After spending 80 hours researching and testing drives—in addition to last year’s 70 hours—and shuffling thousands of files across 13 drives, we determined that the $90 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim is still the best portable hard drive for most people. It’s inexpensive, reliable, and fast, and it’s slimmer and lighter than the competition.
The 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim weighs just 0.35 pound and is one of the thinnest portable hard drives out there, measuring 0.48 inch thick. Through testing we learned that the leading portable hard drives don’t vary much in speed, but with a tested read speed of 87.2 megabytes per second and a tested write speed of 85.7 MBps, the Backup Plus Slim was in line with its fastest competitors. The 2TB model is less expensive per terabyte than other capacities, making it the best value. Seagate also includes handy backup software and 200 GB of free OneDrive storage for two years.
If our pick is sold out, if you already have backup software, or if you simply want to expand your gaming console’s storage, we recommend the $85 2TB Seagate Expansion. It costs a little less than the Backup Plus Slim and offers about the same speed, but it has a bit more bulk, lacks backup software, and comes with a short, one-year warranty. (If you’re looking to upgrade a console’s internal drive, by the way, you’ll often find the Expansion priced less than a bare drive.)
If you’re willing to pay a lot more for a smaller, lighter, and much faster portable drive with included encryption software, we recommend the $200 Samsung Portable SSD T1. In our tests, the 500GB Samsung was four and a half to five times faster than the Seagate Backup Plus Slim. Another plus: If you happen to drop a solid-state drive, it’s less likely to break than a traditional hard drive is. But the Samsung T1 is about 10 times more expensive per gigabyte than the Seagate Backup Plus Slim, so it isn’t the best option for everyone.
Table of contents
Why you should trust us
I’ve been The Wirecutter’s resident storage expert for more than a year and a half. With the help of Wirecutter editor Nathan Edwards—who tested dozens of internal and external hard drives and solid-state drives for Maximum PC between 2008 and 2012—I’ve devised testing methodology and tested a plethora of portable hard drives, desktop hard drives, solid-state drives, flash drives, SD cards, and microSD cards.
All 13 drives we tested this year. Photo: Kimber Streams
Who this is for
When was the last time you backed up all your important photos and documents? Everyone should back up their data, and an external drive is one important part of a good backup strategy.
If you want your drive to live on your desk and never budge, a desktop external hard drive is better than a portable one because it offers faster transfer speeds and can give you more storage for less money. For example, our favorite desktop drive—which isn’t the speediest out there—is about 30 megabytes per second faster than our portable pick and about $13 cheaper per terabyte as of this writing.
But if you’re looking for an external drive that you can (carefully) toss into a bag and use on the go, a portable hard drive is what you need. You’ll be paying more per terabyte and sacrificing some speed, but a portable hard drive can be the perfect backup option for your laptop and a way for you to store photos and other data while you’re traveling.
Most portable external products contain 2.5-inch hard drives, which draw power entirely from a USB or Thunderbolt connection. This means that portable drives, unlike desktop drives, don’t need an additional power adapter, and are consequently more convenient to carry around. Portable drives also tend to be much smaller and lighter than their desktop counterparts.
However, most portable hard drives have smaller platters1 and slower rotation speeds, which translates to slower read and write times and longer waits for file transfers. They’re also smaller in capacity: Portable drives are commonly available in capacities of 500 GB, 1 TB, and 2 TB, and 2.5-inch hard drives currently max out at 4 TB. For comparison, 3.5-inch desktop external drives are commonly available in 2TB, 3TB, and 4TB capacities, and go all the way up to 8 TB.
If you need more storage than portable drives currently offer, you have two options: Buy multiple portable external models or buy a single desktop drive. (Purchasing multiple portable drives, of course, ends up being more expensive in the long run given their higher price per terabyte. Plus, figuring out where you stashed important files quickly becomes inconvenient.)
External hard drives are more fragile and fickle than internal ones since more things can go wrong with a drive in an enclosure. Though 2.5-inch drives are designed to withstand being knocked around a little more than their desktop counterparts, one bump or drop can still lead to catastrophic failure.
You should have one backup of your data on an external drive as well as an offsite backup—on another drive or on a cloud service like CrashPlan—to minimize the risk of losing important files should your computer, backup drive, or cloud service fail (or if your house takes damage). Our pick for cloud backup, CrashPlan, lets you back up to an external drive, another computer, and the cloud simultaneously; several Wirecutter editors use CrashPlan for local and cloud backups.
Should you upgrade?
If you have no backup drive, you should buy one. If your current drive has only a USB 2.0 connection or operates too slowly for your liking, you may want to upgrade to one of our picks. Portable drives today have speeds between 85 MBps and 90 MBps, so transferring a 45.5GB file takes less than 7 minutes. The same file would take 20 minutes to transfer to a USB 2.0 drive. If your drive is making grinding, clicking, or crunching noises, it’s on its way out—you should back up your data to the cloud or another drive immediately and get a new one.
