Now that most modern laptops ship with modestly-sized SSD storage, an external hard drive is a necessity for anyone who wants to have a viable backup or a well-managed media library.
If you only need your external drive to sit next to your computer and hold data, any unit with several terabytes of data will suffice.
However, if you want this data at your disposal wherever you go, you are better off getting a hard drive that is wireless and/or portable.
Today’s portable storage market is evenly split up between these high-end wireless options and cost-effective USB hard drives, and many products offer both. But which one is best for you depends on how you plan to use it, as each type offers specific benefits.
The case for wireless is an obvious one, as it allows connections to any Wi-Fi compatible device, including phones, tablets, computers, and even some cameras.
They are also battery powered, allowing you to use them at moments that aren’t otherwise possible, like when you need to offload photos in the middle of a long camping trip.
As for the wired alternatives, many of these hard drives are small enough to fit into your pocket, and draw all the power they need from a USB port.
Because of their simple plug and play design, you can get more storage space for a lower cost, which also makes them great as a backup drive. In either form, an external hard drive is a must-have accessory for most.
When it comes to which drive is best, there is a lot to look at. We considered form factor, feature set, and performance, but this this a market where metrics are borderline meaningless.
Comparing the quoted read-write speeds of two drives is worthless, as there are far too many measurements (including sequential, random 4k, deep queue, etc.) to make a fair assessment without finding two that match. And you won’t. That said, browse on below, and you’ll be sure to find a drive that works for you.
Best Wireless Hard Drives
1. Seagate Wireless Plus Mobile Portable Hard Drive 2 TB
Seagate’s Wireless Portable Hard Drive is an all-around powerhouse of data storage, offering solid storage, easy use, and a long battery life at a fair price.
Like all wireless hard drives, this one creates a personal Wi-Fi network, which means that it doesn’t clog bandwidth on your home network. However, if you prefer, it can join your local network, giving access to any other devices in the network. This network can and should be protected with a password, especially if you use this HDD for backups.
Networked use is pretty easy, and the Seagate Media app is fairly intuitive. Navigation is a snap to pick up, and you can easily change the default apps for different types of media playback. Certain other tasks like uploading wirelessly will require you to reference the handy user guide.
Other tasks like renaming files can’t be done withing the app, but can be done through other processes. The Seagate Wireless can also stream HD content to up to three devices concurrently.
The Wireless Plus has a traditional SATA port in the back, but comes with a USB 3.0 adapter and cable for easier connections. It does slightly add to the form factor of this device, but allows this serve as an internal drive as well.
This drive also packs a 10 hour battery life, though it will vary quite a bit if you constantly stream video or upload. It also can even automatically sync with Dropbox or Google Drive, though this among other functions, are not found in the wimpy instruction manual.
It has a more compact 500 GB version, or a 2 TB model of the same size as the 1 TB model. If you don’t mind the learning curve, there a lot of awesome things you can do with the Seagate Wireless Plus.
2. WD My Passport Pro Wireless 1 TB
The My Passport Pro Wireless from Western Digital is a small, fast, and quiet portable hard drive that offers SD card connectivity in direct appeal to photographers and travelers. Taking the 1 or 2 TB version along on your next trip will allow you to back up or transfer files off of an SD card, as well as any wireless-compatible device that can access the My Cloud app.
Setup can be a little tricky, with some firmware upgrades needed out of the box, but the unique functionality of the My Passport Wireless makes this easy to overlook. Granted, the wireless transfer will not meet the performance needs of someone transferring RAW format images, it’s great for vacation pictures from phones or digital cameras.
The My Passport Pro also offers a convenient 6 hours of battery life when video streaming, or 20 hours on standby. Streaming is quick and fairly lag-free, particularly when you use the drive in Home Network mode, adding it to your local wireless network instead of using its standalone Wi-Fi. This HDD can stream to up to eight devices at once, though you will likely only find yourself using 1-3 at a time.
The My Cloud mobile app is fairly easy to work with, and natively supports video, pictures, and music file formats. PDFs and word documents will have to be accessed through a different device-appropriate app, but this is standard for most wireless HDDs. The app goes through frequent updates, but this helps keep it working its best.
If you think your manual reading skills are up to par, the My Passport Pro is a solid wireless storage solution at a great price. If not, maybe opt for something more straightforward.
3. SanDisk Connect Wireless Stick 200 GB
SanDisk’s Wireless Stick is a flash drive-sized solution for external wireless data storage that matches full HDDs in functionality, despite being a fraction of the size.
The Wireless Stick comes in sizes from 32 to 200 GB, with the cheapest model being under $30. For most purposes, though, you will want the most storage as possible, as you might be surprised how many files you would benefit from making wirelessly accessible.
200 GB is the max volume you can get from this flash drive-sized device, but this limitation is well worth the form factor. This battery-powered device offers a strong personal wireless signal, which can be accessed by up to three devices simultaneously. Wireless streaming is comfortably fast, but downloading and uploading can be bit sluggish compared to other drives.
