The best external hard drive is a lifesaver when you've run out of storage on your laptop or desktop computer, or you need to back up your files quickly. These devices offer a huge amount of storage at low cost, and are easy to use.
A quick word of warning: if you're planning on using your external storage when you're frequently on the go, we'd recommend a portable hard drive (opens in new tab) or SSD (opens in new tab) instead, as they're smaller and don't require a separate power supply. But for at-home desktop use, the drives you'll find below are your best bet.
We've split this guide into three sections, covering external desktop drives, RAID drives, and NAS drives. If you're not sure of the differences, jump ahead to our section on the different types of external hard drive.
Otherwise, read on as we compare each device for affordability, speed, capacity and ease of use, to help you find the best external hard drive for your needs.
External hard drives(opens in new tab)
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. So overall, we reckon this is the best external hard drive for most people today.
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, and we think the 8TB version is the best value. Prices are very competitive with the competition, though, regardless of the capacity you go for.(opens in new tab)
If you have one of the latest Macs, your external hard drive really needs Thunderbolt 3 connectivity to ensure the best possible performance. Plus you want it pre-formatted to work flawlessly with Macs straight out of the box. In which case, this model from SanDisk is our top pick.
As well as Thunderbolt 3 ports, you also get up to 18TB of storage, which should be more than enough for most people. If you consider that overkill, versions from 4TB and up are also available at a lower cost.
Don't worry too much about under-shooting, either. After all, if you find yourself needing additional space later down the line, you can always use that second Thunderbolt 3 port to daisy chain an additional G-Drive.(opens in new tab)
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's 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.(opens in new tab)
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.(opens in new tab)
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.
RAID drives(opens in new tab)
The WD My Book Duo 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 4TB-36TB of storage space, 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.(opens in new tab)
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!(opens in new tab)
G-Technology (recently re-branded SanDisk Professional) has an extensive range of G-RAID drives, with capacities ranging from a reasonable 8 terabytes up to a gargantuan 36TB. It connects to your computer via a fast Thunderbolt 3 connection (comfortably quick enough to let the included 2x 6TB 7200RPM hard drives operate to the max), or there's a USB 3.1 Gen 2 interface for PCs without Thunderbolt ports.
An HDMI port is also present, supporting a 4K/60 HDR video passthrough. The classy solid aluminium enclosure should look great on most desktops and further helps justify the price.(opens in new tab)
Raid drives don't have to be bulky boxes confined to your desk. The LaCie Rugged RAID Pro is, strictly speaking, a portable hard drive. This means it can be used without a mains power outlet, with the USB-C connection providing enough power to run both the 5400RPM 2.5-inch hard disk drives housed within the Rugged RAID Pro.
However, you'll need to connect to a Thunderbolt 3 or USB 3.1 Gen 2 port for this to work: older USB connections that can't pump this much juice will require the RAID Rugged Pro to be powered by an included AC adapter. The device supports RAID 0 for a max transfer speed of 250MB/s, though for data redudancy, RAID 1 is required, and as such you'll be limited to 125MB/s. There's even a built-in SD slot so you can back up images and video directly when on the go; no need for a laptop.
What's more, as the name suggests, this is a rugged hard drive. It's IP54 water- and dust-resistant, you can drop it from a height of up to 1.2m (providing it's not switched on), and it can be driven over by a one-tonne car.
For a more extensive list of the best NAS drives, check out our dedicated guide to the best NAS drives (opens in new tab).(opens in new tab)
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.
This means 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.(opens in new tab)
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.(opens in new tab)
The DiskStation DS218play is a high quality, high-spec NAS drive that offers 1GB of DDR4 RAM, a 1.4GHz quad-core processor, RAID capability and hardware data encryption. But that's not all.
It also works a versatile home media hub that's able to stream images and video to computers and mobile devices, as well as Samsung TVs, Apple TV, Chromecast and DLNA devices. The versatile built-in multimedia players (Video Station, Photo Station, and Audio Station) each work with a supplied mobile app, make it easy to access and view your media files directly from the drive.
It's pretty expensive. And remember, you'll also need to pay the extra cost of two hard disks to make it operational. But if you have deep pockets, this is very much the Rolls Royce option when it comes to NAS drives.
Different types of external hard drive
What is an external desktop drive?
Unlike an internal drive, which is fitted inside your computer, an external hard drive is a device that you plug into it from the outside, and which provides you with more storage space for your files, images, videos and other data.
The cheapest and simplest type is known as an external desktop drive, and contains a single hard disk.
Even the lowest capacity desktop drives now offer at least 2TB of storage, which is enough for over 500,000 JPEG images; plenty of space for the average user. And with top-end desktop drives packing up to 16TB, you'll struggle to fill them even if you shoot high bit-rate 4K video.
What is a NAS drive?
NAS drives are external hard drives that 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, but with more space, no monthly fees and you being in full control. (NAS stands for Network Attached Storage.)
You 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 guide to the best NAS drives for more information.
What is a RAID drive?
A RAID drive is an external hard drive that contains two or more individual hard disks. (Just in case you were wondering, RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks.)
This isn't just to give you even more storage space: it's even 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.
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