What makes a good portable hard drive
The most important features for a portable hard drive are reliability, build quality, physical size, and weight, followed closely by speed, warranty, customer service, and price per gigabyte.
Your hard drive’s prime directive is to keep your data safe, which means reliability is the most important criterion.2 All hard drives fail sooner or later, but a great portable drive shouldn’t fail before you upgrade to a faster, more spacious drive in a few years.
A portable drive is meant to be, well, portable, so it needs to be sturdy, compact, and lightweight. It should withstand normal wear and tear from being handled often and stuffed into your bag, and it shouldn’t take up too much valuable space or weigh you down.
(Rugged portable drives are bulkier and more expensive than the portable drives we recommend for most people. We tested a couple, but they failed to live up to their waterproof and shockproof ratings. You can read more on why we don’t recommend them below.)
Since you’ll use the drive on the go, it should be as thin and light as possible and must be bus-powered—no power cable necessary. It ought to have a USB 3.0 connection (which is backward-compatible with USB 2.0) and a decent warranty with strong customer support.
Portable external drives are generally slower than desktop ones, but speed is still important. The faster the drive, the faster the file transfers. You’re more likely to use a portable drive to transfer large files between different computers, so a faster drive will save you time.
We considered only those drives with USB 3.0 connections, and we recommend them even if your current computer has only USB 2.0 ports, because your next system will have USB 3.0 (and possibly even USB 3.1 or USB-C). USB 2.0’s real-world speed maxes out at around 35 MBps, whereas USB 3.0 theoretically caps at 625 MBps. The real-world transfer speed of USB 3.0 is much lower, but USB 3.0 is still fast enough that your hard drive—not your USB connection—is holding you back. When you decide to upgrade to a computer with USB 3.0, you’ll be glad that you thought ahead and that you won’t have to shop for another new hard drive.
This year, Windows and Mac OS X added support for a newer, faster standard, USB 3.1. Backward-compatible with 3.0 and 2.0, USB 3.1 works with the traditional USB-A connection that everyone has come to know and love, as well as with the USB Micro-B connector that all our tested portable hard drives use. It also works with the brand-new USB-C connector and port. SanDisk and LaCie have announced new portable drives that use the new USB 3.1 standard and/or USB-C connections. It’s an exciting development, but for the next few years at least, most people will still have computers that support USB 3.0, and USB 3.0 drives will continue to work with USB 3.1 ports.
A decent warranty and strong customer support are crucial in case your drive fails for whatever reason. Most manufacturers offer warranties of at least two years, and some sell additional services with their external drives. With rare exceptions, a hard drive warranty won’t cover the cost of data recovery. So you can’t use a hard drive as your only backup, but at least if the drive fails due to manufacturer defect, you can have it repaired or replaced.
We recommend getting the largest capacity you can afford right now, because you’ll amass more data over time and larger drives generally have a better price-per-terabyte value. Mechanical hard drives aren’t likely to get much faster, so until high-capacity SSDs become even cheaper, the hard drive you get today will be your best bet for a while.
Backup software is a nice perk, but you can find lots of free alternatives and other great options for online backup services. You may want to avoid installing proprietary software on every computer you use the drive with and just stick to dragging and dropping files instead.
How we picked and tested
This year we scoured the websites of major portable-drive manufacturers such as ADATA, G-Technology, ioSafe, LaCie, Samsung, Seagate, Silicon Power, Toshiba, Transcend, and Western Digital for any new models that have been released since our last major update in March 2014. We came up with a list of 56 promising contenders.
We winnowed the list down to 13 portable drives that fit our price, speed, and capacity requirements and had good reviews from trusted sources—like AnandTech, CNET’s Dong Ngo, StorageReview.com, and others—or positive Amazon reviews. Then we tested the drives ourselves, examining eight general-use portable hard drives, three portable solid-state drives, and two ruggedized hard drives.
For each hard drive, we ran HD Tune Pro, a benchmarking program that tests transfer speeds, access time, burst rate, and CPU usage across the entire disk. You can read a more in-depth explanation of the program at the HD Tune website. We also timed a series of file transfers—a 7.07GB folder of photos, a 19.7GB music collection, and a 45.5GB rip of a Blu-ray movie—from start to finish, running each transfer three times and determining the average to rule out performance hiccups.
In addition to conducting speed tests, we tested the durability of our two rugged contenders according to the IPX7 and MIL-STD-810G 516.6-VI transit-drop-test military specifications they advertise. We tossed both drives into a pool 3 feet deep and left them there for 29 minutes, and we then dropped them from a height of 48 inches on each face, edge, and corner. Neither drive survived. (More on our rugged hard drive adventure below.)
For solid-state drives, we used CrystalDiskMark and ATTO Disk Benchmark to test each drive’s sequential and random speeds, and we timed the same set of file transfers we use for hard drives. We ran all these tests on the ASUS ROG G751JY-DB72, a tricked-out version of our best gaming laptop. Its PCIe G2 solid-state drive was more than fast enough to avoid bottlenecking all the drives we tested.
