Why you should trust us

Wirecutter has been researching and recommending solid-state drives since 2013, and our PC team has more than 35 years of combined experience testing solid-state drives and hard drives. As Wirecutter’s storage expert, I’ve evaluated all sorts of storage devices—from portable and desktop hard drives to teensy SD and microSD cards—to find the best ones.

Who this is for

Portable hard drives are great for travel and for people who frequently transfer large amounts of data between computers. If you need a drive just to back up your data and you aren’t worried about having the fastest transfer speeds, a portable hard drive is much less expensive, though it’s also slower, larger, less durable, and potentially less secure.

Portable SSDs are between 3.5 and 6.2 times faster than portable hard drives or desktop external drives. They’re also more secure and much more compact and durable, and they run cooler on less power. However, all those upsides come with a big downside: price. Although prices have gone way down in the past year or so, a 500 GB portable SSD still costs about $100. For the same money, you could get a 4 TB desktop hard drive or portable hard drive. If you wanted a portable SSD with that kind of space on it, you’d have to pay eight times the price of a desktop or portable hard drive—and our picks aren’t even available in this capacity.

If you spend most of your time working from the same desk or you need more than 4 TB of storage, get an external desktop hard drive. It’s even faster than a portable hard drive, but it’s bulky, so don’t plan to travel with it.

Although you can build your own portable SSD by purchasing an SSD and an enclosure to put it in, we don’t recommend it unless you already have a spare SSD that you want to repurpose. It won’t save you any money compared with the Samsung T5, and the resulting drive will require more time and energy to set up. Plus, it lacks the Samsung T5’s easy-to-use encryption software.

How we picked

Portable SSD

A great external SSD should be reliable, fast, and small. Photo: Sarah Kobos

This is what you should look for in a portable solid-state drive:

  • Reliability: A portable SSD must keep your data safe.
  • Toughness: Since portable SSDs lack moving parts, they are less susceptible than mechanical drives to total failure when dropped, jostled, or subjected to changes in temperature or vibration. A portable SSD should also be sturdily built and not feel creaky or hollow. Manufacturers like Samsung, SanDisk, and Western Digital control every aspect of SSD development by creating their own SSD controllers, firmware, and NAND. This means that they can design their portable SSDs to work reliably from the start.
  • Endurance: Flash memory cells can be written to only so many times before wearing out. You’d have to write hundreds of terabytes of data to even begin to wear out the drive, though, and very few people will ever get near that limit. But high endurance is a bonus, especially if you’re performing a high-intensity task on the drive, like 4K video editing. SSD manufacturers don’t report durability ratings for external drives (only for internal ones), but we wish they would. We’ll keep an eye on customer reviews for reliability data.
  • Drive speed: Speed is the reason you’re spending a lot more for a portable SSD over a portable or desktop hard drive, so we tested both sequential and random speeds. Although fast sequential speeds are important for transferring and backing up large blocks of data to your drive, quick random speeds are essential if you must run programs or games directly off of the portable SSD. (That’s not ideal; your internal solid-state drive will be faster and not susceptible to corruption if a cable gets jostled.)
  • Connection type: We considered both USB-A and USB-C models in this review. This indicates the shape of the physical connector, but not necessarily the data transfer speed or power delivery speed. USB-C ports can support data transfers of anywhere from 480 Mbps (USB 2.0) to 40 Gbps (Thunderbolt 3). In this review, we considered only external SSDs that support USB 3.1 Gen 1 or faster (also known as USB 3.0 or USB 3.2 Gen 1). USB 3.1 Gen 1 can theoretically transfer data at a maximum speed of 625 MB/s (5 Gbps), USB 3.1 Gen 2 is twice as fast, with a maximum theoretical speed of 1,250 MB/s (10 Gbps), and USB 3.2 2×2 is four times as fast, at 2,500 MB/s (20 Gbps). Thunderbolt 3 has a maximum theoretical speed of 5,000 MB/s (40 Gbps).
  • Price: More expensive portable SSDs can offer faster speeds, but you shouldn’t overpay to get extra speed or other features you may not notice. For instance, Samsung claims the X5 Portable SSD has read and write speeds of 2,800 MB/s and 2,100 MB/s, respectively—more than five times as fast as the Samsung T5’s. But for most people, paying about three times as much for that speed isn’t necessary.
  • Capacity: An SSD with a capacity of around 500 GB and a price tag of $100 or so currently represents the best mix of affordability, space, and speed. Drives with capacities of 1 TB and 2 TB tend to be about as cost-effective, but they usually cost about $200 and $330, respectively. On the other hand, 250 GB versions are too small for many people; they’re less widely available and typically more expensive per gigabyte.

