Best External Hard Drive For Photo Storage With Mac

Posted By admin On 16.02.22

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  1. Seagate External Hard Drive For Mac
  2. External Hard Drive For Laptop
  3. Best External Hard Drive For Photographers
  4. Hard Drives For Photo Storage

Buying an external hard drive for your Mac is not all that different from buying one for your Windows PC, except for one very important complication: Newer MacBooks and MacBook Pros only come with Thunderbolt 3 ports, but the arrival of Thunderbolt 3-equipped drives has been a trickle, rather than a flood. Most of the current models are designed for photographers and video editors who need to store mountains of footage and access it very quickly. As a result, they are typically SSDs or RAID arrays, which means they're also very expensive. So what's a Mac user who just wants to back up his or her files using Time Machine to do? Read on as we answer that question, and solve your other Mac external-storage quandaries.

The 4TB Seagate Backup Plus Portable Drive hard drive has more features and double the storage for $50 more, but if portability is your main concern, this drive is a straightforward and affordable.

A New File System

Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type-C are the latest innovations in the external storage market, but before we get to them, we need to address a basic building block of hard drives that has always affected compatibility, and probably always will: the file system.

An external drive's file system is the most important factor that determines whether or not it's readable by Macs, PCs, or both. With the release of the macOS High Sierra operating system, Cupertino ditched its venerable Mac OS Extended file system, commonly abbreviated as HFS+, and switched to an entirely new file format. It's simply called the Apple File System, and it's the first format to be across macOS products as well as the iOS ecosystem of iPads, iPhones, iPods, the Apple TV, and the Apple Watch.

Seagate External Hard Drive For Mac

External hard drive for xbox one

External Hard Drive For Laptop

There are many benefits to switching from HFS+ to the Apple File System, including better security thanks to native encryption, but the most important thing to note for external drive shoppers is backward-compatibility. Any drive formatted with HFS+ (which includes most Mac-specific drives on the market today) will work just fine with a Mac that's running macOS High Sierra or later.

Neither Apple File System nor HFS+ works with Windows, however. If you plan to use your external drive with computers that run both operating systems, you should consider a drive formatted with the exFAT file system. You won't get the security and efficiency of Apple File System, but you will get the convenience of being able to transfer files back and forth between Windows and macOS simply by plugging in and unplugging your drive.

Of course, you can easily reformat almost any drive you buy, so you're not limited to buying only those intended for use with Macs. If you really fancy a drive formatted for Windows (which will usually come preformatted in the NTFS format), you can use the Disk Utility in macOS to reformat it after you bring it home from the store. There are rare exceptions to this rule, such as the pro-oriented Akitio Thunder3 PCIe SSD, which uses a lightning-quick Intel SSD inside and relies on firmware that isn't Mac-compatible.

Best External Hard Drive For Photographers

SSD Versus Spinning Drive

Once you've settled on a file system, you then have to determine which storage medium you want: solid state or spinning disk. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and—unlike the file system—the type you buy is the type you're stuck with for the life of the drive.

A solid-state drive (SSD) offers quick access to your data because it stores your bits in a type of flash memory rather than on spinning platters. SSDs are often smaller and lighter than spinning external drives, as well, which is also thanks to the lack of moving parts. Their small size means they can often fit into a jacket or pants pocket, which makes them a better choice if you're looking for a portable external drive that you'll be carrying with you frequently.

Best External Hard Drive For Photo Storage With Mac

One major downside, however, is that they're more expensive. You could pay more than 30 cents per gigabyte for an SSD, while spinning drives can be had for less than 10 cents per gigabyte—and often much less. External SSDs also have lower capacity limits, with most drives topping out at 2TB. Compare that with external spinning drives, which are easy to find in capacities in excess of 8TB.

For professional videographers who edit lots of 4K footage and gamers or movie buffs who have large libraries of multi-gigabyte titles, an external RAID array is worth considering, since it combines the speed of an SSD with the gargantuan capacities of a spinning drive. An array typically contains as few as two or as many as eight spinning drives, which all work together to speed up throughput, or guard your precious files against corruption via drive redundancy if one of the drives fail. (Or both; it depends on how the array is set up.) The result is that you can get SSD-like speeds, with data throughput of more than 400MBps, and capacities that top out close to 50TB. You'll pay handsomely, of course. The Mac-specific Promise Pegasus3, for one, can cost as much as $5,000.

