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The Best Portable Hard Drive Today

By Seamus Bellamy, Wirecutter

If you’re looking for a portable hard drive, you should consider picking up Western Digital’s 2 TB My Passport Ultra. It’s a USB 3.0-connected portable drive that costs $150 and offers the best combination of storage space, speed, features, critical-acclaim and warranty protection of any drive we looked at.

If you’re looking for a portable hard drive, you should consider picking up Western Digital’s 2 TB My Passport Ultra. It’s a USB 3.0-connected portable drive that costs $150 and offers the best combination of storage space, speed, features, critical-acclaim and warranty protection of any drive we looked at.

Who’s This For?

Any laptop user who needs access to external storage on the road or a drive to back up their machine to while traveling, or anyone who values portability over performance or storage space per dollar. While desktop storage solutions (like our current favorite, the Buffalo DriveStation DDR) might be faster and boast a larger storage capacity, they require external power to function and aren’t all that portable. Portable drives, on the other hand, typically have 2.5” hard drives spinning away inside of their enclosures and only need the power provided by the USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt port they’re connected to.

Someone who needs a more rugged drive so they don’t have to sweat tossing it into a bag (at a price premium) should get the alternative pick we have listed below.

When to Not Go Portable

Despite their light weight and portability, there’s a few things that portable drives don’t do well.

They’re not as fast as their desktop counterparts for a few reasons. To keep the size and the amount of power a portable drive needs to operate low enough so that it can be powered by a USB connection, most companies put 2.5″ hard drives (the kind you’ll find in most laptops) inside their drive enclosures. 2.5″ drives often (but not always) spin at slower speeds than their 3.5″ counterparts (generally 5,400 rpm versus 7,200 rpm). Slower rotation speeds and smaller platters translate into slower read and write times. You won’t notice it if you’re watching a movie that’s stored on your portable drive or saving a Word document you’re working on, for example. But if you need to shuttle large files back and forth between your computer and the drive, it’ll be a little bit pokier than the speed you’d get out of a desktop desktop drive.

2.5” hard drives also have less capacity. At this time, the capacity for 2.5” hard drives tops out at two terabytes due to the limitations of how much data can be written to the drive’s platters. 3.5” drives top out at four terabytes.

More likely than not, you’ll be happy with the speed and portability that you’ll get out of a portable drive if portability is your main concern. But if you’re in the market for an external storage solution that offers top read/write speeds, the most capacity you can get your hands on (short of dabbling with a RAID setup), and don’t have any reason to carry the hardware you buy with you everywhere you go, you might be happier with an external desktop hard drive.

If you’re still interested in a portable drive, follow me.

What to Look For in a Portable Hard Drive

When you’re shopping for a portable drive there’s a few things that you’ll want to look for.

First and foremost, it should be fast enough that using it isn’t a frustration. For most people, a USB 3.0-connected drive is the best option for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s backwards compatible. So if you have an older computer that only has USB 2.0 ports on it, you’ll still be able to use it (albeit at pokey USB 2.0 speeds) until you upgrade to a new computer with faster USB 3.0 ports. USB 3.0 also has the fact that it’s a universal connection going for it. It’ll work with your Mac at work, your sister’s gaming rig or your home theatre setup. After all, what’s the use in having a drive that’s designed to be taken everywhere if it can’t be used everywhere?

You’ll also want it to have a high transfer and access rates—basically, a fast connection is no good if the drive inside is slow for some reason.

It should be bus powered. More likely than not, this won’t be an issue. The majority of portable drives out there today draw their power from the same port that they pass data through. But if you’re shopping for a portable drive and it does happen to come with a power adapter that it needs, give it a pass.

A portable hard drive should provide more room than you really need. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: buy as much storage space as you can afford. You might only have 500 GB of data you want to keep on an external hard drive right now, but every movie you download, every photo you take and every backup of your computer’s files that you accrue will eat up additional space. In most cases, it’s cheaper to buy a higher-capacity drive now than be forced to buy a second hard drive later on because you ran out of storage. Get at least 2 TB if you can afford it.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: buy as much storage space as you can afford.

