A lot of computers - especially the most affordable models - won’t come with a lot of storage. Some budget devices only offer 32 gigabytes (GB) or 64GB. To put that into perspective, Adobe recommends that you should have 16GB or more storage space available if you want to install Photoshop. And that’s just one program.
But an external hard drive is not just a place to toss some old photos – it can be hugely helpful for larger backups – giving you peace of mind that content is safe and won’t be deleted or corrupted should your computer or laptop break.
But hold on a second before simply buying the external hard drive with the most capacity – there’s a little more to it than that. You will need to think about what ports are on your computer, how much space you actually need, how portable you require the external drive to be and whether it should be HDD or SSD.
We will explain everything in this guide, and recommend some top external hard drives that will offer you a range of storage capacities and speeds. Also in the market for a new computer? Be sure to read our guide to the best budget laptops.
All pricing in this article was correct at the time of publication.
£42.99 | Buy now from Amazon
Combining portability, affordability and storage capacity is the Toshiba Canvio Flex. It’s an HDD (USB 3.2) that’s preformatted to be compatible with both Mac and Windows computers. It’s bundled with USB-A and USB-C cables, has a sleek, silver finish and is small enough to pop in your coat pocket or travel bag. We chose the 1TB option as an all-rounder, but the Flex is available with up to 4TB of storage.
£50.98£48.98 | Buy now from Amazon
This USB 3.0 HDD from Western Digital is a minimalist and portable little model. At under five inches in length and 3.5 inches in width, you’re very unlikely to feel too encumbered carrying this around. It’s ready for Windows out of the box and can be reformatted for Macs, and despite its size doesn’t skimp out on capacity – offering up to 5TB of storage. We chose the 2TB version in order to keep it under £50.
£109.99£99.10 | Buy now from Amazon
If you want storage for your Windows or Mac computer and don't plan on carrying the HDD with you on your travels, the Seagate Expansion is a fantastic option. It's a desktop external hard drive – meaning that it isn't intended to leave your desk due to its larger size and power adapter – with a vast amount of capacity and a sleek black-coloured design. It offers transfers with USB 3.0 and drag-and-drop file transfers to both Mac and Windows, although use with Apple's Time Machine does require reformatting. While we have recommended the 4TB model to keep the price around the £100 mark, you can buy up to a whopping 18TB of storage.
£39.49 | Buy now from Amazon
Priced at under £40 for 1TB of storage, the Seagate Portable Drive is a very solid HDD option, but note that it’s only preformatted for Windows PCs and laptops. It has USB 3.0 and offers simple drag-and-drop functionality, so it’s also a very solid model for anyone who isn’t too computer savvy. We chose the 1TB variant to keep the costs down, but even the HDD version with a vast 5TB is priced at under £100.
£36.79 | Buy now from Amazon
If ultra-portability is your primary aim, look no further than the Maxone HDD - which is made with aluminium and is only around 1 cm (0.39-inches) deep. It comes in a variety of colours - including grey, rose pink and gold – and is plug-and-play for Windows and Macs. The small stature means storage tops out at 1TB, but we chose the 500GB for cost-effectiveness – that’s still enough for lots of files and photos.
£109 | Buy now from Amazon
If speed is a priority, one of the best options we can recommend is the Samsung T5. It’s a solid-state drive (SSD) with extremely fast transfer speeds (up to five times faster than standard HDDs) and a sleek, highly portable, metal casing. If you're transferring 4K content, movies, programs or games – the T5 is for you. It works with PC, Mac, phones and gaming consoles. It’s pricier, but that’s the cost of speed.
£239.99£197.99 | Buy now from Amazon
The Western Digital Black P50 series is a solid-state drive (SSD) that's designed with gaming consoles in mind – boasting high-end speeds and performance. The P50 is a portable model with a sturdy aluminium case and can be used to store games for PC, Xbox and PlayStation. One quirk with PS5 games is that you have to transfer them to the internal SSD before they can be played. That said, you can still play PS4 games off an external drive. The P50 is a great – if admittedly pricey – option.
£69.99£61.98| Buy now from Amazon
If the external drive is likely to be thrown into a travel bag when you’re on holiday or a daily commute on bustling trains, the LaCie Rugged Mini is a great option. It has a tough case that makes it shock and drop resistant for up to 1.2 metres (in non-operating mode) and is resistant to rain. The design is unique – with a colourful orange/grey scheme – and the drive is compatible with Mac and Windows. Storage is available up to 5TB, but we think that this 1TB model is enough for general use.
