Even if you use cloud-storage services such as OneDrive or Dropbox to back up some of your files, an external hard drive still belongs in your tech tool kit. Portable USB-powered hard drives provide a speedy and physically secure way to store and transport huge amounts of data that either wouldn't fit in a space-limited cloud account or would take hours to upload or download. An external drive is also the best place to keep a full system backup that's available for an emergency restore if you computer can't boot.
Fortunately, you can find a speedy, high-quality 1TB USB hard drive for under $60. To help you find the best cheap USB hard drive, we tested several popular models and evaluated them based on their speed (both read and write) and design.
How we tested
We ran our File Transfer test, which copies 4.97GB of mixed media files, three times per device to calculate read (PC to HDD) and write (HDD to PC) speeds for each one. We benchmarked these devices using the Surface Book with Performance Base and the 13-inch MacBook Pro with TouchBar (for the Mac-compatible drive) as the go-between devices, since their internal SSDs are among the fastest we’ve tested.
Our top choice, Toshiba’s Canvio II combines great performance, good looks and compatibility with both macOS and Windows. The Canvio is one of the lightest external drives on our list at just 0.36 pounds, and comes in an attractive red, blue or black finish with rubber feet that help elevate and secure the disk on any surface.
There’s also an elegant and highly visible indicator ring in the top right corner that lights up blue when the drive is in use, something not all of its competitors offer. Toshiba includes a free third-party backup solution from NTI with the drive. In our tests, the read speeds were close to the top at 101.12 MBps, while write speeds averaged 90.35 MBps.
Actual Capacity: 931GB Read Speed: 107.53 MBps Write Speed: 99.79 MBps Formatted for: Windows (NTFS)
Western Digital’s 1TB Elements drive is the lightest one we tested at only 0.30 pounds and features a plain, but attractive, matte black finish. The edges of the case feel rough and the included cable is on the shorter side, but it does have four sturdy rubber feet on the bottom to keep it from sliding around.
Western Digital includes a trial version of its SmartWare Pro software for full system backups in the package. The Elements was the second-fastest drive in our read and write tests overall, averaging 107.53 MBps and 99.79 MBps, respectively.
Seagate’s Backup Plus Slim is equipped to work seamlessly with Macs, but you can also use it on a Windows PC through Seagate’s included software. The matte gray finish on top of the device matches the Apple design aesthetic, as does its thin LED indicator light. And its 0.35 pound weight makes it easy to use interchangeably with all of your devices. The underside is made of a hard plastic material and has an ingrained Seagate logo, but there aren’t any rubber feet to to help keep it steady. Its data-transfer speeds reach read and write speeds of 99.79 MBps and 124.13 MBps, respectively.
Actual Capacity: 931GB Read Speed: 87.25 MBps Write Speed: 96.63 MBps Formatted For: Windows (NTFS)
This PC-only drive features a shimmering and textured black diamond design on both sides of the device, which might not appeal to everyone. The Seagate backup disk is moderately light at 0.37 pounds and has a thin LED activity light. But its edges are uncomfortable to handle and there aren’t any feet to secure it in place, either. This drive doesn’t come with any included backup software, but read and write speeds were near the top of the list, at 96.63 MBps and 87.25 MBps, respectively.
Actual Capacity: 931GB Read Speed: 36.18 MBps Write Speed: 93.09 MBps Formatted For: Windows (exFAT)
Silicon Power’s rugged external drive resists both water and scratches (IPX4 rating), and is shockproof as well. A lime-green rubber bumper with a wire clip, an integrated full-size USB connector and a sturdy outside case also help with durability. Its indicator light also has a cool effect that makes it look as if it is embedded within the drive itself.
Understandably, it is the heaviest and thickest of all the drives we tested at 0.5 pounds and 3.4 inches tall. Write speeds averaged around 93.09 MBps and were consistent with the other drives we tested, but read speeds were about two-thirds slower than competitors at 36.18 MBps. We were able to get it to complete our tests only after repairing it via Windows’ disk management application.
Actual Capacity: 298GB Read Speed: 51.67 MBps* (failed to complete the file transfer test) Write Speed: N/A Formatted For: Windows (FAT32)
The Maxone 320GB has the smallest-capacity hard drive of the ones we reviewed, with only 298GB of usable storage. It features either a black or blue floral design and weighs 0.48 pounds, making it one of the heaviest on our list. There aren’t any rubber feet on the bottom, but it does have a button near the top that pops off the cover when pressed (we’re not sure why) and comes with a felt carrying pouch for the drive.
The Maxone started off running our tests just fine, but encountered an error after the second test, from which it never recovered. It was not able to complete our tests, nor was it recognized by three different PCs afterwards. In fact, it even crashed the computer we were using to test it. We recommend that you avoid this drive altogether.