We’ve reviewed this guide, and continue to stand behind the picks we made during testing at the beginning of 2020.
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March 1, 2021
Every computer needs a backup hard drive, and if you use a laptop, a portable hard drive that’s easy to slip into a messenger bag is the most convenient option. After 12 hours of research and testing, we found that the new version of the 2 TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim is the best portable hard drive for most people. It’s reliable, it’s one of the lightest and thinnest hard drives we tested, and it was faster than the competition in our file-transfer tests.
Portable hard drives let you back up or store a large amount of data for a (relatively) small amount of money. If you want to keep your hard drive at your desk, external desktop drives may offer additional perks—some models have extra encryption or backup options, while others may be slightly faster—but otherwise have begun to offer a similar amount of storage at prices similar to those of portable drives. For faster storage that you access all the time, consider a more expensive portable solid-state drive instead.
Seagate Backup Plus Slim (2 TB)
The best portable hard drive
The Seagate Backup Plus Slim is reliable, thin, and light, and it offers fast speeds at a reasonable cost.
The new version of the Seagate Backup Plus Slim is an update to the same drive we’ve recommended for the past five years, and it’s the only portable hard drive we’ve tested that doesn’t sacrifice size, speed, or reliability. Other 2 TB portable hard drives are significantly larger, performed slower in our tests, or have a failure rate that’s too high or are not reliable enough to recommend. The drive is available in a 1 TB version for a few dollars less, but we recommend the 2 TB model because it’s a great value and we saw fewer complaints about that version’s reliability. Seagate also includes a simple backup utility and subscriptions to photo software.
Wirecutter has researched and recommended hard drives since early 2012 and has spent over 200 hours researching and testing portable hard drives in just the past five years. I’ve spent the past 20 years reviewing hard drives and SSDs, doing so for a variety of publications before joining Wirecutter in 2018.
If you’re not already backing up the important documents and photos on your computer, you should start. Fortunately, backing up your data is easy, and getting started takes only a few minutes: Read our advice and set up a system that will back up your files automatically both to an external hard drive and the cloud. Having both onsite and cloud backups ensures that your data stays safe from localized threats such as fire, theft, or natural disaster, as well as from internet outages or disruptions to the cloud backup provider.
But even a backup drive isn’t a guarantee that your data is safe forever. You should consider replacing your backup drives before they fail; between three and six years is a good time to consider a replacement, depending on your risk tolerance. If your drive dies and you have a cloud backup, you won’t lose data, but restoring from the cloud could take a very long time. According to statistics from cloud backup service Backblaze, about 5 percent of hard drives fail in the first 18 months of use, and the failure rate lowers to about 1.5 percent for another 18 months. The failure rate jumps to almost 12 percent after that. At the four-year mark, the failure rate is 20 percent.
Between three and six years is a good time to consider a replacement, depending on your risk tolerance.
If you frequently move between different locations and need a drive to keep in your bag—to back up photos, extend your music library, or keep your work data separated from your personal data, for example—you should get a portable external drive like the one we recommend in this guide. But if you spend most of your time working at one desk, a desktop external drive is less expensive per terabyte and a bit faster than portable drives but bigger and heavier; a desktop model also requires an additional power adapter. Portable hard drives are designed to withstand a little more abuse than desktop hard drives. If you can afford to pay two to three times more for a smaller, lighter, more durable, and much faster portable drive, we recommend a portable solid-state drive.
Ideally, a portable hard drive is something you don’t notice much. It should sit on your desk, quietly storing and backing up your data. And if you want to throw it in your bag (carefully), that shouldn’t be a problem. These are the features you should look for in a portable hard drive, in rough order of importance:
Reliability: Although reliability is the most important factor for any storage device, solid information on reliability is hard to come by. Only three companies—Seagate, Western Digital, and Toshiba—still manufacture hard drives, and all of them make reliable options. But all hard drives die, and it’s still possible to buy a lemon that will die too soon.Physical size and weight: The smaller and lighter, the better. Your portable hard drive should also draw all the power it needs from the USB port, no power adapter necessary.Speed: Portable hard drives are generally slower than their desktop brethren, but speed is still important. You’re more likely to use a portable drive to transfer large files between different computers, so a faster drive will save you time. We tested drives with USB 3.0 and USB-C connections. USB-C hard drives aren’t necessarily faster than USB 3.0 models, though, because they’re limited by the disk speed, not the USB interface.Price: By looking at Amazon reviews for our top picks, we found that most people buy 2 TB and 4 TB drives. Although a higher-capacity drive is more cost-effective per terabyte, 4 TB portable hard drives are nearly twice as expensive as 2 TB drives and supply more storage than most people need. Since many portable drives nowadays provide similar performance, lower-cost options are better.Capacity: We recommend getting the largest capacity you can afford. Larger drives generally offer a better price-per-terabyte value, and you’ll likely use a larger drive as you amass more data over time. We focused on 2 TB drives because of their balance of value and total cost. We also considered a 4 TB pick for people who need more portable storage and don’t mind the larger size.Warranty and customer service: A good warranty is important in case you get a lemon. While the majority of portable hard drives we tested have two-year warranties, some have three-year warranties. Responsive customer service is important, too, should you have trouble backing up your data.