We tested all the drives with both USB 2.0 and 3.0, and we explored each drive’s bundled software to find out how useful and user-friendly it is.
The 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim is the best portable hard drive for most people because it’s reliable, light and compact, and not too expensive per terabyte. In testing we discovered that the fastest drives don’t vary much in speed, so we based our pick on other factors. The Backup Plus Slim ranked consistently among the fastest drives in our tests, and it comes with handy backup software and 200 GB of free OneDrive storage for two years. Today, 200 GB of OneDrive storage costs $4 per month, but the price will probably go down in the next two years, as cloud storage prices inevitably do.
The 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim is the best portable drive for most people. Photo: Kimber Streams
Our pick has a track record of reliability, the most important factor when you’re choosing a drive to back up your precious data. When we first recommended the Seagate Backup Plus Slim in March 2014, it had a 3.63 percent reported failure rate,3 lower than the closest competition’s 4.25 percent rate of reported failures. About a year and a half later, our pick’s failure rate has risen—as expected—but only to 4 percent, with 172 failure reports out of 4,344 user reviews. (We didn’t include reviews of the 4TB Backup Plus Fast, and the total pool of reviews has increased since we last counted.) The other drives we tested this year have lower reported failure rates, but those drives are newer and less popular, and thus have smaller pools of user reviews. This is far from a perfect measure, but it’s the best we’ve got for now.
The Backup Plus Slim is compact, sturdy, reliable, and fast. Photo: Kimber Streams
The Seagate Backup Plus Slim’s sturdy plastic case doesn’t flex or creak under pressure like the cases of many competing drives. It also stands up well to light scratches from keys—only the glossy black sides dinged up in our tests. Although our pick will hold up well to normal bag friction, it isn’t rated to survive any significant shocks. (And, as we detail below, even hard drives rated to resist significant shock can still die on impact.)
The Seagate Backup Plus Slim is the thinnest and lightest portable hard drive we tested, and it consumes minimal bag space without adding much heft. The Slim is less than half an inch thick—0.48 inch, to be exact. I was surprised when I picked it up and found it to be thinner than my Samsung Galaxy S4 in an OtterBox case. Measuring 4.47 inches long and 2.99 inches wide, it weighs just 0.35 pound.
Our pick was the second-fastest hard drive we tested—behind the 4TB Seagate Backup Plus Portable—at transferring a 45.5GB Blu-ray rip of the movie Kingsman, taking 6 minutes, 30 seconds to read the file and 6 minutes, 36 seconds to write it. Only half the drives we tested managed those transfers in less than 7 minutes. In our HD Tune test, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim posted an average score of 87.2 MBps read and 85.7 MBps write. Our pick wasn’t the fastest in this test, but all the variances in speed we recorded were within the margin of error, and we didn’t find a meaningful speed difference between most drives
We recommend the 2TB model of the Seagate Backup Plus Slim because it’s less expensive per terabyte than the 500GB, 1TB, or 4TB Portable models. (In fact, we discovered that most 500GB portable hard drives cost nearly twice as much per terabyte as 1TB models and almost three times as much as 2TB capacities. Yikes!) Even if you have only a terabyte of data right now, your needs will expand over the drive’s life span, and having room to grow is better than buying multiple drives and spending more in the long run.
Software is more of a perk than a crucial feature for a portable hard drive, but we found that Seagate’s backup software is user-friendly. Install the Seagate Dashboard software and register your hard drive, and the interface presents you with options to back up your PC, mobile devices, and social media, or to restore an existing backup. Our pick now comes with 200 GB of free OneDrive storage for two years—a feature that costs $95 otherwise. So far, no competitors offer similar cloud storage bundles.
The Seagate Mobile Backup app for iOS and Android also backs up contacts, messages, photos, and other data from your smartphone to your hard drive via Wi-Fi or your phone’s data connection. Within the app, you can back up your smartphone to a drive, provided that the drive is connected to a computer running Seagate software and you’ve logged in to your Seagate account on both devices. We tested the Seagate Dashboard software and the Seagate Backup app and found that both worked smoothly—after a bit of setup—and offered easy navigation. If you don’t want to use the software, our pick also works as a basic drag-and-drop drive.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
As PCSTATS notes, on the Backup Plus Slim, the enclosure’s USB port wobbles when pressure is applied to the cable, more than on other drives. If you disconnect the cable before stashing the drive in a drawer or bag, that shouldn’t be an issue. Storing the drive properly is important because if that port gets damaged, the data on your drive won’t be accessible until you find a new enclosure.
The Backup Plus Slim’s USB connection can be wobbly, so be sure to unplug the cord before transporting the drive. Photo: Kimber Streams
The Seagate Backup Plus Slim comes with a two-year warranty—most drives from Western Digital, Seagate’s biggest competitor, have a three-year warranty—and our perusal of Amazon reviews turned up more complaints about Seagate’s customer service than about WD’s. However, a two-year warranty should be sufficient, and several drives we tested have only one-year warranties, so we don’t think this is a dealbreaker. Seagate also sells one- and two-year data recovery plans for $10 and $15, respectively.