On the other hand, if you're looking to buy an external drive mainly to back up your files (which you should definitely do) and it will rarely leave your home office, an inexpensive spinning drive will work just fine.

Searching for Thunderbolt 3

So, to recap: Faster, smaller (both physically and in terms of gigabytes) solid-state drives come at a premium, while spinning drives offer a much better value while sacrificing speed. But what happens when you throw yet another variable into the mix: the connection between your drive and your Mac? As you might have guessed, the answer is more tradeoffs.

Almost every Mac laptop sold today comes with USB Type-C ports that support Thunderbolt 3, but other than a headphone jack, they are the only connectivity options available, which means you'll need an adapter to plug in any device that doesn't have a USB Type-C cable. Fortunately, Thunderbolt 3 via USB Type-C supports a blazing maximum potential throughput of 40Gbps, double the speed of the old Thunderbolt 2 standard and many times the 5GBps that USB 3.0 offers. Unfortunately, you won't find many Thunderbolt 3-compatible drives on the market currently. Even some Mac-specific drives are still sold with USB 3.0 connectors. Moreover, the Thunderbolt 3 drives you can buy are constrained by the maximum throughput of the drive itself, rather than the Thunderbolt 3 interface. With the exception of the Samsung Portable SSD X5, all of the external SSDs we've tested recently top out at around 600MBps, for instance.

This means that for now, it's best to include Thunderbolt 3 support in your buying decision only if you're concerned about futureproofing. While it's nice of manufacturers to include a USB Type-C cable for people who own a USB Type-C-only MacBook, you can pick up a converter for a few dollars online if the drive you're eyeing doesn't offer one. Meanwhile, iMacs, Mac Pros, Mac Minis, and the entry-level MacBook Air all still come with USB 3.0 ports, so they won't require adapters.

Other Considerations

Drives intended for PCs sometimes come bundled with software that will automatically back up your files to the drive when it's connected, but such software isn't really a consideration for Mac users, who already have an excellent built-in backup option in the form of Time Machine. The first time you plug in an external drive, Time Machine will ask if you want to use it as a backup drive. While you can customize backup options in System Preferences, such as asking Time Machine to exclude certain folders, there's no action required on your part if you're happy with the default settings. The next time you plug in your drive, Time Machine will automatically set to work creating a backup.

Unless your drive is never going to leave your home or office, you should also consider its physical durability. Rugged, waterproof drives are a good option not just for surfers and BMX riders, as their marketing seems to suggest, but also for people who are carrying their drives to and from school or work, where they might occasionally get spilled on or dropped on the floor. (Check out our favorite rugged drives.)

Finally, you might want to consider how the drive will look when it's plugged into your Mac. Some drives come in a variety of colors. Many others feature copious amounts of aluminum and industrial-chic styling to match the design cues of your MacBook or iMac.

Ready for Our Recommendations?

We've selected a few of our favorite drives for Macs below; for more, check out our main list of best hard drives. You can also read our full list of hard drive reviews, as well as our top SSDs.

Best External Hard Drives for Macs Featured in This Roundup:

  • CalDigit Tuff Review


    MSRP: $179.99

    Pros: Rated to survive 4-foot drops. Certified waterproof and dustproof. Comes with USB 3.0 and USB-C cables.

    Cons: Warranty limited to two years. SSD option is still unreleased.

    Bottom Line: Not only is the CalDigit Tuff a rugged hard drive designed to survive extreme conditions, it's also a terrific value.

    Read Review
  • Western Digital My Book Review


    MSRP: $249.99

    Pros: Comes in a variety of large capacities. Three-year warranty.

    Cons: Requires external power adapter.

    Bottom Line: With a full 8TB for less than $250, the 8TB version of the Western Digital My Book is a deep well of affordable storage for your photos, music, videos, and more.

    Read Review
  • LaCie Mobile Drive Review


    MSRP: $94.95

    Pros: Slick, faceted design. Solid-feeling aluminum enclosure. Useful LaCie Toolkit software handles backup and restore, as well as mirroring. On-the-mark performance.