For our 2020 update, we narrowed down our list of contenders by price and capacity and tested five 2 TB models and two 4 TB models. For each portable hard drive, we ran HD Tune Pro, a benchmarking program that tests sequential transfer speeds and random access time across the entire disk. You can read a more in-depth explanation of the program at the HD Tune website. To get real-world examples of how long it takes to transfer files back and forth between a computer and each drive, we also timed the file transfer of a 32 GB music folder (with 6,154 MP3 files) and a folder with two large files (an 8.1 GB MKV video file and a 7.07 GB Linux ISO file) using Windows’ built-in Robocopy utility. We ran each transfer three times and calculated the average to rule out performance hiccups.
To spot any widespread reliability issues, we read through Amazon reviews for each of the drives we tested and counted the number of reported drive failures. This method has shortcomings: For one, people are more likely to post a review when they have a problem. Also, because of the limited information available in some reviews, it can be hard to differentiate between hardware failures and software issues or user errors that could cause problems with a drive. But this step at least allowed us to get a feel for trends affecting specific drives and to see rough, relative comparisons.
We also looked at Backblaze’s hard drive reliability ratings from 2019, which are based on almost 125,000 drives the company uses in its cloud backup servers. Backup servers constitute a very different environment than a box on your desk—bare drives in servers are accessed more often and are subject to more vibrations and more heat, whereas drives in enclosures have more potential points of failure between the USB connector and the USB-to-SATA logic board. The hard drives Backblaze uses are desktop hard drives, not portable hard drives, with some drives pulled from external enclosures. Even so, the Backblaze study is the largest, most recent sample of hard drive failures we have access to, and it’s always a fascinating read.
Our pick: Seagate Backup Plus Slim (2 TB)
Photo: Michael Murtaugh
Seagate Backup Plus Slim (2 TB)
The best portable hard drive
The Seagate Backup Plus Slim is reliable, thin, and light, and it offers fast speeds at a reasonable cost.
The 2 TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim is the best portable hard drive for most people because it’s reliable, and because it’s lighter and smaller than most of the other hard drives we tested. It’s one of the least expensive drives per terabyte we tested, and it’s consistently faster than most of the competition. In addition, the Slim comes with a link to download backup software, a one-year subscription to Mylio Create, and a two-month trial for the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan (Lightroom and Photoshop).
The Slim, in one form or another, has been one of our picks since April 2014 because it continues to have some of the lowest failure rates of any widely reviewed drive on Amazon while still providing fast performance. In April 2020, we recorded 21 failure reports out of 457 customer reviews for the 2019 2 TB model, a failure rate of about 4.6 percent. We’ll continue to watch the reviews, but this result tracks with what we saw for the previous iteration of this drive. During our years of testing, we’ve found that reported failure rates below 10 percent aren’t cause for concern.
The Slim (left) is quite a bit thinner than its sibling, the Portable (right). Photo: Michael Murtaugh
The Seagate Backup Plus Slim is one of the thinnest and lightest portable hard drives we’ve tested. It measures less than half an inch thick—0.46 inch, to be exact—and it weighs just 4.5 ounces, so it’s easy to carry during your commute. At 4.5 inches long and 3.1 inches wide, it fits well into the gadget pockets in most laptop bags or backpacks. The Toshiba Canvio Slim and Western Digital My Passport both have a bit less volume than this Seagate drive; the Toshiba is heavier, but all three of these drives are quite compact.
The Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Touch had the fastest file transfer time, which translates into about 130 MB/s. The Slim was faster than average, at around 125 MB/s. Shorter bars indicate better performance.
The Slim moves large files quickly in both directions, such as when you’re copying large media files from one PC to another or backing up a movie library. Our read test transfers files from the drive to the PC, while our write test goes in the opposite direction. We found that the Seagate Backup Plus Slim is about as fast as the Toshiba Canvio Slim, though both are slower than the Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Touch by a few seconds. In our tests, the Slim transferred data at about 125 MB/s, measurably faster than the Seagate and Western Digital 4 TB drives we tested. The Ultra Touch is the only drive in this testing roundup that has a USB-C adapter, but the difference between the Slim and Ultra Touch was under 10 seconds.
The Slim landed in the middle of the pack in our HD Tune write tests, averaging just under 100 MB/s. Longer bars indicate better performance.
The Seagate Backup Plus Slim performed in the middle of the pack during the HD Tune tests, at just under 100 MB/s for both its read and write speeds. These results back up what we saw in the large-file transfer tests described above, and they indicate that the Slim is fast enough for file transfer use and daily backups. If you need faster performance or if you’re working under time constraints, we suggest that you see our portable SSD guide.
The Seagate Backup Plus Slim’s sturdy plastic case has a metal face plate that comes in multiple colors: black, blue, gold, red, or silver. The only interface is a single LED on the top that shows when the drive is plugged in and active. Although our pick will hold up well to normal bag friction, it isn’t rated to survive any significant shocks.
The 2 TB version is less expensive per terabyte than the 1 TB model, and it’s the highest capacity option the Slim offers. (If you need more space, consider the 4 TB Seagate Backup Plus Portable.) Even if you have only a terabyte of data right now, your needs will expand over the drive’s lifespan, and having room to grow is better than needing to buy multiple drives (which costs more in the long run). At the time of our research, the Slim was on the cheaper end of the portable hard drives we tested, at about 3¢ per gigabyte. The Toshiba Canvio Slim and WD My Passport 2 TB drives typically cost about the same as the Backup Plus Slim, within a few dollars of one another.
The Slim comes with Seagate’s Toolkit program, which you can also download from the company’s support site. Toolkit is a simple-to-use backup program, but you can use any backup program you choose, including Time Machine on a Mac. Seagate also includes a one-year subscription to the photo organizer Mylio Create, as well as a two-month trial for the Adobe Creative Cloud Photography plan (Lightroom and Photoshop). All of the drives we considered came with basic backup software, but the photo subscriptions are a notable addition to the Seagate models and the pricier LaCie drives (LaCie is owned by Seagate).
Hard drives can come in one of a handful of different formats (and be reformatted), with each format having pros and cons plus varying compatibility with assorted computers and operating systems. The Seagate Backup Plus Slim is formatted as exFAT, ensuring compatibility with Chromebooks, Macs, PCs, and most recent Linux PCs, so you can copy files between computers regardless of the operating system. However, FAT-formatted drives, including those using FAT32 and exFAT, are slow when writing multiple small files, such as when a PC is backing up your work files. We saw this behavior during our Robocopy tests, when the file transfer rate for FAT drives dropped by two-thirds compared with the NTFS-formatted drives. Because of that, an exFAT drive would feel slow during everyday functions such as a daily backup of multiple small files. For those kinds of tasks, we recommend reformatting the drive to your operating system’s format to improve speeds: HFS+ for Macs or NTFS for Windows.
All three Seagate drives faltered on our music write test because they came from the factory with the slower but more compatible exFAT format. The other drives were formatted as NTFS. Shorter bars indicate better performance.
The Backup Plus Slim comes with a Micro-USB 3.0–to–USB-A cable, which will fit most PCs. This means you’ll need either an adapter or a Micro-USB 3.0–to–USB-C cable for laptops that support only USB-C, such as the Apple MacBook Air and other Apple laptops. Only the Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Touch includes a USB-C adapter, though.
Seagate covers the Backup Plus Slim with a two-year warranty—Western Digital, Seagate’s biggest competitor, usually provides three-year warranties—and our perusal of Amazon reviews turned up more complaints about Seagate’s customer service than about WD’s. However, a two-year warranty should be sufficient.
Our pick doesn’t have built-in encryption to protect your data from prying eyes. Although the option to encrypt would be nice, its absence isn’t a dealbreaker for most people. If you really need encryption, use an encryption utility such as VeraCrypt (or Bitlocker) or consider a portable solid-state drive.
