What’s the best external hard drive? We test six popular USB models from six big manufacturers to see how they stack up.
Managing external storage, transferring and keeping on top of file archives for backups, media and work portfolios has become a part of daily life. It’s easy to end up with numerous files, with the main storage inside your computer becoming filled up at a rapid pace.
What’s more, with console games such as those found on the Xbox One X reaching sizes in excess of 100GB, the relatively small internal hard disks of these consoles fill up quicker than most people would like.
When shopping around for a few extra terabytes (TB) to add to your Mac, PC or games console, you might find the various options on offer somewhat confusing. You could go for a cheap, highly portable USB stick, which won’t accommodate large file archives, or a very expensive but powerful Thunderbolt device. For a home network, a NAS unit is a decent option, or you could have directly attached storage, in the form of both internal and external hard disks and SSDs.
Related: Best SSDs to buy
In this guide, originally published in January 2017, we take you through six big-brand disks to see which is best value.
Buffalo MiniStation Velocity
1 of 6
- £198 for 480GB
- USB-C 3.1 Gen-2 speeds
- SSD storage
Surprisingly, there are few external SSD drives on the market. Cost effectiveness is probably the main reason, since the flash memory in SSDs is considerably more expensive per GB than the spinning platters in hard disks.
For the same money, you get far less storage on an SSD, and since most people buy an external drive for backup, much of this market consists of mechanical storage that offers high capacity, rather than solid-state technology.
But thanks to much quicker access times, SSDs are considerably faster than any hard disk, whether inside a PC or in an external casing. That makes a drive such as the Buffalo MiniStation Velocity uniquely useful. If you’re willing to pay for it, it provides a way to run applications, edit large media files or even run an entire Windows installation off an external device with no real loss of performance; something that can’t be said of hard disks.
The same is true of Samsung’s T3 external SSD, putting these two similarly priced drives head-to-head for the user who wants maximum performance from external storage.
The Buffalo isn’t quite as diminutive as Samsung’s T3, nor as eye-catching. A slim silver casing that’s 8.8mm high, distinguishable only by a single red LED, makes for a rather Plain-Jane appearance.
Buffalo offers three storage tiers – 240GB, 480GB and 960GB – with some quite eye-watering pricing for the larger capacities when compared with external hard disks. The 960GB version costs over £400, while the 480GB commands a £150 premium, comparable with a 4TB hard disk. For pure backup, hard disks clearly still offer far better value for money.
Buffalo’s SecureLock Mobile and DiskFormatter 2 tools work well for drive encryption and partitioning, but these aren’t supplied with the drive; you’re provided a link to download them.
Performance-wise, the Buffalo MiniStation Velocity does impress, comfortably beating every external hard disk we’ve tested by some margin. It managed large file read and write speeds of 370MB/sec and 373MB/sec respectively, and we saw a superb 506MB/sec reading in the CrystalDiskMark burst speed test.
It falls back slightly with small files, however, reading at 164MB/sec and writing at 173MB/sec. Once again, these speeds beat hard disk performance, but fall behind in the SSD race against the similarly priced Samsung T3.
This relegates the Buffalo MiniStation Velocity to second place in the race for external drive performance, especially given its slightly higher pricing than Samsung’s offering.
At time of review the Buffalo MiniStation Velocity was available for £198.
WD MyPassport Ultra
2 of 6
- £100 for 2TB
- Variety of colours
- USB 3.0 connection
WD might have updated its design for its latest MyPassport drives, but the older MyPassport Ultra is still available and, arguably, looks better too with its less garish colour shades. The “Wild Berry” maroon on the review unit easily beats the bright red of the newer 4TB MyPassport design, and is accompanied by equally rich colours with names such as Noble Blue, Brilliant White and Classic Black.
The optional carrying cases and WD grip pack add a second shade as well, if you’re particularly style conscious.
Going up to 4TB, these drives bear more than a few resemblances to the newer Passport models. Most noticeable is the large dimensions and weight. The larger capacities weigh 230g, which is very heavy for a 2.5-inch drive, and are 21mm high.
The software suite is identical on these older units too – a good thing, since WD has put in the effort to ensure it’s well-polished and accessible to less technical users, while also offering a good range of features.
A password-protected encryption process is handled by WD Security, which offers AES-256 encryption for your files and the option to automatically unlock when connected to your host computer.
WD Backup can handle full system backups, offering file synchronisation with Dropbox, although unlike Seagate’s software it won’t handle alternatives such as Google Drive or OneDrive (third-party software can handle this for you, though).
