How to Choose the Right Hard Drive
What’s the best way to be sure your external hard drive won’t suffer an early demise due to rough handling? Keep it in a climate-controlled room, wrapped in bubble wrap, resting on a feather pillow, and plugged safely into a stationary desktop PC.
Excellent! But…wait, you can’t do that? Oh, well. Looks like you’re going to need a hard drive designed to withstand the rigors of the real world. Now, any ordinary external hard drive has some degree of toughness. But there’s everyday tough, and then there’s rugged.
“Rugged” comes in many grades, though. Some rugged drives are built to withstand forces that would kill any bare-naked internal drive: strong impacts, water immersion, even fire. Drives designed for more casual abuse are often marketed as “ruggedized,” but that’s an inexact term. It’s also something of a misnomer, as the actual drive mechanism inside the tough shell is usually a normal, off-the-shelf storage component, just like you’d find in any laptop or desktop. What makes a drive rugged is the casing around it, which allows these drives to withstand shock, dousing, and the like. The level of survivability often depends on how much money you want to spend.
In general, how much torture a given drive can take varies according to the nature of its enclosure. Some will let you drive a car over them. Others might be designed to handle just a short fall off a desk, and not much more.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through the features most commonly found in rugged drives, and gather up the most impressive models we’ve reviewed. If you’re the type of person who’s suffered a drive failure “in the field” before—whether that’s in your office, or climbing Kilimanjaro—these devices should keep you from suffering that pain again.
Buying Basics: Rugged Hard Drives
Buying a rugged drive involves a lot of the same decision points you’d face with an ordinary external drive. Let’s break them down.
INTERFACE TYPE. The industry has settled on two main interfaces in external portable drives these days: USB 3 of various flavors (very common) and Thunderbolt (much less common). Which one is best for your needs depends on the ports on the computer or computers you are using. Also, these interfaces, in their latest iterations, actually overlap in terms of physical connectivity. We’ll explain that in a moment.
You might be asking: Thunderbolt? Thunderbolt is no longer a specialized connector meant mainly for Mac users, though Mac usage still dominates. The latest iteration, Thunderbolt 3, makes the interface much more mainstream. The version of Thunderbolt common from 2013 to a few years ago, Thunderbolt 2, offered four times the theoretical bandwidth of USB 3.0 (20Gbps for Thunderbolt, versus 5Gbps for USB 3.0). But adoption was limited, and on top of that, no single hard drive-based external drive can even begin to approach the limits of either interface. Platter-based hard drives just aren’t fast enough for it to matter which interface you used.
If you have a older Mac with an original Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 2 port and want a Thunderbolt drive to use with it, go ahead and pull the trigger. A few makers of rugged drives, such as LaCie, still offer rugged drives with the legacy Thunderbolt interfaces, but know that those older interfaces are a dead end for future computers. Just make sure the drive and system use matching and compatible versions of Thunderbolt, and don’t assume it’ll be any faster than what USB 3.0 offers.
That said, both of these interfaces are evolving, which leads us to…
USB 3 AND THUNDERBOLT 3 (IT’S A TANGLE). Newer and faster versions of both USB and Thunderbolt have been rolling out in some external drives over the last couple of years. They offer twice the potential bandwidth of previous implementations. But you’ll need ports to match them on your computer, and again, the real-world speed ramifications aren’t as big a deal as they might sound.
On the USB front, the latest interface is called USB 3.1 or USB Type-C, and it first made headlines by appearing in the super-thin 2015 version of the Apple MacBook. It’s now more common on new Windows PCs, and a staple in all the latest MacBook Air and Pro laptops. It’s a slim port with a cable that you can insert in either of two directions. To complicate matters, though, “USB Type-C” technically refers to the shape of the plug, while USB 3.1 is the spec having to do with speed. You’ll find that some ordinary “Type-A” USB ports (the rectangular USB ports we are all used to) in recent-model systems also claim support for USB 3.1. Some late-model external drives that support USB 3.1 come with two cables, one with a Type-A connector at the system end and one with a Type-C.
