What are the best portable external hard drives that money can buy for mobile computing?
At the very least, they must all be rugged and durable to some extent, since you are likely to bump and drop them. After that, however, it depends a great deal upon when you intend to use the storage for: mission-critical backup of sensitive data, trekking in Antarctica, or just another place to dump your digital photos while on the go?
Here is how we breakdown our analysis of the drives that follow, depending upon personality type:
- Globetrotters: capacity – bigger, faster, yet reliable.
- Jetsetters: portable – diminutive, stylish, yet reliable.
- Road Warriors: mission-critical – shock-proof, crush-proof, water-proof, rugged and hard core.
What types of external portable hard drives are there?
HDD: traditional hard disks are a compromise of price, performance and reliability. They are cheap, high-performance and (generally) the least reliable. However, there are military spec’d versions of hard drives that can be used in more extreme conditions than either Flash or SSD (just to make things complicated).
HHD: a hybrid version of a HDD and SSD, providing more caching and greater access speeds to regularly fetched data. Ideally, they provide the same lower cost basis of an HDD with better performance.
SSD: uncompromising, best of both worlds but you pay a premium. They are the most expensive, (can be) highest performance and very reliable.
Flash: the type of memory found in USB memory sticks, or digital cameras (compact flash, microSD, memory stick etc) favours reliability over performance and price. They are moderately priced, lower performance but very reliable.
Given the need for maximum storage capacity on the go, we’d suggest buying a Hard Drive Docking station, so that you can plug in and swap out as many hard drives as you like. Look for ones that accommodate both 2.5 / 3.5 inch drives and come with fast USB 3.0 interfaces, at the very least.
They are a very cost effective solution. Basically, a self-powered plastic box (the dock) sits on your desk into which you insert a desktop hard drive. You can buy any size hard drive you want and swap different drives in and out of the dock. The hard drives aren’t enclosed in any casing, though, so they aren’t particularly road worthy. But, the manufacturer might ship them in a close-fitting plastic case, which you can hold onto for transporting it.
As for the drives themselves, you should generally buy a SATA drive, because of price and performance. We are not big fans of Western Digital, so we’d advice you to stick to Hitachi, IBM, Samsung, or Seagate (in that order). When not using the drive, it’s a good idea to store it in an electrostatic, protective sleeve.
If you want to put your hard drive into its own case with a USB interface, we have some options for that as well, but try to find a case that isn’t too fiddly to get the drive in and out of.
Removable Hard Drive Docking Stations
Our first round-up is for docking stations that allow you to plug in 2.5″ and 3.5″ inch hard drives and pull them out whenever you please. They are generally hot swappable drive bays and sit in either a vertical orientation on your desk (for multiple drives) or horizontally (for a single drive).
The purpose of a hard drive docking station is primarily for backup and archival copying purposes. Some docks that have 2 or more docking bays allow you to fast-copy from one drive to another, while bypassing a roundtrip through the host computer. This makes drive duplication a breeze.
OWC Drive Dock Dual Drive Bay with Thunderbolt 2 and USB 3.1
Perhaps, not as exciting as the Akitio Thunder3 Quad but this serves a different purpose. This is the highest spec’d removable hard drive docking station that we’ve seen.
Not only does it support the Thunderbolt 2 standard but, also, has a USB 3.1 connector rated at 10Gbps.
When it comes to Thunderbolt, it has two connectors, allowing the unit to be daisy-chained, which is a huge plus. The dock is capable of taking two drives at once – one 2.5″ and one 3.5″, or two 3.5″ drives.
The drive bays are hot-swappable. You need to power off the drive (separate power buttons on each bay) and pull it out.
HighPoint Dual-Bay Thunderbolt 10Gbps Storage Dock
The HighPoint Dual-Bay is a great dock that we have here in the office. It was the first Thunderbolt dock on the market (and only Thunderbolt) and we got great performance from it. Since its debut, however, it’s become overshadowed by the newer OWC (above). That said, it’s been very reliable and if you simply want Thunderbolt only connectivity and a tried-and-truly tested product, this is a good option.
Bear in mind, though, that there is only one Thunderbolt connection on the back, so you cannot daisy chain this device (it must come at the end of the chain).
The dock is capable of taking two drives at once – one 2.5″ and one 3.5″, or two 3.5″ drives. It comes with a power adapter but it won’t turn itself on, unless it’s connected by Thunderbolt to a computer (as per the Thunderbolt specifications).
