The classic internal hard drive has always been unbeaten when it comes to getting the largest capacities at considerable prices. Nonetheless, people become nomads even while working and their data has to come with them. As a result, they are looking for ways to carry a portable storage for their files, documents, presentations, and media files among other forms of data. Portable hard drives never seem to fail the expectations of people now that they are also available at up to four-terabyte capacity. Simply imagine how long you can use such a hard drive for your work and personal needs.

The selection of the best portable hard drives has to be stringent since not all expensive storage devices from big names in the industry are worth the buy. It is also still necessary to take your preferences into consideration.

Table of contents

 

Main Features of External Portable Hard Drives

A hard drive has the big responsibility of keeping your files intact since everything you do on your computer is kept in said storage. Even your operating system is kept on a hard drive. This is the reason why you have to take care of your hard drive. Once it gets damaged, you may lose everything, which is why a backup system is always recommended.

The ability of a hard drive to store files is dependent on its capacity. Hard drive capacity is measured in terabytes (TB), gigabytes (GB), and megabytes (MB). 1TB=1000GB and 1GB=1000MB. Consumer-grade hard drives can offer as much as ten terabytes nowadays, with 2-4TB being the most common capacity on the market. If you examine a hard drive’s construction, you will find rotating platters where the data is stored virtually. These platters have a magnetic surface that saves data within microscopic, magnetically charged sectors of the surface.

Before proceeding to our selection of the best portable hard drives, you have to be aware of the different types of the storage. By learning the basics, you will not get confused when computer terms are used by a sales clerk explaining the features of a portable hard drive. Understanding this will also give you the advantage of evaluating hard drives more efficiently and make it easier to find things you’d prefer in a drive.

SSD vs HDD

The main difference between different portable storage devices is whether it is a Hard Disk Drive or a Solid State Drive. The former saves information on a spinning, metallic platter, akin to old vinyl records. The latter saves information digitally, in tiny electronic chips, similar to one of those tiny flash drives. The main differences in functionality are capacity, speed, and price.

Approximate Maximum Transfer Speeds of Storage Drive Types5400 RPM HDD7200 RPM HDDSSD0150300450600MB/s

   
5400 RPM HDD 100
7200 RPM HDD 160
SSD 550
 

HDDs usually provide more capacity, have slower data transfer speeds, but cost a lot less than SSDs. This is why HDDs are usually used for smaller media files that don’t have long loading times, to begin with, so the slower transfer speeds don’t matter as much and you’re left with a lot of capacity for less money.

SSDs are accordingly smaller in capacity, provide much faster transfer speeds and are accordingly more expensive. SSDs are mostly used to store more demanding media files (like 4k movies, for example), programs, games, and even operating systems because the faster transfer speeds shorten loading times for all demanding software by a lot. The tradeoff of this, of course, is the price. However, scientific progress with HDDs is slowly coming to its limits, while SSDs keep on being improved and optimized. So after 10 years, HDDs may be inferior in all metrics and may become a relic, similar to what floppy disks are today.

 

Portable Hard Drive Interfaces

Given below are the most popular types of hard drives, in terms of interface (before evaluating your personal pros and cons of each interface, make sure you have a port of that type in the first place):

USB

We’ll start with the interface that you probably already recognize. Pretty much any computer has at least a couple USB ports, making a USB-based portable drive appealing. The three main versions of USB are 1.0 (12Mb/s), 2.0 (480Mb/s), and 3.0 (5 or 10Gb/s), all of which are compatible with one another. 1.0 is pretty much a relic from the nineties, 2.0 is still very common, however, most modern devices have a USB 3.0 (5Gb/s) or 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gb/s) ports.

Best portable hard drive interface, USB 3.0

While compatible, the older versions may not be able to handle the faster speeds provided by the fastest, most modern drives out there. Considering the fact that the fastest hard drives have reached around 550MB/s (around 4.4Gb/s) speeds as of now, a USB 2.0 port may bottleneck such a fast drive. Even the 3.0 might not provide optimum speeds for such drives because of extra data processing. So, while most portable drives will provide a USB 3.0/3.1 connection, make sure your computer can handle it.