Beyond that, USB 3.1 (the speed specification) comes in two primary flavors as of this writing: “Gen 1” and “Gen 2.” The iteration called “USB 3.1 Gen 2” has a maximum theoretical interface speed of 10Gbps. (No single external device can saturate that, not even a speedier solid-state drive.) “USB 3.1 Gen 1,” on the other hand, is identical in maximum potential speed to USB 3.0. (Confusing, we know.) We won’t complicate matters further with “USB 3.1 Gen 2×2,” which also exists but remains uncommon enough to ignore at the moment.
When you’re dealing with an external platter-based hard drive, it makes little difference which kind you get. To make this matter even more confusing, though, the naming convention will gradually move to USB 3.2 Gen 1 and USB 3.2 Gen 2, thanks to some (in our opinion) ill-advised branding shenanigans by USB’s governing body. (See our explainer.)
Bottom line, when looking at rugged drives with a USB interface, you just need to be sure your PC or Mac has a physically compatible USB port—that is, can you simply plug it in, and does the drive say it works with PCs, Macs, or both? This physical compatibility is what matters most, as a USB device will dial down to the slower speed of the two elements in play (the host system or the drive).
Muddying matters further, though, is the latest version of Thunderbolt, Thunderbolt 3—specifically, in how it is implemented. Thunderbolt 3 uses the same reversible connector as USB Type-C. Also, support for USB 3.1 is baked into Thunderbolt 3. In essence, all Thunderbolt 3 ports are USB Type-C ports, though not all USB Type-C ports support Thunderbolt 3.
As a result, any new drive with a USB Type-C connector should just work, whether you plug it in to a Thunderbolt 3 port or to a “plain old” USB Type-C connector. (The possible wrinkle is plugging a Thunderbolt 3 drive into a USB Type-C port that doesn’t support Thunderbolt 3; you’ll want to check if the drive maker supports that. In our experience, sometimes it works, sometimes not.)
As mentioned earlier, with hard drives, you won’t see a huge speed benefit from USB 3.1 vs. Thunderbolt 3 vs. plain old USB 3.0. Thunderbolt 3 boasts potential bandwidth up to 40Gbps, but again, your typical external hard drive won’t push data anywhere close to that limit. That said, some newer SSDs employing cutting-edge, hopped-up internal components are starting to make better use of USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 bandwidth. Look for “USB 3.1 Gen 2” branding and peak transfer rates from 1,000MBps to 3,500MBps. These external SSDs are based on the same PCI Express/NVMe internal bits that today’s fastest internal SSDs use; older SSDs tended to top out around 550MBps because they were based on older Serial ATA technology. (For more on the nuances of this speed uptick, see our guide to the best external SSDs.)
ROTATIONAL SPEED. If you’re talking about a rugged platter hard drive, as opposed to an SSD, drive rotation speed matters—a little. It’s the rate at which the physical platters inside the drive spin, and it used to be a significant determining factor in overall performance. But these days, many models spin at a modest 5,400rpm or thereabouts, rather than the 7,200rpm that used to be more common with performance-oriented drives.
In a bigger-picture sense, SSDs (which have no moving parts) have largely made the notion of a “fast” hard drive a bit passe. Even the slowest external SSD is faster than a 7,200rpm hard drive, often several times over, depending on what you’re transferring and measuring.
If you really need extra performance but can’t dole out the bucks for a portable SSD due to cost or capacity concerns, a few 7,200rpm external rugged hard drives are available (the G-Tech G-Drive eV ATC is one), but they are not often clearly advertised as such. In most cases, we wouldn’t make rotational speed a prime factor in a purchase.
EXTERNAL SSD VS. EXTERNAL HARD DRIVE. SSDs are not only taking over the notebook and personal computer market, but they’re also edging into external storage. It’s easy to imagine a future in which all external drives will be solid-state, because the advantages of SSDs over spinning hard drives make them perfect choices for real-world knocks. Not only do SSDs have no moving parts, making them much more durable, but they also make no noise and produce very little heat.
