Whether you're looking for a backup, some extra space, or an easy way to take your data with you, there are many external hard drives to choose from that offer a variety of features. Cloud storage is becoming increasingly common, but there will always be a need for secure storage for personal files like tax documents, and external drives offer peace of mind by backing up all your files in one place. If you have a computer or game console that has run out of space, an external hard drive is a simple solution that will often cost you less time and money than a new internal drive. Storage capacity, compatibility, and data transfer speed will vary, so it's important to choose the best external hard drive for your needs.
Considerations when choosing external hard drives
Storage space is the most important factor to consider when choosing an external hard drive, though speed and compatibility shouldn't be overlooked. Most external hard drives offer between 500GB and 5TB of storage, with a higher capacity typically equaling a higher price. Videos take up far more data than documents or photos, so have an idea of what you'll be storing on your hard drive before you go for one of the bigger models. If you plan to take your drive with you, look for models that are fairly lightweight and compact. Fortunately, most external hard drives are small enough to slip into a laptop bag.
Compatibility is another major factor, as you don't want to end up with a drive that doesn't work with your computer or can't transfer between two of your devices. In some cases, reformatting may be necessary, but some models work seamlessly with several operating systems. Also look into the expected lifespan of the hard drive, as years of use (especially constant use) will eventually render any drive sluggish or unresponsive.
Data transfer speed
Another factor to keep in mind when shopping for external hard drives is the data transfer speed. Hard drives with USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt 3 offer the fastest data transferring.
If you plan to keep your external hard drive on your desk most of the time, looks may be important. Some designs are slimmer and sleeker than others, while bulky or plain models may not fit the aesthetic of your workspace.
Many external hard drives draw power from your computer or laptop, but some may require an outlet. If you plan to take your hard drive on the go, look for a drive with a rugged design and water-resistance to ensure that your data survives some adventuring.
A good way to look at price is to calculate the amount you're paying for each TB of storage. For $50 to $70, you can usually find external hard drives with 1TB or 2TB of storage, while models with up to 5TB cost between $120 and $250, depending on durability and transfer speeds.
Q. How can I tell whether an external hard drive will be compatible with my computer?
A. You'll find information on operating system compatibility in the product specifications for most external hard drives. In some cases, you may be able to reformat a drive to allow it to work with a different operating system, but this is not always a reliable fix.
Q. What causes an external hard drive to die?
A. Accidents like bumps or spills can disrupt data on a drive, as can heat from extended use or a warm climate. Any drive will fail eventually, however. In some cases, data can still be extracted by a professional.
External hard drives we recommend
Best of the best: Seagate Backup Plus Portable External Hard Drive
Our take: For its storage capacity, compatibility, and fast data transfer capabilities, this is an excellent external hard drive that will meet the needs of most customers.
What we like: The USB 3.0 connectivity means no external power is needed and data transfers quickly. It runs quietly and doesn't get very warm. There's no need to reformat, which is a big time-saver.
What we dislike: A handful of customers have reported failed drives after several months of use.
Best bang for your buck: WD My Passport Portable External Hard Drive
Our take: This low-priced external hard drive is a good option for those looking for a basic backup.
What we like: The slim design makes it easy to carry this hard drive with you, and its compatibility with most gaming consoles makes it popular among gamers.
What we dislike: The power cord may prove to be a bit finicky.
Our take: If you need a rugged external hard drive to take on any adventure, this is your best option.
What we like: For a decent price, you get a reliable external hard drive that can take a few bumps or a bit of water.
What we dislike: This hard drive may have some compatibility issues. It's larger and heavier than most models.
Peter McPherson is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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