If you have coverage from one of these plans, in the event your external drive dies, Seagate will try to recover your data and send it back on a Seagate-brand drive within 16 business days. If the data is unrecoverable, the company will refund the purchase price of the plan. However, we’ve seen several reviewers complain about long waits and a lack of communication from Seagate customer service, so keep that in mind if you decide to purchase one of these plans.
Our pick doesn’t have encryption to protect your data from prying eyes. While the option to encrypt would be nice, it isn’t a dealbreaker for most people. If you really need encryption, skip ahead to our portable solid-state drive recommendation.
Who else likes our pick?
In July 2015, CNET’s Dong Ngo updated his March 2014 review of the Seagate Backup Plus Slim. The updated review calls our pick “[f]ast and affordable” and “one of the best deals on the market if you want want lots of storage space on the go.” In CNET’s tests, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim had the best speeds of any portable hard drive (not counting the RAID 0 Seagate Backup Plus Fast, which you shouldn’t get); with results of 125 MBps read and 118 MBps write, it was “one of the fastest of its type.”
StorageReview.com’s 2014 review says the Backup Plus Slim offers “great performance, unbeatable price and one of the best bundled software suites for managing backups both locally and on the go.” The review also calls it “an impressive portable hard drive for its physical size and capacity” and “one of the more competitively priced portable drives.”
On Amazon, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim has a 4½-star rating (out of five) with 4,845 user reviews at the time of this writing.
Long-term test notes
After a year and a half of use, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim is still going strong: The drive from our original tests hasn’t failed, and we’ve encountered no problems with it. A handful of Wirecutter staffers own the drive, and only one has had a problem. (A Time Machine backup wouldn’t run on a five-month-old Backup Plus Slim, and the Mac’s Disk Repair utility couldn’t repair the drive. A reformat seems to have solved the issue, and we’ve detected no errors since.)
If our pick is unavailable or if you want a drive for your gaming console, we recommend the 2TB Seagate Expansion. It costs a little less than the Seagate Backup Plus Slim and offers comparable speeds, but it has a slightly bulkier shape, doesn’t include software, and comes with only a one-year warranty.
The 2TB Seagate Expansion costs a few dollars less than our pick but lacks software. Photo: Kimber Streams
Because it’s less expensive, equally fast, and not equipped with software, the Expansion is the best option if you’re looking to replace the internal drive in your PlayStation 4 (it’s cheaper and easier to find than a bare 2TB drive), or if you need an external drive for your PS4 or Xbox One. We haven’t tested it in those situations ourselves, but plenty of Amazon reviewers say it works.
The Expansion hasn’t been available for as long as the Backup Plus Slim, so it has a lower reported failure rate and a smaller pool of reviews (four reported failures out of 301 reviews for a rate of 1.3 percent). Again, this isn’t a perfect measure by any means, but so far we haven’t seen any indications of widespread reliability issues with the Expansion.
The Expansion’s slippery surface has a cool-looking texture, but it doesn’t add grip. Photo: Kimber Streams
More noticeably plastic and hollow, our runner-up feels cheaper than the Backup Plus Slim. The Expansion is covered in smooth plastic with a geometric pattern—in contrast to the Slim’s premium metallic finish—and this slippery surface looks textured but doesn’t add any depth to the grip. When I first pulled the drive out of the box, I was concerned about its sliding from my hand onto the floor, but I’ve managed not to drop it yet.
The Expansion (bottom) is just barely larger and heavier than the Backup Plus Slim. Photo: Kimber Streams
The Expansion is a little bulkier than the Backup Plus Slim, but it’s still smaller and lighter than all the other hard drives we tested. Our runner-up weighs 0.37 pound—only about 0.02 pound more than the Slim—and measures 4.61 inches long, 3.15 inches wide, and 0.58 inches thick (versus the Slim’s dimensions of 4.47 by 2.99 by 0.48 inches). The Expansion is no elephant, and the size difference between it and our pick is negligible.
In our tests the Expansion was about as fast as the Backup Plus Slim. The Expansion had a tiny edge in the HD Tune test, clocking in at 88.6 MBps read and 87.8 MBps write while the Slim posted results of 87.2 MBps read and 85.7 MBps write. The Slim, however, was faster in all our file-transfer tests. This means the two drives have similar speeds, and all our results varied within the margin of error for these tests.
The Expansion’s biggest advantage over the Backup Plus Slim is its price. Storage prices fluctuate often, but the Seagate Expansion is usually about $5 cheaper than our pick. (As with the Slim, the 2TB version of the Expansion is the most cost-effective choice.)
But that price difference brings a few trade-offs. First, compared with our pick, the Expansion has a shorter warranty. The Expansion’s one-year warranty is common among basic portable hard drives with no additional features, but it’s half as long as the Backup Plus Slim’s two-year warranty. We don’t think this is a dealbreaker because Seagate’s drives have proven to be reliable, and if something goes amiss, a longer warranty won’t save your data anyway.
