Cloud services like OneDrive and DropBox offer convenient ways of accessing files on PCs in different locations, but there are still reasons to lug data the old fashioned way—in your pocket (or your purse or fanny pack or whatever). Unlike online services, physical storage devices like USB flash drives are immune to Internet outages. They’re also more secure in the sense that hackers won’t be infiltrating your external storage solution while you sleep, not unless you leave your storage device connected to a PC with an online connection (don’t do that).
It’s also oftentimes much faster to cram large files onto an external storage device than it is to upload them to the cloud. That might change when ISPs finally take the brakes off of upload speeds, but for now, dragging and dropping your data onto a flash drive or whatever you’re carrying around is just plain faster and easier.
Of course, not all portable storage solutions are created equal. Some favor raw performance over price and capacity, while others take the exact opposite approach. There are different tools for the job. Here are the ones we’ve pegged as the best.
Best portable SSD
- Much faster than USB flash drives
- Easily fits in your pocket
- Up to 2TB of storage capacity
- Speed comes at a premium
For the power user who wants it all—speed, capacity, and portability—and is willing to pay a premium for it, Samsung’s Portable SSD T3 is one of the slickest solutions out there. It’s faster than any USB flash drive available, it has the capacity of a hard drive, and you can carry it inconspicuously in your pocket. In hockey, that’s called scoring a hat trick.
This spunky little drive shares the same DNA as Samsung’s 850 Evo SSD, just in a smaller package. It has a USB 3.1 Type-C connector, albeit Gen 1 so it’s limited to a maximum theoretical throughput of 5Gbps. We pitted it against a 512GB Samsung SM951 NVMe SSD connected over Gigabit Ethernet. The T3 ran the table in all eight CrystalDiskMark benchmarks and proved significantly faster in reading and writing game files and large files.
Best rugged portable usb drive
- Built like a tank
- Completely water tight
- Strong AES 256-bit encryption
- Expensive for basic file transfers
What’s that, you are into skydiving and running with the bulls? If you’re a true adventurer, then it might not be speed, capacity, or value that top your list of priorities. What you need is a rugged flash drive, something that can survive horrifying levels of abuse.
There are a few different solutions, though one of the toughest USB flash drives out there is LaCie’s XtremKey. According to LaCie, you can run over this thing with a 10-ton truck without compromising your data. It can also withstand extreme temps from -50C to 200C, and it stays water tight when submerged up to 200 meters.
Best high-capacity portable hard drive
- It's cheap, bulk storage
- No software to install
- Doesn't require external power
- Slow compared to flash-based drives
If you’re the resident chaperone for your child’s soccer team or school outings, you’re not going to roll up to events in a Ferrari, you’re busting out the minivan or SUV. When hauling kids and cargo, space trumps speed, and the same is true when you’re looking to backup or otherwise transfer large amounts of data from your PC. And for big backup chores, hard drives still offer the best bang for buck.
We like Seagate’s Expansion Portable Hard Drive. It’s not as compact and fast as Samsung’s T3, and it can’t withstand an armageddon like LaCie’s XtremKey, but at up to 4TB for $120, it offers the most storage space at the best value.
Storage, especially hard drives, has gotten cheaper and cheaper as time has gone by. It wasn't long ago that a 1TB HDD was an achievement. Now, you can fit that much storage in your pocket in the form of high-speed flash memory. After all, being able to easily take 220 DVDs worth of data with you is way more convenient than having to burn and store all of those discs.
Solid state storage is still far more exspensive than the spinning variety, but the cost for SSDs is declining. As storage declines in cost, so too will external drives that rely upon those same components. However, an external drive will always cost more than an internal bare drive of the same capacity, since you're paying for the USB interface that talks to the drive.
Some online stores give us a small cut if you buy something through one of our links. Read our affiliate policy for more info.