After 30 hours of research and nearly 40 hours of testing, we determined that the 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim is our new favorite portable hard drive. It’s slimmer, lighter, and faster than our previous pick, the WD My Passport Ultra. However, you should not buy the 4TB version, also known as the Seagate Backup Plus Fast. Though it may seem like a better value, it’s not as reliable (more on this later).
The 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim weighs just 0.33 pounds and is one of the thinnest portable drives out there, measuring .48 inches thick. The Slim also bests our previous pick, the WD My Passport Ultra, in speed, and the drive’s plastic case doesn’t flex or creak under pressure like the WD’s case. The 2TB model is less expensive per terabyte than the 1TB and 500GB models, making it the best value aside from the 4TB Seagate Backup Plus Fast, which you should avoid.
But the WD My Passport Ultra is still a solid alternative should our new pick go out of stock. If you’re in need of a ruggedized drive, our previous recommendation, theSilicon Power Armor A80, is still the best shockproof and waterproof option available. And for professionals or those who know they need a Thunderbolt connection, we still recommend the LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt.
Who should(n’t) buy this
If your external hard drive is just going to sit on your desk all the time and never budge, you’re better off with a desktop external because it’s faster and you can get more storage for less money. For example, our desktop pick—which isn’t the fastest desktop hard drive out there—has faster read and write speeds by about 30 megabytes per second and is about $20 cheaper per terabyte than our portable recommendation at the time of writing.
You’ll be paying more per terabyte and sacrificing some speed, but a portable hard drive can be the perfect backup solution for your laptop.
But if you need an external drive that can be (carefully) tossed in a bag and used on the go, a portable hard drive is just what you’re looking for. You’ll be paying more per terabyte and sacrificing some speed, but a portable hard drive can be the perfect backup solution for your laptop or a way to store photos and other data while traveling or commuting.
Most portable externals use 2.5-inch hard drives, which are powered entirely by the USB or Thunderbolt connection. This means that portable hard drives don’t need an additional power adapter, unlike desktop external drives, and are consequently more convenient to use while traveling. Portable hard drives are usually much smaller and lighter than their desktop counterparts.
However, most portable hard drives have smaller platters and slower rotation speeds, which translates to slower read and write times and longer waits for file transfers. The 2.5-inch HDDs typically found in portable drives currently max out at 2TB, compared to 3.5-inch desktop external drives that go up to 4TB. So if you need more than 2TB, you’ll be stuck buying multiple portable externals versus a single desktop drive. Again, portable hard drives are also generally more expensive per terabyte than desktop options.
As a general rule, external hard drives are fragile and fickle, even moreso than internal drives since there are more things that can go wrong. Though 2.5-inch drives are designed to withstand being knocked around a little more than their desktop counterparts, they’re still susceptible to catastrophic failure. As such, we recommend having one backup of your data on an external drive combined with an offsite backup—another drive or a cloud service like CrashPlan—to minimize the risk of losing important files should your computer, backup drive, or cloud service fail. Our pick for cloud backup, CrashPlan, lets you back up to an external drive or friend’s computer as well as the cloud. Several Wirecutter editors use CrashPlan for both local and cloud backups.
How we picked
For a portable external hard drive, the most important features are reliability, build quality, size, and weight…
For a portable external hard drive, the most important features are reliability, build quality, size, and weight, followed closely by speed, warranty, customer service, and capacity. It doesn’t need to be especially rugged—we have a separate category dedicated to ruggedized portable drives below—but it should be made well enough to survive getting bumped around in a bag without falling apart or getting seriously damaged. Since the drive is intended to be carried around and used, it should be as thin and light as possible and must be bus-powered. It needs a USB 3.0 connection (which is backwards compatible with USB 2.0), and a decent warranty with strong customer support to back it up.
Keeping these criteria in mind, we researched standout hard drives from our previous article and editorial reviews from respected sources. We also looked for any new drives or updated models that have been released since our last update. After we narrowed it down to two contenders—the new Seagate Backup Plus Slim and our previous pick, the WD My Passport Ultra—we ordered the hard drives and thoroughly tested them ourselves.