Second, the Expansion doesn’t come with backup software. It works just fine as a drag-and-drop drive, though. In fact, if you don’t plan to use Seagate’s software at all, the Expansion may be a better option than the Backup Plus Slim because it’s less expensive and just as fast. (The Seagate Expansion+, available only in Target stores, comes with a limited version of the Seagate Backup software, but it’s hard to find and likely more expensive than the basic Expansion, so we don’t recommend it.)
The Expansion’s USB port can wobble like the Backup Plus Slim’s can. Don’t store the drive with the cord attached. Photo: Kimber Streams
Like the Backup Plus Slim, the Expansion lacks built-in encryption to lock down your data. Most people don’t need this feature; if you do, read about our solid-state pick below. The Expansion also has the same wobbly USB port as the Slim, which (as we mention above) isn’t a problem if you take care to remove the cord before storing the drive.
CNET’s Dong Ngo reviewed the Seagate Expansion and writes that it “quickly copies files and offers a ton of storage for the money. It’s also compact enough to fit in your pocket and its no frills approach makes it easy to use with both computers and game consoles.” Ngo dings the drive for its lack of backup software, the short warranty, and the absence of security features.
The Seagate Expansion currently has a 4.8-star rating on Amazon (out of five) across 469 user reviews.
A solid-state upgrade
If you’re willing to pay a lot more for a smaller, lighter, and faster portable drive with included encryption software, we recommend the Samsung Portable SSD T1. In our tests, the 500GB Samsung clocked sequential read and write speeds of 428.7 MBps and 398.4 MBps, respectively—finishing between four and a half and five times faster than the Seagate Backup Plus Slim. Because solid-state drives don’t have moving parts, the Samsung is also less likely than our traditional hard drive pick to break if you drop it. However, the Samsung costs about 10 times more per gigabyte than the Seagate Backup Plus Slim does, so it isn’t affordable for most people yet.
The Samsung T1 is the best portable solid-state drive so far. Photo: Kimber Streams
Solid-state drives like the Samsung T1 are more reliable than portable hard drives. SSDs lack moving parts, and as such are less susceptible than mechanical drives to total failure when dropped or jostled. Instead, solid-state drives wear out a bit every time you write data to them. However, you’d have to write hundreds of terabytes of data to even begin wearing out the drive, and most people write far less than that.
The Samsung is especially small next to the Seagate Backup Plus Slim. Photo: Kimber Streams
The Samsung T1, covered in textured plastic, feels practically hollow at just 1.1 ounces. It isn’t designed to stand up to significant abuse, but it will survive falling a short distance onto an office floor and being shoved into a backpack beneath other gear. The T1 measures 2.8 inches long, 2.1 inches wide, and 0.4 inch thick—everyone I’ve handed it to has been amazed at how small and light it is. It’s the smallest and lightest of the portable SSDs we considered. The T1 is less than half the size of the Backup Plus Slim (as you can see in the above photo) and about a fifth of the weight.
The Samsung T1 was between four and a half and five times faster than our hard drive pick, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim.
The 500GB Samsung T1 was the fastest of the portable solid-state drives we tested in the CrystalDiskMark test, with sequential read and write speeds of 428.7 MBps and 398.4 MBps, respectively. It didn’t surpass the Transcend and MyDigitalSSD drives in every test we ran, but it never lagged far behind. In our synthetic benchmarks, the Samsung T1 was between four and a half and five times faster than our hard drive pick, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim. Transferring a Blu-ray movie to the Samsung took 2 minutes, 45 seconds, a result that was about two and a half times faster than the Seagate’s result of 6 minutes, 36 seconds.
The Samsung T1 is smaller, lighter, faster, and more durable than our hard drive recommendation, but it costs nearly 10 times more per gigabyte—about 45 cents per gigabyte versus the Seagate Backup Plus Slim’s 4 cents. Hard drive storage tends to be less expensive at higher capacities, but the portable solid-state drives we tested cost about the same across all capacities. We recommend buying the largest capacity of the T1 you can afford, because Samsung doesn’t offer a significant discount per gigabyte at larger capacities. That said, we think the 500GB model is the sweet spot for most people since the 250GB version is too small and the 1TB model costs $450.
If you encrypt the Samsung T1, don’t lose your password. You’ll never see your data again.
The Samsung T1 is the only portable SSD we tested with encryption—specifically AES-256 hardware encryption—but that feature has drawbacks. Samsung’s software is required to set up the drive, enable encryption, and unlock the drive, and this software works only on Windows and OS X. As a result, you need a Windows or OS X machine to set up the drive initially, otherwise all you can see is a 128MB partition. It’s inconvenient (sorry, Linux and Chromebook owners), but not a dealbreaker.
If you encrypt the T1 … you won’t be able to unlock the drive or access any data on a computer without Windows or OS X.
If you encrypt the T1 through Samsung’s software, you won’t be able to unlock the drive or access any data on a computer without Windows or OS X. Similarly, if you forget your password to decrypt the drive, all your data is gone forever, and you’ll have to send the drive to Samsung for a factory reset. Samsung makes the encryption optional, though, so if you worry about losing the password or need to use the drive on an unsupported OS, don’t encrypt the drive.