Portable SSD

Portable SSDs can be smaller than a stack of sticky notes. Photo: Sarah Kobos

  • Size and weight: A portable SSD should be light and compact—many are roughly the size of a stack of sticky notes, or even smaller.
  • Encryption: Portable SSDs that support the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), can more reliably protect your sensitive information. External solid-state drives with AES don’t require software to set it up, although they should include password-protection software to enable encryption to keep your data safe from unauthorized access, even if the drive is removed from its housing. Not all portable SSDs offer this feature, and we prioritize drives that do.
  • Software: Backup software is a nice addition to a portable SSD, but it’s not essential. If you want, you can find lots of backup service alternatives online.
  • Indicator light: Some drives feature an LED indicator that will light up when the drive is connected to your device, and although it’s not a requirement, we found this to be very useful.
  • Warranty and customer service: Three-year warranties are standard among portable solid-state drives, although we came across a handful with less impressive warranties. Strong customer service is also valuable for when something goes wrong.

We investigated the most popular portable solid-state drives on Amazon, and we scoured the websites of well-known external SSD manufacturers like Samsung, SanDisk, Western Digital, and LaCie for worthy contenders. We came up with five finalists: the Samsung T5 Portable SSD, the Western Digital My Passport SSD, the SanDisk Extreme Portable External SSD, the Seagate Fast SSD, and the Adata SE730H Portable External SSD.

How we tested

We used CrystalDiskMark, Anvil Storage Utilities, and ATTO Disk Benchmark to test each drive’s sequential and random speeds. (We show our CrystalDiskMark results as points of comparison, but the more-thorough Anvil and ATTO tests were in line with that data.) We ran all of our tests on a Lenovo Yoga C930 laptop. Its PCIe solid-state drive and Thunderbolt 3 port were fast enough to avoid bottlenecking the drives we tested. We also explored each drive’s included software, if it had any, and checked build quality to make sure there were no obvious red flags.

Our pick: 500 GB Samsung T5 Portable SSD

Portable SSD

Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

The 500 GB Samsung T5 Portable SSD is the best portable solid-state drive for most people because it’s reliable, fast, and reasonably priced, and it’s more compact than most of the portable SSDs we tested. At around 18¢ per gigabyte of storage, it costs about the same as most portable SSDs, many of which are slower and physically larger, although the race was tight. The T5 has a single USB-C port that supports transfer speeds of up to 10 Gbps and includes both a USB-C–to–USB-C cable and a USB-C–to–USB-A cable, which makes the T5 easier to use than portable SSDs that offer adapters instead of cables. It also comes with the easiest-to-use software of the drives we tested and AES 256-bit hardware encryption to protect your data. Plus, it has a handy indicator light—so you know when it’s transferring data—and a three-year warranty.

Portable SSD

Longer bars indicate better performance.

Using a Thunderbolt 3 port, the Samsung T5 gave us sequential read and write speeds of 547.3 MB/s and 491.3 MB/s, respectively. Because Thunderbolt 3 has up to 40 Gbps of throughput, it lets drives that support USB 3.x Gen 2 (10 Gbps), such as the T5, run at their full speeds. Every drive we tested was faster when connected to a Thunderbolt port than to a 5 Gbps port (variously called USB 3.0, 3.1 Gen 2, and 3.2 Gen 2). In the case of the T5, its read and write speeds when connected to a Thunderbolt 3 port were 24 percent and 12 percent faster, respectively, than when connected to a USB 3.0 port. The T5’s USB 3.0 sequential speeds of 441.4 MB/s and 438.9 MB/s were virtually identical to those of every other portable SSD we tested.

Portable SSD

Longer bars indicate better performance.

When plugged into a Thunderbolt 3 port, the Samsung T5 had random read and write speeds of about 20.8 MB/s and 39.9 MB/s, respectively; every drive we tested had similar speeds.

At the time of writing, the 500 GB model was priced at about $90, or 18¢ per gigabyte, which is in line with other USB 3.x Gen 2 portable SSDs; the Western Digital My Passport SSD cost about the same. When we started recommending portable SSDs in late 2017, a 500 GB Samsung T3 cost about $200. Since then, SSDs have dropped in price by more than half.

