Computers / Buying Guide

Portable Hard Drives: Big Solutions in a Small Size

Portable Hard Drives. They’re a big part of storage-solution scenarios. Why? Because digital storage gets increasingly taxed these days, with large files and downloadable content like music and movies. People are savvier now about downloading, and our innate nature is to hoard as much data as possible. We’re a community of data hoarders. Downloading is like eating chocolate almonds—the minute you figure how to download a bit torrent, you can’t stop at one—you have to have the whole jar. You can fill 1TB of space in less than a workday. And double your blood sugar if you’re not careful.

But why portable? Because we are a society constantly on the go. We rush to meetings, we have longer commutes, and we don’t like down time. We want our information—digital data that we borrowed, nicked, or paid for—accessible at all times. Maybe not all stored in the cloud (because if you’re illegally downloading anything, you don’t want to advertise that in a great big fluffy watchable cloud), maybe stored on small memory cards, or portable hard drives.

For this roundup, our criteria are: the drive has to be small, easy enough to throw into a messenger bag, purse, briefcase, or backpack. It has to be bus-powered, meaning that it draws its power from the USB or Thunderbolt connector. True portability means never having to lug around a power brick. We’re going to start with 2TB and 3TB drives; there are lots of 1TB drives, but a 2TB drive is really future-proofing your purchase. Oh, by the way, back up that existing data. Trust us.

But wait! There’s an exception. Portable solid-state drives are a great type of portable drive to have, if you can afford it. Because of their restrictive cost (a 1TB portable SSD can go for anywhere north of $400) we’re only going to look at 1TB portable SSDs. We’ll also cover Mac-specific and wireless portable drives, and specialty drives that do neat things with your data. These recommendations all come from B&H inventory, so if you see something that tickles your fancy, drop it in your cart.

2TB Portable Hard Drives

These stalwart drives are perfect for storing all your music and movie files. Right now, they’re a steal, too. The WD My Passport 2TB version is currently selling at B&H for less than $100. Bus powered, with a USB 3.0 interface, this slim drive is less than an inch thick and weighs about 8 ounces. While the drive speed is not specified by the manufacturer (read here: probably 5400 rpm), the size and weight (and price) make this an attractive portable.

Does a drive that thin make you nervous about its durability? The LaCie 2TB Rugged Mini Portable answers with a drive that says “throw me!” This 2TB 5400 rpm drive, with a USB 3.0 interface, features a rubberized bumper around the edges and promises to be shock, rain, and pressure resistant, with a tested 1.2 m/47.2" drop zone, meaning that when dropped from that height, it will not affect the mechanics of the drive. Our advice: don’t test it.  Only 0.75" thick and 8.5 oz in weight, this is the perfect portable when you want your data out in the wild, like camping or maybe your next family reunion.

Seagate, already well known for its internal drives, also offers the Seagate 2TB Backup Plus series, which comes in a variety of fun colors, and includes USB 3.0 connectivity and a 5400 rpm drive. The nice standout on this model is that it is formatted for both Mac and Windows (including pre-loaded drivers for the Mac), making it a kind of hybrid dual OS drive. Don’t get too excited—you can’t use one on both systems simultaneously—you have to choose which one you want. Still, it’s nice to have just a little less reformatting to deal with on a portable drive.

3TB Portable Hard Drives

Oh, mama—now we’re talking. Until I see a 6TB slim drive, 3TB is still nice and roomy. This lets you store larger files, more RAW photo files, and a lot more high-def movies than a 2TB drive, without sacrificing the portable form factor. The 3TB Toshiba Canvio Connect II Portable Hard Drive, for instance, isn’t much bulkier than a smartphone, and still only weighs 8.11 oz. This 5400 rpm drive also boasts a 12 ms average seek time and an 8MB cache buffer (the 2TB drives didn’t list buffer in the specs, but the larger the buffer, the faster the drive can access often-used data). This also comes in a variety of colors, which, while not a deal breaker, at least lets you have some fun.

