External USB/Thunderbolt drives are a super convenient way to quickly back up your vital files, as well as store any data that might overflow your internal storage. They’re also a handy way to transport that data between locations and devices.
But backup is the number-one reason your rig is not complete without one (or more). Why? Chances are you have important data on your PC that you don’t want, or can’t afford, to lose. To protect that data you’ll of course want to store it off-site on the cloud if possible and back it up to an external drive for sure.
Restoring from local storage is generally far, far faster than pulling your data down from the cloud, hence an external drive should be your primary hedge against disaster.
Why you should trust us: We’re PCWorld. We’ve been putting computer hardware through its paces for decades. We’ve seen it all and we know how to root out a drive’s strengths and weaknesses, using a combination of rigorous benchmark testing and real-world hands-on use. Below we offer our expert recommendations on the best external drives for everything from blazing-fast performance, to budget options, to portability, and more.
Updated 9/21/2023: Check out our latest review of the Kingston XS1000 external drive. This small form-factor, inexpensive drive is a good option for everyday use but doesn’t have the speeds to be a suitable option for larger transfers.
Crucial X9 Pro – Best external SSD overall
Super small form factor
Great 10Gbps performance
Not the least expensive 10Gbps SSD available
Not everyone wants or even needs 20Gbps USB drive performance, which comes at a price premium anyway. The Crucial X9 strikes a compelling balance between top-shelf performance and affordability that should please the majority of users. In our benchmark tests, it traded top scores with the SK Hynix Beetle (or runner-up choice below), but at a significantly lower cost. Making it an indisputable win-win for consumers.
It’s also handsome, described by our reviewer as “a svelte object of desire.” More importantly, it feels well made, and is rated for IP55 dust and spray resistance, so you don’t have to baby this portable drive when you take it out.
As stated above, the SK Hynix Beetle X31 is every bit the performer as our top pick in the 10Gbps realm, with the two enjoying an equal number of wins in our benchmarks and handily besting the competition. But where the SK Hynix loses its edge is on price. Right now, it’s about $13 more for 1TB than the Crucial X9.
It’s also more blinged out. Peep that gold scarab-inspired exterior. It will sit proudly on any desk, and for some buyers that might make the extra cost worth it.
Samsung T7 Shield 4TB – Best high-capacity performance drive
Fast 1GBps sustained transfers
Excellent real world performance
Vast 4TB capacity
Svelte and handsome
Small 4K performance glitch under CrystalDiskMark 8 writing 4K files
Once our top pick overall, the Samsung T7 Shield has been overtake in raw speeds by the two newcomers above. But if the 2TB limit of the drives above has you feeling too confined, the T7 Shield 4TB is a good option.
The T7 Shield also leans into physical protection, with an IP65 ratings against particulate matter and water spray. Going hiking with your data? A T7 Shield is a good choice, and you can secure it with software-based password protection in lieu of a fingerprint.
With its top-tier speeds and large capacity, the T7 4TB model is capable of handling the largest end-user data sets on the go.
Crucial X6 Portable SSD (2TB) – Best budget external SSD
Good everyday performance
Very affordable for an external SSD
Performance tanks when cache runs out
Price When Reviewed:
The Crucial X6 Portable SSD is square to be hip (search Huey Lewis). Or placed in your hip pocket, at any rate. In a sea of portable SSDs whose shape and sometimes sharp edges makes them a literal pain when situated in your shirt or trousers, 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.
Close to Thunderbolt 3 SSD performance in real-world transfers
Super-svelte form factor
IP55 rated to resist dust and spray
Pricier than 10Gbps SSDs
No Type-A adapter included
If you’ve got a 20Gbps USB port, you can’t get better performance than this drive (short of a much pricier Thunderbolt option). This makes it perfect for gaming—where these days a single game can soak up 50GB or 100GB—or really any job involving large amounts of data that need to be transferred fast.
The Crucial X10 was most impressive in our real-world benchmarks, doing exceptionally well in 48GB and 450GB reads and writes, where it beat all 20Gbps contenders and was surprisingly neck-and-neck with a Thunderbolt 3 competitor. (Learn more about how we evaluate the best external SSD for gaming.)
