Buying the best external hard drive is no more glamorous than buying home insurance. There, we said it. While having a fresh, new external disc drive does provide the user with a degree of comfort, it's not among the most exciting things you'll purchase. It is, however, one of the most important.
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Whether you're recording extensive multitrack DAW sessions, pulling from a sample library running into three-digits in gigabytes or editing masses of video footage shot with your vlogging camera, a reliable disc drive is worth its weight in gold. At some point we've all experienced the problems that come with storing - or accessing - our precious data, so let's take a look at some of the best external hard drives around today.
What is the best external hard drive?
Disc drives can be thought of like good football referees; you only notice them when something goes wrong. And, as anyone who has suffered at the hands of a faulty disc drive will testify, when they go wrong the fallout can be catastrophic. So it makes sense - even if just for your sanity - to have the safety net of a good quality external drive on your side. For us, the Samsung T5 range offers just this. It's small enough that it can be left to one side, yet its solid state technology is both quick and reliable.
Often, it can be something as simple as a separate hard drive, rather than a souped up beast of a new computer, that can have the biggest impact on your workflow. By freeing up the computer to do 'computer stuff', you're taking the burden off it to do all the other tasks. In the Samsung T5 range, you’ll find the perfect drive to ensure external storage offers a potential performance boost as well as an insurance policy.
The best external hard drives: buying advice
When choosing the best external hard drive for your system, you'll want to ask yourself a few questions. Most notably, you'll want to ask yourself what kind of setup you have already. This is important. If, at one end of the scale, you are using a basic laptop and running everything from within said laptop, then you're in for a treat when it comes to external drives. Allow us to explain why.
There are four main discs you'll want to involve when it comes to computer audio production. The operating disc sits within the computer and essentially manages the thing, opening and running applications, making sure everything works as it should. The second disc is the writing disc, where the computer 'writes' new data to the disc; for musicians, this means all those multitrack sessions, sounds and parameter changes.
Thirdly, you'll want somewhere to store all those space-intensive sample libraries. If you've ever tried to run a sample library directly from within the main laptop drive, you'll know the problems this can cause. Effectively, the computer is trying to read and write data from the same place, at the same time. The poor thing can't keep up. Finally, the literal insurance policy; the backup drive. And trust us, you will want one of these. At least one.
There are different types of external drives to consider. They generally vary in terms of functionality, connectivity and portability. Function-wise, you'll find hard disc drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs). HDDs are typically cheaper, but have slower transfer speeds and mechanical parts which can fail. SSDs, on the other hand, have no moving parts and are exponentially faster, but do come with a corresponding price tag.
Connections are crucial too; USB 2 drives are older and slow, while newer USB C or Thunderbolt drives offer lightening quick transfers. As with anything, you get what you pay for with external drives. Let's examine some great options.
The best external hard drives you can buy
1. Samsung T5 Portable SSD
Set-and-forget quality from this minimalist marvel
Drive type: SSD | Capacity: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB | Interface: USB 3.1 Gen2
Ideally, if your setup is studio based, you want a hard drive to be plugged in and forgotten about. The Samsung T5 series is perfect for this. As a solid state drive, it is both quick and reliable enough that you can store entire sample libraries on it, yet its dinky size means it can be hidden away behind a monitor, quietly working its magic.
Samsung claims that, when compared to a standard HDD, the T5 can transfer data up to five times faster. For sample-heavy sessions, this is pretty liberating and can reduce the amount of time spent bouncing MIDI regions into audio. Highly recommended.
2. Seagate Fast
Small, quick and convenient solid state simplicity
Drive type: SSD | Capacity: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB | Interface: USB 3.0
The best external hard drive for laptop-friendly workflow comes in the shape of the Seagate 1TB Fast. The Fast offers impressive read/write speeds of up to 540MB a second. Connectivity is managed via USB C, meaning the data is being retrieved as quickly as possible, although a standard USB cable is included so you can still use it on slightly older machines.