WD also gets into the game again with the WD 3TB My Passport Ultra series, which includes different colors and two new metallic casings for you urban professional James Bond aficionados who like their portable hard drives to have a little charm. Just make sure these are not shaken or stirred. Bus powered, 256-bit AES encryption, and NTFS formatted, these drives are also compact, with a height of 0.83" and weight of 8 oz.

Portable SSD Drives

Now we get into the Ferraris of portable drives: portable solid-state drives. These portables won’t list rotational speed, because there are no moving parts to an SSD, and although you don’t have to worry as much about dropping these, try not to drop these. You also won’t get the heat signatures you see in traditional spindle drives, which is a plus if you use your portable drive a lot. You should know that the cost per gigabyte is more for large-capacity SSDs, so you will pay more (sometimes as much as three times more) than you do for a traditional portable hard drive. But then again, drives like the Samsung Portable 1TB SSD look as elegant as a portable drive can, with laser etching and a black chrome finish. Those looks happen to also deliver 450 MB/s of data-transfer speed, USB 3.0 connectivity and bus power, all in a package that weighs 0.9 oz and is only 0.4" thick.

Transcend, known mostly for memory cards and flash drives, also offers a 1TB SSD storage option. The 1TB ESD400 USB 3.0 Portable Solid State Drive boasts read speeds up to 410 MB/s and write speeds up to 380 MB/s. A caveat here: usually, when a manufacturer touts such astounding read and write speeds, they tend to be describing burst speeds—the speed that transferring a couple of files may experience, under optimal conditions—using the ubiquitous phrasing “up to.” This is not a sustained data-transfer rate, so you will not see hundreds of MB/s flowing through the drive during long transfer. I’m just saying, is all. Benchmark testing (and a quick look around the Web) may show you real-world transfer rates if you’re that concerned with a high transfer rate. And always remember, the transfer rate you get will always be lower than that tested in an engineer’s lab.

But we’re still talking about speedy SSD drives, so you will see a difference. Take the Oyen Digital Shadow Mini External 1TB USB 3.0 Portable Solid State Drive, for instance. Oyen claims it achieved more than 400 MB/s transfer speed, using a MacBook Pro 2012. The company also posts speed test numbers using a BlackMagic Design criteria, which shows that Oyen wants video editors to consider this as their go-to portable. This also claims to have block management and wear leveling, which is good, since SSDs have a definite end point in their ability to store data. Wear leveling makes sure data is evenly written across the SSD, ensuring a longer life span.

Mac Portable Drives

Most drives are NTFS formatted with use for Windows computers, and while almost any drive can be reformatted for use with a Mac, end users know this process can be a pain.

Like the rugged durability of LaCie hard drive? Like the stylish rubberized orange bumper that protects you against drops of up to 6.6 feet? How about a 110 MB/s read speed? You get all that with the LaCie 2TB Thunderbolt, and to top it off, you get an integrated Thunderbolt cable, capable of delivering transfer speeds of 10 Gb/s. The LaCie 2TB Rugged Thunderbolt external portable drive delivers all that, and even includes additional USB 3.0 connectivity to connect to other compatible desktops or laptops. It comes out of the box unformatted, and includes drivers for Mac formatting. It is a little bulkier, though, coming in at one inch thick and weighing 12 oz.

The WD 2TB My Passport USB 3.0 Portable Hard Drive for Mac may seem like a standard portable hard drive, with a 2TB capacity, USB 3.0 connectivity, and 256-bit AES encryption, but when you look at its sleek black case and consider its form factor (less than a inch thick and only 8 oz), you may be sold. For Mac users, the added bonus is that this drive is preformatted HFS+ Journaled for Mac OS X Lion or Mountain Lion, Mavericks, and Yosemite. It can be reformatted for Windows, but for this item, Mac OS compatibility is native to the drive.