The only problem with SSDs? They are still expensive compared to hard drives of the same capacity. And compared to portable hard drives, the roomiest of which today can store up to 5 terabytes (5TB) per drive mechanism, external SSDs aren’t as spacious. That’s changing, though, as we’ve seen SSDs creeping into the multi-terabyte range—albeit at a hefty price premium. Check out our explainer for more on hard drives versus SSDs.
Most portable external SSDs aren’t expressly advertised as rugged, though ADATA, LaCie, SanDisk, and a few others do offer such drives, with caps to cover their ports to protect their innards from moisture. But in a general sense, any portable SSD should hold up to drops and being jostled around in a bag better than any traditional portable hard drive. If that’s the extent of the extra protection you’re after, a portable SSD, rugged or not, is enticing, particularly if you don’t need lots of storage space.
REMOVABLE OR FIXED ENCLOSURES. A permanent shell is the most common design among rugged drives, with a sealed chassis around the drive. Materials and design vary, but the exterior for a platter hard drive is typically a hard plastic or rubber, which allows the drive to absorb impact. These enclosures may or may not also provide seals to keep the elements—dust, dirt, and water—out of your drive. (More on that in a moment.) Rugged external SSDs will typically have a metal shell, since shock absorption is less crucial.
A few drives feature enclosures that are removable, adding another layer of protection between the drive and the casing. These are typically sealed with O-rings all the way around, allowing the drive inside extra moisture protection. In other cases, the removable element might just be a rubber or silicone wrapper around an outer metal or plastic casing.
What Exactly Makes a Drive Rugged? Quantifying Drive Protection
A key spec to seek out for rugged outdoor use is compliance with IP67 or IP68. IP stands for “International Protection” as well as “Ingress Protection,” and the IP spec describes a drive’s level of waterproofing and dust/debris resistance. The related specs are governed by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), a nonprofit standards-creation body. We have an in-depth primer on what the various IP levels mean and how to interpret the figures; check out Waterproof? Dust-Resistant? Making Sense of Gadget Ratings, which defines how long a drive can be submerged, and more.
Quantifying the allowable vertical drop resistance is hazier. Most rugged drives, especially SSDs, can handle a fall from your desk and keep on chugging. Standard external platter-based hard drives are less resilient, especially if a drive happens to be running when it took a dive.
Since your basic external hard drive has a hard-plastic shell, when an impact occurs, the chassis transfers the shock energy to the hard drive within, possibly causing the read and write heads to crash into the hard drive platters. That is, for certain, A Very Bad Thing. (Modern drives have acceleration sensors, which detect a fall and rapidly “park” the heads in a safe place before impact, but even that’s not foolproof.) When a drive is encased in a material with more “give,” or with a soft bumper, the enclosure absorbs more of the impact. However, not all enclosures are designed for maximum shock resistance; a rugged drive might have a metal shell, to provide crush protection as well as some safety in case of a drop. As a result, you’re mostly at the mercy of the drive vendor to tell you the rated maximum drop distance for the drive.
So, Which Rugged Drive Should I Buy?
See below for our top picks in rugged drives according to usage case. If you’re looking for a more ordinary external hard drive or a portable SSD, we’ve got best picks for those, as well, at the links.
Where To Buy
Pros: Small, light, and fast.
Reasonable cost per gigabyte.
USB-C and USB-A cables included.
Cons: The provided cables are on the short side.
Bottom Line: The ADATA SE800 external SSD is everything you want in a shirt-pocket solid-state drive: sleek, tough, affordable, and snappy. It will make an excellent addition to your kit.
LaCie Rugged SSD Pro
Pros: Field-leading speed
Also works with USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 and Gen 2 ports
Extreme ruggedness against dust, water, drops, crush pressure
Cons: High price per gigabyte
Cable is a bit short
Bottom Line: The LaCie Rugged SSD Pro external drive is designed for professional videographers and others who work in the field with Thunderbolt 3-equipped computers (most often Macs). Small, light, and even mailable, it earns the right to add “extremely” in front of “fast and rugged.”