StarTech 2 Bay Dock
This is the 2 Bay version of a range of products that they do. As we’ve said before, we find StarTech to be a reliable and reputable company. This bay supports USB 3.1 for 10Gps transfer speeds and includes UASP support.
The dock is capable of taking two drives at once – one 2.5″ and one 3.5″, or two 3.5″ drives and supports drives up to 6TB.
StarTech 4 Bay Dock
The Startech comes with 4 bays to dock any sized hard drive you like, 2.5″ or 3.5″, including SSD drives, all at once. On the rear, it has a USB 3.0 port (5 Gbps) and an eSata connection (6 Gbps) – although, there are other models without the eSata, if you wish.
The dock comes with two adjustable fans built in to keep your drives cool. It will power the drives down, when the host computer goes to sleep. The drive bays are hot swappable.
At the time of writing this, it didn’t yet support 4TB+ hard drives, so you’ll need to check with the manufacturer as to when (if at all) there will be firmware upgrades.
There are other 4 bay docks, like the Mediasonic, which claim to support larger capacity drives but they have a lot of poor user reviews, mainly to do with drives intermittently disconnecting. StarTech have a better reputation.
UNITEK USB 3.1 Type-C to SATA Gen 3 Lay-Flat Docking Station
If you prefer to lay your hard drives horizontally, instead of vertically, then this is a good solution.
It supports all the latest and greatest protocols: USB 3.1 (10Gbps) and SATA I/II/III. The hard drive can be enclosed in the dock to protect it, although there’s no active cooling.
Also, it uses a different connector to the unit, itself – Type-C USB – which is smaller and less fiddly. Most of the docks (above) use the larger, square USB connector on them.
StarTech Silicone Hard Drive Protector Sleeve with Connector Cap
This is what we are using to protect our hard drives when they are not docked in the docking station. What’s nice about these sleeves is that they have a removable cap, so you don’t need to remove the drive from the entire sleeve when docking them.
They come in both 3.5″ and 2.5″ versions.
Portable Hard Drive Enclosures
Hard drive enclosures come in a range of configurations and sizes. Some are meant to hold a single drive (which you purchase yourself) and offer USB and/or Thunderbolt connectivity.
Some are a bunch of drives that can be turned into a RAID array (for redundancy), either by using RAID software or there might be a RAID controller chip in the hardware of the unit, itself (better but more expensive). The beauty of RAID is that there is data redundancy built across all the drives, so if one drive should fail, you can swap in another one, rebuild it, and recover all your data. Unfortunately, if two or more drives die at once, you are hosed.
We used to love the G-Tech RAID drives but suffered a couple of failures. This might have been teething troubles when Hitachi took over the company. We don’t know. We started purchasing from other vendors. For instance, we purchased the OWC Thunderbay and have found it to be very reliable.
Akitio Thunder3 Quad (Thunderbolt 3)
Hot on the heels of Thunderbolt 3 availability, Akitio gives us this speed demon godsend – a four bay hard drive / SSD enclosure in the same cute form factor as their previous Thunder2 with the handle on top – but this time with Thunderbolt 3 support. That’s 40Gbps on each of the two Thunderbolt 3 channels that are on the device.
This device does not have RAID in hardware, so you’ll need to have your own RAID array controller or run it in software.
Akitio Thunder2 Quad (Thunderbolt 2)
This is the Thunderbolt 2 version of their popular Quad enclosure. It stores 4 hard drives or SSD’s in a RAID array enclosure that comes with a handy carry handle and two Thunderbolt connectors on the back, so you can put the array in a daisy chain. You must run RAID software, however, on your host computer to get RAID features.
Highpoint RocketStor 6328 Portable RAID Controller (Thunderbolt 2)
If you need a hardware RAID controller for your Akitio Thunder2, you can use this. It supports a lot of drive enclosures.
Highpoint RocketStor 6314A 4-bay Portable RAID Array
The HighPoint RocketStor 6314A is a 4-bay portable RAID array with a built-in RAID controller in hardware, so you won’t need RAID software, or a separate controller. This is pretty amazing for the price. When we bought the OWC Thunderbay, we had to purchase RAID driver software to enable the RAID features. Whenever you have to run RAID in software, it’s much slower – but not the RocketStor!
