How to pick an external hard drive

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Fri May 17, 2019

It's no secret that computers aren't perfect. Stuff goes wrong and data can be lost. I know this firsthand, as one of my first laptops had the hard drive fail around six times.

I learned from these failures, and as every tech support person or electronics retailer employee will tell you, you should always back up your data. Always.

Sure, it's another expense, but both macOS and Windows now make it easier than ever to back up your data, from documents to family photos, music and just your general operating system. It's pretty disastrous to lose all your data and have to start over from scratch.

And remember, while having a backup in the cloud is nice, it generally requires a monthly subscription cost. And you'll need an internet connection to access it, something that might not always be possible. So having a physical external hard drive is an added layer of security and convenience.

To be clear, an external hard drive with backups will not keep your computer safe from something going wrong. But if something does, you'll have a backup ready so you can recover your data.

Once you know you want an external hard drive, you'll need to decide what type and which features are most important to you.

Let's start with the first choice.

Portable or Stationary?

While there are many different designs and specifications for an external drive, the first decision is whether to get a portable or stationary one.

There are pros and cons for each. A portable drive will probably take up less space. For instance, a Samsung T5 SSD is about the size of a stack of credit cards.

A stationary external hard drive likely requires a dedicated source of power, as well as being hooked into a computer USB. Many of these can turn into Network Attached Storage devices, by plugging into your router. This allows you to back up and access files wirelessly, without connecting directly to the drive. It's an excellent feature and allows you to hook up one large NAS unit to be the backup location for all devices on your network. Think of it as your own iCloud or Google Drive, that is just for your network and only your storage.

Storage size matters

If you're primarily using your external hard drive as a backup drive for your computer, a good rule of thumb is to double your hard drive space. That way you have plenty of room for backups and can handle several hundred of them. Eventually backup programs, like Time Machine on macOS, might suggest removing older backups, depending on storage size.

Those who opt for a stationary unit, like the WD MyCloud, might notice multiple bays. In those cases, you expand the storage by adding another hard drive or even daisy chaining another storage bay to it.

SSD vs HDD and port type

When it comes to the physical storage drives, the advance from hard disk drive to solid state drive was a big deal. It not only made the drives more durable and sleek, but it improved speed. A traditional HDD has moving parts inside, while an SSD has no moving parts and uses circuits and chips instead. It's a digital footprint as well.

Using an SSD can result in faster times for backups and a quicker response from the drive. If you plan on editing content or working off files from an external hard drive, the extra expense of an SSD is likely worth it, but both will get the job done.

Similarly, there are several ports that you can opt for on an external hard drive. The biggest two currently are USB-A and USB-C. Choosing one largely depends on the type of port your computer has, as you want that external hard drive to work with it.

Now let's dive into some of our favorite external hard drives that can be used across a variety of situations. As with all of our buying guides, you can expect updates and new additions in the future.

A super tiny SSD; Samsung T5 SSD

If portability and speed are at the top of your list, I'd highly recommend the Samsung T5 SSD. It's really tiny and has no moving parts inside, making it fully digital. Samsung offers the T5 SSD in black or blue. Either way, you're getting an aluminum build, which should protect it in any drops or slides. It comes in 250GB, 500GB, 1TB and 2TB models witha starting price of $99.99, right now reduced to $89.99.

In my testing, the T5 SSD performed very well and was able to complete a backup of a 256GB drive on a 500GB model in just under 30 minutes, with some big changes including a couple of thousand new photos. I was also able to successfully edit a video file in both iMovie and Final Cut Pro off the drive via a USB-A and USB-C connection.

You really can't go wrong with the Samsung T5 SSD. It's a powerful trooper of an external hard drive.

LaCie Rugged Line

Those who like adventure or are into action photography will likely want an external drive that puts durability first. Well, LaCie answers that call with the Rugged Portable Hard Drive line. These aluminum external drives come encased in a durable, bright orange cover. LaCie guarantees these for drops and spills. You can get these with a USB-C or USB-A port, and some models even have the cord built in.

  • Rugged Mini USB 3.0 1TB ($64.99, originally $109.99; amazon.com)
  • Rugged Mini USB 3.0 2TB ($84.99, originally $109.94; amazon.com)
  • Rugged Mini USB 3.0 4TB ($159.93; amazon.com)
  • Rugged 2TB Thunderbolt ($129.94; amazon.com)
  • Rugged 4TB Thunderbolt ($159.95, originally $229.99; amazon.com)

WD MyCloud Home Personal Storage

If you want a stationary unit that can act as your own cloud or one for your family, Western Digital has a solid NAS unit. The My Cloud Home can hook right in via an Ethernet port to your router or live on Wi-Fi. Either way, it will be accessible from your home network and outside through the companion app for iOS or Android.

It can store photos, music, movies, documents and much more. Plus you can have macOS or Windows computers back up to it over the home network. This way you don't have to worry about the hassle of running backups on your own and plugging into a drive. Western Digital makes an array of models with storage from 2TB all the way up to 16TB in single or dual bay variants.

  • WD 3TB My Cloud Home -- Single ($159, originally $179.99; amazon.com)
  • WD 4TB My Cloud Home -- Single ($169.99, originally $199.99; amazon.com)
  • WD 6TB My Cloud Home -- Single ($223.24, originally $259.99; amazon.com)
  • WD 8TB My Cloud Home -- Single ($308.99; amazon.com)
  • WD 4TB My Cloud Home -- Dual ($262.99, originally $309.99; amazon.com)
  • WD 6TB My Cloud Home -- Dual ($319, originally $349; amazon.com)
  • WD 8TB My Cloud Home -- Dual ($319.99, originally $399.99; amazon.com)

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.