Even with the cord plugged in, our SSD pick is still the smallest drive we tested. Photo: Kimber Streams
The Samsung’s USB cord is short—a little over 4 inches when plugged in—which can be inconvenient. However, we prefer it to the long, unwieldy cords of the other portable solid-state drives we tried, which were awkward to transport and store. The Samsung T1 comes with a three-year warranty—longer coverage than our Seagate picks have, but in line with the warranties of the other solid-state drives we tested.
The other portable solid-state drives we tested were larger and equipped with unwieldy USB cords. Photo: Kimber Streams
“The Samsung Portable SSD T1 is tiny yet super-fast,” CNET’s Dong Ngo writes. “The drive has up to 1TB of storage space, supports data encryption and works with both Mac and Windows.” Ngo concludes: “Other than its cost, the Samsung Portable SSD T1 is what any portable drive should be.”
Lyle Smith of StorageReview.com says: “[A]n incredibly portable storage solution with a slick premium build and great performance to boot; however, its price tag will limit its addressable audience.”
PC Gamer’s Wes Fenlon writes: “The only thing that makes the T1 tough to recommend as an instant purchase is the price.” In conclusion, Fenlon says, the Samsung is “[a] fast, incredibly compact portable SSD, but a bit too expensive to be practical for everyday file transfers.”
The Samsung T1 currently has a 4.2-star rating (out of five) on Amazon across 281 user reviews.
Don’t buy a rugged portable hard drive
We tested the two most promising affordable rugged hard drives: our former rugged pick, the Silicon Power Armor A80, and the newer Silicon Power Armor A65. Based on our research and speed tests, the Silicon Power Armor A65 looked like the obvious winner between the two—it’s cheaper, lighter, and faster than the A80. The A65 is also rated to withstand dust, while the older A80 is not.
Both hard drives are rated to survive going as deep as one meter (about 3.3 feet) underwater for up to 30 minutes, and both are rated to survive 26 drops on their myriad surfaces from 4 feet. So we tested the ruggedness of both drives by tossing them into a pool 3 feet deep and leaving them there for 29 minutes, and then dropping them from a height of 4 feet on each face, edge, and corner. Neither drive survived.
Photo: Kimber Streams
I reassembled the enclosures and plugged in the drives to find my movie intact and the drives completely healthy. So I dropped them on the floor.
After 29 minutes in the pool, both drives were sopping wet inside, with water leaking from their USB ports. They did not work. I ripped the casings open4 and left the bare drives and USB-to-SATA connectors in dry rice overnight in a pessimistic-but-dutiful attempt to revive the drives (and access the movie I’d stashed there before the test). To my surprise, both the A65 and A80 dried out. I reassembled the enclosures and plugged in the drives to find my movie intact and the drives completely healthy. So I dropped them on the floor.
Both drives were covered in water when we removed them from their casings. Photo: Kimber Streams
The A80 survived 16 drops, but our computer stopped recognizing it after its 17th impact, on the top edge of the drive. The A65 lasted just one drop longer, refusing to connect to a computer after its 18th collision with the floor, on the bottom edge of the casing. (We opened the drives up again to look for any loose connectors we could fix, but no dice.) In short, neither drive survived the abuse they’re advertised to endure.
We don’t recommend a rugged portable drive for most people.
As such, we don’t recommend a rugged portable drive for most people. The two best-rated and most-affordable drives in our research don’t live up to their water and shock ratings, and the other options are all overkill and far more expensive. If you’re concerned about dropping your drive, you should consider a solid-state drive. They cost more, but they offer faster performance, and your data won’t fall victim to butterfingers. If you’re worried about water, get a Loksak to protect your drive.
From top, left to right: Toshiba Canvio Connect II, WD My Passport Ultra, Seagate Backup Plus 4TB, Seagate Expansion, Seagate Backup Plus Slim, Toshiba Canvio Basics, WD My Passport Ultra Metal, WD My Passport X. Photo: Kimber Streams
The Seagate Backup Plus 4TB was the fastest drive in our HD Tune benchmark, with respective read and write speeds of 99.7 MBps and 92.7 MBps. It’s a great drive, but it’s more expensive per terabyte than our pick, and because it’s so new, it has little reliability data. It should be a good choice if you need more than 2 TB of storage and don’t want a desktop drive.
The WD My Passport Ultra was our runner-up in 2014, but the 2015 version of the drive is slower, more expensive per terabyte, and bulkier than the Seagate Backup Plus Slim and Seagate Expansion. Plus, its glossy surface scratches easily and shows every smudge and fingerprint.
Toshiba’s Canvio Connect II is also thicker and heavier than our picks, and in our research it wound up with an extrapolated reported failure rate of 3.1 percent, with four reported failures out of 129 customer reviews. Toshiba’s software was less useful than Seagate’s or WD’s in our tests, and the Canvio Connect II also came bundled with some useless bloatware. (Like the exterior of the WD My Passport Ultra, the Canvio Connect II’s glossy surface shows scratches and smudges.)
