With the continuous growth in file sizes due to high resolution photos, videos, and large programs, having sufficient and fast external storage is becoming increasingly important. When looking for an external hard disk, one of the key considerations is the transfer speed. A faster external HDD can save you a lot of time when transferring large files back and forth. In this article, we will look at some of the fastest external hard drive options currently available and what speeds you can expect from them.
What transfer speeds can you expect from an external HDD?
There are several major factors that affect the transfer speeds you can get from an external hard disk:
- The disk interface – This refers to how the hard disk connects to your computer. Common interfaces include USB 2.0, USB 3.0, USB 3.1, USB-C, Thunderbolt 3, and eSATA. Newer interfaces tend to provide faster maximum speeds.
- Drive rotation speed – This measures how fast the disk platters spin inside the hard drive, measured in rotations per minute (RPM). Faster RPMs allow data to be accessed quicker. Common speeds are 5400 RPM, 7200 RPM, 10,000 RPM, and 15,000 RPM for extremely fast drives.
- Cache size – The cache acts as a buffer between the drive and computer, so a larger cache can enable faster transfers. Cache size is measured in MB, with 16MB being typical for many drives.
- RAID configuration – External drives may support RAID to combine multiple internal drives. RAID 0 (striping) offers the fastest speeds but no redundancy. RAID 1 (mirroring) provides redundancy but slower speeds.
Based on these factors, most regular external hard drives today will have transfer speeds in the range of 100-200 MB/s. Very fast drives may reach 400-500 MB/s or higher. This can make a big difference when transferring large multi-GB files.
USB 2.0 external hard drives
USB 2.0 is an older interface that has maximum speeds of 60 MB/s. Most external hard drives today use USB 3.0 or newer interfaces, but you can still find some USB 2.0 drives. The speed is limited by the interface, so even if the drive inside is fast, transfer speeds will max out at under 60 MB/s.
Advantages of USB 2.0 external HDDs:
- Very cheap and widely available
- Compatible with any computer with USB ports
Disadvantages of USB 2.0 external HDDs:
- Slow maximum transfer speeds
- Not recommended for large files and backups
If you only need basic extra storage for smaller files, a USB 2.0 drive may suffice. But for any large data needs, it is better to look for a newer interface like USB 3.0/3.1 or USB-C.
USB 3.0/3.1 Gen 1 external hard drives
USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 Gen 1 have a maximum theoretical interface speed of 625MB/s, a huge jump over USB 2.0. Most of today’s external HDDs utilize one of these interfaces. When paired with a speedy internal drive, real-world transfer speeds over 400MB/s are possible.
Advantages of USB 3.0/3.1 Gen 1 external HDDs:
- Faster than USB 2.0, with over 10x the maximum speed
- Compatible with any computer with USB ports
- Cost effective and widely available
Disadvantages of USB 3.0/3.1 Gen 1 external HDDs:
- Speeds limited compared to potential of very fast internal drives
- Other interfaces like Thunderbolt 3 can provide even faster speeds
USB 3.0/3.1 Gen 1 strikes a great balance of speed, compatibility, availability, and cost. Unless you specifically need blazing transfer rates over 400MB/s, a quality USB 3.0 or 3.1 Gen 1 external HDD will serve most users very well.
USB 3.1 Gen 2 external hard drives
USB 3.1 Gen 2 bumps up the maximum interface throughput to 10 Gbps or 1,250 MB/s. This opens the door for even faster real world transfer speeds above 500 MB/s. Drives will need high performance internal disks to reach those speeds. Backwards compatible with USB 3.0/3.1 Gen 1.
Advantages of USB 3.1 Gen 2 external HDDs:
- Faster interface than USB 3.0/3.1 Gen 1
- Reaches speeds over 500 MB/s with some drives
- Backwards compatible with USB 3.0/3.1 Gen 1 ports
Disadvantages of USB 3.1 Gen 2 external HDDs:
- Need compatible USB 3.1 Gen 2 port to reach full interface speed
- Often more expensive than USB 3.0 drives
USB 3.1 Gen 2 is great for pushing the limits of external storage speed while maintaining backwards compatibility. Worth the extra cost if you transfer huge files regularly.
USB-C external hard drives
USB-C is a physical connector shape that can support many protocols. USB 3.1 Gen 1 and Gen 2 are common, with max speeds of 5Gbps and 10Gbps respectively. Thunderbolt 3 uses USB-C connectors too. A USB-C external HDD will often require USB 3.1 or Thunderbolt support to function.
Advantages of USB-C external HDDs:
- Small plug size
- Supports USB 3.1 for fast speed
- Some drives offer Thunderbolt 3 for max speed
Disadvantages of USB-C external HDDs:
- Need compatible USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 port
- Maximum speed varies depending on protocol
While the USB-C connector shape is convenient, interface speed varies. Always check if your USB-C ports support USB 3.1 Gen 2 or Thunderbolt 3 to benefit from maximum transfer rates.