£49.99£44.55 | Buy now from Amazon
The Western Digital “My Passport” series is one of the best all-rounder HDDs – with masses of storage, great portability and a variety of colour options - but we filed this under great for students because it comes with password protection and backup software, which is perfect for anyone storing school or university projects, files or research. You can set a backup schedule that will keep a copy of the files onto the My Passport Drive, and the HDD has built-in 256-bit AES hardware encryption with personalised password protection. This model is not listed as being compatible with Mac devices out of the box, so it's definitely best for Windows users.
£221.99£129.54 | Buy now from Amazon
The SanDisk Extreme is a fantastic option if you need to keep the external drive right by your side at all times. You may not always want to have it in a travel bag, and this model is a highly-portable SSD, so it's also incredibly fast. It has 1TB of storage (but goes up to 4TB) and is housed in a silicone shell that gives it 2-metre drop protection alongside IP55 water and dust resistance. A nice aspect of the design is that the case has a carabiner loop so you can secure it to a belt loop or a backpack. It comes with password protection, and it’s compatible with both Windows and macOS.
£71.13 | Buy now from Amazon
It’s the second time the My Passport series has made the list – but this model is made with Macs in mind. The advantages are the same: password protection, a great range of colour options, USB 3.0 and a portable frame. But the My Passport for Mac is the best option for anyone who is using a MacBook or iMac. Out of the box, you can drag-and-drop files, set up a backup routine with Apple’s Time Machine software and it includes USB-C and USB-A cables so it can connect to all types of Apple computers. We chose the better priced 1TB option, but it’s available in up to 5TB of storage.
How much storage you need to buy depends on what you will be filling the drive with. Documents, images and even movies won’t take up too much space, but a couple of your favourite PS5 console games or an entire laptop backup will.
For an external hard drive, we recommend not going below one terabyte (TB) of storage, which equates to a little over 1,000 gigabytes (GB).
This is a common number for external hard drives and will hold about 250,000 digital photos, around 250 movies or approximately 200,000 songs. If you are storing a mixture of formats - whether that’s a backup of your Adobe projects or your many years of school work – you may decide to go even higher.
In 2022, it’s common for external hard drives to be fairly cost-effective (sub £100) for as much as 4TB. The basic concept of external hard drive storage is similar to smartphones: the more you want, the more expensive the device will be.
You will need to consider if the external hard drive will sit on your desk, or if you will want to take it with you while venturing out of the house.
Generally, most of the drives with 1-4TB will fit in a coat pocket or travel bag but if you need more storage - think 6TB and up - the drive likely won’t be just as portable. Most will need to be placed on a desk and may also need a wall charger for power.
Some external drives are designed with durability in mind, made with chunkier drop-resistant casings that will withstand bumps or surprise falls. Again, how much protection you need will always be dependent on how you’re using it.
Search for an external hard drive on Amazon or Currys and you are likely to see two main acronyms: HDD (hard disk drive) and SSD (solid-state drive). The larger models with vast amounts of storage are often known as desktop drives.
HDDs store data on 2.5-inch spinning magnetic plates, with the data interpreted by read/write heads. They’re significantly more affordable, but also significantly slower. Due to the moving parts, HDDs are more prone to breakages.
SSDs do not have any physical moving parts and data is stored on flash memory. They are faster, more portable and more shock-resistant than HDDs, but the big downside is the technology is newer, so HDDs are expensive in comparison.
While you can easily pick up a 1TB external hard drive for around £50 or less, a 1 TB SSD is likely to be double that, costing you around £100 or more.
External drives will connect to your computer using USB, and you will likely see this labelled as USB 3.0, USB 3.1 Gen1, or USB 3.2 Gen1. Any of these will be fine, but we highly recommend avoiding any models that use the older USB 2.0.
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If you want to store/backup sensitive files or documents, some external drives will offer encryption and password protection. This won’t be a huge factor for everyone but it’s a good feature if security or privacy is important to you.
Finally, be sure to check that the external drive is compatible with your device – be it a Windows PC, Apple MacBook laptop or a next-generation gaming console. While many HDDs can be formatted to work with any, some external drives are designed with one format in mind. So, always double-check the specs on the box or the website listing before you hit purchase as it will save you lots of time and effort later.
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