Until we have more reliability data, we’ll hold our assessment of the other new Seagate drives for future updates. Seagate released a new version of the Backup Plus Portable (STHP4000), as well as the all-new Backup Plus Ultra Touch (STHH2000), which includes hardware encryption and a USB-C dongle. These new drives are as fast as our pick, though like the Backup Plus Slim these other Seagate drives slow down when writing many small files because they’re formatted as exFAT. If speed is the most important factor for you, pick up a portable SSD instead.
Toshiba has released a new Canvio Slim. The new 2 TB model showed promise in our speed tests, but it has the same small-review-pool problem as the latest Seagate models. We’ll take a look at it again once it has more reviews.
Western Digital has new versions of the My Passport drive, in 1 TB, 2 TB, 4 TB, and 5 TB capacities. We looked at the 2 TB and 4 TB versions of this drive, and both performed well.
Older models of the 2 TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim and 4 TB Seagate Backup Plus Portable were the former top pick and also-great choice, respectively, in a previous version of this guide. Seagate discontinued them in 2019, but they still may be available for purchase.
The Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Slim was briefly our top pick, from November 2016 to late January 2017, because it was the lightest, thinnest, fastest portable hard drive we’d tested at the time. We subsequently dismissed it because the failure rate increased too much.
The 2 TB Western Digital My Passport and 2 TB WD Elements are bigger than the Slim by 0.2 inch in width and nearly 0.4 inch in thickness, and they’re heftier by about 3 ounces. They were slower in most of our file transfer tests, too.
Like the other WD drives we tested, the 2 TB WD Easystore was bigger than the Seagate Backup Plus Slim. It fell behind the Slim in our HD Tune write tests by about 4 MB/s, and it was a little slower in our file-copy tests, although its differences there fell within normal variability. But it’s available only at Best Buy, and the price fluctuates more than we’d like.
The 2 TB Toshiba Canvio Advance is as thin as our top pick, but its speeds were wildly inconsistent in our tests.
The Seagate Expansion is a decent choice if you want to expand your gaming console’s storage or don’t need software, but the Seagate Backup Plus Slim was faster in our tests and costs the same per terabyte. Plus, the Expansion is larger and heavier than the Slim, and it comes with a short, one-year warranty.
We haven’t tested the Seagate Game Drive for Xbox, but it’s frequently more expensive than the Seagate Backup Plus Slim, it’s a little bigger on all sides, and it weighs about an ounce more, too. It has a 10 percent reported failure rate. We don’t love its bright green color scheme for most people.
Transcend’s 2 TB StoreJet 25M3 is larger, heavier, and more expensive per terabyte than our top pick, the Seagate Backup Plus Slim.
WD’s My Passport X is a gaming-focused drive with a short, one-year warranty and no software. Of all the drives we tested in 2015, it had the slowest HD Tune reads and writes—82.5 MB/s and 77.4 MB/s, respectively—and it’s larger and heavier than our picks.
Two of the rugged hard drives we threw into a pool to test their water-resistance ratings. Photos: Kimber Streams
At the end of 2016, we tested three promising, affordable rugged hard drives: the Silicon Power Armor A80, Silicon Power Armor A65, and Silicon Power Armor A85. All three drives are rated to survive at 1 meter (about 3.3 feet) underwater for up to 30 minutes and are rated to survive 26 drops on their various surfaces from 4 feet, but in our real-world testing none of them survived these conditions. We don’t recommend paying extra money for a bulkier, heavier drive that doesn’t protect your information like the company says it will. In our previous update we eliminated 10 other rugged drives that lacked both water and drop protection, which left us with the G-Technology G-Drive ev ATC and the LaCie Rugged RAID, both of which cost too much for most people.
LaCie’s Rugged USB-C and Rugged Mini are both too expensive to compete with our top pick, and they lack the water protection necessary for us to consider them as rugged options.
Other rugged drives we’ve evaluated recently and found too pricey include the Adata HD830, the G-Technology ArmorATD, and the Transcend StoreJet 25M3C. All three also have too few reviews online for us to derive reliability data.
We also evaluated and dismissed the Adata HD770G and the 2 TB LaCie Mobile Drive as too expensive and having too few reviews. We also thought the HD770G’s RGB lighting and gaming design to be a bit garish for most people.