Having one of the best external hard drives and solid state drives (SSDs) is an absolute must if you value your data. Not only do they enable you to offload old files from your main computer so that they're not taking up space and hitting its performance, they can also back up your important files and documents, ready for retrieval if your computer's drive fails or your laptop gets lost or stolen.
Depending on how much you want to spend, you can get a small and inexpensive drive that'll easily hold your most important data, from simple documents through to larger video files, with room to spare, or you could instead invest in a full backup solution that'll hold everything on your main drive so that it's safe and sound if the worst happens.
If speed matters then you need to be looking at SSDs rather than hard drives; while you'll inevitably pay more for a lot less storage, you'll get blazing-fast transfer speeds and, thanks to their complete lack of moving parts, much better reliability. And whichever of the best external hard drives and SSDs you choose, you'll find that they're generally easy to use; simply plug them into your Mac or PC via Thunderbolt or USB and you should be good to go. Some come with their own software for easy backups, however you'll also be able to drag and drop files around if you prefer to be in control.
In this article, we list the very best external hard drives and SSDs available today, and include all the facts and figures you need to find the right model for you. If you're struggling to choose, though, first read our brief intro to what to consider when buying an external hard drive.
Don't have room for a physical device in your workspace? Then alternatively, check out our guide to best cloud storage. Finally, to complete your computing setup, read our rundowns of the best memory cards and the best power banks.
The best external hard drives and SSDs 2021
If you can't be bothered to comb through all the best external hard drives and SSDs, save some time by heading directly for the Western Digital My Passport range. It offers storage from 2TB to 4TB and packs 256-bit AES encryption as well as WD's own backup software, so you can simply plug it in and leave it to do its thing. Job done!
Data transfer speeds are impressive. And while it can't match the speeds of solid state drive devices (SSDs), it hits a great balance between high storage and quick file transfers, without knocking the price way up. That makes this our pick as the best external hard drive available today.
If you want something even faster, though, Western Digital also offers SSD and Ultra versions: check our WD My Passport deals for the best prices.
If security's high on your list of demands for one of the best external hard drives and SSDs, the Buffalo MiniStation Extreme NFC has you covered on two fronts. For starters it comes with 256-bit AES encryption as standard, so if your drive gets lost or stolen the data on it will be completely inaccessible. It also has a rugged design so that it'll withstand knocks and drops; ideal if you're planning on taking it out and about with you.
You can quickly and easily unlock the device using an NFC (Near Field Communications) card, and it also offers a generous 2TB of storage space. It's not the fastest external hard drive, but its rugged design and security features more than make up for that.
The big downside to external hard drives is all the waiting around you have to do when you're transferring lots of big files in one go. If you can't wait and don't mind paying more for your storage, the Samsung T5 SSD is the ideal option with its speeds of up to 550 MB/second.
It's tiny and it'll plug straight into Macs and PCs via USB-C or older USB-A, and unlike hard drives it has no moving parts so it can take a lot more punishment; drop a hard drive and it's touch-and-go whether it'll survive the fall, but even a basic SSD can take that in its stride.
External SSDs may cost considerably more than hard disks, but the faster speeds go a long way. You’ll be able to easily load edit and save 4K video directly on the T5, which can be very slow with a USB hard disk. You can install applications onto it, and you can even run an entire alternative operating system off it at full speed, if you’re so inclined.
The downside is the pricing. SSDs give you less capacity for more money, so we don’t recommend the T5 for backup. It’s better to have a bigger hard disk for that, and use the T5 in more specialised situations that need all that lovely performance.
For a straightforward backup solution that you can simply plug in and leave to get on with it, Seagate's external hard drive is a great choice. It comes with its own backup software that can be configured to store data from pretty much everything: your computer, your phone, your cloud storage and even your social media accounts.
It's fast with a good choice of storage capacity from 1TB-5TB, and it's a good looker with an attractive slim metal design that's also nice and portable. Bear in mind, though, that if you're a Mac user you'll find that it's formatted for PC, however if you install the Mac NTFS driver you'll be able to use it on both platforms without the need for reformatting.
To get the best speeds out of the best external hard drives and SSDs it helps if you can connect via Thunderbolt on a Mac, and if you're adequately equipped then the Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt is a fantastic choice with speeds that are pretty much double what you'd get from a USB 3.0 connection.
Obviously you won't get SSD speeds out of this external hard drive, but this is as good as you'll get with an old-fashioned platter. And if you're not on a Mac you can still connect via its USB 3.0 port.
Need a lot of storage that'll go nicely with your Mac? G-Technology's a firm favourite of Mac users because it produces impressive technology in silver aluminium casing that matches Apple's own designs.