The USB 2.0 connector offers faster uploading to a single PC, but you will more often find yourself connecting to you Wireless Stick with a phone or tablet.
the SanDisk Connect Drive app to access and modify content on the drive is easy enough to use, though there are different apps for different models of their flash drives, so double check that you download the correct one. The app has a built-in support for common media types, though a few small bugs can diminish the experience. The worst of these is that you cannot skip through tracks in the music player, which is far from a deal breaker.
This drive is rated for about 4.5 hours of battery life, and takes about 2 hours to charge. This is enough battery life for most uses, and can easily be plugged in if the battery is depleted.
The only place where this device truly falls short is its storage. 200 GB isn’t enough to store a movie collection, nor can it hold a backup of your computer, but it is enough for a curated selection of content that would lend well to road trips or business collaborations.
If this isn’t an issue for you, the SanDisk Wireless will offer you more portability than any other wireless hard drive.
Price: $102.09 (15 percent off MSRP)
4. LaCie Fuel 2 TB
LaCie’s Fuel is a compact wireless hard drive that shows off its utility with a cleverly designed gas tank case. This presumably represents your extra reserve, a vessel for the kinds of files you want to bring everywhere. The design also sports a lanyard hook that I am entirely too scared to use. At 4.5 x 4.5 x 0.9 inches, the Fuel is easy to carry along in a bag, and boasts a good Wi-Fi range, within which you can access either 1 or 2 TB of storage.
Though the Fuel has a USB 3.0 port for fast data transfers, you will likely go straight to setting up Wi-Fi usage, as this convenient feature works on just about every platform out there. In addition to the standard platforms like Windows, iOS, OSX, and Android, it has compatible versions for AirPlay, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast, Roku, etc.
Don’t expect the app to have the functionality of a full media player program, but it definitely works for on the go entertainment. The Fuel can stream different HD content to up to three devices at once, and has about a 3 hour battery time when streaming (about 10 hours on standby).
This battery life could be better, as consistently getting another hour out of the battery would make the difference between being able to finish an second movie on a road trip. It does also help that the USB 3.0 port can be used to connect to charge the Fuel on the go.
Like other wireless drives, the Fuel finds itself held back by small issues cause frustration over time. For instance, the software’s automatic organization of files on the PC software can be hard to deal with. And on Apple devices, you will have to authorize the device to connect with iTunes, which is not clarified in the manual.
Uploading files over wireless is surprisingly easy though, making it a godsend when you need to clear space on your mobile devices. Streaming is free of lag or stuttering, and most will probably be surprised to find how useful the a device like the Fuel can be.
5. WD My Cloud 4 TB
While Western Digital’s My Cloud line of external hard drives have all the wireless functionality of the aforementioned wireless drives, it is not at all as portable. This is because the My Cloud HDD is actually network-attached storage (NAS) device. Rather than carry the physical storage around with you, all you need to do is plug your NAS into your wireless router via its ethernet port, and you’ll have local network access to all your files.
In addition to storing your data on its HDD and making it accessible via your home network, it also allows you free online access away from home. This effectively allows it to serve as cloud storage when you aren’t nearby, even though your information is not actually being stored online.
The downside of this is that you need internet access when you are away from home, which limits some of the portable uses. Playback can also be choppier depending on the strength of the network you are using. The plus side, however, is substantially more storage. The My Cloud comes in sizes from 2 TB to 16 TB, in single or dual drive configurations.
If you want to keep a backup of your media drive, the My Cloud HDD has a USB 3.0 port in the back to plug another external drive into your network, effectively expanding the size of your NAS, or acting as a backup for your external data. The dual drive models can also operate in RAID mode, which a great fail-safe against drive failure.
Like other wireless drives, this NAS requires some setup, which will also include making a My Cloud account to login to the app or webUI. Once you figure this out (which does take a bit of networking finesses), you will have access to a number of great features, such as Time Machine compatibility, automatic backups, and of course, media streaming.
One strange limitation is that the My Cloud is strictly intended to connect to a router, and connect make a wired connection with a PC. This could be a deal-breaker for those looking for a dual-function device. But otherwise, if a NAS on its own seems suitable for your needs, it will get you a lot more storage for the same price as a portable wireless drive.
Price: $169.99 (23 percent off MSRP)
Best Wired Hard Drives
6. Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Slim 2 TB
Seagate’s followup to their widely popular Backup Plus Slim is the aptly named Backup Plus Ultra Slim, which lives up to its claim of being the thinnest portable hard drive. Its dimensions are an impressive 4.47 x 2.99 x 0.38 inches, and it is almost entirely silent when you use it. Its single USB 3.0 port offers speedy data transfer and power, even though the cable is a little short.
