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The 7 best external hard drives 2020: protect your music and video with top portable hard drives

A variety of external hard drives stacked on top of each other in two piles
(Image credit: Getty/Andrew Balcombe/EyeEm)

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 musician with a degree of comfort, it's not among the sexiest things you'll ever purchase. It is, however, one of the most important, especially if you create a lot of music, or shoot a lot of video.

Whether you're recording huge multitrack DAW sessions, pulling from a sample library running into multiple digits in gigabytes or editing masses of video footage for YouTube (shot with your brand new vlogging camera), a reliable external hard drive for your Mac or PC is worth its weight in gold. 

At some point we've all experienced the problems that come with storing – or accessing – our precious files and data, so let's take a look at some of the best external hard drives you can buy today.

What is the best external hard drive right now?

External hard drives can be thought of like good football referees; you only notice them if something goes wrong. And, as anyone who has suffered at the hands of a faulty disc drive will testify, when they go wrong the results can be absolutely devastating. So it makes sense – even if just for your own peace of mind – to have the safety net of one of the best external drives on your side. For us, the portable drive that best fits the bill is the Samsung T5 range. The drive is small enough that it can be left to one side, yet its solid state technology is both quick and reliable.

In our experience, it can be something as simple as a separate hard drive, rather than a revved up beast of a new computer, that can have the biggest impact on your musical workflow. By freeing up the computer to do its thing, you're taking the load off it to do focus on all the other important 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.

How to buy the best external hard drive for you 

Best external hard drives

(Image credit: Getty/Halfdark)

When choosing the best external hard drive for your system or studio setup, you'll want to ask yourself a few questions. Most notably, you'll want to ask yourself what kind of setup you have in your home studio already. 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. Here's 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. It simply can't keep up. And the final piece of the puzzle is the literal insurance policy; the backup drive. You're going to want one of these. At least one.

There are different types of external hard 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 heftier 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 portable drives. Let's examine some of the best external hard drives out there.

The best external hard drives you can buy today

Best external hard drive: Samsung T5 Portable SSD

(Image credit: Samsung)

1. Samsung T5 Portable SSD

Set-and-forget quality from the best external hard drives around

Price: from $110/£88 | Drive type: SSD | Capacity: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB | Interface: USB 3.1 Gen2

Small
Fast
Reliable
Nothing

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.

Buy the Samsung T5 Portable SSD

Best external hard drives: Seagate Fast

(Image credit: Seagate)

2. Seagate Fast external hard drive

Small, quick and convenient solid state simplicity

Price: from $98/£80 | Drive type: SSD | Capacity: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB | Interface: USB 3.0

Small
Portable
Great value
Nothing!

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.

Buy the Seagate Fast

Best external hard drives: SanDisk Extreme Portable

(Image credit: SanDisk)

3. SanDisk Extreme Portable external hard drive

This rough, tough SSD can take whatever you can throw at it

Price: from $100/£80 | Drive type: SSD | Capacity: 250GB, 500GB, 1TB, 2TB | Interface: USB 3.1 Gen2

Respected brand
Protection
Carry hook is useful
Studio users may require more capacity

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.

Buy the SanDisk Extreme Portable

Best external hard drives: LaCie Rugged Mini

(Image credit: LaCie)

4. LaCie Rugged Mini

These famous orange units are amongst the best external hard drives for durability

Price: from $85/£70 | Drive type: SSD | Capacity: 1TB, 2TB, 4TB | Interface: USB 3.0

Rugged by name...
Difficult to lose
Slow transfer speeds

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.

Buy the LaCie Rugged Mini

Best external hard drives: WD Elements

(Image credit: WD)

5. WD Elements external hard drive

Cost-effective, high capacity hard disc drives

Price: from $50/£45 | Drive type: HDD | Capacity: 1TB, 1.5TB, 2TB, 3TB, 4TB, 5TB | Interface: USB 3.0

Cheap
Large capacity options
Not ideal for streaming data

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.

Buy the WD Elements

Best external hard drives: WD My Cloud Home

(Image credit: WD)

6. WD My Cloud Home

When size matters more than speed

Price: From $160 | Drive type: SSD | Capacity: 2TB, 3TB, 4TB, 6TB, 8TB | Interface: USB 3.0

Cloud-based security
Protected data back-ups
Usability quirks
Requires an internet connection

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.

Shop My Cloud Home

Best external hard drive: TerraMaster D5300C

(Image credit: TerraMaster)

7. TerraMaster D5-300C hard drive

The best external hard drive for safety and security

Price: from $156/£140 | Drive type: HDD/SSD | Capacity: Up to 50TB | Interface: USB 3.1

Safe as houses
Back up the backups of your backups
Requires some understanding of PC jargon
Price doesn't include discs

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.