The WD My Passport Ultra Metal is slower, heavier, and more expensive than the regular Ultra. Its metal top is a nice design touch, but the bottom of the drive is still plastic. Overall, this model is not worth the extra cost over the Ultra (or over our picks).
WD’s My Passport X is a gaming-focused drive with a short, one-year warranty and no software. Of all the drives we tested, it had the slowest HD Tune reads and writes—82.5MBps and 77.4MBps, respectively—and it’s larger and heavier than our picks.
The Toshiba Canvio Basics has a one-year warranty, no software, and a bulkier design than either of our picks.
Clockwise from top: Samsung Portable SSD T1, MyDigitalSSD OTG, Transcend ESD400K Portable SSD. Photo: Kimber Streams
Measuring 3.6 by 2.4 by 0.4 inches and weighing nearly 2 ounces, the Transcend ESD400K Portable SSD was the largest portable SSD we tested. It comes with a long, 18-inch USB cord, too. Transcend’s backup software is difficult to navigate, and the ESD400K does not have encryption.
The MyDigitalSSD OTG is similar to the Samsung T1 in size, weight, and speed, but the drive casing feels creaky, and its USB cable has a bulky ferrite bead in its center. The OTG comes with no software, and on our test machine the drive failed to mount multiple times.
The Silicon Power Armor A65 (left) and Silicon Power Armor A80 (right) sitting at the bottom of a pool. Photo: Kimber Streams
The Silicon Power Armor A65 was the faster, lighter, and cheaper of the two rugged hard drives we tested, plus it comes in two versions, preformatted for either Mac or Windows. But it failed to live up to its IPX7 water-resistance and shock-resistance ratings, so it isn’t worth buying over a regular portable hard drive.
The Silicon Power Armor A80 is heavier, slower, and a little more expensive than the A65, and it too failed our water- and drop-resistance tests.
We also dismissed a number of drives without testing them for various reasons.
The Seagate Game Drive for Xbox is more expensive per terabyte than either of our picks. The WD Elements Portable is more expensive, thicker, slower according to CNET, and backed by only a one-year warranty. The ADATA DashDrive HV620 is too expensive per terabyte and has few user reviews.
The Toshiba Canvio Slim II and WD My Passport Air don’t come in 2TB or higher capacities.
We don’t think wireless portable hard drives like the WD My Passport Wireless, Seagate Wireless Plus, Seagate Wireless Mobile, and Toshiba Canvio Aerocast are useful for most people at this point, because they’re more expensive, bulkier, and saddled with poor user reviews.
The Seagate Backup Plus Fast and WD My Passport Pro each contain two drives in a RAID 0 configuration, which makes them faster but twice as likely to fail. These drives aren’t a good choice for backing up data.
The $780 Elgato Thunderbolt Drive+ is faster than the Samsung T1 according to CNET’s tests, but it’s significantly pricier and bulkier. Most people don’t need to spend that much for a portable SSD.
The LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt costs twice as much as the Samsung T1 for the same amount of storage. It’s still the best option for professionals who need a rugged Thunderbolt drive, but it’s overkill for everyone else. The G-Technology G-DRIVE ev SSD is also larger and twice as expensive as the Samsung.
All the other SSDs we looked at—the Angelbird SSD2go, Angelbird SSD2go pocket, Brinell Drive SSD, Brinell SSD EVO, LaCie Porsche Slim, Monster Digital Overdrive 3.0, MyDigitalSSD PocketVault, Oyen Digital Shadow Mini, Oyen Digital U32 Shadow, and Transcend Thunderbolt SSD—were larger than our pick, too expensive, slower, or some combination of the three.
We eliminated 10 rugged drives that lack both water and drop protection, which left us with the G-Technology G-DRIVE ev ATC, the ioSafe Rugged Portable, and the LaCie Rugged RAID, all of which are too expensive for most people.
Care and maintenance
Hard drives and SSDs aren’t meant to withstand water, shocks, or extreme temperatures, so you should store your external drive in a dry, temperate location. Always disconnect the USB cord from the port before stowing the portable drive in a bag or desk drawer. The USB connection is the weakest point in many external drives, and if you break the port, you won’t be able to access your data without buying a new enclosure or getting professional help.
Some drives come with drive-health analysis software, and similar utilities are built into operating systems or available for free online. However, Google’s 2007 disk-failure study—which focused on 3.5-inch desktop hard drives—found that SMART drive monitoring wasn’t good at predicting drive failures, despite being designed to do exactly that. In the study, 56 percent of the failed drives didn’t raise flags in any of the four SMART categories Google deemed most likely to predict a failure, and 36 percent didn’t trigger flags in any category at all except, in some cases, temperature.
Even the best-maintained hard drives can fail, so a warranty is your next best protection. When you purchase a drive, register it with the manufacturer right away so if an issue does crop up, you can resolve it and get a replacement drive as quickly and painlessly as possible. This step won’t save your data, though, so you should make sure that any data on your portable drive has a backup elsewhere.
