Unless you’re getting a high-end model, most new computers don’t come with a ton of internal storage — usually 256 or 512 gigabytes. Game consoles like the PS4 and Xbox One include only up to 1-terabyte drives (roughly 1,000GB), which fill up pretty fast if you’re not disciplined about removing games as you acquire more. That’s where an external drive comes in.
Thanks to faster USB 3.0 (and) and interfaces, most people can make do with a standard hard drive that uses “old” hard-drive technology (mechanical platters and a moving read-write head to access data). They’ve become more affordable, with even mega-capacity models tipping the scales at 5TB but costing just over $100. A solid state drive doesn’t have moving parts and has up to four times faster read speeds, but it costs a lot more per gigabyte.
Most of the drives here will work across platforms — whether you have a Windows PC, Mac, PlayStation 4 or Xbox — so long as the drives are formatted for that platform. But a lot of times they’ll be designated as working with a specific platform out of the box and sometimes come with backup software that’s platform-specific. Unless otherwise indicated, all the PC drives mentioned here are compatible with Windows but can be formatted for Macs. Many of them include cables or adapters to accommodate USB-C and USB-A ports. But if they don’t, you can get your own.
And remember: A single backup doesn’t cut it. Ideally, you’ll want redundant backups either off-site or in the cloud for key data (such as family photos) in case of theft or fire. And make sure you encrypt your data, too.
With those caveats noted, our current top picks for hard drives and SSDs are below. These (or nearly identical models with less storage capacity) have been used or anecdotally tested by CNET editors. We’ll update this as we test new products.
SanDisk makes the Extreme Portable SSD (see below) that delivers speeds up to 550MB per second transfer rates, but if you’re a photographer or videographer looking for something faster for your PC or Mac, the Extreme Pro Portable SSD is the way to go. The 1TB version ($200) only costs $30 more than the standard Extreme Portable and it delivers almost twice the speed with 1,050MBps (just over a gigabyte per second) transfer rates, according to SanDisk. I copied a 4.2GB video file to the SSD in 8.1 seconds from a 2019 Mac Mini running a Core i5 processor with 16GB of RAM.
Compatible with Macs and Windows PCs, it’s technically ruggedized with an IP55 rating, meaning it can withstand a sustained spray of water. It’s also shock-resistant. It has a USB-C interface and includes both USB-C to USB-C and USC-A to USB-C cable. The price for the 2TB model jumps to $370.
For $120, you don’t have to worry about managing the storage space on your PS4 (you can play games without lag directly from the drive). The 2TB version of the Seagate Game Drive is about $40 less. But you might as well spend the extra dough and get 4TB.
If you’re looking for a high-capacity drive for your Xbox One, the WD Black P10 5TB is a good value at around $130 (The 3TB version is $110). It also comes with a digital code that gives you two months of Microsoft’s Game Pass Ultimate, a nice perk, particularly if you’re already a member. If you don’t need the two months of Game Pass Ultimate, you can save $10 on the standard version of the drive, which also works with PCs and the PS4. The drive can deliver speeds up to 130MBps. Read more.
The Seagate Backup Plus Slim 2TB is one of the more compact non-SSD drives and at $60 is a good value. Available in a few color options, it also comes in 1TB ($52), 4TB ($100) and 5TB ($115) versions, but the higher capacity drives are thicker. Read more.
This drive is about as futureproof — and backward compatible — as they come. You pay a bit of a premium over the standard WD drive, but this newer model offers a USB-C connection, meaning it has the latest and greatest connectivity for Macs and PCs. No USB-C on your system? No problem: Western Digital also tosses in a USB-A to USB-C adapter, so it’ll work with pretty much any computer straight out of the box. Read more.
If you’re looking to save $20 to $30 on a 1TB mini SSD, the RavPower Mini External SSD is priced below some of the name brand competition from SanDisk, Western Digital, Samsung and others. Amazon has it for $150 with a $20 coupon. It delivers up to 540MBps data transfer speeds. Read more.
WD My Book desktop drive is available in up to a 14TB configuration, but the 8TB is the best value at around $150. Read our WD My Book (Fall 2016) review.
After Seagate acquired LaCie several years ago, LaCie became the company’s premium brand and this 5TB model can be found on a lot of video editors’ desks (including plenty at CNET). It uses a USB-C interface, is compatible with Mac and Windows PCs and is water and shock-resistant. A 4TB Thunderbolt with USB-C version is available for Thunderbolt-equipped Macs for about $200. Read more.
Western Digital, which owns SanDisk, sells its WD My Passport SSD as well this SanDisk External Portable SSD for basically the same price (around $170 for the 1TB version). I like the design of this model a little better and it’s technically ruggedized with an IP55 rating, meaning it can withstand a sustained spray of water. It’s also shock-resistant. It has a USB-C interface with transfer speeds up to 550MBps. The price for the 2TB model jumps to $300. Read our SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD preview.