Teamgroup M200 – Best budget 20Gbps drive
Fast everyday performance
Available in up to 8TB (eventually) capacity
No TBW rating
Company will change components if shortages demand
Writes slow to 200MBps off cache
Rated for 20Gbps and selling for $90 with 1TB of storage, the Teamgroup M200 is an attractive (in a military fashion) external drive for the budget-conscious performance enthusiast.
It might not be as cheap as the Crucial X6, but for the extra outlay you get outstanding everyday performance — in many tests, it’s the fastest 20Gbps drive we’ve ever tested. At just 4.13-inches long and 2.18-inches wide and weighing under 3 ounces, it’s also extremely portable and its slick styling will appeal to gamers.
Adata Elite SE880 SSD – Most portable external drive
Very fast, over-20Gbps USB connection
Extremely small form factor
Slows considerably during long contiguous writes
Somewhat low TBW rating
No external SSD we’ve seen can match Adata’s Elite SE880 for portability. Indeed, measuring only 2.55 inches long, 1.38 inches wide, and 0.48 inches thick, it reminds you more of a USB thumb drive than your standard external SSD. It also weighs a mere 1.1 ounces, so it vanishes from your consciousness in the pocket.
In real-world 48GB transfer tests, the Elite SD880 beat out quite a few of its competitors, though it lost significant ground in the longer 450GB write test. Photo and video pros with large files to transfer might want to consider speedier options.
Kingston XS200 USB SSD – Most portable high-capacity drive
Good 20Gbps performance
Available in up to 4TB in capacity
Slower than much of the competition
Not much of a looker
The Kingston XS2000 is an admirable blend of size, capacity, speed, and affordability. With up to 4TB in capacity, it is one of the most capacious drives that still fits in smaller pockets.
The XS2000 is a 20Gbps USB drive, and while it lagged as a reader compared to most of the 20Gbps competition, it beats the pants off of the 10Gbps drives in synthetic benchmarks and our 48GB transfers. The 450GB write was very slow, but overall, it’s a decently fast SSD and a solid product that offers a ton of storage in a very small form factor.
Note: Kingston sent us a updated version that solved its slow read performance in synthetic benchmarks. The 450GB write remained slow.
For anyone who wants Thunderbolt’s scintillating 40Gbps performance as well as the ability to connect via ubiquitous USB (10Gbps), the SanDisk Pro-G40 is the drive to buy — it’s the fastest dual-bus drive that we’ve ever tested. The drive dominated the competition when connected via Thunderbolt with outstanding 48GB and 450GB transfers, and via USB was on par with the fastest 10Gbps drives.
The Pro-G40 is also rated at IP68 for weather and dust resistance, meaning it should be able to handle outdoor adventures if you decide to travel with it in your backpack. It’s a rather pricey drive, but Thunderbolt drives are never “cheap.” They are, however, absolutely worth it if pennies don’t matter as much as minutes. A fantastic drive.
If your primary need from an external drive is data backup, WD’s My Passport 5TB is for you. You want to know why? It’s right there in the name — that extra 1TB can be invaluable in this age of 4K/8K. Furthermore, you don’t need the speed of an SSD to perform maintenance backups, which can be scheduled for times that create the least possible disruption. And by going with a hard drive over SSD, you can save loads of money.
For most consumers, the primary shopping criteria for external storage are capacity and price. However, while you might think that the lowest-cost drives provide the most value–they don’t. In fact, dollar for dollar, cheaper low-capacity drives have always been the worst deal in terms of price per terabyte.
You can see the phenomena in the charts below where we compare the popular WD Elements desktop hard drive’s available capacities and prices. You’re paying more than twice as much per terabyte for the lowest-capacity drive versus the next step up. It’s almost as bad on the WD Elements Portable drive.
The best “value,” as you can see, typically means the most capacious hard drives. But it also means higher total cost, and not everyone needs maximum capacity.
How much capacity do you need?
So how much storage do you actually need? For backup, we recommend a drive that’s at least twice the capacity of the total amount of data residing on your PC’s internal storage.
If you have 1TB of storage in your PC, a 2TB drive allows you to make a full backup while keeping previous versions, as well as additional differential and incremental backups. I.e., the larger the capacity, the more backups over a longer period of time you can keep, or the more PCs you can back up to the same drive.
While a desktop hard drive (read 3.5-inch) provides far more capacity (up to 26TB currently if you’re a data center), it also requires a power cable, weighs more, and generally won’t be as shock resistant as a portable 2.5-inch hard drive. The latter is designed to take bumps in a laptop, even when powered up. Then again, if you really want rugged–go the SSD route.