Portable SSD

Left to right: Samsung T5 Portable SSD, Western Digital My Passport SSD, SanDisk Extreme Portable External SSD, Seagate Fast SSD, Adata SE730H Portable External SSD, and Western Digital My Passport Go SSD. Photo: Sarah Kobos

At 2.9 inches long, 2.3 inches wide, and 0.4 inch thick, the Samsung T5 Portable SSD is one of the smallest external SSDs we found. It weighs just 1.8 ounces—despite an aluminum enclosure that feels solid and robust—making it easy to throw in your backpack (or pocket) when you have somewhere you need to go. The size and weight differences among the portable solid-state drives we tested weren’t significant, though. The heaviest drive we tested was 2.9 ounces, only about an ounce more than the Samsung T5, so most people wouldn’t notice the difference in weight.

Portable SSD

The Samsung T5 includes straightforward, easy-to-use password protection software to manage the drive’s encryption.

The Samsung T5 includes Portable SSD drivers on the drive for MacOS, Windows, and Android. Once you’ve installed the software, you can add (or remove) a password to enable or disable the drive’s AES 256-bit hardware encryption, which protects your sensitive information from unauthorized access. You can also use it to check for software and firmware updates. There’s not much else to do here, but it’s easy to use and pleasant to look at, unlike some of the bloated and dated-looking software that came with the other portable SSDs we tested, such as SanDisk’s SecureAccess software. (And it’s much better than working with portable SSDs that don’t offer software at all, such as the Adata SE730H.)

Portable SSD

The Samsung T5’s indicator light tells you when your drive is connected to your device, and it blinks when it’s transferring data. Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

The Samsung T5 has a useful LED indicator on its side that lights up when the drive is connected and blinks when it’s transferring data. Samsung includes a three-year warranty, which is standard for most solid-state drives.

Long-term test notes

Wirecutter senior writer Joel Santo Domingo has used the Samsung T5 for about a year and calls it a “daily commute companion.” He was able to consolidate several USB sticks’ worth of data onto the drive without giving up the benefits of solid-state storage, and he also praised the included cable. “I liked that it was a USB-A–to–USB-C cable, and not an adapter,” he said. “The latter is too easy to lose in a laptop bag.” He said the indicator light is a nice bonus, too.

More storage: 1 TB Samsung T5 Portable SSD

If you need double the storage and you’re willing to spend about twice as much, we recommend the 1 TB Samsung T5 Portable SSD. Since higher-capacity solid-state drives often provide slightly improved performance, we expect the 1 TB to be a little faster than the 500 GB Samsung T5 (even though we tested only the 500 GB capacity). At around $170, it costs about the same per gigabyte as the 500 GB version, with the same dimensions, features, and warranty.

Runner-up: 512 GB Western Digital My Passport SSD

Portable SSD

Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

We recommend the 512 GB Western Digital My Passport SSD if you can find it for significantly less than the Samsung T5, or if the T5 is unavailable. The My Passport is about as fast and costs about the same, and, like the T5, it has a USB-C port and supports USB 3.x Gen 2 (transfer speeds of up to 10 Gbps). It’s longer, thinner, and a bit lighter than the Samsung T5, but we don’t think you’d notice a size difference in use. Like the T5, it has extra features, such as encryption and software, that make it a better choice than the competition. It lacks the indicator light that the Samsung T5 has, though, and the software isn’t as good.

The My Passport SSD has a USB-C port, and it comes with a USB-C–to–USB-C cable. It also includes a tiny USB-C–to–USB-A adapter for older systems that’s easy to pop on and off, but we’re concerned that will be easy to lose.

The 512 GB My Passport SSD costs about the same as the faster Samsung T5. The 256 GB model is available only on Western Digital’s website, and it costs about $100 (more than the 512 GB model). Western Digital’s 1 TB model is about 1¢ less expensive per gigabyte than the 512 GB model.

Portable SSD

Western Digital’s My Passport SSD connects to older devices with a small USB-A adapter that could easily be lost. Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

At 3.5 inches long, 1.8 inches wide, and 0.4 inch thick, the Western Digital joins the Samsung T5 as one of the most compact portable solid-state drives we found. Compared with the Samsung T5, the My Passport SSD is 0.6 inch longer and a half-inch skinnier. It weighs 1.4 ounces—0.2 ounce lighter than our top pick—making it one of the lightest solid-state drives we tested. The My Passport SSD’s enclosure felt as sturdy as the Samsung T5’s, although its metallic gray bottom is a fingerprint magnet.

Portable SSD

Western Digital’s Discovery software is easy to use, but advertisements for other available apps are distracting.

