Best external hard disks of 2013

If you need to carry around more data than a USB thumb drive can handle, a portable hard disk is the perfect solution. While bigger than a thumb drive, the latest models pack in everything from high-capacity HDDs to high-speed SSDs, and an increasing number feature wireless access, too, allowing iOS and Android users to manage and stream content from their smartphones and tablets.

Buffalo MiniStation Air HDW-PU3 500GB

Buffalo MiniStation Air HDW-PU3 500GB

Price: £96 inc VAT
Rating: 5/6 – Recommended award

Wireless access is a relatively new feature on external hard disks, but two of these drives include the functionality. Buffalo’s 500GB MiniStation Air wirelessly connects to Apple devices running iOS4 or later, and Android hardware with at least version 2.3 – but it connects to PCs and Macs only via USB 3.

Buffalo’s free app isn’t as slick as Seagate’s software, but it’s just as easy to use. One tab displays what’s on the MiniStation, another shows files on your smartphone or tablet, and a third is used to move files between the two.

USB 3 performance was mixed. The Buffalo’s CrystalDiskMark sequential read speed of 118MB/sec is the best of any hard disk-based drive here, and its 116MB/sec sequential write pace is just as impressive. However, the Buffalo fell behind in small-file tests.

The unit’s trump card is versatility. At 20p per gigabyte, you pay a premium for the wireless features, but they work well, and overall performance is quick.

LaCie Porsche Design Slim SSD P’9223 120GB

LaCie Porsche Design Slim SSD P’9223 120GB

Price: £109 inc VAT
Rating: 4/6

Silly name aside, there’s lots to like about LaCie’s drive. Its 11mm depth makes it the slimmest here, and the 182g, aluminium body both looks and feels classy.

It’s also the only drive here to use an SSD. It isn’t a high-end part – the 120GB drive is a Micron RealSSD C400 – but it’s still able to outpace all of its hard disk-based rivals.

Its CrystalDiskMark sequential read and write scores of 293MB/sec and 201MB/sec are around twice as fast as the quickest hard disks here, and the LaCie’s small-file scores are just as stellar: its 512KB read and write results of 251MB/sec and 202MB/sec are way out in front.

There are a couple of downsides to this SSD-based drive. Its 111GB formatted capacity fills up pretty quickly, and you pay for the solid-state performance: its 99p per gigabyte cost is far higher than any other drive here.

This means the LaCie is only worth considering if speed is more important than capacity – and if having the best-looking external drive around is vitally important.

Seagate Wireless Plus 1TB

Seagate Wireless Plus 1TB

Price: £195 inc VAT
Rating: 4/6

As the name suggests, Seagate’s drive includes wireless functionality – and it’s even more versatile than Buffalo’s MiniStation Air. As well as working with iOS and Android devices, the Seagate can also be used wirelessly with a PC.

Drive management is handled through Seagate’s browser-based interface. Files can be browsed, opened, downloaded and uploaded, and the Wireless Plus also streams content to any DLNA-enabled device.

To access the Seagate from Android and iOS devices, you’ll have to download a free app. Seagate’s interface mirrors its browser-based software, and accessing and streaming content works here, too – although files can’t be uploaded from mobile devices.

Seagate also includes a USB 3 adapter, but it’s here where the Wireless Plus falters slightly. The Seagate scored 108MB/sec in CrystalDiskMark’s sequential read and write tests, and small-file results were just as poor – no other drive read 4K files as slowly as the Seagate’s 0.4MB/sec result.

The Seagate is a feature-packed choice for those who need the wireless streaming features, but its middling wired speed means that many people will be better-served by Buffalo’s £96 MiniStation Air.

Western Digital My Passport 2TB

Western Digital My Passport 2TB

Price: £110 inc VAT
Rating: 5/6 – A-List

Western Digital’s drive is the most capacious here, with its 2TB capacity providing 1.8TB of formatted space, and it’s also the best value – its £110 inc VAT price translates to a meagre 5p per gigabyte.

The low price means Western Digital hasn’t wasted cash on flashy looks – there’s a hint of give in the My Passport’s plasticky enclosure – but it performed well in our tests. Its CrystalDiskMark sequential read and write scores of 114MB/sec and 113MB/sec aren’t far behind the Buffalo, and the My Passport excelled in the small-file benchmarks. Its 512K file read and write results of 40MB/sec and 56MB/sec were beaten by only the SSD-based LaCie drive, and its 4K file results were, again, second only to the LaCie.

Western Digital’s drive isn’t the winner here for features – there aren’t any gimmicks whatsoever – but it offers a huge amount of space for comparatively little cash, and that’s all many people need.

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