If you’re not backing up your files and photos to the cloud, an external hard drive is a necessity. It just might not feel that way — until you need it. “Regular, trustworthy backups have been a fervor of religious proportions ever since I witnessed a writer friend lose an entire screenplay on a faulty drive,” says Ross LaManna, the chair of the undergraduate and graduate film departments at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California. “She never got over it, and, frankly, neither did any of her friends.”
We spoke with 13 experts about the best available external hard drives, and many insisted that you actually need a backup for your backup, either by using another drive or a cloud-based service like Google Drive or Dropbox. “Redundancy is key,” says Ann Elliott Cutting, a photographer and an associate professor of photo and imaging at ArtCenter.
“Do not buy the cheapest drive you can find,” warns Pontus H.W. Gunve, a senior postproduction manager and music-technology adjunct at the City University of New York Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema. “All that time spent on production or in the recording studio will be wasted if your drive breaks.” According to Sean Tufts, the practice director of product security at Optiv, “Malware, ransomware, remote-access Trojans, and data-exfiltration tools are known to ride along inside these [inexpensive] devices. Buy from known vendors from known websites.”
Most people should expect to spend around $100 to $200. It really depends on how much storage you need and the type of hard drive you buy. Traditional hard-disk drives (HDDs) use spinning magnetic plates to record data. They’re cheap and reliable but slower and clunkier than the newer solid-state drives (SSDs), which don’t contain moving parts. If you’re backing up large amounts of data to a stationary device and speed is not an issue, or if you’re on a budget, an HDD is a fine purchase. But if you’re working quickly or traveling with your external hard drive, you’ll likely want to invest in a lighter, more durable SSD.
The best external hard drive for most people
This reasonably priced SSD is speedy, reliable, and — as the name implies — small and portable. You can toss it in your backpack if necessary. Matt Clements, a freelance video editor in Seattle, uses Samsung Portable SSDs because they’re “very fast and conveniently sized, so we can ship them back and forth across the country.” Kellen Dengler, a director and a producer, says his production company, Shoot to Kill, used HDDs before switching to Samsung’s SSDs. “Using solid-state hard drives really can mean the difference of hours saved in data transfers,” he says. “They are more expensive, but they also don’t have moving parts like a traditional hard drive, so the life expectancy is longer.”
The most durable external hard drive
If you’re shooting video and backing up on the go, or even if you’re just a subway commuter who is regularly trading elbows on a packed train, you want something that can handle being jostled around. Nicholas Lea Bruno, a multimedia editor at California College of the Arts, loves his LaCie. “They work well, have a sleek design, and the rubber on the outside makes me feel safer while handling them,” he says. Gunve calls the LaCie Rugged a “good option” for folks traveling with their external hard drive. Bonus: The LaCie Rugged SSDs are encrypted, so your information is extra-protected from those who want to access it without your permission.
The best budget external hard drive
For those who need an external hard drive that can hold huge amounts of data and aren’t worried about speed, it’s hard to do better than a Seagate HDD. “If you’re using the drive for backups, speed is not generally a concern, so you may not want to spend more money to get more speed,” says Roberta Piket, the owner of Geek Girls IT in New Jersey, who calls the “solid and reliable” Seagate Portable perfect in such situations. Chris Johnson, the chair of the photography program at CCA and author of the book The Practical Zone System for Film and Digital Photography, prefers Seagate HDDs. Plus, he says, “Apple uses Seagate drives in their computers, and I have found them to be both inexpensive and completely reliable.”
The fastest external hard drive
If you don’t have time to wait for your files to transfer, however, consider the SanDisk Extreme PRO Portable SSD. LaManna says it’s his absolute favorite external hard drive right now. “Coming from computing during the ancient days of floppy disks, these drives seem like sci-fi to me,” he says. He loves the “credit-card dimensions, 2 3/4-ounce weight, robust construction, and USB-C interface that’s wicked-fast for transferring the huge files created by today’s digital video and stills cameras.” Two terabytes is the sweet spot for size, he says. Dengler also uses the SanDisk alongside his Samsung SSDs. It’s a good (albeit more expensive) rugged option, too, if you can’t get your hands on a classic LaCie.
The best luxury portable hard drive
The internet is in love with the minuscule-on-the-outside, gigantic-on-the-inside external hard drive. “You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better price on this much storage in a more compact SSD, which could make it a great option for people with large photo or video libraries who don’t want to juggle multiple drives,” write our colleagues at The Verge. Piket says it’s a great option for video editors and anyone who needs to transfer large amounts of data quickly. Most other external hard drives with four terabytes of space are going to be either much more expensive SSDs or they’ll be cheaper but slower HDDs. The Crucial X6 is one of the only options on the market with that much space at that physical size and price point. It’s hardy, withstanding drops from at least six feet onto carpet, and it remains cool — even when operating in hot temperatures.
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