It should be small and light, and sturdy enough to withstand the casual abuse we heap on our hardware during the course of a normal day. I don’t expect any of my delicate electronics to survive a three or four foot fall onto a hardwood floor or asphalt. For that privilege you have to pay for ruggedized hardware, which is something most people don’t need to invest in. But it’s reasonable to expect that any of the portable electronics we buy should be able to stand up to being jostled around in a bag on your daily commute or maybe dumped on your desk with a few books at home.

It should have a good warranty. Most companies provide two to three years of limited warranty coverage to cover manufacturer’s defects in their portable and desktop drive hardware. Given that most computers are only designed to last for three years and hard drives start to fail after that amount of time as well, we feel this is reasonable.

And finally, it should come with on-board software that you might actually want to use. I’m a Mac user, so I’ve been spoiled by the hands-off simplicity of using Time Machine to back up my computer. While Windows 8 now has a similar feature that’ll let you clone copies of your files to an external or networked drive every ten minutes, not everyone uses Windows 8 (and if you do, you might not like how the OS handles your backups.) So having a competent suite of data management tools bundled with your portable drive is a nice bonus.

How Did You Pick?

Trying to find the best portable drive for most people is a whole lot easier than sorting out which humidifier or space heater to buy because a lot of editorial types test them and write about them. So, there’s no need for me to call in the hardware and test it myself for you. After all, why should you listen to a guy like me when you can rely on the word of folks that test hard drives for a living?

I started my research by looking for recent roundups of the portable drives from reputable sources like PC Magazine, CNET and LAPTOP Magazine. I followed it up by checking on individual reviews of portable drives as well. I also looked at what was popular with shoppers on Amazon.

I started off with 20 different portable drives from companies like Seagate, LaCie,Toshiba, Western Digital, HP, Silicon Power, Buffalo, Transcend and ioSafe that I felt could be potential picks. I winnowed this group down to ten based on metrics like overall price, price per terabyte, read/write speed, built-in extras, features, build quality and warranty. I input all of this information for each of the ten drives that made the final cut into a spreadsheet and sorted out the pecking order of what, at least on paper, appeared to be the best option. I then went back to check my work by seeing what the experts and everyday users like you and I had to say about the hardware.

Additionally, because of his years of experience and hardware reviews’ depth make me trust him more than any source on external storage out there, I contacted Dong Ngo to ask him about his opinion on what to look for in a portable drive.

In the end, based on data and reviews, there was one portable drive that made sense for most people to buy.

The Portable Drive You Want

The $150 Western Digital 2TB My Passport Ultra has everything we looked for, and at $75 per terabyte it offers the best terabyte-to-dollar ratio of any USB 3.0 portable drive I was able to find

Before we go any further, we need to talk about the fact that while I’m recommending the 2 terabyte version of the My Passport Ultra, the vast majority of editorial reviewers who went hands-on with the hardware tested the $90 1 TB iteration of the drive because it was released before the 2 TB My Passport Ultra was. Under some circumstances, this might be a huge deal. But in this instance we’re good to go. I contacted Western Digital and was able to confirm that the 2 TB version of the My Passport Ultra’s hard drive spins at the same 5,400 rpm as the 1 TB version does. So you’re getting the same speed out of a drive that has twice the space for less than it’d cost you to buy two 1 TB drives of the same make—really, two of any 1 TB USB 3.0 hard drives from any reputable company—with the same features.

With that out of the way, let me tell you about why I think the 2 TB My Passport Ultra is the best portable drive for most people.

It’s fast. In his test of the 1 TB version of the drive, CNet’s Dong Ngo said that “…with USB 3.0, the Ultra scored 119 MBps for writing (compared with the My Passport Edge, which scored 83 MBps) and 118 MBps for reading (compared with the Edge’s 98 MBps). This is the fastest score among the USB 3.0 portable drives I’ve tested thus far.” If you have an older computer that only offers USB 2.0 connectivity, you won’t be able to shuttle data back and forth nearly as quickly. When connected to a USB 2.0 port, the My Passport Ultra operates at similar speeds to other USB 2.0 drives—but at least you can look forward to zippier transfers the next time you upgrade your laptop or desktop.