How we tested
For each desktop external hard drive we tested, we ran HD Tune Pro, a benchmarking program that tests transfer speeds, access time, burst rate, and CPU usage across the entire disk. You can read a more in-depth explanation of the program at the HD Tune website. We also timed a series of file transfers—a 7.07GB folder of photos, a 19.7GB music collection, and a 1.68GB HD video—from start to finish, running each transfer three times and taking the average to rule out performance hiccups.
We tested both drives to make sure they worked with USB 2.0 and 3.0 and made backups using the bundled WD and Seagate software to get an idea of how useful and user-friendly they are.
The 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim is the best portable hard drive for most people because it’s reliable and sturdily built. It’s also more compact, lighter, and faster than our previous recommendation, the WD My Passport Ultra.
Judging by Amazon reviews, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim has a low failure rate compared to other drives we’ve researched and tested.
Judging by Amazon reviews, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim has a low failure rate compared to other drives we’ve researched and tested. We read through all 248 Amazon reviews of the Seagate and only nine reported a drive failure, giving it a reported failure rate of about 3.63 percent—even lower than our previous pick and current runner-up, the WD My Passport Ultra. It’s worth noting that this is far from a perfect measure, but it’s the best we’ve got for now.
The drive’s plastic case is very sturdy and doesn’t flex or creak under pressure like our previous pick’s. It also stands up well against light scratches from keys—only the glossy black sides got dinged up in our tests—so it should hold up to normal bag friction, though the drive isn’t rated to survive any significant shocks.
The Seagate Backup Plus Slim certainly lives up to its name. It’s very compact and light and will take up minimal bag space without adding much heft. The Slim is less than half an inch thick—0.48 inches to be exact. I was genuinely surprised when I picked it up and found it to be thinner than my smartphone in an Otterbox case. It’s 4.47 inches long, 2.99 inches wide, and weighs just .33 pounds.
The Seagate outperformed our previous pick by a small margin in every HD Tune test and bested the WD My Passport Ultra in all but two of our real-world performance tests. In the HD Tune tests, the Seagate scored an average of 87 MB/s read and 86.7 MB/s write compared to the WD My Passport Ultra’s 83 MB/s read and 82.5 MB/s write speeds. The Seagate Backup Plus Slim was faster than the WD in four out of six of our file transfer tests and was never more than eight seconds slower than our previous pick. It’s not a huge edge, but every little bit counts.
We recommend the 2TB model of the Seagate Backup Plus Slim because it has a better price per terabyte than the 500GB or 1TB models.
We recommend the 2TB model of the Seagate Backup Plus Slim because it has a better price per terabyte than the 500GB or 1TB models. Even if you only have a terabyte of data right now, your needs will expand over the drive’s lifespan and it’s better to have room to grow than to buy two drives and end up spending more in the long run.
Though software is more of a perk than a crucial feature, we found that Seagate’s backup software—which is the same for the Seagate Backup Plus Slim as it is for ourdesktop external hard drive runner-up—is very user-friendly. Just install the Seagate Dashboard software and register your hard drive, and you’re presented with a “Protect Now” option that automatically creates a continuous backup with default settings and a “New Backup Plan” option that lets you customize your backup settings.
The Seagate Backup app for iOS and Android also backs up contacts, messages, photos, and other data from your smartphone to your hard drive via Wi-Fi or your phone’s data connection. Within the Seagate Backup app, you can choose to back up files from your smartphone to your Seagate hard drive, provided it’s connected to a computer that’s running Seagate software in the background. We tested out both the Seagate Dashboard software and the Seagate Backup app and found that both worked smoothly and were easy to navigate.
Who else likes our pick?
CNET’s Dong Ngo described the Seagate Backup Plus Slim as “incredibly portable” with “fantastic performance,” and wrote, “If you’re looking for a great portable drive to carry extra data or for backup on the go, this is it.” Ngo criticized the drive for only being available in capacities up to 500GB (Seagate has since added 1TB and 2TB models), but concluded, “There are many portable drives with the ‘Slim’ designation on the market, but the Seagate Slim is truly the thinnest and most compact among its kind. The drive’s fast performance and helpful software mean that it’ll make a great companion for travelers with a small laptop.”
