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Best external hard drives 2020

Best external hard drives 2020
(Image credit: Samsung, WD)

The best external hard drives can be incredibly versatile, whether you need to free up space on your main drive or you're just looking for a simple way to back-up your important files. Or perhaps you have one of the best gaming laptops and the primary SSD is, well, limiting. Whatever your reason, there are many options to choose from and they come in various different sizes—both virtually and physically. Most will connect to your gaming PC via USB or USB-C so it's as easy as plugging it in and you're all set. 

Inside story

(Image credit: Samsung, Crucial)

These are the best SSDs for gaming, if you want an internal drive upgrade. Even if you're looking at external storage, the decision of HDD vs SSD is still a factor, with fast USB 3.2 10Gbps SSD drives now available.

The type of external hard drive you'll want to invest in depends entirely on how and where you plan to use it. If you're looking to connect it to a desktop PC, you may not need to worry about portability. On the other hand, if you plan on using it to transfer data from one machine to another, or want to be able to throw it into a backpack without worrying it will get damaged, you might want to avoid something that requires an external power supply.

Many of the regular 2-4TB drives from manufacturers such as Seagate or WD are fairly robust and can tolerate a few shakes and bumps. LaCie has a number of rugged drives that offer protective cases—handy if you're planning to transport them inside a bag. But if you're looking for something with a higher capacity and have a spare outlet for the external power supply, Seagate's 8TB drive is a good balance between efficiency and capacity.

Of course, if you're after something faster than a regular hard drive, you should consider a portable SSD. But while these are generally more compact and boast much quicker transfer speeds, they come with a substantially higher price tag.

We've listed our top picks of the best external hard drives below, along with a handful of points to help find the storage solution that meets your needs.

Best external hard drives

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Samsung T5 SSD

Samsung T5 SSD (Image credit: Samsung)
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(Image credit: Samsung)
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1. Samsung T5 SSD

The best external hard drive (SSD storage)

Storage: 1TB | Connectivity: USB 3.1 | Sequential read speed: 484 MB/s | Sequential write speed: 482 MB/s

Much faster than HDDs
Easily fits in your pocket
Up to 2TB of storage capacity
Speed comes at a premium

This is the best portable SSD in our eyes, and the best external hard drive you can get. 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 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.

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WD My Passport 4TB

WD My Passport 4TB (Image credit: WD)
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(Image credit: WD)
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(Image credit: WD)
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(Image credit: WD)

2. WD My Passport 4TB

The best regular portable HDD

Storage: 4TB | Connectivity: USB 3.1 | Sequential read speed: 177 MB/s | Sequential write speed: 187 MB/s

It's cheap, bulk storage
Can automate backups
Doesn't require external power
Slow compared to SSDs

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 the copious storage space at a good value. We also like that WD (aka 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 about 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. There's a new model for 2019 too, which is slightly more stylish than the older one. Our tests, though, show the performance is comparable year on year.

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Seagate Expansion 8GB

Seagate Expansion 8GB (Image credit: Seagate)
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(Image credit: Seagate)
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(Image credit: Seagate)
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(Image credit: Seagate)

3. Seagate Expansion 8GB

The biggest external HDD we'd recommend

Storage: 8TB | Connectivity: USB 3.0 | Sequential read speed: 146 MB/s | Sequential write speed: 168 MB/s

Loads of storage for cheap
A reliable HDD
Good speeds for HDD
Slower than SSDs
Not the quickest HDD

If you need to go big when you leave home, Seagate's 8TB Expansion drive is the way to go. No, 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, as its speeds are 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 10GB 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.

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LaCie Rugged 2TB

LaCie Rugged 2TB (Image credit: LaCie)
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(Image credit: Lacie)
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(Image credit: Lacie)
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(Image credit: Lacie)

4. LaCie Rugged 2TB

The toughest external hard drive on the market

Storage: 2TB | Connectivity: USB 3.0 / USB-C / Mini-USB | Sequential read speed: 110 MB/s | Sequential write speed: 110 MB/s

Very tough for an HDD
Reasonable price
Loads of connection types
It's wearing a life-vest
More expensive than some HDDs

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-C and multi-input versions.

5. Make one yourself

Yes, you read that correctly. One of the best ways to get a fast external hard drive for less money is to get an M.2 enclosure, and pop in a regular internal SSD. This allows you to get close to internal NVMe speeds in a portable form. Most enclosures aren't much bigger than a regular SSD, so you're getting something small and easily portable here too. 

There are a few things to check, if you decide to do it yourself. Firstly, you need to consider whether or not the M.2 drive you're going to insert is compatible with the enclosure you've bought. Most enclosures list the compatibility on their product page, so always check before you buy. Secondly, don't forget to look out for the connection you get with the enclosure. Again, most have USB 3.0 / 3.1 or USB-C, but be aware that older connection types will throttle the speed and you'll lose the benefit of having a quicker SSD. Most enclosures can perform up to 5GB/s via USB 3.0 or C, which is far quicker than external HDDs and even most external SSDs that come pre-made.

We'd recommend starting with this StarTech M.2 enclosure with a USB 3.0 or USB-C port, and working from there. We have some of these, and they work really well once the SSD is safely enclosed.

After you've got the enclosure, then any compatible SSD will do the trick. Obviously, do keen in mind that some M.2 drives have different connectors, so always check it's going to fit before you buy. However, if you're willing to do a bit of DIY, you can easily get yourself a blisteringly fast 1TB+ external drive for a little less than $100. And that's tough to beat. Here is a selection of our favorite SSDs.