Its G-RAID dual hard drive is just the thing if you need to back up a lot of data; storage options range from 8TB-24TB, and with a 440MB/s transfer rate it gets on the job quickly. It also features an HDMI 2.2 port on the back that'll route a video signal for an external display over the G-RAID’s Thunderbolt 3 cable, which has plenty of bandwidth to spare, even with the hard disk going at full speed. And there's also a USB-C port to connect to Macs or PCs that lack Thunderbolt.
Expect to pay a small fortune for the largest capacities. But thanks to the easy drive removal system, you could always buy a cheaper, lower capacity G-RAID and upgrade it with off-the-shelf hard disks yourself.
Looking at the iStorage diskAshur2's price and storage, you'd be forgiven for assuming that this is an SSD. But no, it's a hard drive, and one for anyone who's serious about keeping their data secure.
The key feature of this external hard drive is its built-in keypad that enables you to set your own 7-15 digit PIN. Without that, the diskAshur2's 256-bit AES encryption ensures that nobody can see what's on your drive. And if you're extra-sensitive about security, there's also the option to create a self-destruct PIN that'll wipe the drive when entered.
There are plenty of storage and colour options, and if you want extra speed, iStorage also does a range of similarly secure external SSDs.
The Adata SD700 is an absolute gem that's well worth a closer look. Not only is it a great-value SSD, it's also good and rugged. SSDs can take a lot more punishment than hard drives, but this one goes a bit further: it's water-resistant for up to 30 minutes, and it's also IP68 rated, which means that it can withstand dust, dirt and sand. Perfect if you enjoy working on the beach!
Its capacity isn't all that but you can get a 1TB model if you need more storage; in all, though, it's a perfect mix of speed, price and durability.
For maximum capacity the WD My Book Duo is absolutely the best external hard drive to go for; when we last checked it out it offered storage up to an impressive 28TB, but now you can get it with an astonishing 36TB, which ought to be more than enough for pretty much everyone bar pro video studios.
You can set multiple drives up in a RAID 1 array, so you have file backups of your files should one of them die. This is an excellent feature if you're need to back up irreplaceable data, as it adds a level of protection in case things go wrong.
It provides two additional USB ports on the rear, so you can easily insert flash sticks. The device has 256-bit AES hardware encryption, and automatic backup software (WD SmartWare Pro).
It's also worth noting that the enclosure used is fully serviceable, and that WD ships the drive already pre-formatted for Windows users (NTFS). So you will need to reformat it to work with your Mac.
Even the best external hard drives have one major failing in that they're not especially shockproof; if you want an external drive that won't die on you if it gets dropped then you need to look at Lacie's range of rugged hard drives. They're instantly recognisable thanks to their frankly garish orange rubber casing, but at least that makes them difficult to lose, as well as providing protection from drops up to 1.2m.
According to Lacie it can apparently withstand the pressure of a one-ton car, and is resistant to rain. That makes it a great choice for when you’re out and about, whether you’re participating in daredevil sports, travelling the world, just a bit paranoid or clumsy.
The best external hard drives: What to consider
The best external hard drives need to have enough storage capacity to store all your data. Around 500GB will suit most people, but if you have a lot of high resolution and/or RAW images, you may want to be looking at 1TB and above, and if you're dealing with 4K and 8GB video, you could be seeking multiple terabytes.
You'll need also to be sure you can actually connect it to your PC or Mac. The early generation of rectangular USB-A ports are gradually being superseded by the newer, smaller reversible USB-C ports, which now dominate all modern laptops. So make sure you know which slots your device has, and that the external hard drive or SSD supports one of them.
External storage should also be fast and responsive, ideally as much as just moving things about on your normal computer. The external hard drives on this list are all pretty nippy, but if you want something even faster, a solid state drive (SSD) offers the ultimate in speed, even though these devices are also more expensive. For more on this, keep reading below.
Hard drive vs SSD: which is best?
There are two main types of external storage: hard disk drives (HDD, also known as mechanical or traditional hard drives) and solid state drives (SSD). The former uses spinning magnetic disks to store data, while the latter has no moving parts.
In practice, that means an SSD is faster, lighter and less power-hungry, whereas an HDD drive will be slower. However, on the flipside that does generally make HDD drives less expensive.
In other words, if you want to store huge amounts of data while keeping prices low, a HDD is the way to go. But if speed is your top priority – for example, if you move a lot of large files, or want to run programs off the drive – then choose an SSD.
Alternatively, you can always use a smaller SSD for files that you need to access or move around often, and then store the other data that you use less often on a higher capacity HDD.
We’ve included both in this best external hard drive roundup. Right now, our top pick for best external hard drive is the Western Digital My Passport 4TB, which is a mechanical hard drive. We think it offers creatives the perfect balance of speed, reliability, portability and price for both Mac and PC users.