PC Mag’s Joel Santo Domingo awarded the Seagate Backup Plus Slim the Best of CES 2014 award for storage, praising Seagate’s backup software features. “This USB 3.0 external drive now supports backups from your PC or Mac, mobile devices, and even your life’s data from your social networks.”
PCSTATS editor-in-chief Max Page expressed concern about the drive’s USB connection: “The USB 3.0 cable connection feels pretty flimsy so you will want to be careful when handling the device so the connecting cable doesn’t bend at the connection.” Aside from that issue, he wrote, “Seagate’s 2TB Backup Plus Slim works well and offers the added capability of (limited) social media backups which we found (actually) pretty useful” and gave the drive a “Recommended Product” rating.
Why you should avoid the 4TB version
On Amazon, the 4TB Seagate Backup Plus Fast is listed as a higher-capacity version of the Slim, and it even looks like a significantly better value per terabyte than our recommendation. Despite that, you should avoid this drive.
Why? 2.5-inch hard drives currently max out at 2TB, so Seagate makes the 4TB Backup Plus Fast by creating a RAID 0 array from two 2TB drives, thus making the two drives appear as one single volume. Though it effectively doubles the capacity and performance, having two hard drives in RAID 0 significantly increases the potential for failure and data loss. Because there are two drives that can fail, we can’t recommend this—if one of them croaks, the whole portable unit dies with it. It’s also nearly twice as thick as the Seagate Backup Plus Slim and heavier.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
…the enclosure’s USB port wobbles when pressure is applied to the connected cable…
Of course, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim isn’t perfect. As noted by PCSTATS, the enclosure’s USB port wobbles when pressure is applied to the connected cable, more than the WD My Passport Ultra’s. As long as you disconnect the cable before stashing the drive in a drawer or bag, it shouldn’t be an issue. It’s important to store the drive properly because if that port gets damaged the data on your drive won’t be accessible until you find a new enclosure.
The Seagate Backup Plus Slim also has a shorter warranty than the WD My Passport Ultra—two years instead of three—and our perusal of Amazon reviews turned up more complaints about Seagate customer service than WD. However, a two-year warranty should be sufficient, and Seagate also sells two- and three-year Rescue & Replace plansfor $30 and $40, respectively.
If your external dies, Seagate will recover your data and send it back on a Seagate-brand drive, and if the data is unrecoverable they will refund the purchase price of the plan. However, several reviewers complained about long waits and a lack of communication from Seagate customer service, so that’s worth keeping in mind if you decide to purchase one of these plans.
Though the WD My Passport Ultra is outclassed by the newer, slimmer Seagate Backup Plus Slim, it’s still a great alternative should our main pick go out of stock. For the same price, the WD has a better warranty and customer support (according to Amazon reviews) but is bulkier, heavier, and a little slower than our pick.
It also has a marginally higher reported failure rate according to Amazon reviews, but not anywhere near high enough to be cause for concern. Out of 1,366 Amazon reviews, 58 reported a failed drive. This comes to a reported failure rate of about 4.25 percent, not even a full percent higher than our pick.
The 2TB WD My Passport Ultra flexes and creaks a little under pressure, but is built solidly overall and isn’t likely to fall apart from normal use and travel. We also found that the USB port was less wobbly under pressure than that of our pick, but our suggestion still stands: Unplug the cable when the drive is not in use. Compared to the Seagate’s finish, the slick plastic surface of the My Passport Ultra scratches very easily and will definitely show damage if stored in the same pocket as keys or coins. Luckily the WD comes with a protective black sleeve to prevent such scratches, while the Seagate Backup Plus Slim does not. It’s also significantly thicker and heavier than our pick, measuring 4.35 by 3.23 by .82 inches and weighing half a pound.
As we explained above, the WD My Passport Ultra was slightly slower than the Seagate in our benchmarks and most of our real-world performance tests. The performance gap isn’t very large and the WD is certainly not a burden to carry around, so it’s the best alternative if the thinner, lighter, faster Backup Plus Slim isn’t available.
WD’s bundled software isn’t the most intuitive. Where Seagate has a single app, WD has five different programs…
WD’s bundled software isn’t the most intuitive. Where Seagate has a single app, Seagate Dashboard, WD has five different programs—WD Drive Utilities, WD Drive Unlocker, WD Security, WD SmartWare, and WD Quick View—that have to be used and even updated separately.
