If all your shooting 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 you can.
With capacities now reaching a whopping 4TB, you’ll have enough space to save many thousands of ultra high resolution Raw files, or around 16 hours of high-bitrate 4K video.
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 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 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 USB 3.1 Gen 2 connectivity.
The best portable hard drives
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.
WD’s Passport range of portable hard drives has long been a popular choice for those after spacious mobile storage at a tidy price. This latest My Passport design is unashamedly plastic but comes in black, white, red, blue, orange and yellow colour options. It’s about as light and compact as a conventional portable hard drive gets, though the 3TB and 4TB versions are 8mm thicker than the lower-capacity models. File transfer speeds may not be blistering, but considering this is a mechanical hard drive, it managed decent speeds across the board. However, it’s value that’s the My Passport’s biggest selling point, with the 4TB version being especially enticing thanks to its incredible price per gigabyte. WD’s included backup software and encryption software sweeten the deal even more.
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.
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.
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.
The hard disk-based DJI Copilot also packs a full-size SD card slot, so at the touch of a button you can back up your shots in the field without needing a laptop. Despite the DJI branding, it’s a trick that works just as well with conventional camera stills as drone footage. Download the Copilot BOSS app and files stored on the drive can be viewed on your smart device via a good old cable connection that avoids any wireless pairing headaches and buffering. The app is slick and works well, however the single button control on the Copilot isn’t immediately intuitive. We were also underwhelmed by the relatively slow image transfer speeds, though video read/write rates are more respectable. Finally, this is the bulkiest drive here, but it does contain a power bank.
SanDisk's existing Extreme Portable SSD looks almost identical to this new Pro version, but the two perform very differently. The Extreme Pro SSD is around twice as fast when reading and writing multiple image files, and it's noticeably quicker when working with video, too.
The drive uses a fast USB 3.1 Gen 2 interface to maximize transfer speeds, and connects via a USB Type-C or conventional Type-A plug, so is compatible with most laptop and desktop computers out of the box.
But while you can use it with computers new and old, your computer will need to be both relatively new and very high spec to get the maximum available speed from the drive's cutting-edge NVMe technology. Even our modern test PC with its internal NVMe SSD and USB 3.1 Gen 2 connection couldn't let the Extreme Pro fully stretch its legs. SanDisk claim the drive is capable of up to 1050MB/s read speed, but we 'only' saw a maximum 870MB/s in synthetic benchmarks. Real-world test speeds of 645MB/s are still mighty impressive though, and will see even high bit rate 4K video transferring in no time.
Factor this drive's compact size and IP55-rated water resistance and you've got what is currently the best portable SSD for photographers.
• See also The best portable SSDs
Despite nearly tying with the Samsung SSD for top spot in the speed stakes, at the time of writing the no-compromise G-Drive SSD R-Series also boasts the cheapest price per gigabyte here for an SSD, with the 1TB version being the most tempting in value. It comes formatted for Mac and therefore won't show up in Windows by default, but the drive can be easily reformatted for a PC using third-party software (and we recommend the free MiniTool Partition Wizard). G-Technology’s case design is thicker than the other SSDs on test, but this reflects the drive’s IP67 water and dust resistance, 3m drop resistance, and even a 1000lb crushproof rating. Its USB 3.1 Gen 2 interface fronted by a USB-C connector is bang up to date, plus there’s even a five-year warranty for extra piece of mind.
Samsung’s Portable SSD T5 sports a slick satin metal enclosure, making it arguably the most stylish drive of the bunch. At just 74mm long and 51g in weight, it’s also one of the smallest and lightest. Plump for the 250GB or 500GB flavours and you’ll get a blue finish, while the larger capacities come in black. All drives get 2m shock protection and the latest 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, albeit by a slim margin, making the 30-40% price premium over an equivalent G-Drive SSD seem high. Samsung does at least include a hardware data encryption feature that lets you password protect your media to keep it safe should the drive ever fall into the wrong hands.
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
The SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD is another ultra-compact SSD. It’s longer than the Samsung T5, but is even narrower and incredibly thin – and has the same design as the faster (and more expensive) SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD. The mildly ruggedized plastic shell feels solid and is IP55 rated to resist water and dust, and like the Samsung drive, it’ll withstand a 2m drop. We observed slightly slow image read speeds – writing photos to the drive was oddly faster – but video performance is top notch and a match for the fastest SSDs here. Our only other complaint is pricing, which at the time of writing works out more than the faster Samsung drive for 1TB and 2TB capacities, though the 500GB version can be found for less than the equivalent T5 and is a tempting buy for its compactness. The SanDisk drive is also preformatted to work with both Windows and Mac OS out of the box.
The WD My Passport SSD takes the prize for best-looking drive, with its part faux metal casing oozing style. It's also very narrow and slim, even by SSD standards, so it'll slip unobtrusively into most pockets. It's bang up to date, too, with USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-C connectivity, but even with this, we didn't find transfer speeds particularly impressive. In fact, they were noticeably slower than the similarly compact SanDisk Extreme Portable SSD, especially when writing data to the drive. At least pricing is competitive for the 250GB and 500GB My Passport SSD models, falling roughly in line with the G-Drive and Samsung competition.
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 an external 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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