Drobo 5D 5-Bay Barely Portable RAID Array
The Drobo 5D is a direct-attached storage device that holds up to 5 hard drives or SSDs and connects directly to a host computer via Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 connectors, which is handy. You will need to run the RAID in software.
TerraMaster USB3.1 2-Bay Portable Drive Enclosure
If Thunderbolt isn’t your thing, then check out the TerraMaster USB3.1 2-bay, portable hard drive enclosure. As the name suggests, it supports two 3.5″ hard drives and connects to a computer using the new generation USB 3.1 specification, supporting speeds up to 10Gbps.
You will need to purchase a USB-C type connector.
FastDisk Bullet 128GB USB 3.0 Pen Drive
If you are part of the army Rangers or Seal Team 6, you might want something to store your data on that won’t stand out. You know what I mean. You have important documents, right? Special movies that you really need in the jungle.
Well, here’s a great way to blend in. Just don’t pick it up by accident and try to use it in a fire-fight.
FastDisk make a bunch of un-politically correct flash drives, including those who support the NRA. Do a search and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll have to pry my flash drive from my cold, dead hand.
Pelican Watertight Hard Drive Cases
If you don’t want to stump up for a waterproof hard drive and you want to ruggedise your existing hard drive and other travel gadgets, then check out the Pelican line of watertight, crushproof, dustproof, and altogether bad-ass travel cases.
Most of them come with a pressure valve to relieve any pressure build-up inside the case when changing altitude, without letting any water in.
Although, the micro cases (featured here) are not technically “waterproof”, they are watertight and water-resistant. Check the specs on the model you’re interested in, because you’ll often find that they have submersion certificates telling you how long and how deep in the water they can be submerged for without compromise.
Super slim hard drives are essentially hard drives with very thin protective casing, allowing them to be barely larger than the hard drive itself. Most of these come with a USB connector but in some cases might have a combination of USB and/or Firewire / Thunderbolt connections. However, these are mechanical drives, so don’t drop them – especially as they don’t have very much casing (that’s why they’re super slim, of course). They are more sexy than rugged, more portable than durable.
SSD slim hard drives have no moving parts, so they are great for data assurance.
Samsung T3 Portable SSD 2TB
Samsung is a market leader when it comes to SSD’s (which they manufacture themselves). The Samsung T3 Portable SSD is a super fast SSD (Read-Write speeds up to 450MB/S) in an enclosure with USB 3.1 support. They have drive sizes up to 2TB.
Yes, they are expensive but they provide some of the safest data protection that money can buy. This isn’t just limited to the drive but, also, the enclosure, which is rated to withstand a 1500 g-forced drop, which is equivalent to letting it go from 6′ onto concrete.
You’ll need to use it with a Type-C connector.
SanDisk Extreme 900 Portable SSD 1.92TB
If you’re more of a fan of SanDisk than Samsung, then here’s your SSD step-child. Not sure why they are so specific with the drive capacity – 1.92TB vs 2TB? Maybe, they are worried about false advertising?
It sports a Type-C USB 3.1 interface. Doesn’t that feel good?
Transcend 2TB SSD
The Transcend 2TB SSD doesn’t have USB 3.1 (it supports 3.0) but it does have a Thunderbolt connector, besides. We had some teething problems with the 1TB version when we first bought it. Turns out, we had a flaky Thunderbolt cable. Beware of this, as some of these devices are very finicky!
Freecome mini SSD 256GB
One of the smallest, ultraportable SSD’s with the largest capacity that we’ve come across is the Freecom mini SSD which comes in 256GB and 128GB capacities for a really good price. It fits in your shirt pocket (8 x 3.5 x 0.9 cm), is extremely lightweight and very fast. It does run hot, though, so don’t burn yourself!
Unfortunately, it isn’t available in the US (only in Europe), so we bought ours in the UK. It’s great for photographers that want to offload and backup tons of digital images and videos on the go. It connects via a USB 3.0 cable.
Now, if you live in the US, don’t worry. You’ve got great options.
Oyen Shadow Mini vs MyDigital SSD
First, there’s a bit of a shoot out in the ultraportable SSD market between the Oyen Shadow Mini and the MyDigitalSSD OTG. At the moment, the Shadow Mini has the edge with 1TB of storage in something the size of a zippo lighter! The MyDigitalSSD is only at 512GB (as if that were something to sneeze at).