In our performance testing, we found that large file transfer speeds were only slightly slower than those of the 4TB model. CrystalDiskMark burst speeds of 115MB/sec read and 112MB/sec write are in line with most USB hard disks on the market, but notably slightly slower than its. We measured transfer rates of 66MB/sec reading and 60MB/sec writing, a full 50% slower at writing than the newer model.
At time of review the WD MyPassport Ultra was available for £100.
LaCie Rugged USB-C
3 of 6
- £179.99 for 2TB
- USB-C and USB-A cables
- 1.2m drop resistance, rain resistance
LaCie describes its rugged external drive as “all terrain”, a fitting term for a drive that comes with a thick rubber surround that will provide a degree of protection against the inevitable knocks and drops that portable gadgets suffer. If you’re prone to clumsiness, or simply keep your data with you all the time, the benefit of shock resilience can’t be emphasised enough.
The protective rubber is around an inch thick, and while we didn’t go on a rampage of testing the LaCie Rugged USB-C to destruction, it certainly feels well protected. Officially, when unpowered it can handle a drop of 1.2m, but we’d wager you might get lucky if the drop is slightly further than that.
Emblazoned at the rear is an inscription that the drive has been designed by Neil Poulton, and there’s no denying the charm of the bright orange and a smart silver casing of the drive.
At the back is a single recessed USB Type-C port, with two cables provided in the box: one orange, to match the drive’s design; and a black one, for a USB Type-C to USB Type-C connection, or USB Type-C to more traditional USB Type-A respectively.
Software is provided in the box in the form of LaCie Backup, which guides you through a process of formatting the drive: 20% as a share partition and 80% normal storage. When we tested this, Windows created issues, trying to format the drive itself while the software was also handling it, so you need to know to navigate away from one of them if this happens.
Part of this software is a tool called Genie Timeline, which can restore different versions of your encrypted files – in the manner of Apple’s Time Machine but on Windows – which can be handy when searching for an older version of a work document, for example.
Unfortunately, a claim that LaCie doesn’t come close to meeting is the promised maximum transfer speeds on the box. Read speeds were generally okay: we measured 141MB/sec in CrystalDiskMark, in line with the 128MB/sec transfer of large files. However, write speeds were much lower, just 34MB/sec reading large files and a pitiful 11MB/sec writing small files. This clearly isn’t the best drive for general data backup at home.
For some people, though, the slower write speeds when using the LaCie Rugged USB-C are mitigated by the drive’s resilience. If you know you’ll be carrying around data in a situation where your drive might sustain the odd knock, then slower write speeds could be a price worth paying for a better chance of your data surviving. In this case, you might be thankful for Neil Poulton’s orange rubber casing.
Buy Now at Amazon.co.uk from £151 | Amazon.com from $174
At time of review the LaCie Rugged USB-C was available for £179.99.
Seagate Backup Plus
4 of 6
- £94.99 for 2TB
- Variety of colours
- 3.5-inch hard disk
The Seagate Backup Plus range comes in four varieties: Slim, Ultra Slim, Portable and Fast. The Portable drives are the largest in terms of both their physical dimensions and capacity, only available in 4TB and a whopping 5TB.
The 1TB Slim drive we were sent comes in capacities between 500GB and 2TB. Not everyone needs to carry hordes of media on an external hard disk. If it’s just to keep a backup of a precious portfolio, then you can save some cash by opting for an external hard disk with a smaller capacity; you definitely don’t need an SSD.
Our red unit is complemented by a white, blue, black and silver version. While the 12.1mm drive casing and two-tone design is simple, with a single colour covering the top side of the drive, the metallic flourish provides a slick finish.
Initial impressions of the software were disappointing, however. The setup process for the Seagate Dashboard software prompts for a system restart before it can be used, and greets the user with irritating pop-up prompts. It isn’t clear whether either is necessary for simple utility software.
But once installed, the software handles the basics for PC backup and restore well, and goes one further with its cloud integration, allowing one-click file synchronisation with Dropbox, Google Drive and One Drive.
Performance isn’t bad, either. It handles large files well, with 119MB/sec read speeds and 113MB/sec write burst speeds in CrystalDiskMark, confirmed by 102MB/sec reading and 111MB/sec writing in our real-world large file test. We were pleased to see decent results with small files too, with 82MB/sec read and 62MB/sec write scores.
A svelte and attractive design, performance that won’t let you down and reasonable value make this drive worth considering.
At time of review the Seagate Backup Plus was available for £94.99.
Samsung Portable SSD T3
5 of 6
We originally reviewed the T3 in 2016, and have revisited it here with our new testing setup.
- £190 for 500GB
- USB 3.1 Gen-2 connection
- Compact design
Samsung has the SSD market tied up with a range of 2.5-inch and M.2 nVME SSDs that are great performers. Indeed, the 850 EVO and 960 Pro have become some of the most popular desktop drives around.