How to format your external hard drive
Different operating systems use different file systems to process data, and if you buy an external drive you may need to reformat it to work with your operating system of choice. Many manufacturers advertise their drives as being compatible with both Windows and Mac. This claim is technically true because any drive accepts reformatting, but most drives come preformatted for Windows out of the box, and many users end up feeling misled as a result.
Non-Linux computers can use four main file systems: NTFS, HFS+, FAT32, and exFAT. NTFS is native to Windows, and most hard drives—including our pick and runner-up—come preformatted for this file system. However, OS X and Linux can only read files stored that way, and cannot write to an NTFS-formatted drive. HFS+ is the default OS X file system, and a drive formatted this way will not mount on a Windows computer without additional software.
FAT32 can work between Mac and Windows computers but doesn’t support files larger than 4 GB, which means you won’t be able to back up movies and other large files. exFAT also works between OS X and Windows, and doesn’t have the 4GB size limit. However, like FAT32, exFAT doesn’t work with File History or Time Machine.
So which file system is right for you? If you plan to use your drive for File History or Time Machine backups, or if you use only one operating system, stick to NTFS for Windows or HFS+ for Mac. If you need to transfer large files between Mac and Windows computers—and if you plan to back up your data without File History or Time Machine—exFAT is the best option.
Reformatting a drive will delete all the data stored on that drive, so if you need to reformat a drive, do so as soon as you buy it. If you already have data stored on the drive, back that data up elsewhere, reformat the drive, and then put your data back on the drive.
How to reformat your drive in Windows. (We’re showing Windows 8 here, but Windows 10 looks identical except for more modern icons.)
To reformat a drive on Windows, plug in the drive and open Windows Explorer. Right-click the drive and choose “format” from the drop-down menu. Under “File system” select the file system you want, give your drive a name under “Volume label,” and make sure the “Quick Format” box is checked. Click “Start,” and the computer will reformat your drive.
How to reformat your drive in OS X (El Capitan shown).
To reformat your drive for OS X, plug in the drive and open the Finder. Click the “Go” menu, select “Utilities” from the drop-down menu, and open Disk Utility. Choose your external drive from the left sidebar, and click “Erase.” Give your drive a name in the “Name” field and select the file system you want from the “Format” drop-down. Click “Erase,” and the system will reformat your drive.
What to look forward to
All storage gradually drops in price over time, and in the coming years we hope to see solid-state portable drives become even more affordable. As new drives are released, we’ll be sure to test them and to update this guide with our findings.
1. Mechanical hard drives use spinning platters to store data, and they read data with an arm that travels over the platter. Picture a record player with several records and several arms arranged in a stack, and you’ve got the idea. Jump back.
2. Unfortunately, we could find no public, comprehensive studies that examine failure rates in drives by specific manufacturers. Google conducted one such study in 2007 and found a strong correlation between certain manufacturers and failure rates, but it elected not to release that information. A recent study by Backblaze doesn’t give a clear picture of which manufacturers offer more reliable drives, because it includes a bad batch of Seagate drives—which the manufacturer has acknowledged—as well as drives over three years old, which are more prone to failure. The study also focuses solely on desktop hard drives, with some Seagate and WD drives having been pulled from external enclosures. In addition, Backblaze used all the drives in a high-vibration enterprise setting, which can negatively affect the life span of a drive.
Another, previous study by Backblaze examines hard drive failures over time, though it has no data on specific manufacturers. The conclusion: Failures resulting from manufacturing defects or other causes usually occur early in a drive’s life span, whereas random failures can occur at any point throughout a hard drive’s life and failures from worn-out parts tend to spike after three years.
Backblaze reports that the average annual failure rate in the first 18 months is 5.1 percent; it then drops to 1.4 percent for the next one and a half years. After three years, the failure rate spikes to 11.8 percent per year due to a combination of random failures and aging parts. In short, about 90 percent of the drives in the Backblaze study lasted three years, and nearly 80 percent lasted four years. Jump back.
3. We calculated the failure rate by reading every single Amazon review for the drives we tested and tallying up the reports of dead drives. (We had to read them all because context is important; a clicking noise indicates a dead drive even if the review writer doesn’t know it, for example, and we didn’t count drives that died after long falls onto pavement.) The reported failure rate is not necessarily indicative of the actual failure rate since people are more likely to write a negative review if something breaks than a positive review if it’s working as it should. Manufacturer tampering is also a possibility, as it’s difficult to spot fake or solicited reviews (e.g. “get a free gift or discount for reviewing our product” situations). This statistic favors newer drives, too, since older models are more likely to fail. Nonetheless, it’s the best instrument we could come up with in the absence of detailed warranty-claim statistics. Jump back.
4. Tearing open the A65 can permanently damage the drive’s “water-tight” seal because it requires prying up a piece of plastic secured with glue. The A80 has no glued-down parts, so (theoretically) taking the casing apart and putting it back together shouldn’t negatively affect the drive’s water resistance. Jump back.