It’s bus-powered. Like many portable hard drives these days, the WD My Passport Ultra comes with the cable you need to connect it to your computer with. (In this case, a USB 3.0 cord.) In addition to letting you shuttle data back and forth between the drive and your PC, that cord also serves as the only power source the My Passport Ultra needs in order to do its thing. Just plug it into an available USB port and you’re in business.

More room than you currently need means that you won’t suffer a case of buyer’s regret a year from now…

It offers the most storage space possible in a portable drive. The WD My Passport Ultra provides 2 TB of storage space, which will be more than enough room for most people to stash their media collections, photos or computer backups in. More room than you currently need means that you won’t suffer a case of buyer’s regret a year from now when you’re forced to buy a second drive because you’re out of room.

It’s well built. Is it ruggedized or waterproof? No—but chances are, neither is the computer that you’ll be using it with. Most of us don’t have a hardened laptop from General Dynamics, Getac, Panasonic or Dell because they’re frigging expensive and we don’t need our PCs to survive extreme situations. When most people buy a computer, the expectation is that it’ll be able to stand up to being bumped on a desktop or thumped by other passengers on public transit. You can expect this same level of resilience from the My Passport Ultra. Its drive housing is made from high-quality plastic. It feels solid in your hand and has four rubber points on the bottom of its casing to help prevent it from sliding off of smooth surfaces. There’s no internal fan to keep things cool when its hard drive is spinning, but that’s okay; its 2.5” 5400 rpm drive doesn’t get all that warm. What’s more, if the drive happens to fail due to a manufacturer’s defect, the hardware is covered by a three-year limited warranty, the longest one I was able to find for an external drive.

It’s small and lightweight. Not including its cord, the 2 TB version of the portable drive measures 0.823″ x 4.35″ x 3.23″ in size and weighs only eight ounces (which is just a little bit less than the heft of a 250 ml can of soda.) So it’s not a burden to haul around in a backpack, briefcase or purse.

It comes with a suite of software that you might actually want to use. The My Passport Ultra comes with Western Digital’s Drive Utilities suite. It’ll allow you to run diagnostics on the drive, erase and format your hardware, or set a sleep timer to help you conserve power. You’ll also find security software on board that’ll allow you to password protect. But I think the best bit of free software that comes with the My Passport Ultra is WD SmartWare, which lets users set timed backups of their computer’s contents to the My Passport Ultra, as well as to a Dropbox account (provided you update to the Pro version of the software, which is free to do once you purchase the drive).

Like I mentioned earlier, CNET reviewed the WD My Passport Ultra and rated it as excellent, due to the fact that it was, at the time this piece was written, the fastest portable USB 3.0 drive Ngo had tested to date. In wrapping up his review of the hardware, he said: “Topping my USB 3.0 testing charts, the aesthetically pleasing WD My Passport Ultra proves that stellar performance can come in a very small package. The drive’s helpful bundled software also makes backing up data convenient even for novices.

Michael A. Prospero at LAPTOP Magazine awarded the My Passport Ultra four out of five stars, due to its speed, light weight and size. The hard drive nerds at Storage Reviews were impressed by the My Passport Ultra as well, and said that Western Digital has gone a “…bit further than most of the competition with the added features from the software, and they have also done so while providing comparable or better transfer rates than other drives on the market.”

Meanwhile, over in the UK, PC Advisor’s Andrew Harrison gave the hardware four out of five stars, saying that its transfer speeds were “plenty quick” for most situations. UK-based Expert Reviews’ Alan Lu gave the drive the site’s Best Buy Award and said that “The Western Digital My Passport Ultra has genuinely useful backup and security software, along with fast performance and a low cost per gigabyte… It’s a great value portable USB3 hard disk and Best Buy award winner.”

