suited for being packed tightly into luggage and pockets. A design classic, even if you’re not quite sold on that orange protective shell.


4. Seagate Expansion 6TB Desktop HDD: Best mass storage drive

Seagate Expansion 6TB Desktop HDD: Best mass storage drive

(Image credit: Seagate)

Seagate Expansion 8TB Desktop HDD

If you need loads of storage, this is the HDD to buy

Sizes: 6TB - 10TB | Type: HDD | Works with: PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One | Connection type: USB 3.0

Loads of storage
Very well priced
Decent read/write speeds
Needs to be plugged in

If you need loads of storage, and you’re looking to keep your HDD in a home desk or office environment, the Seagate Expansion range is perfect. It’s a larger HDD, and it requires an external power source (you need to plug it in), but what you get is up to 10TB of storage space in a single device. That’s a lot. 

Seagate is a top tier name in external storage, and its portable drives are some of the best you can get for video game consoles. In fact, even the desktop drives - like the 6TB and 10TB models - are fully compatible with PS4 and Xbox One. It also works with Macs and PCs, connecting via a USB 3.0 cable. You get standard HDD read and write speeds too, so there’s no slow in performance for it having a larger capacity.

We like the design too. While it isn’t as compact as smaller portable HDDs, it’s still modern-looking and not overly large, and it fits neatly into any office set-up. You can carry it with you, but we wouldn’t recommend longer or busy journeys, as it isn’t as resilient and most others. 


5. WD MyPassport 512GB SSD: Most affordable fast storage

WD MyPassport 512GB SSD: Most affordable fast storage

(Image credit: Western Digital)

WD MyPassport 512GB SSD

A speedy SSD for a reasonable price

Sizes: 256GB - 2TB | Type: SSD | Works with: PC, Mac (with reformat), PS4, Xbox One | Connection type: USB-C, USB 3.1

Fast read / write speeds
Compact and portable
USB-C and 3.1 connections
Relatively expensive

You want speedy storage but don’t need much of it? The MyPassport SSD is perfect for this as it’s fast, reliable, and you can pick up the 512GB version for less than $100. Here, you’re only paying about twice the price for SSD speeds over regular HDD speeds, whereas you often pay triple for solid state drives of 1-2TB and upwards. We like the MyPassport because it’s small, well designed, and WD is a good name in portable storage, so it ticks a lot of boxes.

You get auto back-up with the WD MyPassport range, along with password protection and hardware encryption - fairly standard features, but it’s good to note they’re here. It has a range of connections, including USB-C and regular USB 3.0, and you can format for either PC or Mac. It’s fully compatible with games consoles too, although we wouldn’t recommend an external SSD for PS4 or Xbox One as you don’t gain much in terms of load time reductions.

The design is simple, the device itself is very neat and small, and it’s reliable and tough. You don’t get the same drop protection as the Samsung T7 drive, but it’s still a hardy SSD at a not-too-huge price.


6. Toshiba Canvio Basics 2TB: Great value, and perfect for games consoles

Toshiba Canvio Basics 2TB: Great value, and perfect for games consoles

(Image credit: Toshiba)

Toshiba Canvio Basics 2TB

A slick external HDD that comes as a cheaper solution for games consoles

Sizes: 500GB - 4TB | Type: HDD | Works with: PC, PS4, Xbox One | Connection type: USB 3.0

Well priced
Reliable HDD
Simple design
Not Mac formatted

If you’re looking for a cheap way to extend storage on a video game console then the Toshiba Canvio line is perfect. You can get the 2TB version for less than $60 if you look hard enough, and it performs perfectly when used as an external HDD that simply stays plugged into a PS4 or Xbox One. With the 2TB version you triple the existing storage of your console (assuming you have a 1TB internal drive) so that means triple the games.

It works fine with PCs too, and comes with a USB 3.0 connection and some fine read and write speeds. The reason we recommend this one for games is because most leave their HDDs plugged into consoles, and never move them, so you don’t need to worry about how rugged the drive is, or how well you can carry it around. It’s simply designed and, to be fair, it can take a few knocks without any trouble. Crucially, Toshiba make good external HDDs and keep the costs low, so this is perfect if you want the most storage for your budget. Go any cheaper, with a brand you’ve never heard of, and you’ll likely run into problems with malfunctions and corruptions.


What is the difference between HDD and SSD?

You’ll see HDDs and SSDs referenced regularly, and they essentially do the same thing, so what’s the difference? A Hard Disk Drive (HDD) is an older style storage drive, which includes moving parts (a platter that spins at a certain speed when data is read or written). This not only limits the speeds at which it can copy or read files, but it also means that it is more liable to malfunctions or corruptions, as the spinning platter can be damaged or dislodged. More modern HDDs have ample protections to stop this happening - especially the better quality ones - but there is always a chance that the drive will fail the older and more beaten it gets. This technology is far cheaper, so HDDs are less expensive to buy.

A Solid State Drive is… exactly as it sounds. There are no moving parts here, so it’s far more difficult to damage. It also means that you get quicker read and write speeds - up to nine times faster than regular HDDs - although there are other factors that influence exactly how quickly your files transfer (such as the USB connection you use), so you may not quite get the same performance as manufacturers boast on the box. SSDs are, as a result, much more expensive - between two and three times that of regular HDDs. So think carefully about whether you need that extra performance and reliability, because you do pay for it. Increasingly, laptops and modern PCs are using internal SSDs, which are slightly cheaper, as either primary storage or drives to boot their operating system from. 

(Image credit: Samsung)

How much can I fit on a drive?

As a rough estimate - as file sizes do vary - we've compiled the below table to give you an idea of how much storage you need.

How much can you store?
Size of HDDPhotos (12MP)SongsHD Video (Minutes) Game Installs (50GB)
256GBUp to 21,300Up to 64,000Up to 4,0005
512GBUp to 42,000Up to 128,000Up to 8,00010
1TBUp to 84,000Up to 250,000Up to 16,00020
2TBUp to 168,000Up to 500,000Up to 32,00040
4TBUp to 600,000Up to 2mUp to 128,000160