WD SmartWare is the main app used for creating backups, and WD Drive Utilities allows you to register, wipe, and run diagnostics on the hard drive. WD Security is a completely separate program that password protects the drive, and WD Drive Unlocker unlocks the password-protected drive when you plug it in. WD Quick View is a tray icon that shows a little pop-up with the name of the drive, how much space is filled, and whether or not the temperature is “okay.” It’s a little ridiculous that all these features aren’t bundled into a single, easy-to-use program. However, you don’t have to rely on WD’s proprietary software, so this isn’t a dealbreaker.
The WD My Passport Ultra comes with a three-year warranty—one year more than the Seagate—and we found fewer complaints about WD’s customer service during our exploration of Amazon customer reviews. The 2TB model is available for about the same price as our pick and has a better price per terabyte ratio than the 500GB and 1TB options.
CNET’s Dong Ngo wrote, “The WD My Passport Ultra is one of my favorite portable drives for its fast performance, large storage space, and its good looks. It’s easy to recommend it, as it ranks among the top drives on the market.”
Laptop Mag awarded it an Editors’ Choice award, and concluded, “For those who want a very sleek and fast portable hard drive, the My Passport Ultra is an excellent choice.”
StorageReview found that the WD My Passport Ultra had excellent transfer rates and useful software. “The WD My Passport Ultra excels in adding plenty of value with the included software, its transfer rates which are solid for the market and the design options offer plenty of personal choice.”
A rugged portable drive option
Most people don’t need a military-rated water-resistant and shockproof hard drive, but if you live, travel, or work in a particularly hostile environment, we recommend the 1TB Silicon Power Armor A80. It’s more expensive per terabyte, larger, heavier, and slower than our main pick, but is rated to survive being submerged in a meter of water for up to 30 minutes and survive a drop of about four feet while in transit. The Armor A80 also comes with a three-year limited warranty should the drive fail.
Unless you know that you definitely need a drive that can weather those hardships, you’re better off with the Seagate Backup Plus Slim. The Silicon Power Armor A80 measures 5.47 by 3.7 by .71 inches, and weighs nearly twice as much as the Seagate Backup Plus Slim at .6 pounds. The drive also only goes up to 1TB, so you’ll have to buy two to match the storage capacity of our pick. It’s also worth noting that the A80 has a male-to-male USB connection that could be difficult to replace should you lose or damage it.
In his review, CNET’S Dong Ngo described the drive as, “Attractive, compact, rugged, and offering fast performance, the Silicon Power Armor A80 portable hard drive would be an excellent choice for anyone who wants to bring extra storage on the go.”
A Thunderbolt portable drive
Portable Thunderbolt drives are considerably more expensive than portable drives that only support USB 3.0, but if you absolutely need one, we recommend the LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt. If you have a computer that supports USB 3.0, you should use that instead of buying a pricey Thunderbolt drive, because transfer speeds are currently limited by the throughput speed of the 2.5-inch drive within the enclosure rather than the USB 3.0 connection. Transfer speeds are about the same, but hardware with USB 3.0 support is less expensive and more universal.
Transfer speeds are about the same, but hardware with USB 3.0 support is less expensive and more universal.
However, if you have an older Mac with USB 2.0 ports and a Thunderbolt port, your only options for speedy transfers are to upgrade to a new computer with USB 3.0 support or to spend a smaller, but still decent, chunk of money on a Thunderbolt drive. If you’re a professional that needs a Thunderbolt drive for video editing or other demanding tasks, LaCie also sells SSD Thunderbolt drivesthat are faster—LaCie quotes the SSD’s speeds at 385 MB/s compared to the HDD’s transfer speeds of 110 MB/s—but even more expensive per terabyte.
Compared to our main pick, the LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt has the added bonus of being able to stand up to a few bumps and bruises. LaCie says the drive will survive a four-foot drop while non-operational, but it’s still susceptible to moisture. It isn’t military-rated like the Silicon Power Armor A80, though, so we still wouldn’t advise dropping, throwing, or hitting the drive if you can help it. It’s also bulkier and heavier than the Seagate Backup Plus Slim, measuring 5.5 by 3.5 by 0.97 inches and weighing .57 pounds. Like our pick, it comes with a two-year limited warranty.