At the time this piece was written, there were only two shopper reviews for the My Passport Ultra on Amazon and nine over at Best Buy. That isn’t enough to provide a real picture of how the hardware is liked by everyday users like you and me. But over atWalmart, it’s a very different story: Of 1,224 total reviews, 929 users of the drive awarded it five out of five stars and 97% of those that bought the drive from the site (who responded to Walmart’s poll, I guess) said they’d recommend the 2 TB My Passport Ultra to their friends. That said, I’d take the reviews at Walmart with a grain of salt. Skimming through some of them, I found that some of the reviewers claim to have owned it for longer than it’s actually been on the market. My favorite out of all of them states that he “…received this device for Christmas 2012…. Then I lost it until March 2013…. Finally found it in the grass after winter in the North East… After I let it dry out for a couple days it worked perfectly… I highly recommend this device!!!”

Yeah, that’s not normal. Don’t expect that level of service from this drive.

But seriously, don’t let goofiness like that dissuade you from buying a solid piece of hardware that multiple critics agree is worth your attention.

Doubts But Not Dealbreakers

Overall, the 2 TB Western Digital My Passport Ultra looks like a great piece of hardware. But it’s worth mentioning that there are a few things to nitpick in the bundled software it comes with.

If you own a Mac built in the last few years, you’ll have Time Machine at your disposal…

For starters, not all of the software will work with every computer out there: Mac users hoping to use the WD SmartWare to back up their computer to the drive are out of luck. But as a Mac user, I can say that this hardly matters. If you own a Mac built in the last few years, you’ll have Time Machine at your disposal, and it can be paired up to work with the My Passport Ultra. It’s also kind of a bummer that even if you have a Windows PC and want to take advantage of WD SmartWare’s backup options, there’s no way to exclude certain file types from your backups. So if you want to make sure your photos, documents and other important files are backed up automatically, for example, you’ll have to accept the fact that everything else on your drive will be backed up too. Depending on how much you keep on your computer, this could turn out to be a wild, time consuming pain in the ass.

Our only other reservation in recommending the drive to you is that, like I mentioned earlier, the 2 TB version of the My Passport Ultra is so new, there aren’t enough user reviews to fall back on out there to tell us whether or not there are any quality-control issues that might make us want to second guess telling you to buy the thing. That said, the 500 GB and 1 TB versions of the drive have been out for a number of months now, and they’ve been well received. I think it’s safe to assume, especially with the hardware’s three-year warranty coverage, that it’s safe to go ahead and buy one.

The Competition

If you don’t like the looks of the Western Digital My Passport Ultra, there’s a lot of other portable drives you could go with. But I don’t think they’re great options by comparison.

Let’s start with the obvious alternative: the 1 TB iteration of the My Passport Ultra. You can find it on Amazon for around $90. That’s a little more expensive than most of the other 1 TB drives out there, but remember: when you buy it, you’re getting the fastest read/write speeds of any portable drive currently out there, a three-year warranty and a useful bundle of software. But it’s not the best deal on a per-terabyte basis. The 2 TB model only costs $75 per terabyte, which makes it a better deal that the 1 TB version by $15/terabyte. And let’s say you bought the 1 TB version of the My Passport Ultra and you ended up filling it to capacity with data. You’d have to buy a second $90 1 TB drive in order to meet the capacity of a single 2 TB version of the hardware. Two 1 TB WD My Passport Ultras will set you back $180. That’s thirty bucks more than if you’d just bought the 2 TB version in the first place. If it were me, I’d just go for the larger-capacity version now.

The Seagate Backup Plus is well-liked by editorial reviewers and Amazon shoppers alike. Like the My Passport Ultra, it comes with software to make it that much more useful to Mac and Windows PC owners. Unlike the Western Digital Hardware, the Backup Plus is essentially future-proof, thanks to the fact that it can be outfitted with a number of different connection types other than USB 3.0 (provided you pay Seagate for the privilege.) But at $85 for the 1 TB version of the drive, it’s not as good of a deal per terabyte as the 2 TB My Passport Ultra is. What’s more, Seagate only provides a two-year warranty on its hardware compared to the three years you get when you buy the My Passport Ultra. And if it matters to you, 1 TB is the largest size that you can get the Seagate Backup Plus in, so to match the capacity of the Western Digital hardware, you’d have to buy two of them, which adds up to $170. No thanks.

