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The best portable hard drives and SSDs in 2021: convenient storage for every budget

The best portable hard drives for photographers in 2021
(Image credit: La Cie)

Looking for the best portable hard drive to backup or archive your images and videos? This guide will take you through the options, from traditional hard drives to SSDs - and help you find the best for your needs at the best price.

If everything you shoot is filling your computer’s storage too quickly – or you need to keep your digital portfolio portable – it might be time to invest in one of the the best portable hard drives. With capacities now reaching a whopping 5 terabytes (TB), you’ll have enough space to save many thousands of ultra high resolution Raw files or hours of high-bitrate 4K video, all while maintaining a pocket-sized storage device.

A conventional portable hard disk drive still offers the most bytes for your buck, but for top transfer speeds, a solid state drive (SSD) is a must. They’re also a fraction the size and weight of conventional hard disk drives, though such speed and portability still commands a hefty price premium over a hard drive. We’ve assembled a mix of both technologies to balance speed with cost and capacity.

Rather than testing transfer speeds using unrealistic benchmarking software, we've instead recorded maximum sustained read and write rates when shifting photos and video to and from a modern Windows 10 PC packing a fast NVMe SSD and Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. These speeds are likely to be less than what a manufacturer will print on the box, but it's a more accurate indication of the performance you're likely to get in real-world use.

Perfect for anything from the best student laptops to the best desktop computer for photo editing, these portable hard drives will give your workflow an extra boost. 

Best portable hard drives

1. Transcend StoreJet 25M3

A speedy and rugged portable hard disk drive

Specifications
Technology: HDD
Available capacities: 1TB-2TB
Dimensions: 129.5 x 82.4 x 18.8mm
Image read/write speeds: 122/122MB/s
Video read/write speeds: 122/122MB/s
Reasons to buy
+Quick for a non SSD+Resistant to shock 
Reasons to avoid
-Not cheap for a standard hard drive-Plasticky, relatively bulky casing

Next to the new generation of sleek SSD drives, the plasticky StoreJet 25M3 looks somewhat cheap and is also fairly bulky. But despite appearances, the rubberised outer casing is shock tested to U.S. military standards and it conceals a special drop-resistant hard drive suspension system. That’s a good thing, as inside lurks a conventional mechanical hard drive, but this one’s no slouch. In our hands it managed healthy read and write speeds when transferring images and video, beating the popular WD My Passport. Both the 1TB and TB capacities are little more than their equivalent WD drives, making the rugged Storejet 25M3 excellent value if you need its extra shock protection. Just avoid the 500GB capacity and the USB-C version, as these offer much less value.

(Image credit: WD)

2. WD My Passport (2019)

A great choice If you rate capacity and cost over outright speed

Specifications
Technology: HDD
Available capacities: 1TB-5TB
Dimensions: 107.2 x 75 x 11.15-19.15mm
Reasons to buy
+High capacity for modest money +Slim and stylish
Reasons to avoid
-STILL not USB-C!-Nowhere near as fast as an SSD

WD’s Passport range of portable hard drives has long been a popular choice for those after spacious mobile storage at a bargain price. This latest (2019) My Passport design is unashamedly plastic but comes in black, red and blue color options. It’s about as light and compact as a conventional portable hard drive gets, though the 4TB and 5TB versions are 8mm thicker than the lower-capacity models. Even factoring their noticeably thicker profile, we still think these are the capacities to go for, as they offer a much better price per gigabyte than the lower capacity options, and for not a lot more cash. WD’s included backup software and encryption software sweeten the deal even more. Downsides? The USB port is a dated SuperSpeed Micro-B socket - its USB 3.0 interface is more than fast enough, but you'll need to keep the included cable handy, as your regular USB-C cables won't fit this drive.

The best recovery software for photos

(Image credit: iStorage)

3. iStorage diskAshur 2

Best portable hard drive for security

Specifications
Technology: HDD
Available capacities: 500GB, 1TB, 2TB, 3TB, 4TB, 5TB
Dimensions (500GB-2TB): 124 x 84 x 19mm
Dimensions (2TB-5TB): 124 x 84 x 27mm
Reasons to buy
+Highly secure+Well made+Easy to use
Reasons to avoid
-High price per gigabyte

Need to protect your shots from the elements, as well as from falling into the wrong hands? The diskAshur 2 has both bases well covered. With its 100% hardware data encryption, your data is secured by the drive itself - no extra software or computer link needed. When you need access, just enter your personal seven-digit pin number via the physical keypad on the front panel. Once unlocked, the drive functions exactly like any other portable hard drive, albeit one with IP56 water and dust resistance. There's even a Kensington lock slot on the side enabling you to tie the drive to an immovable object should you need to.

