The best external hard drive doesn't necessarily mean the same these days. It's essentially become shorthand for best external storage drive, because the price of the best external SSDs has come down so much that you don't have to stick to spinning mechanical HDDs if you want a portable wee drive with a decent capacity.
In a world of ever-growing game installs and mighty storage hogs, an external HDD or SSD can be incredibly useful in bolstering a gaming PC's storage but also offering portability. Beyond that, you may have a device where the default storage option could be a little on the small side, such as a gaming laptop or a console, and that's where an external drive is most useful.
The next-gen PlayStation 5 comes with an 825GB SSD, and the Xbox Series X a slightly more plentiful 1TB SSD drive. Yet even that won't last long as developers eye up the wonders of texture streaming and colossal high-resolution assets. And there's the system files to worry about. Just when you think you're getting on top of this whole storage malarkey.
Just take a look at Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War. That game will require 250GB of storage capacity at launch with the 'Ultra RTX' mode enabled. Not only will that game grow, but other games are likely to follow its lead as world and character detail expands.
Regardless of your reasons, there are a lot of options to choose from and they'll come in numerous different sizes, in terms of both capacity and physical dimensions. Whichever external hard drive you choose, you'll find that most will connect easily to your gaming PC via USB or USB-C and are ready to go as soon as you plug them in.
If you have the money to spare and you're looking for speed in a diminutive form factor you should take a look at the portable SSDs, but if you just need oodles of storage that's just going to sit next to your PC a high capacity hard drive will be perfect. And likely much cheaper.
Best external hard drives
This is the best portable SSD in our eyes, and the best external drive you can get. Solid state is technically still 'hard', right? For the power user who wants it all—speed, capacity, and portability—and who is willing to pay a premium for it, Samsung’s Portable SSD T5 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. This spunky little drive shares the same DNA as Samsung’s 860 Evo SSD, just in a smaller package. It has a USB 3.1 Type-C connector, giving a maximum theoretical throughput of 10Gbps. We pitted it against a 512GB Samsung SM951 NVMe SSD connected over Gigabit Ethernet. The T5 ran the table in all eight CrystalDiskMark benchmarks and proved significantly faster in reading and writing game files and large files.
Speed doesn’t come at the expense of storage space. While it’s easy to bump into the storage ceiling of a 32GB, 64GB, or even a 128GB USB flash drive, you’ll find there’s much more breathing room when dealing with terabytes of space, which is what the T5 offers. Whereas the first generation T1 topped out at 1TB, Samsung was able to double the maximum capacity of the T5 to 2TB, a result of upgrading from 32 to 48 stacked layers of V-NAND flash memory cells for a denser configuration.
We like WD’s My Passport. It’s not as compact and fast as Samsung’s T5, and it can’t withstand armageddon like LaCie’s XtremKey, but at up to 4TB for $100, it offers copious storage space at a good value. We also like that Western Digital fares well each time cloud backup provider Backblaze releases a hard drive reliability report.
The 4TB model measures 21.5mm x 81.5mm x 110mm (HxWxL) and weighs 250g. You probably wouldn’t want to try and jam one into a shirt pocket, but they’re almost as portable as a smartphone, just a little chunkier. The 1TB Passport is slightly thinner and weighs 170g, if you don't need as much space. It is, undoubtedly, the minivan of external hard drives. No external power supply is needed to use WD’s drive—just plug in the USB cable and start backing up your files. You can also install WD’s backup software to automate the process.
With 4TB of storage at your disposal, you can save:
- Up to 4,000 hours of digital video
- Up to 1,000 2-hour DVD movies
- Up to 1,280,000 digital photos
- Up to 66,640 hours of digital music
WD also goes the extra mile with password protection and hardware encryption. And if you’re looking to make a fashion statement, you can select a My Passport in a range of color options.
NVMe inside? Yep. TLC NAND memory? Affirmative. IP rating for increased robustness including water proofing? Check. All for an attractive price? Confirmed. The ADATA SE800 Ultra FAST 1TB really does have quite a bit going for it.
It starts with that M.2 NVMe drive, bridged to a USB interface. In this case, it’s a 10Gbps USB 3.2 Gen 2 interface rather than a 20Gbps USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 connection. But this drive is still claimed to be good for 1GB/s data transfers in both directions. Lest you have forgotten, that’s around twice as fast as any SATA-based drives, including internal SSDs connected natively via SATA.
It’s also nice to see that ADATA has equipped the SE800 with TLC rather than QLC NAND memory. The latter is typically slower and offers lower write endurance. All very nice, but what is really unusual is the SE800’s IP68 rating, a characteristic hinted at by the pop-off cover over the USB Type-C port. It means the drive is rated as impervious to dust ingress and can survive immersion in up to 1.5 metres of water for 30 minutes.
That makes it unique among these SSDs and, what’s more, given the competitive pricing you’re getting that IP rating effectively for free. Performance wise, in testing the ADATA delivers in the headline 1GB/s spec for sequential transfers while notching up 4K random throughput that’s comparable to the competition at 21MB/s for reads and 40MB/s for writes. The only slight chink in the SE800’s armour is that sustained performance drops down to around 260MB/s after around 15GB of internal drive traffic. That’s a little off the pace of some alternatives. But it’s not enough to spoil an otherwise highly appealing package.
If you need to go big when you leave home, Seagate's 8TB Expansion drive is the way to go. It's not exactly the best external hard drive; you don't get the best speeds when you're transferring files—although they're not too far behind the WD My Passport—but what you get is masses of space and a very reliable drive. While there's no real point getting a Seagate with less than the maximum capacity, its speeds are quickly eclipsed by other drives, the 8TB version strikes a nice balance between capacity and efficiency.
It hits around 150MB/s during both read and write tests, which is about mid-range for HDDs, but in terms of price you can get this drive for around $130 / £120, or even go up to 10TB if you're feeling particularly storage hungry. That's way better than you'll find on SSDs, and actually beats most internal HDDs if you start comparing them. It's USB 3.0 compatible too, so you've got a drive that'll plug into most PCs and laptops. In fact, if you're a regular laptop user, this is super handy for extending the pitiful storage you find in most machines. Just as a word of warning, though: this does require external power, and comes with its own power unit, so it's slightly less portable than other drives.
When you think about what external hard drives are actually used for, then suddenly durability becomes essential. While it might look like a doggy chew-toy, the LaCie Rugged portable HDD is as tough as they come, and even has a rubber cover around the edges to dampen the shock from any impacts. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, but you can drop this thing from a fair height and it'll stay perfectly intact.
The speeds it operates at are respectable, if on the lower end of the scale, hitting about 110MB/s in read and write tests. You can pick up the LaCie relatively cheap too, although you are paying a little more for durability, so you're looking at about $110-120 for a 2TB model, and $100 for a 1TB. We'd recommend the 2TB, purely because this will last you so long it'll store your files for years.
If you're someone who is a little careless with how they pack their bag, or you genuinely take your PC files on more extreme outings, then this is the external HDD for you. It comes in all kinds of variations, to suit all connection types, including USB 3.0, mini-USB, USB Type-C and multi-input versions.