The biggest tradeoff is price. The 1TB LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt drive costs about twice as much as the 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim—that’s half the storage for twice the price. Unless you’re very sure you need this drive, you shouldn’t buy it.
StorageReview was one of few outlets to review a non-SSD version of the LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt, and found that “the LaCie Rugged USB 3.0 Thunderbolt 2TB is a relatively speedy portable hard drive that takes full advantage of both the Thunderbolt and USB 3.0 interface. In our testing, results were slightly higher than what LaCie quoted for this product, delivering read speeds of 112.2MB/s, while write activity hit 113.8MB/s in a Thunderbolt Mac environment.”
CNET’s Dong Ngo tested the SSD version of the drive, and found that both the SSD and 1TB HDD versions were more affordable than other Thunderbolt alternatives. “With great performance, affordable pricing, support for both Thunderbolt and USB 3.0, and an included Thunderbolt cable, the LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt makes for one of the best deals going among portable drives on the market.”
PC Mag’s Joel Santo Domingo awarded the SSD LaCie Rugged Thunderbolt an Editors’ Choice award. “If you need the fastest, rugged portable storage, the LaCie Rugged USB 3.0 Thunderbolt is the drive you want.”
Gizmodo’s Sam Biddle also reviewed the SSD model, and called it “the best Thunderbolt drive I’ve used yet—one of the best external hard drives, period.”
The 2TB WD My Passport Slim is thicker and heavier than our pick, and isn’t that much thinner or lighter than our runner-up, either. It’s also slightly more expensive per terabyte than both the Seagate Backup Plus Slim and the WD My Passport Ultra.
The Seagate Wireless Plus lets you create a Wi-Fi network to access the drive from your smartphone or tablet but is larger and heavier than our pick. The 1TB Wireless Plus is also around $60 more expensive than the 2TB Backup Plus Slim and only has half the storage. At least part of its functionality has also been replaced by the Seagate Backup app that allows you to create a backup of your phone’s files over Wi-Fi or your phone’s data connection.
The Toshiba Canvio Slim II is only available in 500GB and 1TB models and is more expensive per terabyte than our recommendation. It’s thicker and not quite as light as the Seagate Backup Plus Slim.
Like many of the drives we looked at, the Toshiba Canvio Basics USB 3.0 is also larger and heavier than our pick. It may be less expensive per terabyte, but it only has a one-year warranty and lots of Amazon reviewers reported failed drives and issues with Toshiba customer service.
HGST’s Touro Mobile comes close to being as thin and light as the Seagate Backup Plus Slim, but only has a one-year warranty and is only available from Amazon and Newegg in 500GB and 1TB models. It’s also more expensive per terabyte than our pick.
HGST’s Touro Mobile Pro has the same dimensions as the Touro Mobile—though is a shade heavier—and has a longer two-year warranty. However, it also only goes up to 1TB and is even more expensive per terabyte than the Touro Mobile.
The previous version of our pick, the Seagate Backup Plus, can be outfitted with Thunderbolt or other ports if you buy an additional adapter, a handy feature our pick doesn’t have. However, it only goes up to 1TB and is already more expensive per terabyte than the new Seagate Backup Plus Slim without factoring in the additional price of the adapter.
The WD My Passport—the previous model of our runner-up—is slower, has a shorter warranty, and costs even more than the current WD My Passport Ultra.
The Buffalo MiniStation Plus and Buffalo MiniStation Stealth were both significantly bulkier and heavier than the Seagate Backup Plus Slim and are only available on Amazon through third-party sellers at inflated prices.
The Buffalo MiniStation Portable Hard Drive is bigger, heavier, and more expensive per terabyte than our pick.
Like the Silicon Power A80, the Adata DashDrive HD710 is rated waterproof and shockproof and both 1TB drives cost about the same. However, PC Mag’s Joel Santo Domingo criticized the drive for poor cable management and an uncooperative port cover, which could impact the durability of the drive. Our recommendation also has a higher Amazon rating with more user reviews.