The only downside is, being a conventional hard drive at heart, transfer speeds fall some way short of SSD performance. An SSD-based diskAshur 2 is also available, and is actually pretty good value for capacities up to 1TB, though prices increase rapidly for larger capacities.

4: G-Technology ArmorATD All-Terrain Drive

Extreme protection for your photos and videos

Specifications
Technology: HDD
Available capacities: 1TB-5TB
Dimensions: 130 x 87 x 21mm
Image read/write speeds: 120/109MB/s
Video read/write speeds: 128/124MB/s
Reasons to buy
+Very rugged+Available in large capacities+Quite quick
Reasons to avoid
-Won't rival SSD speed-Ruggedness significantly ups price-Relatively bulky

With its silicone rubber bumper and internal anti-shock mounts, this portable drive is built for life off the beaten track. It can withstand a drop from up to 1.2m, it's crushproof to 1000lb of force, and it's resistant to rain and sand. A single USB 3.1 Gen 1 connection connects the drive to a Windows PC or Mac via a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 socket, and a USB-C-to-USB-A adaptor is included for older computers. G-Technology claims a maximum transfer speed of 140MB, though we topped out at 128MB/s when reading a single large video file from the drive - a best-case scenario for transfer speed. This is still a very respectable performance for a drive that's based around a conventional mechanical hard disk drive. The only downsides with all this ruggedness is the ArmorATD is noticeably - although not significantly - larger than a non-toughened drive like a WD MyPassport, and you'll need to part with almost twice as much cash for an equivalent capacity.

(Image credit: Western Digital )

5. Western Digital My Passport Wireless Pro

Much more than just a portable hard drive

Specifications
Technology: HDD
Available capacities: 1TB, 2TB, 3TB, 4TB
Dimensions: 126 x 126 x 24mm
Reasons to buy
+Hugely versatile+Well priced for so much tech
Reasons to avoid
-Relatively bulky-Not the fastest

Keeping your media portable is one thing, but what if your portable hard drive could also act as a wireless media server, a power bank, and an SD card reader all in one? You get all these features with the My Passport Wireless Pro.

An SD card slot on the side lets you transfer images straight from card to hard drive with a simple push of a button, while the drive's internal 6,400mAh rechargeable power source also doubles as a power bank to refuel you camera, phone or other USB devices.

You can also use the drive as a portable media server to wireless stream your images and video to a phone, smart TV or any device that supports the Plex media player. The drive's fast 802.11ac Wi-Fi maintains fast streaming of HD video.

Don't expect the internal hard drive to be a speed demon, but given the very reasonable pricing for all capacity variants, it's a drawback that's easy to forgive. If you want all this versatility and SSD transfer speeds, check out WD's faster - though considerably pricier - My Passport Wireless SSD.

Best portable drives: SSDs

(Image credit: WD)

6. SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD V2

A hugely fast yet well-priced portable SSD, plus it's water-resistant!

Specifications
Technology: SSD
Available capacities: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB
Dimensions: 110.26mm x 57.34mm x 10.22mm
Image read/write speeds: 693/496MB/s
Video read/write speeds: 780/564MB/s
Reasons to buy
+Unparalleled speed+Small and rugged+Competitively priced
Reasons to avoid
-Max speed requires very fast computer-2TB capacity very expensive

This is not SanDisk's top-of-the-range portable SSD - that honour currently goes to the Extreme Pro Portable SSD V2, but this cheaper non-Pro version is still the one to go for. That's because almost no computer currently available can fully exploit the extra speed offered by the Extreme Pro, so in real-world use it's barely faster than this SSD.

SanDisk quotes a peak read speed of 1050MB/s for the Extreme Portable SSD. We were able to verify this claim with the CrystalDiskMark storage benchmark app, though achieving such speed in real-world file transfers is unlikely. Despite testing with a blazing fast laptop, we could ‘only’ manage a peak 780MB/s when reading a large video file (a best-case scenario) and 564MB/s when writing it to the drive. Still, that’s hugely fast, and image transfer speeds of 693/496MB/s read/write are equally incredible. It should also be noted that a portable SSD will rarely - if ever - perform as fast in actual file transfers as in a software benchmark.

Capacities come in 250GB, 500GB, 1TB and 2TB, but it's the 500GB option that makes most sense unless you definitely need more space, as prices pretty much double in line with capacity.