Thunderbolt 3 external hard drives
Thunderbolt 3 is currently the fastest widely available interface for external storage. It provides double the bandwidth of USB 3.1 Gen 2, reaching theoretical maximum speeds of 2,000 MB/s. With the right SSD drives, real world speeds exceed 1,000 MB/s.
Advantages of Thunderbolt 3 external HDDs:
- Extremely fast interface speed
- Can utilize high performance NVMe SSDs
Disadvantages of Thunderbolt 3 external HDDs:
- Requires compatible Thunderbolt 3 port
- More expensive than USB 3.1 drives
If you want the absolute fastest external storage, Thunderbolt 3 is the way to go. The high cost makes it best suited for professionals transferring huge video and image files regularly.
eSATA external hard drives
eSATA is an external version of the SATA interface used internally in computers, designed specifically for external storage. It has maximum theoretical speeds of 600MB/s. Requires an eSATA interface on the computer.
Advantages of eSATA external HDDs:
- Faster than USB 2.0
- Direct access to SATA speeds
Disadvantages of eSATA external HDDs:
- More expensive than USB 3.0
- Compatibility limitations
- Limited cable length of 2-3 meters
eSATA offers a speed advantage over USB 2.0, but has been largely superseded by USB 3.0 and newer interfaces. At this point, it is an outdated option best avoided in favor of USB or Thunderbolt external hard drives.
Top external hard drive speed test results
Here are some real-world test results for the fastest external hard disk drive models:
|Max Read Speed
|Max Write Speed
|Samsung X5 Portable SSD 500GB
|WD My Passport SSD 1TB
|USB 3.1 Gen 2
|SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD 1TB
|USB 3.1 Gen 2
|Seagate FireCuda Gaming Dock 4TB
|WD Black P50 Game Drive Portable SSD 1TB
|USB 3.2 Gen 2
As you can see, USB 3.1 Gen 2 and especially Thunderbolt 3 drives top the performance charts. The Samsung X5 Portable SSD is the fastest overall thanks to its leading Thunderbolt 3 interface speed paired with a fast NVMe solid state drive inside.
For more affordable but still fast performance, the WD My Passport SSD proves USB 3.1 Gen 2 can hit 500+ MB/s real-world transfers. Gamers may also appreciate the specialization of the Seagate FireCuda and WD Black game drives.
Key factors to consider when choosing the fastest external HDD
Based on the speeds possible, here are some recommendations on what to look for when shopping for the fastest external hard disk drive for your needs:
- Thunderbolt 3 for peak transfer speeds and future-proofing. Ideal for 4K+ video editing and large creative project file storage. Samsung X5 or WD Black P50 provide nearly 3 GB/s speeds.
- USB 3.1 Gen 2 for a balance of great speed and affordability. Look for drives with real world transfers over 400 MB/s. WD My Passport SSD is a good option.
- High RPM internal drives such as 7200 RPM or even 10,000 RPM deliver better performance. Common for desktop drives, less so for portable.
- SSD or solid state drives offer much faster access than traditional mechanical hard drives. The top performers integrate SSDs over PCIe or NVMe interfaces.
- A larger cache of 64MB or greater improves transfers of smaller files.
- If your computer lacks Thunderbolt 3 or USB 3.1 Gen 2, upgrade that first before buying an external HDD to take advantage of the speed.
Paying attention to these aspects will help you choose an external hard disk drive that avoids interface bottlenecks and provides transfer speeds to match your workload.
Recommendations for the fastest external hard drive
Fastest Portable External HDD
For a portable external hard disk drive, the Samsung X5 Portable SSD is my top recommendation. Here’s why:
- Leading Thunderbolt 3 interface speed
- Blazing fast read and write speeds over 2.8 GB/s
- Shock resistant internal SSD drive
- Attractive slim design
Of course, this level of performance comes at a price – expect to pay around $200 for 500GB up to $700 for 2TB. For more affordable fast portable storage, the WD My Passport SSD is a great option providing over 500MB/s transfers with 1TB under $150.
Fastest Desktop External HDD
If you want maximum performance without portability concerns, a desktop external HDD is the way to go. The WD Black D10 Game Drive offers a leading combination of high speed and large capacity. Key features include:
- USB 3.2 Gen 1 interface with speeds up to 250 MB/s
- Rugged build with active cooling
- Large 8TB capacity available
- 7200 RPM internal drive
Pricing is very reasonable too at around $150 for the 8TB model. The D10 runs quieter and cooler than you’d expect making it suitable for constant desktop use. For creatives needing more bandwidth, the Thunderbolt 3 equipped LaCie 2big RAID provides over 400MB/s.
When evaluating the fastest external hard drive, key factors include the disk interface, internal drive speed, and form factor. For ultimate portable speed, the Samsung X5 SSD delivers over 2.8GB/s via Thunderbolt 3. For spacious and affordable desktop performance, the 8TB WD Black D10 operates at 250MB/s over USB 3.2 Gen 1. Focus on your interface and workload, and you’ll be sure to find an external HDD with transfers speeds to match your needs.