Both drives are UASP compliant for faster throughput and use the USB 3.0 interface.
Freecom XXS 2TB USB 3.0 ultraportable external Hard Drive
If SSD isn’t your thing, then the Freecom XXS is the smallest most portable hard drive (that is not an SSD) that you can find.
For some reason, it doesn’t get very high reviews on Amazon, although we’ve owned 7 of these over the years and haven’t had any problems with them. Yes, they are a tad fragile, because – in order to make them so diminutive – they are basically a drive with a tiny controller all stuffed into a thin rubber sleeve that wraps around the drive. It is literally like carrying a rubberised hard drive in your hand and nothing else. Consider it the BDSM of hard drives. Some think that’s sexy.
Being rubberised, though, it stays on the table – which is good when you put it down on an airline tray table or use it on a moving train. It won’t go flying off onto the floor.
We used to have to buy them in Europe but it seems they’ve recently come to the USA, too.
Kingston DataTraveler HyperX Predator 1TB Flash Drive
This sounds more like a stalker than a drive with a name like that!
Anyways, with all the hoopla around SSD these days, you’d expect that Flash Drives might be a bit passe, a bit long in the tooth – but no! Not if you’re Kingston. You have to have the last word. And they have.
Here it is. 1TB in something smaller than a stick of gum! Lordy, how it puts those SSD drive to shame. Well, I never. You can push me over with a feather. And feather-light this beauty is.
Now, aren’t Flash Drives supposed to be much, much slower than SSD?
USB 3.0 for theoretically speeds of 240MB/s read and 160MB/s writing. I say theoretically, because mileage may vary according to your host computer and interface… but the drive supports it.
Patriot Vex USB 3.1 Flash Drives
The Patriot Vex is really tiny. I mean, really, really tiny. It supports speeds up to 110MB/s but only goes up to 128GB (well, we can’t have everything).
Unfortunately, the 128GB version looks like it was vomited on by a radioactive frog. The other sizes come in different colours, though.
Drobo Mini Ultraportable RAID
If you want to carry a RAID array around in your purse, you should consider the Drobo Mini. It’s one of the smallest portable RAID arrays on the market.
It holds 4 x 2.5″ inch drives and a single SSD. It runs RAID in software (on your host computer) and isn’t the fastest of the bunch (it’s limited to SATA-II speeds of 3Gbps), but it is a convenient way of carrying around 8TB in the palm of your hand!
The enclosure comes with 2x Thunderbolt ports (so it can be daisy chained) and 1x USB 3.0 port. Given the slower speed of the controller in the device, you wouldn’t get much more with USB 3.1, so it’s unnecessary.
Here is a line-up of storage devices for use in extreme conditions, temperatures, or simply when only the best will do.
Bear in mind that while SSD’s are considered to be more reliable nowadays, because they have no moving parts and suffer less from being dropped from a height than their regular hard drive brethren, the hard drives are fighting back in a number of ways.
First, you’ll notice that there are more military spec waterproof, dustproof and shockproof (and even fireproof) drives in the regular old hard drive category, as of late. Second, SSD’s do have their limits and one of them seems to be temperature. Part of the the military specifications is to be able to use the drive in extreme heat and cold, which the SSD’s struggle with. Finally, SSD’s have a shorter mean time to failure based on usage. Basically, the more read-writes you do, the faster they wear out. Generally speaking, they should last you about 2-3 years. Some manufacturers make a special version to last about 5 years under warrant, so pay attention.
Samsung T3 Portable SSD 2TB (or, BYOD)
Yes, I know, I already included it, above – but you just can’t keep a good product down! Read our notes after the product listing, though, because we add a twist!
The Samsung SSD is not only ultraportable but a very reliable way to store data, so we’re including it again here for Road Warrior use. Just to remind you, it has USB 3.1 support and blistering throughput.
You’ll need a Type-C connector cable.
One thing to note, however, about the Samsung T3 is that it contains the bog standard EVO 850, as opposed to the EVO 850 Pro. They are not the same thing.
The EVO Pro offers higher speed throughput and double the lifetime warranty (10 years, as opposed to 5), when you purchase it as a separate component. This is particularly important if you intend to read/write a lot and thrash the drive (video editing, for example). That’s because the lifetime warranty takes into account ‘average usage’. SSD’s degrade the more that they are read/written to. If you use yours more than the average, then it’s going to get knackered faster than the average.
