The Best External Hard Drives

External hard drives allow you to add terabytes of storage to your computer for a few hundred dollars. External drives connect to PCs and Macs via their external connectors. Almost every computer has a USB 2.0 port, so it’s the most common type of connection currently. Here’s the speed of other interfaces (from slowest to fastest): FireWire 400, USB 2.0, FireWire 800, eSATA (external SATA), USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt.

Many new drives support the fast USB 3.0 interface, which some newer computers now support. However, all Apple computers only support USB 2.0 connections — Apple has stated that it does not intend to support USB 3.0 in the foreseeable future. Instead, they support the Thunderbolt interface, but very few hard drives support the Thunderbolt currently.

If you’ll only be doing backups with an external drive, you can opt for a drive that only supports USB 2.0, because most of your backup process will occur in quietly in the background, and interface speed will not matter so much. However, getting the right size drive is important — it’s prudent not to skimp here, you’ll want to drive that has a capacity that’s 2-3 times the size of the drive you want to backup.

If you’ll be using the external drive to store and watch movies, or render videos, then drive’s interface speed is important you’ll want to connect the drive with eSATA, USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt, if you computer supports these interfaces.

Fireproof and Waterproof: The ioSafe Rugged Portable

ioSafe specializes in making hard drives that are fireproof, waterproof and, in the case of the portable models, crushproof and shockproof. The ioSafe Rugged Portable is encased in a machined block of aluminum (Al) or titanium (Ti) alloy. The drive can withstand being sunk in water for three days, or 1550° F heat for 30 minutes. This ruggedization certainly means ioSafe drives are less prone to disaster, but it does increase the cost of the drives, and makes them larger and heavier than comparable external drives.

ioSafe drives also come with a three year warranty, and one year of data and hardware recovery protection, which means the company will recover your data should a disaster strike, or the drive fails for any reason (this protection only covers your first request for data recovery). If your drive is so badly damaged that forensic recovery is required, the ioSafe will cover up to $2500 in recovery costs. You can extend the data recovery to three years for an additional $50. You can buy a five year warranty together with five years of data recovery protection for an additional $100 over the base price.

The ioSafe Rugged Portable 1TB is available from Amazon for about $277.


Best Overall: Western Digital My Book Studio II

The latest My Book Studio II from Western Digital has a lot going for it: a sleek aluminum case, quiet operation, low energy consumption and 3 terabytes (TB) of space.

The My Book Studio II  is now housed in an aluminum enclosure, which matches Apple’s range of aluminum devices. Indeed, this drive is primarily intended to appeal to the Apple user —  it supports the Firewire 400/800 interface and USB 2.0. Additionally, the drive comes pre-formatted as HFS+, for OS X Leopard or Snow Leopard (Mac OS X Tiger does not support drives with capacities greater than 2 TB). It is also compatible with Apple’s latest Time Machine. However, the drive can be reformatted and used with Windows XP/Vista/7 or Linux.

The My Book Studio II is available from Amazon for around $260.

Wd my book studio ii

This drive is the older My Book Studio II from Western Digital. I still recommend this hard drive because comes standard with a 5 year warranty — the newer drives from Western Digital now now come with three year warranties. Also, unlike the new My Book, this drive includes an eSata interface (in addition to USB and Firewire).

The drive is quiet, but it does have a distracting light that flashes whenever the drive is active. I also wish the drive’s case had a sturdier feel to it. However, the drive still gets my recommendation because of the five year warranty, it supports Raid 1 mirroring.

Recently, one My Books Drives would not turn on, but it was still under warranty, so requested a replacement drive from Western Digital. A replacement drive arrived in a few days. So Western Digital did honor their warranty quite promptly, but I did have to pay to ship my old drive back to the company (it cost about $15 in postage).

The Western Digital My Book Studio II is available from Amazon for around $190.


Simple Security: The Apricorn Aegis Padlock Pro

The Apricorn Aegis Padlock Pro is a newly released, encrypted hard drive. It locks down your sensitive information in a digital vault to protect it against hackers and data thieves. This drive gets high marks from reviewers because it offers high-end encryption into a straightforward and easy-to-use package. The keypad on the drive allows you enter a PIN and unlock the drive quickly.

PC Magazine gave this drive at rating of “Very Good” and a “Editor’s Choice” award.

The only complaint from reviewers, is that this drive has unreliable eSata connection support. You may wish to do some further research on this drive, if you’ll be using eSata.

The 1 TB Apricorn Aegis Padlock Pro is available from Amazon for about $270.


For Mac Backups: Apple Time Capsule

Apple Time Capsule

Apple makes a device called a Time Capsule, which is a wireless router combined with a external hard drive. A Time Capsule allows you perform wireless backups using the Time Machine application or a third-party applications that use the Time Machine format. You connect wireless to the Time Capsule with a host of devices: Mac, compatible PCs, and wireless devices such as iPhone, iPod touch, iPad, and Apple TV. Note that the portables devices must be running iOS 5 to connect to a Time Capsule.

You can attach additional hard drives to a Time Capsule via USB 2.0 if you want more storage space, and you can attach a printer, for wireless sharing.

I’d recommend Time Capsules, you if like the idea of backing up a number of notebook computers and other portable devices wirelessly. Time Capsules cannot be used to create a bootable duplicate your boot volume, so you’ll have to buy a second hard drive to create bootable backups. Also, Time Capsules are not mirrored drives (they don’t support Raid configurations), but you can attach an Raid drive to a Time Capsule via its USB 2.0 interface.

Apple’s standard warranty covers the Time Capsule for one year, and this includes 90 day of phone support. Apple does not an extended warranty for a Time Capsule specifically. However, if you extend the coverage on another Apple device, the Time Capsule warranty will be extended too (see this page for details).

In regards to environmental criteria, Apple has removed almost all of the the toxic substances from its products, and the company accepts old devices for recycling, under the Apple Recycling Program.

The Apple Time Capsule (2 TB) is available from Amazon for about $292.

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