The vast majority of external drives today are USB drives. However, USB comes in many speeds: 5Gbps, 10Gbps, 20GBps, and—eventually with USB4—40Gbps as with Thunderbolt 3/4. Ignore the version number (3.x) and look for the speed.
The USB Forum has changed its nomenclature to indicate throughput speed—SuperSpeed USB 5Gbps (formerly USB 3.x gen 1), SuperSpeed USB 10Gbps (formerly USB 3.x gen 2), and SuperSpeed USB 20Gbps (formerly USB 3.2 2×2). For the sake of brevity (and our sanity), we generally shorten those to, for example, USB 10Gbps, 10Gbps USB, 10Gbps etc.
All USB hard drives use a slower standard, typically USB 5Gbps. No hard drive, unless combined with other drives in RAID 0 or above, can saturate even the 5Gbps interface (roughly 500MBps real-world after overhead). Because of that, you’ll never see one rated higher.
Where SuperSpeed 10Gbps/20Gbps, USB4, or Thunderbolt are of value is with the aforementioned RAID hard drive setups, or more likely—an SSD. USB 10Gbps is fast enough for most users, and getting cheaper by the week. A 10Gbps Samsung T7 Shield can be had for $80 in a 1TB capacity.
Faster USB 20Gbps (Gen 2×2) basically doubles speed but moves you into a higher-price bracket, with the Seagate Firecuda Gaming SSD costing $100 for only 500GB of storage. Although far faster than 5/10Gbps, there still aren’t a lot of USB 20Gbps/USB4 ports out there.
Thunderbolt 3 and the newer Thunderbolt 4 (almost exactly the same thing with stricter implementation requirements) are the highest-performing interfaces for external storage. The key negatives are the premium pricing and a general lack of compatibility with the far more popular USB.
That said, there are dual Thunderbolt/USB SSDs available such as the Sandisk Pro-G40. The G40 is pricey at $160 for 1TB, but a fantastic drive for those who can afford it. Pure Thunderbolt external SSDs can be even pricier, as they’re almost all sold by Mac-oriented boutique vendors such as OWC and Sabrent.
External drives come with a variety of ports, though they’re gradually (and thankfully) consolidating on the orientation-agnostic Type-C connector. Here’s the list of connectors you might see on your drive:
USB 3 Micro-B — This wider, flatter port is still very common on many lower-cost portable and desktop external hard drives. It’s actually the same Micro USB port used on your phone, but with more data lines to hit USB 3.0 speeds. It’ll do 5Gbps and is fine for hard drives and SATA (internally) SSDs. Micro-B cables are generally Type-A on the PC end.
USB 3 Type-B is the larger, squarer version of USB 3.0 Micro B. Type B ports are becoming rare, though you might find one on older 5.25-inch enclosures, printers, and scanners. It supports speeds up to 5Gbps and cables are generally Type-A on the PC side.
USB Type-C or simply Type-C is the latest USB connector and the one the world is standardizing on. It’s small, easy to insert, and you don’t have to worry about which side faces up as with Type-A.
Keep in mind that Type-C refers only to the connector itself. What is carried over the wires varies greatly: USB 2.0 High Speed (480Mbps) to USB 3.2 SuperSpeed 20Gbps, as well as USB4 and Thunderbolt 3 and any combination of them.
USB Type-A You won’t find this familiar rectangular port on any drive, but you will still find it on plenty of PCs and laptops as well as the male version on the other end of most Type-B and Type-C adapter cables.
Thunderbolt 2 is dead at this point. It’s found on older Macs, but 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. That said…
…Apple sells a bi-directional Thunderbolt 1/2 to 3 adapter if you need to connect the one generation to the other. The adapter does not, however, carry power, so bus-powered external drives (no power jack) will require a powered dock.
eSATA is another legacy port that’s disappeared from newer tech. Created for attaching external storage to your computer’s SATA bus, eSATA was a cheap way in its day to move beyond the toddling 60MBps performance of USB 2.0.
5Gbps USB 3.0 put the last nail in eSATA’s coffin. As with Thunderbolt 2, the only reason to invest in an eSATA drive is for use with older computers.
Two drives for backup?
