Skip to main content

Best Mac external hard drive: storage & back-up for a MacBook, iMac or Mac Mini

Best Mac external hard drive:
(Image credit: LaCie)

Looking for the best Mac external hard drive? This guide will take you through the options, and help you choose the right one for your needs at the best price.

The best MacBooks and iMacs are serious image and video-editing powerhouses, capable of pretty much anything you could throw at them. But as good as these machines are, upgradability is not where they shine. If you find you need extra storage space for your files after purchase, you'll either have to fork our a monthly fee to sign up to one of the best cloud storage providers, or you'll need to add an external storage device.

• See also: Best monitors for MacBook Pro

By far the most cost-effective way to get lots of extra storage is to add an external hard drive to your Mac. These desktop-mounted hard drives are powered by a mains AC outlet and attach to your Mac via a USB or Thunderbolt connection. Capacities range from 4TB (4 terabytes, equal to 4000 gigabytes) up to 30+TB, giving you plenty of space for high-res raw files or high bit-rate 4K video.

While pretty much any hard drive can be made to work with a Mac, some hard drives come set-up for exclusively Windows compatibility out of the box and would need to be reformatted to work with a Mac. This is a simple process, but on this list we're only featuring hard drives that come pre-formatted to work with both Windows and Mac straight away - no special set-up required. However, if you want to use your drive with Apple Time Machine back-up, even a dual purpose Windows+Mac drive may still need to be reformatted to be Time Machine compatible.

The best Mac external hard drive in 2021

(Image credit: WD)

1. G-Technology G-DRIVE with Thunderbolt 3

Simply the best Mac external hard drive

Specifications
Capacity: 4-18TB
Technology: 7200RPM hard disk drive
Interface: USB 3.1 Gen 1, Thunderbolt 3
Speed: Up to 255MB/s
Reasons to buy
+Fast Thunderbolt connectivity+Up to 18TB of storage+Gorgeous exterior
Reasons to avoid
-Not SSD fast-Costly for high capacities

An external hard drive for a modern Mac really needs Thunderbolt 3 connectivity to ensure the best possible performance, and with a pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports, this G-Drive offering is just the ticket. The sleek matte metal enclosure also looks the part alongside Apple hardware, and it hides some serious capacity.

The Thunderbolt 3 G-Drive is available with up to a whopping 18TB of storage, though capacities down to 4TB are also available, with more accessible pricing. The G-Drive is pre-formatted to work flawlessly with Mac devices right out of the box, and it's Time Machine compatible.

If you do buy a smaller capacity and find you need additional space later on, you can use that second Thunderbolt 3 port to daisy chain an additional G-Drive, so you won't need to use up another Thunderbolt port on your Mac.

(Image credit: SanDisk)

2. SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD V2

The fastest external hard drive for an M1 iMac or MacBook

Specifications
Capacity: 500GB-2TB
Technology: NVMe SSD
Interface: USB 3.2 Gen 2x2
Speed: Up to 2000MB/s
Reasons to buy
+Incredibly quick+Portable, and powered by USB
Reasons to avoid
-Needs an M1 Mac to really shine-Only 2TB max capacity

If you're rocking one of the latest M1 MacBooks or iMacs, you're able to connect a hard drive using the latest Thunderbolt 4/USB 4 interface. Sadly, buying a hard drive that can utilise this tech is currently almost impossible, but this SanDisk drive is the next best thing. Although strictly speaking a portable hard drive rather than a device that lives on your desk, there's no reason why it can't be used in place of a bigger external desktop hard drive.

And while most external drives use older, slower mechanical hard disk drives to store your data, the Extreme Pro Portable SSD V2 is based around a blazing fast NVMe SSD. This is linked to your Mac via the short-lived USB 3.2 Gen 2x2 connection - the USB generation that directly preceded the current USB 4 standard - but the USB 4 ports on an M1 Mac are backward compatible with USB 3.2 Gen 2x2. That means this SSD can still unleash its maximum speed potential of up to 2000MB/s, really putting the 'extreme' in Extreme Pro!