The My Passport SSD includes Western Digital Discovery installations for Mac and Windows. Using Discovery, you can access Western Digital Security, where you can set and remove your password to activate the drive’s AES 256-bit hardware encryption. You can also choose to back up your portable solid-state drive through Western Digital’s Discovery software. Although the software is easy to use, it has ads for other applications—like Plex, Upthere Home, and Acronis True Image—which makes it feel bloated. (You can hide the ads by pressing the down arrow on the Available Apps tab, but you’ll have to do this every time you open the app.) We read in some Amazon customer reviews that WD’s software is annoying and that it sends your laptop prompts every hour to check for updates. We didn’t have this experience ourselves.

The My Passport SSD does not have an indicator light like the Samsung T5 Portable SSD, but it does have a three-year warranty.

Other good portable SSDs

Portable SSD

Photo: Sarah Kobos

These portable SSDs are just as fast as our top picks, but they all have at least one flaw that has kept them from being our top picks—such as a lack of encryption, a higher price, or a heavier weight. But they’re still good options that may meet your particular needs, especially if they happen to be on sale. (And they all have a three-year warranty.)

The 512 GB SanDisk Extreme Portable External SSD was as fast as the Samsung T5. It doesn’t offer a handy indicator light, however, which we missed. And although SanDisk does provide removable SecureAccess software—which is the only way to allow hardware encryption on the portable SSD—many people really dislike using it (especially Mac owners). It offers weaker encryption, too: 128-bit versus the Samsung T5’s 256-bit encryption.

Like the SanDisk, the 500 GB Seagate Fast SSD was just as speedy as the Samsung T5, and it has an indicator light. The Seagate lacks hardware encryption. It weighs 2.9 ounces (nearly twice as much as the T5), but it’s still extremely light, so though the weight increase is notable, we don’t think it matters too much. The Seagate also offers folder-syncing software.

The competition

The Adata SE730H Portable External SSD performed adequately in Thunderbolt 3 testing, but its write speeds were slower overall. Compared with the Samsung T5, the SE730H provided 545.5 MB/s sequential read speeds and slower, 474 MB/s sequential write speeds. Although its read speeds were about as fast as the Samsung T5’s, it fell nearly 20 MB/s behind the T5 in write speeds. On top of that, the Adata doesn’t offer encryption or additional software, and it costs the same as the Samsung T5.

The 500 GB Western Digital My Passport Go SSD is abysmally slow: With 300.3 MB/s write and 114.8 MB/s read sequential speeds, it was more than twice as slow as our top pick, and with its 5.8 MB/s and 3 MB/s random read and write speeds, it was at least four times as slow as our top pick. It’s also about an inch longer and 0.3 inch wider, it lacks encryption, and it omits an indicator light.

We also dismissed some models without testing:

The 500 GB LaCie Portable SSD and Mobile SSD seem like decent portable SSDs, but they cost a good deal more than our top picks, they’re about an inch longer and wider on both sides, and they’re more than double the weight.

The 480 GB SanDisk Extreme 510 Portable SSD and the 480 GB Adata SD600 Q portable SSD both cost about as much as our top picks, and they have only USB 3.0 (aka 3.1 Gen 1, aka 3.2 Gen 2), rather than the faster Gen 2 connection.

The Adata XPG SD700X and the PNY Elite each cost about the same as our picks, but they claim slower read and write speeds, and they don’t offer hardware encryption. Oyen Digital’s Shadow Mini External SSD is about the same price as our picks, but it doesn’t offer hardware encryption. It’s also a little bigger. The Transcend ESD220C costs about the same as our top picks, but it has terrible reviews that mention slow transfer speeds and a lack of security software.

VectoTech’s Rapid Portable SSD is affordable, but it claims slower speeds than our picks, and it’s around an inch bigger in length and width.

G-Technology’s G-Drive Slim is quite expensive—more than double the cost of our top pick—plus it’s about 3 inches longer and wider, four times as thick, and a couple of ounces heavier than our picks.

The Dell Portable Thunderbolt 3 SSD costs around three and a half times as much as our picks for the same capacity, and it’s much faster than most people need. Like the Dell, the SanDisk Extreme 900 is too expensive as of this writing, and it’s faster than most people need. LaCie’s Rugged Thunderbolt, Glyph’s Atom, Adata’s ASC660H, the MyDigitalSSD BP5, Transcend’s StoreJet 500, and G-Technology’s G-Drive ev RaW SSD and Atomos Master Caddy 4K all cost way more than our picks. (And they don’t even offer the impressive speeds that the SanDisk Extreme 900 claims.) The Samsung X5 Portable SSD, the SanDisk Extreme 900 Portable SSD, and the Western Digital My Passport Wireless SSD fall into this category, as well, at $200 or more each.

This guide may have been updated by Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.

When readers choose to buy Wirecutter’s independently chosen editorial picks, Wirecutter and Engadget may earn affiliate commissions.

Source link