The Silicon Power A15, the newer Silicon Power A30, and the Buffalo MiniStation Extreme are all rated shockproof but not water-resistant like our ruggedized recommendation, the Silicon Power A80. If you’re going rugged, you might as well go the whole nine yards.
The ioSafe Rugged Portable is enclosed in aluminum or titanium alloy and is crush-resistant, waterproof, shockproof, and rated against chemicals, environmental exposure, and high altitudes. It’s very expensive and overkill for the vast majority of people. The ioSafe Rugged Portable is only available on Amazon through third-party sellers and direct from ioSafe in bulk orders of 100 or more.
The Buffalo MiniStation Thunderbolt Portable Drive is a little less expensive than the LaCie Rugged, but it’s more susceptible to bumps and shocks than the LaCie andCNET’s Dong Ngo found that it was significantly slower than our Thunderbolt pick.
What makes a good portable hard drive?
Your hard drive’s prime directive is to keep a copy of your data safe, which means reliability is the most important criterion.
Your hard drive’s prime directive is to keep a copy of your data safe, which means reliability is the most important criterion. A portable drive is also intended to be, well, portable, so it needs to be sturdy, compact, and lightweight. It should be able to withstand normal wear and tear from being handled often and stuffed into your bag and not take up too much of your valuable bag space or weigh you down.
Though portable external drives are generally slower than desktop externals, that doesn’t mean speed is any less important. Speed shortens the time of file transfers, and since portable drives are more likely to be used to transfer large files between different computers, the faster the drive, the better.
We only considered drives with USB 3.0 connections and recommend them even if your computer only has USB 2.0 ports right now, because your next one will very likely have USB 3.0. USB 2.0 maxes out at 40 MB/s, whereas USB 3.0 theoretically caps at 625 MB/s. Even if the real-world transfer speed of USB 3.0 is much lower—and it is—USB 3.0 is still fast enough that your hard drive speed, not USB speed, is what’s holding you back.
When it comes time to upgrade to a computer with USB 3.0, you’ll be glad you thought ahead instead of having to shop for another new hard drive. USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 2 were released in 2013, but few drives and computers support the standards yet.
A decent warranty and strong customer support are crucial in case your drive fails for whatever reason. Most manufacturers offer warranties of at least two years, and some sell additional services paired with their external drives. We also recommend getting the largest capacity you can afford, because you’ll amass more data over time and larger drives generally have a better price per terabyte value.
Backup software is nice, but there are lots of free alternatives and other great options for online backup services. You also may not want to spend time installing proprietary software on every computer you plug the drive into and stick with dragging and dropping files instead.
Care and maintenance
Unless you get a rugged drive specifically designed to withstand water and shocks, you should use and store your external drive in a dry, temperate location since moisture, heat, and sudden impacts can damage or destroy the drive. Always disconnect the USB cord from the port before throwing the portable drive into a bag or desk drawer. The USB connection is the weakest point in many external drives, and you won’t be able to access your data without buying a new enclosure or getting professional help if you break the port.
WD drives come with drive health analysis software, and similar utilities are built into operating systems or are available for free online. However, Google’s 2007 disk failure study—which focused on 3.5-inch desktop hard drives—found that SMART drive monitoring wasn’t good at predicting drive failures, despite being designed to do exactly that. 56 percent of the failed drives in the study didn’t raise flags in any of the four SMART categories Google deemed most likely to predict a failure, and 36 percent didn’t have flags in any category at all except, in some cases, temperature.
Even the best-maintained hard drives can fail, so a warranty is your next best protection.
Even the best-maintained hard drives can fail, so a warranty is your next best protection. When you purchase your drive, be sure to register it with your manufacturer right away so that if there is an issue, you can resolve it and get a replacement drive as quickly and painlessly as possible—this won’t save your data, though, so you should make sure that any data on your portable drive has a backup elsewhere.
Wrapping it up
The 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim is the best portable hard drive for most people because it’s reliable, will stand up to ordinary wear and tear, and is the lightest, thinnest, fastest portable external drive for the best price. If you need a drive to store photos while traveling or intend to use it as a portable backup solution, we recommend combining the Seagate Backup Plus Slim with an online backup service to ensure that if one fails, your data remains intact.