There is currently a $200 price differential between the two but it’s worth it.
If you want the best of both worlds, you can purchase the EVO Pro and then put it into a nice SSD drive enclosure.
Here’s some of the kit you’ll need:
Silicon Power Rugged Armor A80
Don’t you just love the title of this one? Really gives you a sense of security.
Joking aside, we’ve purchased several Silicon Power Rugged Armor products over the years and have never been disappointed. They are shock-proof, dust-proof, drop-proof (1.2m), water-proof (1m for 30 mins) and military spec. Well, that makes me feel better. Let’s see if your Samsung SSD can do that!
They sport the older USB 3.0 interface but that makes it very compatible (it has a rubber plug to make it waterproof). One of the really nice features of this drive is that it includes its own USB cable, which tucks neatly into the side of the device. Also, it’s not tethered, so if the cable is ever damaged, you can replace it without having to replace the entire drive. Very sensible.
It comes in capacities up to 2TB and being a hard drive it’s incredibly cheap compared to the SSD drives.
The A60 is similar to the A80 with a lower water-proof protection rating.
The A30 is half the weight of the A80 but only goes up to 1TB.
ADATA Dash Drive 2TB HD710
This is a competitor to the Silicon Power Armor. ADATA has been in the waterproof, dustproof, shockproof drive market for awhile. Personally, we’ve never used one but you might prefer its styling. Sadly, no USB 3.1 support, just USB 3.0.
You can leave it in the shallow end of the pool for up to an hour, however – it that’s what you’re into.
Transcend StoreJet 2TB M3
Yup, another one of those “military spec’d and tested drives”. I am now imaging a beach full of boffins dropping drives on hard surfaces, immersing them in the sea and throwing them around in the sand in order to reach that all critical military specification!
Sorry, lost myself there… it’s a late night…
CalDigit Tuff Rugged Portable 2TB Hard Drive USB 3.1 (Thunderbolt 3 compatible)
If you’re aching to use your Thunderbolt on that shiny new Mac of yours, then here’s a Thunderbolt 3 supported, shockproof, water-resistant, and dustproof portable hard drive from CalDigit. It seems to be the only one on the market.
Now, here’s the thing… It comes with a Type-C USB 3.1 compatible interface that is also compatible with the upcoming Thunderbolt 3 standard (which supports 40Gbps speed! Not that this drive will give you that kind of throughput, though). Still, it’s nice to know that Thunderbolt and USB are finally standardising on the same cable type! Yeeehaawwww!
ioSafe Fireproof & Waterproof Hard Drives
We’ve never tested one of these, although it would be fun (cue Prodigy’s, “Firestarter”). The really funny thing is, the Amazon reviews have all these complaints of the drive dying of natural causes without a fire coming near it! Oh dear. Maybe there were a few lemons in the batch? Not sure. Test at your own risk.
To be fair, customer support of the fireproof AND waterproof RAID enclosure series from ioSafe is much better, so we include that one here, too, just to round things out.
Apricorn Aegis Secure Key
If you absolutely, positively must use the tightest security to transport your precious files and porn around town with the utmost confidence, you might be interested in the Aegis Security Key.
It comes in a whopping 480GB and includes a key pad on the device, itself. Interesting…
You can enter a pin from 7-16 digits long to unlock the device, so it can be read by computer. It says it’s FIPS 140-2 Level-3 validated (excuse me while I reach for my Google, here) and offers military grade 256-bit AES XTS encryption. Sounds good. Thankfully, this security is OS independent, so I don’t have to run special software on my machine. And there’s a read-only mode for anal archivists.
Oh yeah, and it’s dustproof and water resistant (I should hope so) and IP58 certified.
The Audavi HardTape Extended Temperature HDD is an external portable drive that has been militarised to enable it to be used under extreme temperatures ranging from -30 degrees celcius to +85 degrees celsius. Furthermore, it can withstand tremendous G-Force.
We bought a couple a few years ago and, while they do not go up to a very high capacity (currently, the max is 320GB), they are one tough drive to kill!
They use their own proprietary cables, which latch onto the back of the drive and then have regular USB on the other end. This makes the connection more secure, which is probably required in certain military applications.