There’s a fundamental maxim in backup, 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 (online, or another location). 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 far faster solution. Especially with most broadband still being relatively limited in upstream speed.
Some of the older reviews you might find here feature results gathered on an Intel Core i7-5820K/X99 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) were used for connecting the external drives. An Asus USB 3.1/10Gbps (Asmedia 1142 controller) card was employed for some of the really old drives on the chart.
Subsequently, drives were tested using Windows 11 64-bit running on an MSI MEG X570/AMD Ryzen 3700X combo with four 16GB Kingston 2666MHz DDR4 modules, a Zotac (Nvidia) GT 710 1GB x2 PCIe graphics card, and the Asmedia ASM3242 USB 3.2×2 card. Copy tests utilize an ImDisk RAM disk using 58GB of the 64GB total memory.
Currently, we’re using Windows 11 64-bit running on an X790 (PCIe 4.0/5.0) motherboard/i5-12400 CPU combo with two Kingston Fury 32GB DDR5 4800MHz modules (64GB of memory total). Both 20Gbps USB and Thunderbolt 4 are on the board and Intel integrated graphics are employed. The 48GB transfer tests utilize an ImDisk RAM disk taking up 58GB of the 64GB of total memory. The 450GB file is transferred from a Samsung 990 Pro 2TB which also runs the OS.
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 large 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.
Note that all review charts feature results garnered from the same test bed.
External drive FAQ
What is the difference between an SSD and an HDD?
HDDs (hard disk drives) have been around for more than 50 years. They are essentially boxes containing spinning platters with read/write arms that skim across them to detect the orientation of, or re-align particles in, the magnetic material that coats the platters.
SSDs (solid state drives), on the other hand, use flash memory and have no moving parts inside the drive. Data is instead stored in cells—aka, voltage traps—which are interconnected in a matrix. The matrix approach allows for data to be pushed or pulled to/from many different places at once and significantly increases both read and write speed—on the order of 100 times faster these days.
Generally speaking, SSDs are a better bet for your external drives due to their smaller size, faster speeds, and far superior ruggedness and durability. The main drawback to SSDs is that you pay quite a bit more per terabyte of storage. As technology and production techniques improve, the price of SSDs has and will continue to drop.
How often should you back up your data?
Ideally, you should backup your data as often as possible. This is especially true if you are working on an important project or have data that you absolutely cannot afford to lose.
If you have your external hard drive connected to your computer at all times, it is a good idea to automate the backup process and have the drive back up your data every hour or so. If you disconnect or travel with your external hard drive, you should try to remember to back up your data onto it every time you change your data or at least every day. See our roundups of the best Windows backup software and the best online backup services to learn more.
Why is my actual hard drive storage smaller than specified?
This comes down to the perceived size of storage (KB, MB, GB, TB) versus the actual size of that storage. Most consumers are led to believe that a Kilobyte (KB) is 1,000 bytes when it is actually 1,024 bytes. Most consumers then are led to believe that a Megabyte (MB) is 1,000 KB when it is actually 1,024 KB. So a manufacturer’s hard drive that claims to have 1 TB of storage actually has only 931.31 GB of storage. It is essentially a rounding error that manufacturers neglect to advertise because round numbers are easier to understand.
Another reason that actual storage may appear less than advertised is that hard drives have to be formatted to read and write data properly. When formatting, a portion of the storage space on the drive is allocated in order to catalog the data.
How long does an external hard drive last?
The average lifespan of an external hard drive is about three to five years. However, this is highly dependent upon the make and model and the conditions of usage and storage. The more you use an external hard drive, the less reliable it becomes.
One way to guesstimate the lifespan of your hard drive is to look at the manufacturer’s warranty and the TBW (total terabytes written) number. You can determine the estimated daily amount of storage you write and then extrapolate from there to see how long you can continue to use it everyday until you reach the TBW. These numbers are not entirely reliable, and drives can last much longer than these two values, but they give an idea as to when you will likely begin to encounter issues.
How do external hard drives fail?
There are a number of ways that an external hard drive may fail. They are especially susceptible to failure due to frequent mishandling, outdated drivers, connecting and disconnecting, and unsafe or forced ejections. To ensure that you keep your hard drive working properly, keep it stored in a safe place, try not to drop it, update your drivers, and make sure that you connect and disconnect it from devices properly.