Wireless Portable Drives

Not all portable drives are made the same. Some have unique features that set them apart from the portable crowd, and the most notable has been the influx of wireless portable hard drives. Why wireless? For true portability, these drives don’t even need power if their internal battery is charged. And you can transmit, stream, and access data from these drives, so items like cell phones and tablets can have their storage increased without physically inserting a card or wire. The Toshiba Canvio AeroCast is one such device. It uses Wi-Fi but also maintains USB 3.0 connectivity. I have used these before, and they work pretty well. The data-transfer rate may not always be great for moving 1,500 movies at a time, but it’s handy as heck when you need space. The great thing about this portable? You can share the connection with other users, so that everyone in your network can log on and check out your movies and music, as well. I only wish this went larger than 1TB, although it does have an SD card slot for additional storage.

There’s also the Buffalo 1TB MiniStation Air Wireless Hard Drive, which features eight-user sharing with additional USB 3.0 connectivity, 12-hour run time on a single charge via the 3020 mAh battery (you can also charge your smartphone via the micro-USB 3.0 port), and the ability to create a Wi-Fi hotspot (as all wireless portable drives do). If only this came in a 2TB version…*big techie-geek sigh*

Seagate does go 2TB with wireless, with the 2TB Wireless Plus Mobile HDD with Built-In Wi-Fi. It works the same way—an integrated Wi-Fi adapter allows you to connect wirelessly and access your data, you also have the option to use a hardwired USB 3.0 cable, and it integrates with the free Seagate Media app for iPad, iPhone, Kindle Fire, Windows 8 tablets and computers, and Android tablets and smartphones. It boasts 10-hour battery life, and connects up to three users simultaneously (how many car trips could have been saved with this?).

WD is on the Wi-Fi grandstand, as well, with the WD 2TB My Passport Wireless portable drive. It also features Wi-Fi transferring and streaming, an SD card slot for easy camera or other mobile transfers, and the ability to connect eight users at a time. It can handle six hours of video streaming or 20 hours of standby time, and features a TI AM3352 processor with 512MB of memory. This is one of the few that lists its antenna as a 2x2 Wireless N (dual band) for access on both frequencies.

Specialty Drives

Why you would need a RAID drive out in the wilderness is beyond me, but just because you can’t think of a reason doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be built. The LaCie 4TB Rugged RAID is really dual 2TB drives fused together, with the ability to stripe or mirror data. That’s right, this is RAID-in-a-box. In RAID 0 mode, the speeds can reach 240 MB/s in both read and write modes, but when using the drive to mirror your data, the speeds drop to 115 MB/s read and 120 MB/s write, which is typical because the data is being duplicated on another drive. Why would you want this? It makes for a really secure way of storing your data when out in the field. If you’re a researcher with mission-critical information, or a technician who needs a backup of your data immediately, this is an awesome way to go. Portable? Kind of. It’s 1.3" thick and weighs 1.25 lb, but for dual RAID, that’s pretty small.

Last up is the Macally Mobile Wi-Fi Hard Drive Enclosure. It’s not really a portable hard drive—it’s a portable hard drive enclosure… wait for it… that also features Wi-Fi connectivity. You supply the drive (up to 3TB capacity) and the enclosure supplies the engine, a 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi adapter, a 2.5" SATA I/II/III hard drive interface, and bus power. Additionally, the device also has a USB 3.0 port and an Ethernet jack for hardwire transfers, unique among portables I’ve seen. With a 3000 mAh battery, you can squeeze about 4 hours of continuous streaming out of it. What stands out about this unit is that you can put your own 3TB drive in it, even if that drive is filled with data. If your drive meets the spacing requirements, you’re good to go, and now have Wi-Fi capability. All told, it still comes in under an inch thick, and the weight is only 6.2 oz without the drive. With a drive, you might be looking at up to another pound in weight.

So there you have an extensive portable hard-drive lineup. Next time you need some extra space for your device, whether on the train, on a plane, or (as a passenger) in an automobile, you now have a slim and compact solution to carry all your digital stuff with you.