    Cons: A little hefty. Toolkit utility requires a download.

    Bottom Line: A metal-skinned gem of a platter hard drive, the LaCie Mobile Drive looks great and performs on point. It's geared to macOS users, but it will please anyone with an eye for style in their gadgets.

    Read Review
  • Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Touch Review


    MSRP: $89.99

    Pros: Fabric-covered enclosure. Small and light. Seagate Toolkit provides handy backup/recover functions, as well as mirroring. Data protected by password and AES-256 hardware encryption.

    Cons: Fabric cover a bit slippery to grip. Seagate Toolkit a separate download.

    Bottom Line: Combining on-point performance and strong encryption, Seagate's Backup Plus Ultra Touch portable drive is a great choice for everyday backups and security-first use alike. Plus, a fabric coat adds appeal.

    Read Review
  • Samsung Portable SSD T5 Review


    MSRP: $799.99

    Pros: Excellent performance. Includes USB 3.0 and USB-C cables. Compact. Android-, Mac-, and Windows-compatible.

    Cons: While a comparable good per-gigabyte value, the drive itself is expensive.

    Bottom Line: Samsung's Portable SSD T5 drive has a speedy USB-C interface, plenty of reliable storage, and it takes up about as much room in your pocket as a short stack of credit cards.

    Read Review
  • Akitio Thunder3 RAID Station Review


    MSRP: $369.99

    Pros: Excellent connectivity options and transfer speeds. Solid build quality and attractive aluminum finish. Easy disassembly. Cooling fan can be disabled. No software required for Macs. Hardware RAID controller.

    Cons: Expensive. SATA interface limits read/write speeds. Only 27W of power delivery.

    Bottom Line: With its wealth of ports, the Akitio Thunder3 RAID Station is both a connectivity hub and a capacious external hard drive for multimedia content creators.

    Read Review
  • CalDigit AV Pro 2 Review


    MSRP: $249.99

    Pros: Relatively low cost per gigabyte. 7,200RPM. Drive is easily removable from its enclosure. Thunderbolt 3 support.

    Cons: Included Thunderbolt 3 cable is short. No DisplayPort or Thunderbolt 3 pass-through via USB-C.

    Bottom Line: Aimed at multimedia professionals, the CalDigit AV Pro 2 is a well-designed, Mac-formatted external drive that comes in SSD and spinning disk versions, and includes both a USB hub and Thunderbolt 3 support.

    Read Review
  • Promise Pegasus3 R4 Review


    MSRP: $1499.00

    Pros: Internal power supply. Little to no setup required. Supports daisy-chaining other Thunderbolt 3 devices. Lightning-quick file transfer times.

    Cons: Does not boast class-leading throughput.

    Bottom Line: One of just a few options for Mac-formatted external RAID arrays, the Promise Pegasus3 R4 is a good choice if you need to store mountains of data and access it quickly.

    Read Review
  • Samsung Portable SSD X5 Review


    MSRP: $699.99

    Pros: Extremely fast data transfer speeds, thanks to Thunderbolt 3 and PCIe NVMe interfaces. Multiple capacity options. Sleek design.

    Cons: Expensive. Heavy. No USB support. Difficult to connect to Windows PCs.

    Bottom Line: The sleek, expensive Samsung Portable SSD X5 offers the fastest single-drive external storage money can buy, but it's suited mainly to well-heeled content-creation pros using late-model Macs.

    Read Review
  • Western Digital My Passport Wireless SSD Review


    MSRP: $499.00

    Pros: Durable. Built-in SD card reader and USB port. Plex support. Doubles as a power bank.

    Cons: Expensive. No Thunderbolt support.

    Bottom Line: The Western Digital My Passport Wireless SSD is pricey, but this feature-packed drive can do much more than just wirelessly transfer files.

    Read Review

It's a Great Time to Go for a Drive

In an era when Apple charges 99 cents per month for 50GB of iCloud storage and Google offers 100GB of free storage for two years with the purchase of a new Chromebook, mainstream external hard drives might appear less essential than they once were.