I received a sample unit of this product for review, and it transferred my entire 1.8 TB music library in just a couple hours. Combine this with the fact that you can easily store it away in a drawer when not in use, and you have a highly convenient backup option.
The drive comes with the Seagate Dashboard software, which offers a useful backup feature, but be warned that the feature will not back up hidden files, so if you have any you need preserved, be sure to unhide them before setting up a scheduled backup.
This software also comes with the ability to facilitate backups to a pre-existing cloud service account, but you have to already have that set up.
Available storage sizes are 1 TB or 2TB, so if you need a larger or smaller drive, you will need to consider options from Seagate’s earlier Backup Plus Slim line. For most people, though, these middle of the road options will work fine.
For sheer performance and portability, the Backup Plus Ultra Slim sets the standard. The lightweight textured casing is a delight to hold, and the plug and play usability all too convenient. The Ultra Plus Slim is one of the best choices for a portable wired drive.
7. WD Elements Portable 2 TB
Western Digital’s My Passport Ultra is a reliable plug and play hard drive that offers great security for those looking to backup their main systems. This hard drive comes in 4 different colors, and is easily pocket-sized at 4.3 x 3.2 x 0.8 inches. It has a USB 3.0 port for quick transfers, and offers automatic cloud backup, provided you have a cloud service to sync it with.
This comes with the fairly basic WD Backup software, which can also facilitate local backup scheduling. It’s nothing fancy, but it does included optional 256-bit AES hardware encryption that allows you to password protect your drive. This kind of protection is crucial for storing financial and legal documents.
The instructions are a little sparse, but the drive works easily without fiddling with any settings.
8. LaCie Rugged Mini 1 TB
True to its name, LaCie’s Rugged hard drive can take a serious beating thanks to its rubber bumper case. This hard drive is a reasonable 3.5 x 1 x 5.5 inches, but its case absorbs shock fantastically, rendering the drive safe from drops up to 4 feet in height. The case is also dust and water resistant, meaning you could use this drive in almost any environment free from worry.
The drive can also be password protected, but a password is useless if not backed up by encryption. LaCie offers free AES 256-bit encryption software as a download, so make sure to find that on LaCie’s website.
The Rugged Mini also takes speed as seriously as security, offering fast transfers via its USB 3.0 port. It is fairly fast and silent, and it vibrates more than other HDDs when picked up (because of the internal spinning disks). 7200 RPM drive is available in 500 GB, but it is 5400 RPM for other sizes all the way to 4 TB.
This drive also comes with LaCie’s backup software, which does a basic set of backup functions, reserving advanced features for those who buy the full version. But all in all, the LaCie is a great backup tool without the full version. And even if all you want to do is store your downloaded movies in one place, there probably isn’t a safer drive to put it on.
9. Toshiba Canvio Connect II 2 TB
Although Toshiba is better known for their laptops than their hard drives, the Canvio Connect II is renown for its high performance and its wireless capabilities. This drive is only 4.3 x 3.1 x 0.8 inches, and therefore easily something you can take along with you, but you can also utilize the included Pogoplug software to host a cloud server on your PC.
This way, as long as the Canvio Connect II is connected to a powered PC, you will be able to access it wirelessly from a private URL. This is a highly useful feature, but it will take some setting up to fully maximize its potential.
The drive also comes with Toshiba’s full system backup and recovery software, which can be handy if backing up your data is your main goal. You can find these silent 5400 RPM hard drives in sizes from 500 GB to 3 TB, and all versions come with a USB 3.0 port for fast transfers. As one of the cheapest 2 TB portable hard drives, the Canvio Connect II is an excellent pick for a number of reasons.
10. Samsung T3 Portable SSD 1 TB
Thanks to Samsung, external SSDs (solid-state drives) are now becoming a viable option for portable storage, even though SSD technology is still a ways off from prime time. Samsung’s newest T3 portable SSD offers extra speed and a compact form to the traditional external hard drive design, as well as added resilience to damage from drops.
Unfortunately, these conveniences come at a cost, as you will be paying substantially more for a portable SSD than a portable HDD of the same storage volume. Because flash memory is costlier to manufacture, the T3 comes in volumes as low as 250 GB and as high as 2 TB. But since this hard drive is only 2.9 x 2.3 x 0.4 inches, it is more than reasonable to use the lower volume models like a larger, faster flash drive.
The T3’s read-write speeds are around four times the speed of a traditional HDD, and still remarkably faster than flash drives as well. It has a USB 3.1 Type-C port and includes a USB Type-C to Type-A adapter for your older devices.
Though it is pricey, this palm-sized hard drive really offers phenomenal performance and features. It even comes secured with AES 256-bit encryption, meaning if you choose to put a password onto this SSD, it will be fully secured from any attempts to access it. Whether it will be a backup device for your PC or a portable media volume for you phone, the Samsung T3 is an awesome addition to anyone’s setup.
Price: $367.99 (8 percent off MSRP)