• See also The best portable SSDs

(Image credit: WD)

7. WD My Passport SSD (NVMe)

This latest My Passport SSD is a huge speed boost over the previous version

Specifications
Technology: SSD
Available capacities: 500GB, 1TB, 2TB
Dimensions: 100mm x 55mm x 8.9mm
Image read/write speeds: 538/364MB/s
Video read/write speeds: 651/569MB/s
Reasons to buy
+Very fast in most scenarios+Sleek and easily pocketable+Good capacity options
Reasons to avoid
-Video write speed not class-leading-Bland looks

This is WD's latest version of its popular MyPassport SSD, not to be confused with the previous incarnation which is still on sale. The new version has a smoother, more rounded design, but while it looks different, it still goes by the exact same My Passport SSD name, just for that little extra confusion.

We weren't all that impressed with the speeds we got from the old My Passport SSD, but this new one is built around NVMe SSD technology and promises to be nearly twice as fast, with advertised max read/write speeds of 1050MB/s and 1000MB/s respectively. And refreshingly we found WD's claims to be bang-on, as CrystalDiskMark measured 1041MB/s and 1002MB/s read/write rates - very impressive. Switching to real-world testing inevitably brings a performance hit, but the new My Passport SSD still performs well. We achieved an average 651MB/s and 569MB/s read/write speed with video files, and 538/364MB/s with multiple image files. These are marginally faster results than the SanDisk's superb Extreme Pro Portable SSD, apart from the image write speed where the My Passport SSD was nearly 30% slower.

Capacity options include 500GB, 1TB and 2TB, with connectivity being via USB Type-C 3.2 Gen 2. A USB-C to USB-A adapter is included in the box.

8. G-Technology G-Drive mobile SSD

Premium performance and an ultra-tough build

Specifications
Technology: SSD
Available capacities: 500GB-2TB
Dimensions: 94 x 50 x 14.5mm
Image read/write speeds: 307/298MB/s
Video read/write speeds: 410/353MB/s
Reasons to buy
+Stunning speed+Built to last
Reasons to avoid
-Expensive compared to a hard drive-Needs reformatting for PC

Until recently this drive was known as the G-DRIVE Mobile SSD R-Series, and may still be called this at some retailers. Its standout feature is its ruggedized design that protects the drive against a 3-metre drop and 1000lb of crushing force, plus the exterior is IP67 rated to resist dust and moisture. Despite this extra exterior protection, the drive's 95mm x 50mm x 14.5mm dimensions are only marginally more bulky than the non-ruggedized WD My Passport SSD.

Inside the toughened shell is a fast SSD which G-Technology claims can transfer data at up to 560MB/s - impressive stuff. The drive connects via an up-to-date USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C connection, though a Type-A converter is included to maintain compatibility with older computers.

Though we couldn't quite match the drive's claimed 560MB/s max transfer speed, we did clock it at a very respectable 410/353MB/s when reading/writing video. Image transfer speeds of 307/298MB/s read/write are also hugely impressive. Factor the five-year warranty and this drive has every base covered.

9. Samsung Portable SSD T5

Supreme speed in a svelte package, and it's reasonably priced

Specifications
Technology: SSD
Available capacities: 250GB-2TB
Dimensions: 74 x 57.3 x 10.5mm
Image read/write speeds: 308/298MB/s
Video read/write speeds: 415/365MB/s
Reasons to buy
+Blazing fast+Discreetly rugged
Reasons to avoid
-2TB capacity hugely expensive-Not all capacities come in every colour

Samsung’s Portable SSD T5 sports a slick satin metal enclosure, making it arguably the most stylish portable SSDs on the market. At just 74mm long and 51g in weight, it’s also one of the smallest and lightest. Four color finishes are available: black, blue, gold and red. All drives get 2-meter shock protection and USB 3.1 Gen 2 connectivity, which is backward compatible using the included USB-C to USB-A cable. Our 500GB review sample aced all our speed tests, and though the advertised 540MB/s transfer speed may be tough to achieve, you're still assured stellar speeds. We recorded blistering 415/365MB/s rear/write speeds when transferring video, and image read/write speeds of 308/298MB/s are equally mighty.

Read more: How to understand everything written on your memory card

(Image credit: Transcend)

10. Transcend ESD250C

A super-slim SSD, and a bit of a bargain

Specifications
Technology: SSD
Available capacities: 960GB
Dimensions: 120 x 33.6 x 7.5mm
Reasons to buy
+Sleek and ultra-portable+Competitive pricing for 1GB capacity
Reasons to avoid
-Restrictive capacity options

If you're after a seriously slim SSD, this offering from Transcend is just the ticket. Measuring a mere 7.5mm thick, it's appreciably thinner than a typical portable SSD, and though longer than most at 120mm, it's only 33.6mm wide. The matte aluminum outer casing also looks the part, with its space-grey finish especially complementing Apple products.