But modern external drives are faster, more stylish, and often more durable than their counterparts from a few years ago. They're ever cheaper and more capacious, too. For about $50, you can add a terabyte of extra storage to your laptop or desktop by just plugging in a USB cable.

Choosing an external drive isn't as simple as buying the most expensive one you can afford, however. The capacity and type of storage mechanism are the two most important factors to consider, and each one will increase or decrease the cost dramatically depending on your needs. Other factors include the physical size of the drive (is it designed to be carted around or to sit on your desk?), how rugged it is, the interface it uses to connect to your PC, and even what colors it comes in. This guide will help you make sense of all the options. Here are the key questions to ask as you shop.

The Need for Speed: Hard Drive or SSD?

Solid-state drives (SSDs) have fewer moving parts than traditional hard drives, and they offer the speediest access to your data. Unlike a conventional disk-based hard drive, which stores data on a spinning platter or platters accessed by a moving magnetic head, an SSD uses a collection of flash cells—similar to the ones that make up a computer's RAM—to save data.

Just how much faster is it to access data stored in flash cells than those stored on a spinning platter? Typical read and write speeds for consumer drives with a single spinning platter are in the 100MBps to 200MBps range, depending on their USB interface and whether they spin at 5,400rpm (more common) or 7,200rpm (more expensive and less common). External SSDs offer twice that speed and sometimes much more, with typical results on our benchmark tests in excess of 400MBps. Practically speaking, this means you can move gigabytes of data (say, a 4GB feature-length film, or a year's worth of family photos) to your external SSD in seconds rather than the minutes it would take with an external spinning drive.

Not only is it faster to read and write data stored in flash cells than those stored on a spinning platter, but it's also safer. Because there is no spinning platter or moving magnetic head, if you bump the SSD while you're accessing its data, there is no risk that your files will become corrupted and unreadable.

While external SSDs are now readily available and cheaper than they were a few years ago, they're not a complete replacement for spinning drives. Larger external drives designed to stay on your desk or in a server closet still mostly use spinning drives, taking advantage of their higher capacities and lower prices compared with SSDs.

Physical Size Matters: Desktop or Portable Drive?

If you have a large photo or video collection—perhaps you are a photo or video editor, or maybe a movie buff—you'll likely need several terabytes of space in which to store it. So your best option is a desktop-class drive. We define these as having one or more spinning-platter drives inside and requiring its own dedicated power cable. Of course, in this scenario, your files are going to have to stay at your desk.

A desktop drive with a single platter mechanism inside will typically use a 3.5-inch drive inside and will be found in capacities up to 12TB, and most are roughly 5 inches tall and 2 inches wide. In addition to storing large media collections, these drives can also serve as inexpensive repositories for backups of your computer's hard drive that you schedule using either the software that came with the drive or a third-party backup utility.

Hard Drives For Photo Storage

The next size up for consumer desktop drives is about the same height but twice as wide to accommodate additional drive mechanisms in the chassis, such as with the Western Digital My Book Duo. These larger drives are more expensive but also much more capacious; the highest-capacity current models employ two drives for up to 20TB of storage. Note: In the case of these and single-platter-drive products, you're not meant to swap out the drive or drives inside.

The largest desktop drives are often much, much larger than the first two categories, so large that you'll want to stick them under your desk or in a dedicated server closet. They're mostly intended for professional use in editing studios, surveillance control rooms, and the like. Their defining characteristic is the ability to swap drives in and out easily, so they provide quick access to the drive bays at the front of the device. Most are sold without drives included, so you can install any drive you want (usually, 3.5-inch drives, but some support 2.5-inchers). Their total storage capacities are usually limited only by their number of available bays and the capacities of the drives you put in them.

At the other end of the physical-size spectrum are portable drives, some of which now use an SSD inside instead of a spinning platter to save space, as well as to increase throughput and durability. These drives can be truly tiny, weighing just a few ounces and with their largest sides measuring less than 3 inches long, like with the Samsung Portable SSD T5. Others use spinning platters and are a bit larger, like the LaCie Porsche Design Mobile Drive, but they still fit easily in a purse or even a coat pocket. Portable drives get their power from the computer to which you connect them, through the interface cable, so there's no need for a spare wall outlet.

