Transporting data and creating all-important backups couldn't be easier than with an external hard drive, but which one should you choose? Here we test six of the best, to help you decide which one is best for you.
But before reading our verdicts about each one, consider these general buying tips about choosing an external hard drive.
- If storage capacity is your main priority, a desktop hard drive usually offers more for your money than a portable hard drive.
- Portable hard drives are, by their nature, more vulnerable to damage. Choosing
a drive with a solid, well-made case has more than just aesthetic benefits; it should also better-protect your valuable data.
- If you intend to use your hard drive as a backup device, consider the quality of the included backup software. Some hard drive manufacturers only offer trial packages, while others include far more functional and useful alternatives at no extra cost.
- Drives with faster USB 3.0, FireWire 800, or eSATA interfaces are only worth investing in
if your computer comes equipped with a similarly speedy connection.
- High-capacity drives may initially seem expensive, but work out cheaper in terms of gigabytes-per-pound.
Each external hard drive here was tested for ease of use and transfer speed. A 50GB folder of images was copied to and from the disks over USB 2.0 to compare read and write performance. A FireWire 800-equipped MacBook Pro was used to assess Mac-only drives.
Seagate GoFlex Desk 4TB - £230/$240
The huge 4TB storage capacity makes the Seagate GoFlex Desk the best-value hard drive on test in terms of price-per-gigabyte. Set up couldn't be simpler, with full drive capacity accessible straight after plugging in. Included is a basic backup software package that is easy to use but lacking in features. An upgrade is available, but only at extra expense.
Read and write performance was about average when connected to our USB 2.0 PC, achieving 29.4 MB/s to read from and 19.5 MB/s to write to the drive. The smart casing and quiet operation further serve to make this hard drive a great choice.
Read our full Seagate GoFlex Desk 4TB review
Seagate GoFlex Satellite 500GB - £130/$199.99
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While the Seagate GoFlex Satellite drive offers 500GB of portable storage space, its party piece is the ability to wirelessly stream images, music and video to most wireless devices, such as laptops, tablets and smartphones. In practice this worked very well. Just turn on the drive and in under a minute it automatically broadcasts its own wireless network signal, which was easily connected to by our Windows 7 notebook and Android smartphone.
The addition of a rechargeable lithium-ion battery makes the drive entirely wire-free and further adds to its ease of use. USB 2.0 read and write performance trailed the other drives, but not significantly. A great buy, if cable-free storage is your priority.
Read our full Seagate GoFlex Satellite review
G-Drive Professional External Hard Drive 2TB - £180/$229.99
Designed (and pre-formatted) for Mac computers, the G-Drive design is faithful to Apple's aesthetic. Plastic is banished in favour of a beautifully crafted, all-aluminium casing that bears a striking resemblance to Apple's own products. An abundance of ventilation holes, combined with an integrated heat sink, should also keep this drive as cool as it looks.
USB 2.0, FireWire 800 and eSATA are present for optimum compatibility. Over FireWire 800, read speeds averaged 46.1MB/s, while writing performance was even quicker, at 52.2MB/s. Switching to USB 2.0 provided decent read and write rates of 32.4MB/s and 26.8MB/s, respectively.
G-Drive mobile 1TB - £150/$179.99
For its Mac-specific mobile G-Drive, G-Technology has designed a one-piece aluminium base and sides, topped with a plastic cover. The design combines rugged protection with chic, Apple-esque style and is a pleasantly tactile device, if slightly heavy.
Its 5400rpm 2.5-inch drive is capable of running off a single USB or FireWire port and gives a good turn of speed, delivering 51.2 MB/s read and 44.8 MB/s write speeds over FireWire 800. USB 2.0 is also respectable, at 30.7 MB/s and 26.7 MB/s. A lovely mobile storage solution, albeit exclusively for Mac users – PCs can't read the Apple format, limiting its usefulness as a portable hard drive for sharing files between devices.
Western Digital My Passport 1TB - £129.90/$139.99
This latest revision of the highly popular Western Digital Passport range is the most diminutive portable hard drive on test and can be distinguished from its predecessors by its fresh pattern design on the facia. The enclosure is available in a range of colours and is an all-plastic affair, but one that still feels like a quality product and keeps the Passport's weight below 200 grams.
Connectivity is through a single USB 3.0 port, which gave lighting-quick read and write speeds close to 100MB/s. It is also backward-compatible with USB 2.0, through which it read at a more sedate 30.1MB/s and wrote at a slightly underwhelming 18.4MB/s. The included backup software is simple and effective.
Western Digital My Book Essential 1TB - £89.99/$119.99
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Like the Passport, Western Digital's My Book offerings have developed a wide following. This 1TB version features a vertical design with plenty of air vents and the ultra-fast USB 3.0 interface.
Performance, however, was somewhat disappointing using USB 2.0, since it managed to write at an average of only 18.1 MB/s, although this was partly redeemed by its read performance of 30.1 MB/s. Western Digital's proprietary backup software is included on the drive and works well, as does the no-nonsense plug-and-play installation. A reasonable, budget-friendly choice.