With the aid of Transcend's bundled Elite software, the drive can be formatted for Windows or Mac, or you can connect it directly to an Android mobile device that supports USB On-The-Go. USB Type-C to Type-C, along with a Type-C to Type A cable are included to allow connection to desktop, laptop or phone.

The drive utilises a modern USB 3.1 Gen 2 interface. Its 10 Gbit/s speed rating is easily enough to max out the drive's claimed 520MB/s max read and 460MB/s max write rates. When it comes to capacity, you can have any size you want, as long as it's 960GB. However despite there being no smaller option, pricing is very competitive, in line with most manufacturers 500GB SSDs

11. SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD

Good if you’re after a lower capacity SSD that’s extremely portable

Specifications
Technology: HDD
Available capacities: 250GB-2TB
Dimensions: 96 x 50 x 9mm
Image read/write speeds: 266/281MB/s
Video read/write speeds: 412/361MB/s
Reasons to buy
+Very compact+Super speedy video transfer speeds
Reasons to avoid
-Larger capacities relatively costly-Mediocre image read speed

The SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD range is very confusing, with several different versions, each offering very different transfer speeds, but while all being named and styled almost the same. This Extreme Portable SSD shouldn't be confused (though it's easily done!) with the Extreme Portable SSD V2 (above). The latter boasts maximum 1050MB/s transfer speed, while this SSD can 'only' manage 550MB/s, though that's still plenty for most scenarios. The mildly ruggedized plastic shell feels solid, it's IP55-rated to resist water and dust, and it’ll withstand a 2m drop. We observed slightly slow image read speeds, but video performance is top notch and a match for the fastest SSDs on this list. This SSD is also pre-formatted to work with both Windows and Mac OS out of the box.

(Image credit: Lexar)

12. Lexar SL200 Portable SSD

A high-performing portable SSD from a trusted brand

Specifications
Available capacities: 512GB, 1TB, 2TB
Dimensions: 86 x 60 x 9.5mm
Image read/write speeds: 384/267MB/s
Video read/write speeds: 448/289MB/s
Reasons to buy
+Decent performance+Small and well built
Reasons to avoid
-Above average pricing-Not as quick as NVMe SSDs

Lexar is a brand usually associated with top-notch memory cards and card readers, but it also offers several portable SSDs. The SL200 is its latest offering, and measures an easily portable 86 x 60 x 9.5mm. Build quality feels reassuringly solid, and the matte silver finish looks the part next to most modern laptops.

Lexar advertises maximum read/write speeds of 550/400MB/s, which is fairly typical for a non-NVMe SSD. We clocked the drive at a maximum 448/289MB/s when reading/writing a single large video file - a best-case real-world speed scenario. Transferring large quantities of small image files inevitably slows any SSD down, but the SL200 still managed a reasonable 384/267MB/s read/write. These speeds are broadly comparable to the similarly-compact Samsung SSD T5, however that SSD does tend to be cheaper than the Lexar when comparing equivalent capacities.

The Lexar SL200 can be had in the popular 512GB, 1TB and 2TB capacity options, and connects via a USB 3.1 Type-C port on the drive. USB Type-C to Type-C and Type-C to Type-A cables are included in the box.

Five things to look for in a portable hard drive

1. Hard drive or SSD?

Conventional hard disk drives use sensitive moving parts, making them vulnerable to drops. SSDs are much more resilient and don’t require bulky bumpers for shock absorption.

2. Formatting: Mac or Windows?

Some drives are pre-configured for either Mac or Windows. This can almost always be changed to enable cross-platform compatibility, though you may need additional software.

3. Transfer speed

Don’t expect a portable hard drive to always perform at its best. Transferring a large batch of image files will usually take longer than shifting a single video file of the same size.

4. Well connected

All these drives are powered by their USB or Thunderbolt connection, and so they don’t require a separate power supply. Most also include cables to convert between various USB port designs.

5. Little extras

Portable hard drives aren’t just about size and speed. Many manufacturers also bundle extras like backup software, data encryption, or even complimentary cloud storage.

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Ben Andrews

Ben is the Imaging Labs manager, responsible for all the testing on Digital Camera World and across the entire photography portfolio at Future. Whether he's in the lab testing the sharpness of new lenses, the resolution of the latest image sensors, the zoom range of monster bridge cameras or even the latest camera phones, Ben is our go-to guy for technical insight. He's also the team's man-at-arms when it comes to camera bags, filters, memory cards, and all manner of camera accessories – his lab is a bit like the Batcave of photography! With years of experience trialling and testing kit, he's a human encyclopedia of benchmarks when it comes to recommending the best buys.