Need Redundancy or Extreme Speed? Consider a RAID

If you buy a larger desktop drive with two or more spinning platters, you'll almost certainly have the ability to configure the drive as a RAID array using included software. Depending on which RAID level you choose, you can prioritize capacity, speed, or data redundancy, or some combination thereof.

A collection of spinning drives configured with a RAID level designed for faster access can approximate the speeds of an SSD, while you should consider a drive with support for RAID levels 1, 5, or 10 if you're storing really important data that you can't afford to lose. Hit the link above for explanation of the strengths of each RAID level.

What Interface Should You Look For?

How an external drive connects to your PC or Mac is second only to the type of storage mechanism it uses in determining how fast you'll be able to access data. Unfortunately, these connection types are constantly changing, and the internet is littered with outdated references to legacy interface types such as eSATA and FireWire.

Right now, the fastest mainstream connection type is Thunderbolt 3, which is handy assuming you have a newer laptop or desktop with a Thunderbolt 3 port. All late-model Apple laptops have them, but they're much scarcer on Windows machines. This interface uses a USB Type-C connector and offers blazing throughput of 40GBps. As an added bonus, a desktop drive that supports Thunderbolt 3 might also come with additional DisplayPort and USB connections that allow you to use the drive box as a hub for your keyboard, mouse, monitor, and other peripherals.

You'll really only see the speed benefits of Thunderbolt 3, however, if you have a drive that's SSD-based, or a RAID array. If you'd rather save money than time transferring your data, if you're buying a desktop drive with a single platter-based mechanism inside, or if you have a PC that lacks Thunderbolt 3, you'll want to make sure your drive has a USB connection. Nearly every recent drive we reviewed supports USB, and the same goes for laptops and desktops.

Not all USB ports are created equal, though. The most prevalent is the standard rectangle shape (called Type-A) that's been present on devices for decades. The oval-shaped Type-C connector is quickly gaining traction, though. It's capable of supporting the USB 3.1 standard in addition to Thunderbolt 3, though most Type-C ports include only the former. If you buy a drive with a Type-C cable, make sure it also includes a cable with a rectangular Type-A plug if your PC lacks a Type-C port. Otherwise, you'll need to buy a separate cable or adapter.

Do You Need to Go Rugged?

If you carry your drive around frequently, you'll want to pay attention to how rugged the drive is. Some models include plastic bumpers, and some even meet military standards for shock and dust protection. (Look for support for specifications such as IP67 or IP68.)

And of course, if you're carrying your drive around with you, you want it to look nice. Some, like the Samsung T5, come in multiple colors, while others, like the ADATA SD700, are super-slim and ready to be tossed in a pocket.

Perhaps the only thing you don't need to pay much attention to is the warranty. If your drive breaks because you damaged it, the warranty likely won't cover it. Even if the drive fails because of a manufacturing defect, most warranties simply replace the drive and don't cover the cost of recovery services that attempt to rescue your data from the broken drive.

Let's Look at the Top Models We've Tested...

Also know that you can find external drives that do way more than just store your data. Some include SD card readers to offload footage from a camera or drone in the field, while others have built-in Wi-Fi and can double as an all-in-one home media server. Some of that kind even come with extra-large batteries that can charge your smartphone while you're on the go.

To get you started in the right direction toward the right add-on backup/storage solution, below are 10 of the best drives we've tested of late, at a variety of prices and capacities. Some are SSD-based, while others are platter.

Best External Hard Drives Featured in This Roundup:

  • CalDigit Tuff Review


    MSRP: $179.99

    Pros: Rated to survive 4-foot drops. Certified waterproof and dustproof. Comes with USB 3.0 and USB-C cables.

    Cons: Warranty limited to two years. SSD option is still unreleased.

    Bottom Line: Not only is the CalDigit Tuff a rugged hard drive designed to survive extreme conditions, it's also a terrific value.

    Read Review
  • Western Digital My Book Review


    MSRP: $249.99

    Pros: Comes in a variety of large capacities. Three-year warranty.

    Cons: Requires external power adapter.