Its external SSD portfolio is less portly, though, with the T3 replacing the two-year old T1 drive. It’s tiny, with measurements like those of a matchbox, only thinner.
It has a very stylish two-tier design of silver aluminium and black plastic, with a single USB Type-C port providing data connectivity, at USB 3.1 Gen 1 speeds. A USB Type-C to Type-A cable is included in the box. In practice, the theoretical 5Gbits/sec speed limit of USB 3.1 Gen 1 still offers enough headroom for the T3, since it’s a blisteringly quick drive.
External SSDs are considerably more expensive than hard disks, and the Samsung T3 will set you back a princely £349.99 for its 1TB capacity (an even pricier 2TB model is also available), making it more expensive than any external hard disk. Although it’s slightly less expensive than Buffalo’s competing external SSD, the MiniStation Velocity.
But by opting for an SSD, you’re getting far greater performance for the money, which makes external SSD drives more useful than hard disks. Loading applications and large media files off them is notably faster, but while not exactly indestructible, SSDs are far less susceptible to breaking when taking the kind of knock that could render a hard disk inoperable.
Samsung also includes its Magician software, which not only sports a very well-polished interface, it also includes a wider range of drive-testing and benchmarking features, alongside options to securely wipe the drive, add password protection and AES-256 data encryption.
If you opt for an SSD over a hard disk for external storage, raw performance is what you’re paying for, and with the T3 you can expect some of the fastest speeds possible from an external drive. We measured 430MB/sec read and 403MB/sec write speeds in CrystalDiskMark. While these figures are slightly lower than the Buffalo MiniStation Velocity, in real-world tests with transfer of large files the Samsung T3 has a comfortable performance advantage when reading data of 417MB/sec, with similar 367MB/sec write speeds.
In small-file transfer tests, the T3 again beats Buffalo’s offering, managing 210MB/sec read and 212MB/sec write.
The slightly lower pricing, better software and performance, and more svelte, pocket-sized design lends to an obvious conclusion that the T3 is superior to Buffalo’s MiniStation Velocity, and the current king of external SSD drives.
Buy Now at Amazon.co.uk from £156 | Amazon.com from $197
At time of review the Samsung Portable SSD T3 was available for £190.
WD MyPassport (2016)
6 of 6
- £149.99 for 4TB
- Variety of colours
- USB 3.0 connection
For years, 2.5-inch hard disks were available only with a maximum 2TB capacity. If you wanted more external storage, you’d need to opt for a 3.5-inch disk, with the caveat that these larger hard disks require an external power adapter, making them less portable while also consuming another precious power socket next to your PC.
But those days are behind us, and the capacity ceiling has been lifted. WD isn’t alone in offering a 2.5-inch 4TB disk; Seagate has just launched a 5TB Barracuda drive, the largest 2.5-inch disk currently on the market. Nevertheless, WD’s MyPassport 4TB continues to benefit from a large capacity for bus-powered backup.
In addition, this greater capacity comes with a new look for the MyPassport range. It’s available in six colours: yellow, orange, black, red, white and blue, featuring a “grooved” pattern on the flat surface. The edges of the grooved section are slightly indented, adding some flair to what would otherwise be a rather boxy looking device.
But like the previous design, the new MyPassport isn’t exactly slim. Its 21.5mm height is portly compared with the slim designs of other manufacturers, and its 250g weight (the 1TB model weighs 170g) is another minor annoyance that you’re bound to notice if you sling the drive into a pocket.
The complete software bundle with a well-polished interface and overall high performance goes some way to mitigating the drive’s size.
WD uses the same software bundle across all its drives, which includes WD Utilities, which offers a few diagnostic features that supplement Windows’ built-in offerings. This includes a drive test to search for bad sectors and an erasing tool, alongside a few other tools that go one step further to offer SMART checking and control of the drive’s LED activity light.
WD Backup offers one-click backup of watched folders, either to your MyPassport drive or to Dropbox. The disk can be password-protected with AES-256 encryption in WD Security.
Higher platter data density in larger hard disks sometimes results in improved burst performance, as more data is read and written in a single movement of the disk head. That might be the case here, as we recorded some excellent burst transfer rates. Speeds of 119MB/sec read and 116MB/sec write in CrystalDiskMark are impressive for a 2.5-inch disk. This translated to great real-world performance too, with 112MB/sec read and 108MB/sec write scores in our large files transfer test.
Small-file performance was also very good, with the WD MyPassport 4TB achieving a 92MB/sec read and 64MB/sec write speed.
Despite its brick-like size then, the MyPassport 4TB is a speedy and spacious portable storage setup that won’t disappoint.