Seagate is one of the bigger names in media storage, so has some pedigree. There's a good range of capacities on offer too, from a basic 250GB right through to a healthy 2TB. It's also small enough, and shock resistant enough, that stuffing it in a backpack every day won't feel like you're leaving your precious data's safety in the lap of the gods.
3. WD Elements
Cost-effective, high capacity hard disc drives
Drive type: HDD | Capacity: 1TB, 1.5TB, 2TB, 3TB, 4TB, 5TB | Interface: USB 3.0
As one of the other big names in media storage, Western Digital – now more commonly known as WD – has a wide range of options for your data needs. The WD Elements range is well-established, and has drives of all sizes to suit your requirements.
The Elements range comes in sizes up to 5TB – enough to store around 1.25 million songs – and comes in both portable and desktop versions. Data transfer is handled by USB 3.0, which lags behind modern USB C options, but as a backup disc it will more than suffice.
4. Silicon Power Armor A60
This rugged hard drive is ready for anything
Drive type: HDD | Capacity: 500GB, 1TB, 2TB, 3TB, 4TB, 5TB | Interface: USB 3.0
If your computer music setup involves live performance, you'll have a few other considerations. Notably, the risk involved with transporting disc drives to sweaty clubs and bars. Step forward, the Silicon Power Armor A60.
The Armor A60 uses a hardened rubber casing which, when combined with its unique internal suspension system, means the drive is protected from drops. As well as that, the Armor AP60 has (limited) water resistance, so the odd spray from a spilled pint won't stop you in your tracks.
5. SanDisk Extreme Portable
This rough, tough SSD can take whatever you can throw at it
Drive type: SSD | Capacity: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB | Interface: USB 3.1 Gen2
Taking rugged portability to the next level comes the SanDisk Extreme Portable. With the high data transfer speeds you'd expect of an SSD, the Extreme Portable also packs in a bunch of resistance to things like dust, water and drops.
You might think this could be a bit overkill for creative production tasks. But consider the field-recordist stood out in the rain capturing the sounds of nature, or the videographer filming in harsher climes. If reliability and toughness is required, the SanDisk Extreme might be your new best buddy.
6. WD My Cloud Home
When size matters more than speed
Drive type: SSD | Capacity: 2TB, 3TB, 4TB, 6TB, 8TB | Interface: USB 3.0
A much different beast now, one more suited to the centre of the living room than the backpacks of sonic explorers. The WD My Cloud Home is very much designed with domestic use in mind, but that's not to say music producers should discount it.
It comes in a range of enormous sizes - up to 8TB - and it offers the perfect opportunity to remove all those films, songs, books and photographs from your laptop. With those out of the way, your production machine becomes much leaner and better able to handle recording applications.
7. LaCie Rugged Mini
These famous orange units are amongst the best external hard drives for durability
Drive type: SSD | Capacity: 500GB, 1TB, 2TB, 4TB | Interface: USB 3.0
Certain drives become synonymous with certain applications, and the LaCie range's popularity with creative professions is legendary. These iconic orange drives are used by photographers, videographers and musicians everywhere, and for good reason.
On paper, the LaCie Rugged Mini drives aren't that advanced. They only offer a 5,400rpm data transfer speed, so realistically you aren't going to be streaming sample libraries from one. But as a portable backup drive, its shock resistance and small size means it is perfect for on-the-go performers and creators.
8. TerraMaster D5300C
The best external hard drive for safety and security
Drive type: HDD/SSD | Capacity: Up to 50TB | Interface: USB 3.1
We'll end this list with something of a monster in the drives world. The TerraMaster D5 series provides 2+3 RAID storage facilities for storing up to 50TB of files. RAID systems essentially combine the powers of multiple drives, giving you elite levels of performance, security and capacity.
Going down the RAID route isn't cheap - the TerraMaster doesn't come with its own actual drives, you need to buy them separately - but as a system designed to store gargantuan piles of data, they are peerless. For professional studio owners, this route offers the peak of storage technology. It's not sexy, but it sure is sensible.