    Bottom Line: With a full 8TB for less than $250, the 8TB version of the Western Digital My Book is a deep well of affordable storage for your photos, music, videos, and more.

    Read Review
  • ADATA HD830 External Hard Drive Review


    MSRP: $109.99

    Pros: IP68 resistance to water and dust. Highly crush-resistant chassis. Aggressive price for capacity, build. Two colors to choose between.

    Cons: On the heavy, bulky side for some. Only waterproof and dustproof when the USB cover is closed. Could use a Type-C cable.

    Bottom Line: It's brawny, but the ADATA HD830 offers superior protection and value for the money in a rugged external platter-based drive.

    Read Review
  • LaCie Mobile Drive Review


    MSRP: $94.95

    Pros: Slick, faceted design. Solid-feeling aluminum enclosure. Useful LaCie Toolkit software handles backup and restore, as well as mirroring. On-the-mark performance.

    Cons: A little hefty. Toolkit utility requires a download.

    Bottom Line: A metal-skinned gem of a platter hard drive, the LaCie Mobile Drive looks great and performs on point. It's geared to macOS users, but it will please anyone with an eye for style in their gadgets.

    Read Review
  • Samsung Portable SSD T5 Review


    MSRP: $799.99

    Pros: Excellent performance. Includes USB 3.0 and USB-C cables. Compact. Android-, Mac-, and Windows-compatible.

    Cons: While a comparable good per-gigabyte value, the drive itself is expensive.

    Bottom Line: Samsung's Portable SSD T5 drive has a speedy USB-C interface, plenty of reliable storage, and it takes up about as much room in your pocket as a short stack of credit cards.

    Read Review
  • Seagate Backup Plus Ultra Touch Review


    MSRP: $89.99

    Pros: Fabric-covered enclosure. Small and light. Seagate Toolkit provides handy backup/recover functions, as well as mirroring. Data protected by password and AES-256 hardware encryption.

    Cons: Fabric cover a bit slippery to grip. Seagate Toolkit a separate download.

    Bottom Line: Combining on-point performance and strong encryption, Seagate's Backup Plus Ultra Touch portable drive is a great choice for everyday backups and security-first use alike. Plus, a fabric coat adds appeal.

    Read Review
  • Akitio Thunder3 RAID Station Review


    MSRP: $369.99

    Pros: Excellent connectivity options and transfer speeds. Solid build quality and attractive aluminum finish. Easy disassembly. Cooling fan can be disabled. No software required for Macs. Hardware RAID controller.

    Cons: Expensive. SATA interface limits read/write speeds. Only 27W of power delivery.

    Bottom Line: With its wealth of ports, the Akitio Thunder3 RAID Station is both a connectivity hub and a capacious external hard drive for multimedia content creators.

    Read Review
  • Buffalo MiniStation Extreme NFC Review


    MSRP: $129.99

    Pros: Built-in USB cable. Ruggedized. Dust and water resistant. Hardware encryption. Mac and PC format utility.

    Cons: NFC card is easy to lose. Doesn't unlock via smartphones.

    Bottom Line: The 1-terabyte Buffalo MiniStation Extreme NFC has a built-in cable you can't lose, a rugged chassis that will survive a rough daily commute, and an NFC card and reader add some security to this portable hard drive.

    Read Review
  • Samsung Portable SSD X5 Review


    MSRP: $699.99

    Pros: Extremely fast data transfer speeds, thanks to Thunderbolt 3 and PCIe NVMe interfaces. Multiple capacity options. Sleek design.

    Cons: Expensive. Heavy. No USB support. Difficult to connect to Windows PCs.

    Bottom Line: The sleek, expensive Samsung Portable SSD X5 offers the fastest single-drive external storage money can buy, but it's suited mainly to well-heeled content-creation pros using late-model Macs.

    Read Review
  • Western Digital My Passport Wireless SSD Review


    MSRP: $499.00

    Pros: Durable. Built-in SD card reader and USB port. Plex support. Doubles as a power bank.

    Cons: Expensive. No Thunderbolt support.

    Bottom Line: The Western Digital My Passport Wireless SSD is pricey, but this feature-packed drive can do much more than just wirelessly transfer files.

    Read Review

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