You might also consider picking up the Toshiba Canvio Slim II. While it’s not available in a 2 TB capacity either, it comes with a three-year warranty and, if you’re a Windows user, comes with software that’ll allow you to fully clone your system and create timed backups to minimize the possibility of losing an important file. It’s also Pogoplug compatible. Plus, it’s slim, metallic and looks like the future. But it costs $100, which makes it one of the most expensive 1 TB portable drives I looked at. For $50 more, you can have twice the storage space, faster read/write speeds and a software suite that’s just as useful if not more so than what you get from Toshiba.

The Buffalo MiniStation Plus also costs $100. It’s got a few neat perks that you might like, like a built-in wraparound USB cable, shock bumpers that provide an extra bit of protection to its hard drive from bumps and drops, and 256-bit AES hardware encryption. So that’s cool. But it’s bulky and frigging expensive when you consider it only provides a single terabyte’s worth of storage space.

At $83, the 1 TB Silicon Armor A15 is a little more expensive than the WD My Passport Ultra on a per terabyte basis, but that’s okay because it’s designed to be dust-proof, shock and vibration proof to military standards. What’s not okay is that during CNET’s testing of the A15, the bundled software it comes with was found to crash frequently and was so frustrating to work with that it was essentially useless. And honestly, most people don’t need a hard drive that’s tough enough to beat a mugger to death with, so you’re paying for features you don’t need. (But: if you do need a rugged hard drive, I’ve got your back. Just scroll down.) Once again, I think you’d be better off with the My Passport Ultra.

At the time this piece was written, the Western Digital My Passport Ultra is the Fastest USB 3.0 portable drive available.

The $115 WD My Passport 2 TB Portable External USB 3.0 Hard Drive looks like a great deal too. It’s one of the most popular hard drives on Amazon with a 4.4-star average and 3,008 five-star reviews out of 4,267 reviews total. (Although: the ratings for all of the versions of this drive are lumped in together, so who knows how many people actually bought the 2 TB model.) It’s pretty hard to argue with that kind of popularity, but here’s the thing: unlike the My Passport Ultra, which costs $35 more, the WD My Passport 2 TB Portable External USB 3.0 Hard Drive only has a two-year warranty. Given that this is a piece of gear that’s meant to be taken with you whereever you go on a daily basis, I think that’s a big deal that’s worth the extra $35. After all, you’re already spending over $100 on this thing. Also, unlike its more expensive sibling, the My Passport doesn’t have the ability to perform timed backups. And if that’s not enough to dissuade you, it’s only got a read/write rate of 101 MBps/83 MBps. That’s slower than what the My Passport Ultra can manage.

In fact, this is as good a time as any to remind you that at the time this piece was written, the Western Digital My Passport Ultra is the Fastest USB 3.0 portable drive available. Nothing else I’ve mentioned here can beat it for transfer speeds. So for its speed, excellent warranty coverage, useful software suite and excellent dollar per terabyte value, I strongly suggest that anyone on the hunt for a new portable drive think about picking one up.

What about a Ruggedized Portable Drive?

Like I said earlier, unless you have a lifestyle or job that’s hostile enough to require that you have a ruggedized computer like a Panasonic Toughbook or something similar, you don’t need a ruggedized drive. But let’s say that you do. Maybe you just found a nice bit of defilade away from something awful and kicked back to read this piece on a GD8200 so you’ll have some extra space to store footage from your GoPro. Then you’ll want to look at the $86 Silicon Armor A80. It was our last pick for Best Portable Drive, and it’s still a great piece of hardware. The A80 is a 1 TB drive that offers read/write speed over USB 3.0 of 102.7/87.8 MBps. That’s not as fast as the My Passport Ultra can manage, but it’s fast enough to get the job done without driving you nuts with waiting. To say that it’s ruggedized would be an understatement. The A80 comes with a IPX7 waterproof rating, which means it’ll still be functional after being submersed in a meter of water for up to 30 minutes. It’s also shock resistant and complies with the United States Armed Forces US MIL-STD-810F transit drop test.

