When you purchased your computer, you thought it had plenty of space. Or at least, it seemed like it did… until photos, videos, programs, documents, and other files began crowding the hard drive.
Whether desktop or laptop, 10 years old or only 2, running out of disk storage on your Mac or PC is a widespread problem with an easy solution.
For a lot of people, the go-to is cloud storage services such as iCloud or Google Drive, but these aren't a great fit for everyone, especially if you have a lot of files or need to access them offline.
In this case, an external drive is the best option because you'll have all your files on hand at all times and it can store significantly more data than a cloud drive.
In this article, we'll help you better understand the use cases of a physical drive, and roundup the best external drives for backup and storage purposes. Both Mac and PC options are covered.
Tired of learning all the "techy" terms related to hard drives? We understand. Here's a brief of our recommendations to save you time exploring.
For Mac users: G-DRIVE USB Portable Hard Drive 1TB
From the sleek design to the pre-formatting, this terabyte-sized drive is perfect for Mac users who need a little extra space and offers an extremely high 7200 RPM speed for accessing all your files.
For Windows PC users: WD 2TB Elements Portable
At 5400 RPM but only around 3" x 4", this tiny drive packs a real punch. You can get it in sizes from 1 to 4 TB, all of which are equally portable and will allow you to access your files with speed and efficiency wherever you go.
For the best of both worlds: Samsung T5 Portable SSD
Whether you simply prefer the speed of an SSD or use both Mac and PC on a regular basis, this drive offers formatting that works everywhere you go and top notch read/write rates. The drive is small, portable, and sleek (available in multiple colors!)
Who Should (or Should NOT) Get This?
You don't have to be a power user to make use of an external drive, but if you aren't sure you need one, here are some considerations:
- Has your computer slowed down due to being stuffed with files you aren't necessarily using all the time?
- Do you need to backup your computer, especially if you're worried about a crash soon due to the age of the machine?
- Are the fees for your cloud storage service not worth the amount of storage you get?
- Do you want to clean up old files that you only occasionally reference?
- Need a better place to run large applications from, or have programs you want to run on more than one computer?
If you're saying yes to any of these, then there's a good chance you would benefit from an external drive. It'll give you space and security that you need.
However, an external drive might not be the best choice for you if you only have a few files that need storage, or if you already have a backup of your computer for example via backup software. In that case, using a small flash drive or an online cloud storage provider might be the better option.
External Drive for Storage & Backup: What to Look for?
The number one consideration when buying an external drive is how much space it has to offer. Depending what type of files you'll be storing and how long you want the drive to last, you may want more or less space. However, when buying an external drive you should be getting at minimum 128GB, as anything less will be better served by a flash drive. Many people will be much more satisfied with closer to 1 TB of storage though since space tends to disappear faster than you would think.
Type: HDD and SSD
External drives come in two types: HDD and SSD. The former is what is normally referred to as a “hard drive", since it uses a physical spinning disk to read and write data, while the latter, sometimes called a solid-state drive, actually uses flash memory and stores everything electronically and has no moving parts. An HDD tends to be cheaper, but SSDs are faster and more reliable.
An external drive is typically formatted for either MacOS or PC use. While there are some drives that work on both, most tend need to be reformatted to be functional on the opposite system, and that will erase all your data. Formatting in the first place can also be difficult, so look for a drive that's already formatted to work with your computer and know that you will only be able to access your files on machines of the same type.
All external drives are rated for read-and-write speeds, which is how fast they can store, retrieve, and display information. Higher speeds are better, but a small difference won't be noticeable. An HDD is generally not capable of the higher speeds of an SSD, but they do tend to be much cheaper.
The Best External Drive for Backup in 2018: Our Picks
Using a Mac? This drive is preformatted just for you, offering a high RPM for fast file access and connects easily via USB. It will definitely stand up to regular use of creative editing applications and store files/backups well if you're using in a more long-term frame.
- 1TB is a fair amount of storage space for any user, and this drive is available in larger sizes as well.
- The 7200 RPM speed means you can easily access your files without sacrificing any time spent loading or waiting for files to transfer.
- Pre-formatted for Mac, but can be reformatted to Windows.
- Not cross-compatible.
Available from the smallest 250 GB size all the way up to 2TB, this external SSD from Samsung writes at 540MB/s, which is a stellar rate. It normally uses a USB-C cable, but if your computer doesn't yet support this, a standard USB-A cable is also provided. This product also ranks in our best portable SSD drive review.
- Formatted to work on Mac and Windows and even Android!
- A variety of storage options makes it easy to find the right size for you.
- The sleek drive is also very sturdy and fits into the palm of your hand.
- Transfer speeds may be slightly lower if you can't make use of the included USB-C cable.
If you're an avid PC user, this HDD drive from Western Digital has you covered. With sizes from 1 to 4 TB and plug-n-play functionality, you'll start with your feet on the ground. USB 3.0 allows you to transfer files at up to 5MB/s, and the drive overall runs at 5400 RPM.
Pros: A high RPM means you don't have to worry about sitting in front of your computer waiting for files to load, while the slim 3" by 4" design is super portable, perfect for taking files to and from work or another setting. Can even be used to backup games on your console.
Cons: Only for PC, unless you want to separately reformat to use with Mac.
Useful Tips & Tricks
Don't forget to get an external drive case (like this one from Amazon), which will help protect your drive from potential damage caused by accidental scratch or dropping. It also allows you easily pack it into backpack or briefcase.
Want to format your external drive for Mac and PC compatibility? Check out this step-by-step tutorial we created earlier.
To extend the life of your storage drive, it's a good practice to always put it on a flat and stable surface and away from heaters, humidifiers or air conditioners. Also, when you're done with data backup or file transfer, make sure to properly eject the drive before plugging it out.
Still can't decide between an HDD or SSD external drive? Check out this guide from PC World, which will help outline which is best depending on your situation. Alternatively, if you aren't sure about getting an external hard drive at all, you can always try out a web-based cloud service first to see if it gives you space and flexibility you want.
Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox are great places to get started since they offer free options at the lowest tier, and paid users can get more than 1TB of storage space.
Whether you prefer HDD or SSD, you're looking for your first drive or your third, an external drive is usually a great solution for data backup and file storage. Moving files off your computer will also help tune up your PC a little bit and will protect your important files from potential damage.
How much space do you need for your external drive? Leave us a comment below and tell us how you're making the most of your external drive!
Influenced by the startup culture in the Silicon Valley, Jessica loves building things from zero to one and is keen on following news related to the Big Five tech giants and many SaaS startups.