ADATA HD710M Pro External Hard Drive
Pros: Durable in drop tests.
Good dollar-per-gigabyte ratio.
Lightweight for a ruggedized unit.
Cable storage around the edges.
Cons: Camouflage exterior may not be for everyone.
Plastic housing only.
Bottom Line: Love or hate its camouflage look, the ADATA HD710M Pro external rugged hard drive provides on-par performance and fine durability at a competitive price.
Pros: Good-looking for a rugged drive. Protective, removable bumper all around. Cables for both USB Type-A and Type-C on the client side.
Cons: No activity light. No backup utilities or photo/video subscription deals included. A bit pricey per gigabyte.
Bottom Line: The rough-and-tumble Armor ATD, G-Technology’s latest ruggedized hard drive, performs on point and packs a competitive-enough cost per gigabyte to brawl and fall with competitors.
ioSafe Rugged Portable SSD (500GB)
Pros: Speedy performance.
Highly ruggedized against crush, immersion, shock, environment, altitude, and chemicals.
One year of data recovery service protection.
Backup and encryption software included.
Cons: Bulky and heavy.
Bottom Line: If you and your files need to venture into the unknown, the ioSafe Rugged Portable SSD might be the trusty, nearly indestructible companion you’re looking for.
But for the average user, there are plenty of durable, reasonably priced external drives with higher capacity.
LaCie Rugged RAID Shuttle
Pros: Flat, easily mailable chassis.
Can set to RAID 0 for higher speed and capacity, or to RAID 1 for drive mirroring.
Bundled cables for USB Type-A and Type-C on PC side.
Cons: No tab over Type-C connector to protect it from dust and water.
High price per gigabyte, due largely to ruggedization and RAID design.
Bottom Line: LaCie’s two-drive Rugged RAID Shuttle offers the choice of high capacity and fast performance (in striped mode), or of half the capacity with all data mirrored on the second disk. It’s ideal for anyone who works in the field and produces oodles of data.
Samsung Portable SSD X5
Pros: Extremely fast data transfer speeds, thanks to Thunderbolt 3 and PCIe NVMe interfaces.
Multiple capacity options.
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.
SanDisk Extreme 900 Portable SSD
Pros: Impact resistant.
Can be used out of box with Mac or PC.
Comes with USB-C–to–USB-C cable.
Software enables 128-bit AES encryption.
Cons: Bulky for an SSD.
Bottom Line: The SanDisk Extreme 900 Portable SSD hits a rare sweet spot for solid-state drives: It’s durable, versatile, speedy, and reasonably priced for its capacity.
SanDisk Extreme Pro Portable SSD
Pros: IP55-rated for shock-, dust-, and water-resistance.
Rubberized aluminum case is easy to grip.
Excellent read/write speeds.
Includes USB-A and USB-C cables and five-year warranty.
Cons: A little expensive.
Exposed USB port, so not that rugged.
No activity light.
Cables are a touch short.
Bottom Line: From its silicone-wrapped aluminum case to its blazing data transfer speeds, SanDisk’s Extreme Pro Portable SSD has a lot to offer, but it’s neither as rugged nor as well-designed as some competitors.
CalDigit Tuff Nano
Pros: Slim and sleek, with an anodized aluminum case and rubber bumpers.
USB-A and USB-C cables included, as well as a convenient plastic case.
Cons: Expensive compared to other SSDs.
Data transfers slightly slower than anticipated.
No LED activity light.
Bottom Line: Its IP67 dust-, shock-, and waterproof rating makes the CalDigit Tuff Nano SSD definitely tough enough, and you get a handy plastic case as well as USB-A and USB-C cables, but the external drive’s pluses aren’t enough to outweigh its high cost per gigabyte and ordinary performance.
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