While it's slower, can't hold as much data and doesn't have as good dollar-to-terabyte ratio as the WD My Passport Ultra does, the Silicon Armor A80 can take a whole lot more punishment.

But unless you need the robust protection the A80 offers, you likely won’t want to buy it. It weighs 9.6 ounces, 1.6 ounces more than our main pick, and at 5.5″ x 3.7″ x 0.7″, it’s almost an inch longer than the WD My Passport Ultra, which measures 4.34″ x 3.21″ x 0.5″ in size. That little bit of extra heft and length might not seem like much when you look at it on paper, but remember, these things are designed to be carried around, so you’ll want your drive to be as light and compact as possible. Additionally, the A80 has got kind of a weird USB cable setup. Instead of the micro-USB 3.0 connection you see with most drives these days, it utilizes a male/male USB cable that works just fine, but could be hard to replace in the field (or in all honesty, anywhere other than a specialty shop). And perhaps most importantly, the A80 only offers half of the storage capacity of the My Passport Ultra, and it’s slower. So before you buy it, seriously think about whether or not you actually need it.

It’s also worth mentioning that Silicon Power just released a new ruggedized USB 3.0 drive, the Armor A30. But it’s so new that at the time this was written there still wasn’t a listing for it on Amazon, and no editorial sources have had the chance to review it yet. But I’ll keep an eye on it moving forward and let you know if it’sworth your attention as soon as possible.

What about a Thunderbolt Portable Drive?

The price of a Thunderbolt connected drive is crazy! And, after talking it over with some of the other Wirecutter editors, we don’t feel that most people need the speed that the connectivity offers on a portable drive. Why’s that? If you pair a Thunderbolt connection with the relatively pokey 5,400 rpm 2.5” hard drives that are typically used in portable storage solutions, the blazing-fast transfer speeds associated with Thunderbolt will be stymied by the slower read/write speeds of the drive. Honestly, if you’ve got the choice between using a Thunderbolt or USB 3.0 port, you’ll be better off with a USB 3.0 drive. USB 3.0 hardware is significantly less expensive than Thunderbolt gear, and it’s fast enough that most users will be happy with it.

If you have an older Mac without a USB 3.0 port or need a Thunderbolt-connected drive for some other reason, this is the best. It packs USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt connections and one terabyte of storage. It isn't the great value our main pick is, but it does Thunderbolt well.

But let’s say you’ve got an slightly older Mac computer that came equipped with USB 2.0 ports and a Thunderbolt port. In that case, if you want faster transfer speeds than USB 2.0, you’ll either have to upgrade to a new computer or eat the price of a portable Thunderbolt hard drive and pretend it tastes good. In that case, I’d get the 1 TB LaCie Rugged USB 3.0 Thunderbolt Drive for $190. It’s an award-winning portable hard drive that comes with USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt connections, and it’s won the love of a number of publications including CNET, Gizmodo, PC Magazine and Macworld. You’ll find that using its Thunderbolt connection is significantly faster than its USB 2.0 one, but, as Macworld points out in their review of the hardware, it’s slower than other Thunderbolt-connected drives they’ve tested in the past.

But here’s the thing: you’re paying $190 for a single terabyte’s worth of storage space. The Silicon Armor A80’s a rugged 1 TB drive, but it costs half of that. And while the WD My Passport Ultra isn’t ruggedized, you’re provided with twice as much storage space via a USB 3.0 connection for $40 less. So unless you truly need a Thunderbolt connected drive, I just don’t think it’s worth it.

Wrapping It Up

Most people will be happy with Western Digital’s 2 TB My Passport Ultra. For $150, you get two terabytes worth of storage at the best dollar-to-terabyte ratio I could find. You also get the fastest read/write speeds of any USB 3.0-connected portable hard drive currently out there, a suite of useful software for managing your drive, timed backups, Dropbox integration and a three-year warranty. Unless you need a Thunderbolt-connected drive (which most people don’t) or something with an enclosure designed to take a massive amount of physical abuse, it’s the portable storage solution you want.

This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 9/8/2013 and is republished here with permission.