We review eight high-capacity external hard drives, priced between $175 and $439.
What we found:
- You can store 3-4TB in a single-drive desktop unit
- USB 3.0 is the most common high-speed connection, but not the fastest
- Most come with software for disk management and backup.
The trend to using laptop and all-in-one desktop computers, along with the constant accumulation of digital photos, videos and music, poses a growing problem – what happens when you run out of space? Laptops and all-in-one desktops typically have only one hard drive and it’s often of very limited capacity.
As digital data growth rapidly outpaces internal drive capacity, the answer is to store your mountain of multimedia on a large external desktop drive. But then the challenge is to back it all up, along with your internal drive. This means you may need not one, but two external drives – one for storage and one for backup.
Fortunately, external hard drive storage is relatively cheap, with 3TB drives costing around $200 and 4TB models not much more. These are still the largest single-unit drives available and hit the sweet spot for price versus capacity for most people. Pricing for this size drive hasn’t changed markedly since our last roundup, and the effective cost-per-gigabyte ranges from 6-12c. While you can purchase external desktop models of up to 6-8TB capacity, these cost significantly more as they combine two drives in the one package.
How we test
Performance We transfer sets of 5GB of data to and from each drive multiple times. We use separate sets made up of large files and of small files. Testing is done using USB 3.0 (except for the Thunderbolt drive). We time the transfers, noting both the read and write speeds to measure the drive’s performance, averaging the speeds for a final figure.
We also compare the ease of use of each drive and any software supplied, taking into account the time to get set up and how easy it is to do common tasks with the software. We assess how easy it is to install the software then use it to set up a backup regime, as well as the ease of restoring a particular version of a backed up file.
For performance testing we use PCs running Windows 7 and equipped with solid-state drive (SSD), except for Thunderbolt, which is tested using an Apple iMac with Fusion drive (combined SSD/HDD), which comes standard with a Thunderbolt port. This avoids possible bottlenecks that can occur using a slower mechanical hard drive. The test computer is rebooted between each test to ensure no speed benefit due to cached files during the write/read process. At the completion of all hard drive tests, the test computer is reimaged before testing a different hard drive.
Although Thunderbolt is still much more prevalent on Mac computers, it’s making its way into Windows PCs and laptops. Thunderbolt supports daisy chaining so you can plug in up to six devices end-to-end, including Thunderbolt-enabled desktop monitors.