Run out of storage on your laptop or desktop computer? Or do you just need an easy, cost-effective way to back up your files? An external hard drive is the perfect solution. They offer the most storage capacity for the lowest cost and are effortlessly easy to use.
If you're planning on using your external storage when you're frequently on the go, we'd recommend a portable hard drive or SSD instead, as they're smaller and don't require a separate power supply. But for at-home desktop use, the drives on this list are the way to go. Here we rate each drive's affordability, speed, capacity and ease of use, to ensure there’s an external hard drive for you, no matter your budget and needs.
Several forms of external hard drives are available, so we've split this guide into three sections:
1: External desktop drives
The cheapest and simplest options, an external hard drive offer loads of storage space, and are great for most users. Even the lowest capacity desktop drives now offer at least 2TB of space, which is enough for over 500,000 JPEG images. And with top-end drives packing up to 16TB of storage, you'll struggle to fill them even if you shoot high bit-rate 4K video.
2: RAID drives
This acronym stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks and means an external drive that contains two or more individual hard disks. But this isn't just to give you even more storage space - it's smarter than that. With two hard disks inside and a clever controller processor, when you back up to a RAID drive, it automatically copies your data to both hard disks. Should one of the disks inside ever fail, you still have all your files safely saved on the other disk.
3: NAS drives
Network Attached Storage - these external hard drives can be connected to your internet router so they can be accessed from anywhere you can get an internet connection. It's like having your own personal cloud storage at home, but with more storage space and no monthly fees. You simply log in to the drive from a computer or mobile device using your private username and password. Then you can view, upload or download your files whether you're at home or on the go, and friends and family can do the same if you allow them access.
Like the sound of a NAS drive? There's just one - rather big - thing you should know. NAS drives are usually sold without any actual hard disks inside. The idea is you fit your own so you can choose the right amount of storage space to suit your needs and budget. See our separate guide to the best NAS drives.
External hard drives
WD is an established name in the hard drive business, and though the Elements Desktop is based around a conventional hard drive rather than a speedy SSD, the upside is you pay far less per gigabyte of capacity. You'll still find transfer speeds plenty quick enough for transferring high res images and HD video without too much waiting, with USB 3.1 connectivity maintaining speed and wide compatibility with most computers. The drive does require a separate power source, but this is the case for most external hard drives. Capacities range from 4TB to a humongous 14TB, but at the moment the 8TB model offers the best bang per buck and is cheaper than most rival drives of the same capacity - bargain.
Seagate's no-frills desktop hard drive certainly looks the part with its distinctive geometric patterned case design. Capacities range from 4TB to 16TB, with the 6TB and 8TB options currently being best value and spacious enough for around 1.6-million JPEG images. The drive's fast USB 3.0 connection gives you speed as well as easy plug-and-play compatibility with most computers. Just bear in mind the included USB Type-A cable may need a cheap adapter to convert it to a Type-C plug that'll fit a modern MacBook.
If you want to transfer files to or from a hard drive more quickly, its rotation speed matters. Measured in RPM, just like a car engine, most external drives are rated at 5400RPM. However there's a rarer breed of faster 7200RPM drives, and the Lacie d2 is one of these select high-performance external hard drives.
With read speeds of up to 240MB/s and linked to your computer via a modern and fast USB 3.1 Gen 1 Type-C port, the d2 offers a compelling compromise between spacious, cost effective storage while maintaining a decent turn of speed.
Currently the 8TB drive gets you the best bang per buck, though 4TB to 14TB options are available. Every d2 contains a professional-grade Seagate BarraCuda Pro hard disk inside, rated for 24/7 industrial use, further justifying this drives more premium pricing.
If you use a Mac, then this is the best desktop storage drive in our opinion, as it offers speedy storage (and a lot of it with 4TB of space) thanks to USB 3.0, eSATA or FireWire connections. Of course, you can also use it with a PC, but the FireWire support – and stylish design – complements Mac machines perfectly. The all-aluminium enclosure gives it a robust and sturdy feel, and it’s slim enough that you can carry it around with you if needs be – though this is still a drive that’s best off used on a desk. It only has a single drive, so there’s no RAID features, but if speed and build quality are your biggest concerns, this is a brilliant desktop storage solution.
No one wants their photos stolen, and with the iStorage diskAshur 2TB external hard drive, even if you misplace it, people won’t be able to access it. That’s thanks to the physical keypad which requires a PIN to be entered before you can sue the drive. It is encrypted with 256-bit AES, and you can even set it to wipe itself if it gets lost or stolen. Its rugged design means your photos are also protected from accidents, and the 2TB storage offers plenty of space for even the most prolific photographers. You do pay for this added security, though.
The WD My Book Duo 4TB external hard drive is our pick for the best desktop storage device for photographers who have large amounts of photographs they want to store – while also ensuring that those photographs are completely safe. It comes with a huge 4TB of storage space – but you can also get versions with up to 20TB, and it can handle two drives which can be set up in RAID 1, so your photos are automatically backed up on a second hard drive. It also comes with 256-bit AES hardware encryption, and automatic backup software (WD SmartWare Pro) and dual USB 3.0 ports.
LaCie's two-drive variant of its Big RAID solution isn't the cheapest for its capacity, but it is packed with high-end features. Available in 4TB, 8TB, 16TB and 28TB capacities, we recon the 8TB option is the best value, as prices rise sharply for the larger models.
For your money you get a pair of enterprise-class Seagate IronWolf Pro 7200RPM hard drives that deliver both reliability and speed, with an up-to-date USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C connection ensuring the drive speed won't be bottlenecked. The drives can be configured in a RAID 0 array where they team up to give you max file transfer speed, or as a RAID 1 array for auto file duplication in case one drive should fail.
If you need even more storage capacity and protection against drive failure, LaCie also offers 6big and 12big versions of the Big, containing six and twelve individual hard drives respectively. That's enough for up to 168TB of total capacity, in a drive case that looks more like a filing cabinet!
The first of a few WD My Cloud devices on this list, the WD My Cloud EX2 Ultra NAS drive is in our view the best overall desktop storage solution for photographers. This is because it combines power, speed and features with an easy-to-use design that means you don’t have to fiddle around with settings to get it working when all you want to do is take photos and have somewhere safe to store them. So, you get a huge amount of storage (we list the 4TB price above but it they go up to 16TB), and RAID capabilities that are usually found on more complex and expensive desktop storage solutions. It also allows you to use it as an FTP server for storing and accessing files remotely, and with the included software you can set up automatic backups as well. This is a device that strikes the perfect balance in our view between features and ease of use.
Using a NAS device to store your photos on doesn’t need to be a complicated job as the WD My Cloud Personal NAS drive proves. It’s remarkably easy to set up and use, with mobile apps for Android and iPhones that allow you to quickly view your photos from anywhere in the world (as long as you have an internet connection). It comes in 2TB, 3TB or 4TB capacities, so you make your choice when you buy – and a USB port is included that lets you quickly back up USB drives and external hard drives with ease. There’s no option for RAID, as it only includes one drive, but if you want the features of a NAS drive without the hassle, this is a brilliant buy.
The best photo-editing laptops
The best recovery software for photos
The best budget laptops
The best portable SSDs
The best NAS drives
The best desktop computers for photo editing
The best monitors for photographers
The 50 best camera accessories
The best photo-editing software
The best graphics tablets for photo editing