Capacities range from 500GB to 2TB, which isn't all that much by today's standards, but the payoff is that this is one of the very fastest external hard drives for an M1 Mac. If you're using an older Intel-powered Mac, then we'd recommend the cheaper SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD V2 (non 'Pro') as a portable option. It's slower on paper, but will operate at similar speeds to the Extreme Pro when connected to a USB 3.2 port.

Also bear in mind that both these drives will be pre-formatted to work with both Windows and Mac. However, if you want to use them with Time Machine, they'll need to be reformatted, but it's a simple procedure.

(Image credit: WD)

3. WD My Book

The best value Mac external hard drive

Specifications
Capacity: 4TB-18TB
Technology: Hard disk drive
Interface: USB 3.0
Speed: Not stated
Reasons to buy
+Accessibly priced+Up to 18TB of storage
Reasons to avoid
-Not very fast

If you're just after a serious storage upgrade for your Mac without spending a fortune, this external hard drive from one of the biggest brands in the business is ideal. The Elements Desktop is based around a conventional hard drive rather than a speedy SSD, so don't expect it to set any speed records. But the upside is you pay far less per gigabyte of capacity, and you'll still find transfer speeds plenty quick enough for transferring high res images and HD video without too much waiting.

The drive does require a separate power source, but this is the case for most external desktop hard drives. Capacities range from 4TB to a humongous 18TB, and all are well priced for the capacity you get, but we reckon the 8TB version is a decent price/capacity compromise.

(Image credit: LaCie)

4. LaCie 2big Dock Thunderbolt 3

A Mac external hard drive, plus much more!

Specifications
Capacity: 8TB-36TB
Technology: Hard disk drive
Interface: USB 3.1, Thunderbolt 3
Speed: Up to 440MB/s
Reasons to buy
+Safety of dual hard drives+Built-in card reader & USB hub+Lots of capacity options
Reasons to avoid
-Pricey, especially for high capacities

LaCie's '2big' external desktop drives each contain not one but two hard drives, with the idea being that your data is automatically copied onto both drives within, so should one drive fail, you'll still have a copy of your data on the other one - it's a technology called RAID: Redundant Array of Independent Disks.

The 2big Dock goes a step further by also including SD and CompactFlash card slots, so you can upload images and video directly to the 2big, or import them to editing software without the need for a separate card reader. There's also a USB 3.1 port for even greater data transfer versatility, while the dual Thunderbolt 3 ports allow for super-fast transfer speeds up to 440MB/s, as well as DisplayPort compatibility for supplementing your Mac's monitor with an additional 1080p or 4K display.

Capacities range from 8TB up to a huge 36TB, and all are backed by an impressive 5-year warranty.

(Image credit: Synology)

5. Synology DiskStation DS218play

An external hard drive with internet connectivity, and lots more besides

Specifications
Capacity: 4TB-16TB
Technology: Hard disk drive or SSD
Interface: USB 3.2 Gen 1, RJ-45 ethernet
Speed: Depends on installed drives
Reasons to buy
+Accessible via local network and internet+Media streaming features+Not the fastest USB connection
Reasons to avoid
-Hard disks are extra, adding cost-Some learning required

A NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive is essentially an external hard drive on steroids. It allows your entire photo and video collection to be stored in one physical location in your home or studio, just like a conventional external hard drive. But unlike a normal external hard drive, a NAS drive adds a network connection, so it can be linked via your internet router to your home network and the web. NAS drives are also loaded with a simple computer operating system, allowing you to browse their file contents, view photos and videos, all from a remote location. 

Synology has a reputation for producing top quality NAS devices, and the DiskStation DS218play is a great option for amateur photographers. While offering typical NAS options, it's also a versatile home media hub that's able to stream images and video to computers and mobile devices, as well as Apple TV. The versatile built-in multimedia players - Video Station, Photo Station, and Audio Station, each of which having a companion mobile app - make it effortlessly easy to access and view your media files.

Just bear in mind that, unlike a conventional external hard drive, NAS drives are generally supplied without hard disks inside, so you'll also need to factor in the extra cost of two hard disks to make the DS218play operational.

Read more: The best NAS drives

More buying guides

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.