6 Best Portable External Storage Drives (2022): SSDs, Hard Drives, Rugged

When you’re running Don’t have storage space on your laptop, or if you need to back up your data and have that backlog of videos you’ll be editing one day (I swear), an external hard drive can solve your problem. The problem is, there are hundreds of drive options, ranging from dirt cheap to insanely expensive – which one is right for your needs? I’ve tested dozens with different usage scenarios in mind to find the best portable storage drives for your workflow.

Be sure to check out our other guides, including: Back up your photos and move them between services, Backing up your digital lifeand How to back up your iPhone.

Updated September 2022: We’ve added Samsung’s T7 Shield and OWC’s Envoy Pro Fx and introduced a new bare-drive category for upgrading your PC’s internal SSD. We’ve also included Backblaze’s latest disk statistics report.

Index

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I know this guide is for portable hard drives, and this is definitely not portable, but bear with me. For incremental backups, which we recommendportability is not your top priority. And most of the time, your backup software runs overnight, so speed isn’t a big factor either. That’s why the first drive I recommend is this Western Digital Elements.

I’ve been using a variant of the WD Elements hard drive for incremental backups of my data for over a decade. They are large and require external power, but these are some of the cheapest, most reliable drives I’ve used. Storage options go all the way up to 20 terabytes. Be sure to check the prices; sometimes you can get a 10 or even 12 terabyte drive for not much more.

Other great backup drives:

  • Seagate Portable Hard Drive 8 TB ($180): Seagate is another reliable disk maker. It never hurts to have more backups, and if you want multiple backups, use drives from different brands as it reduces the chance of both failing at the same time. This 8 terabyte model often retails for around $150.
  • Western Digital Elements 5TB Portable Hard Drive ($108): You can also get a much more portable version of the Western Digital drive for a lot less, and it doesn’t require an external power supply. The 4-terabyte model often retails for under $100.

These crucial drives are my favorite portable drives. They are reasonably priced (for a portable SSD) and very fast. The only drive I’ve tested with faster read speeds is the SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD (see below). These are lightweight, which means they’re ideal for when you’re working outdoors. I use one to store video clips, and it’s fast enough to edit them straight from the disc.

The only drawback is the plastic construction. Don’t expect it to survive many drops. If you’re worried it might break in your bag, grab a padded cover. I haven’t tried but there are plenty like this one for $14.

This new portable drive from SanDisk beats everything else I’ve tested. It is lightweight, with IP22 rating housings, so it can withstand life on the go. It’s not the cheapest ride, but if you’re backing up in the field and want it done as quickly as possible, it’s the best choice. I also like that it’s less compact than some of these drives – it makes it easier to keep it in my bag.

Other fast drives

Another alternative:

When you need a drive that can withstand life in a backpack or camera bag, getting wet or handling a drop on hard surfaces, OWC drives are your best choice. It’s hard to pick a winner here as there are many solid options, but OWC’s Elektron drive narrowly beat others in benchmark tests. I also like that you can swap the drive in the aluminum case (it’s easy to unscrew), meaning you can grab a faster bare SSD in two years and drop it in the Elektron.

Do you want a larger drive, both physically and in terms of storage capacity, OWC’s Envoy Pro FX ($349 for 1TB) also makes a good choice. It’s even faster and comes in sizes up to 4TB, although the latter will set you back a whopping $900. For most, the 2TB model is sufficient, although still pricey at $400. Its IP67 rating and fairly drop resistant. (Take any “military standard” claims with a grain of salt – there is nobody actually does independent testswhich is not to pick OWC as every “rugged” disc maker claims this sort of thing.) What impressed me most about this disc though is how incredibly cool it stays even under a heavy load (like editing 4K video footage directly from the driveway).

Other robust options:

  • Sabrent Rocket Nano SSD 1TB for $120: I really like this one. It’s smaller and slightly faster than the OWC, but it has two drawbacks. The first is that it can get very hot. Trying to work with it on your lap can be downright uncomfortable. The other problem is that sometimes it is slow to be recognized by my PC. I couldn’t find a pattern in this; sometimes it appeared right away, sometimes it took a few minutes. If those things don’t bother you, this drive is small, cheaper, and comes with a padded rubber case.

The above hard drives are a solid solution for people who need to back up in the field, such as photographers and videographers. But if you want an extra level of comfort, this padded drive from LaCie has long been a traveler’s favorite. LaCie makes both an SSD version and a traditional spinning disk version. If speed isn’t an issue, like doing nightly backups, then the cheaper spinning drive sounds more logical. If you’re backing up in the middle of a photo shoot or a similar situation where it needs to be done quickly, the SSD version is what you’re looking for.

Other quilted options:

  • Samsung T7 Shield 2TB for $200: It’s not as padded as LaCie’s rugged drives, but it’s cheaper and delivers nearly the same speed. It has a IP65 rating, meaning it’s fine in the rain and protected from dust and sand, and Samsung says it will survive a 9.8-foot drop. The T7 line stands out for its built-in security features, such as hardware-based encryption, but unlike the Touch model, the Shield does not have a fingerprint reader. But if you don’t need the fully padded protection of the LaCie and want to save some money, the T7 Shield is a good option.

If you want to put a larger SSD in your laptop, all you need is a bare drive, which is generally cheaper than the enclosure drives listed above. The first thing you need to know is which drive your PC is using. Consult your manufacturer’s documentation to find out. In my experience, the most common form factor is M.2 2280, the long thin disk in the image above. More compact laptops can use the same, but shorter, M.2 2242 design. Double check your PC to confirm which drive it needs before purchasing. There are tons of them on the market and I haven’t had time to test many yet, but so far, of the six I’ve tried, Western Digital’s WD Black series stood out for speed, and doing so they don’t run very hot.

The SN 770 M.2 2280 reached speeds of 5,100 MB per second during my testing, which is lightning fast. If you do a lot of disc-intensive tasks like editing video or gaming, this drive is well worth the money. The largest version you can get right now is 2TB, but the price is reasonable considering the speed increase. I’ve been using it as my main drive for several months and found it to be fast enough for everything I do, including editing 5.2K video and compiling software. My favorite part? It generates very little heat. My older Dell XPS 13 used to get too hot to use without anything between it and my lap. Now it doesn’t get hot until I try to export video but it cools down quickly once it’s done.

Choosing the right hard drive comes down to balancing three things: speed, mateand price. If you do nightly backups, speed probably doesn’t matter. Go for the cheapest ride you can find – up to a point. Drives don’t last forever, but some certainly last longer than others. I recommend sticking with well-known brands that have a good reputation such as Seagate, Western Digital and the others mentioned here. This is based partly on experience and partly on the disk error data Backblaze has has been publishing for years. Backblaze uses massive amounts of hard drives to back up customer data, and the report is worth reading. The takeaway is simple: stick to names you know.

If speed trumps price, then you’ll want to look at the solid-state drives we’ve listed here. SSDs don’t just have a speed advantage. They also lack moving parts, meaning they can withstand the knocks and drops of life in a bag on the road better than spinning discs. The downside is that they can wear out faster. Any write operation to an SSD — that is, when you store something on it — slightly degrades the individual NAND cells that make up the drive, causing it to wear out slightly faster than a spinning disk. How much faster depends on how you use it. That said, I have several SSDs that are over 5 years old and I’ve used them for daily backups during that time. None of them have had any problems.

When do you want an SSD instead of a spinning disk? The answer is almost always yes – if you can afford it. But they’re especially useful for whatever drive you work with regularly: your main startup drive, an external drive you use to edit documents, and even backups if you need them quickly.

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