SATA & eSATA

This hard disk interface stands for Serial Advanced Technology Attachment and is found inside the belly of your computer. Many SATA drives have seven pins – four of these pins are designated for receiving and sending data, while three pins are grounded. More often than not you will see 15-pin SATA drives, with the extra 8 pins being used for powering the driveThere are three SATA versions – SATA 1.0 (1.5Gb/s, almost extinct interface), SATA 2.0 (3Gb/s), and SATA 3.0 (6Gb/s). In a single SATA cable, only one hard disk can be connected, which means that the drives do not have dedicated bandwidth for data.

Best portable hard drive interfaces, eSATA SATA difference

The SATA interface came as a replacement for the older PATA / IDE interface that’s discussed below. It is also among the interfaces that provide the fastest file transfer regardless of file format since SATA was developed with data storage in mind.

More relevant to portable drives are eSATA ports, which are basically just a handy extensions of the internal SATA interface to the outside of your computer case. In turn, if you have a 3Gb/s internal SATA interface, the eSATA port that leads to it will support those speeds, same with 6Gb/s. Keep in mind that eSATA drives, for the most part, require a separate power cable, making that portable drive just a bit less portable.

Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt is an interface more commonly found on Macs. This is technically the fastest interface, with version 1.0 at 10Gb/s (per channel), 2.0 at 20Gb/s, and the latest 3.0 version at 40Gb/s. Keeping in mind the previously mentioned fastest hard drives barely reaching 5-6Gb/s, Thunderbolt is overkill. This is because its main focus is supporting entire media systems, chains of devices or RAID hard drive systems (discussed below).

Best portable hard drive interfaces, Thunderbolt plug

The latest version of Thunderbolt is not backward compatible, however, it supports USB-C devices. USB-C is a more smartphone/tablet-focused interface, similar to the lightning plug or Micro-B that’s on your phone right now. Overall, if you don’t have any grandiose plans for your Thunderbolt port, having an external Thunderbolt drive run at its max speed is a decent investment.

USB-C

While USB 3.0 is the most popular interface for any device right now, the newest interface in the USB family may at some point surpass all of its predecessors. That interface is USB-C, which is a lot smaller and easier to use. The file transfer speeds of USB-C reach 10Gb/s, which is the same as USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports, plus the easy connectivity. What makes that connectivity simpler, is that USB-C plugs ar reversible, meaning that it doesn’t have an “up” side and will work regardless of how you plug it into the port. The engineers finally fixed the age-old problem of plugging the USB cable in at least three times to get it right.

The USB-C interface also delivers more energy to devices, which makes charging portable devices a lot faster. But, while the higher bandwidth and power are great features, the main goal of this version of USB is to provide universal connectivity. This means that all of your devices – smartphones, tablets, portable hard drives, PCs, and laptops will have the same port. The USB-C interface is not overwhelmingly popular right now but has all the potential to catch on in the future, making portable USB-C hard drives absolutely future-proof.

Theoretical Maximum Bandwidth of Portable Hard Drive Interfaces010203040USB 2.0USB 3.0…USB 3.1…SATA 2.…SATA 3.…Thunder…Thunder…Thunder…USB-CBandwidth, Gbps

  USB SATA Thunderbolt USB-C
USB 2.0 0.48 0 0 0
USB 3.0 (3.1 Gen 1) 5 0 0 0
USB 3.1 Gen 2 10 0 0 0
SATA 2.0, 3Gbps 0 3 0 0
SATA 3.0, 6Gbps 0 6 0 0
Thunderbolt 0 0 20 0
Thunderbolt 2 0 0 20 0
Thunderbolt 3 0 0 40 0
USB-C 0 0 0 10