The Best External Desktop Hard Drive Today

If I needed a new external desktop storage solution, I’d buy Buffalo’s 3 TB DriveStation DDR for around $200. It’s a bit on the expensive side, but the math checks out: for around 50% more money you get 100% more speed. Some tests even show it being faster than Thunderbolt setups that cost an order of magnitude more! It’s this insane speed that earned it multiple editor’s choice awards and our pick if you have or will soon have a USB 3.0 computer.

Who’s This For?

You might be thinking to yourself “that kind of speed sounds like it’d be nice to have, but I don’t think I really need it if it costs extra,” which is perfectly rational. We would respectfully disagree for a number of reasons.

When it comes to backing up your computer or transferring files, speed is the most important measurable drive metric. So when you need to go shopping for an external storage solution, paying 50% more to go 100% faster is entirely reasonable.

When it comes to backing up your computer or transferring files, speed is the most important measurable drive metric.

This sounds counter intuitive, but it still makes sense to spend more even if your current computer is too old to take advantage of all the speed a piece of hardware like the DriveStation DDR can offer. Assume you’ll have this thing for at least three years (which is the length of its warranty). Considering the fact that all new computers come with USB 3.0, the only reason not to buy a fast drive now is if you don’t plan on upgrading your computer over the next three years.

The exception to this rule: if you’re on a 2011 Mac with Thunderbolt and have no intention to upgrading to a new computer anytime soon. But we’ll explain more later.

So unless you’re planning to use your old hardware for years to come, the Buffalo drive is the smart choice.

Why Buy An External Hard Drive?

First and foremost, you need an onsite backup for peace of mind. I’ve got thousands of photos I could never replace of friends, family and the traveling I’ve done over the years. My laptop’s also crammed full of close to two decade’s worth of professional and personal writing that I’d lose my mind over if I lost it. Having a copy of that kind of stuff is a must for me, so I use Time Machine and a 3TB external drive to make sure that I always have a duplicate of my computer’s contents (I keep a cloud-based backup of my files too, just to be ultra safe.)

Secondly, it’s nice to have extra space—not just for storing extra stuff, but also for performance purposes. Maximum storage capacity for most laptops has dwindled over the last few years due to the SSD’s rise to prominence. This is a good thing for most people because the speed boost is well worth the loss in drive space, but if you have a lot of personal files and applications, a small SSD (like the 128 GB version found in many Windows 8 ultrabooks) can start feeling pretty tight, pretty fast. That’s a bad thing because Windows and Mac computers don’t perform as fast as they potentially can when their hard drives are full. They need about 10% of the space on your computer’s primary drive left free of data in order to remain zippy. An external drive gives you enough breathing room to maintain that 10% buffer without forcing you to delete things you’d rather keep.

Or maybe you’ve got more digital media than you can handle. Streaming options abound but for the time being, there’s no good options for streaming lossless audio or video. If you care about fidelity, you’ll have to pony up the gigabytes.

Finally, if you noodle with video or photography (or really if you do any image editing on a regular basis), having a reliable external drive will speed up your workflow. As Tested’s Matthew Braga points out, programs like “…Premiere Pro, Photoshop and Gimp all make use of a scratch disk, where these scraps files and temporary data are stored when you run out of RAM. If you’re working with a large project, those files can grow in size fast. By shifting them all to another drive entirely, you’re lessening the load placed on your internal drive, splitting reads and writes between two places, as opposed to one. You’ll render faster, export quicker and be all the happier for it. Alternatively, storing your project files on an external drive can also be a handy exercise, especially if you plan on moving your projects between multiple computers.”

What You Should Look For In An External Desktop Hard Drive

According to CNET’s Dong Ngo, one of our favorite storage editors, when you’re shopping for an external desktop hard drive, there’s a few things you should keep in mind: speed, construction, capacity, and to a lesser extent, software.

The first thing you’ll want to keep in mind is your connection speed. You could have the fastest spinning hard drive in the world, but if it’s hooked up via USB 2.0, you’ll only be getting 40 MB/s, tops. Ngo says that USB 3.0 is a must and we agree. Even if your computer only has USB 2.0 ports, USB 3.0 is a backwards compatible connection, so you’ll still be able to use it. And when you upgrade to a new system with USB 3.0, you’ll be glad you forked over the cash for the drive instead of buying an older (though most likely cheaper) USB 2.0 drive because the top transfer speed of a USB 2.0 connection is a paltry 60 MB per second. USB 3.0 tops out at 640 MB per second. That’s over 10 times faster; you’ll be wanting that.

A well designed hard drive enclosure will help to dissipate the vibration caused by the operation of the drive inside of it, as well as mitigate the noise created by that vibration and the enclosure’s fan.

You’ll want your drive to be well made. Because it’s designed to stay put on your desk, an external desktop hard drive won’t be subjected to the same kind of abuse portable drives get put through banging around in your backpack or a briefcase, but making sure that you buy one with a solid build quality will improve your quality of life. A well designed hard drive enclosure will help to dissipate the vibration caused by the operation of the drive inside of it, as well as mitigate the noise created by that vibration and the enclosure’s fan as it whirrs away in an effort to keep the hard drive’s operating temperature to a minimum. And of course, should you happen to knock the drive off of your desk or otherwise brutalize it, it’d be nice if it was maybe tough enough to still work afterwards. Hard drives don’t like being knocked around to begin with, so you’ll want every chance to protect your investment, and more importantly, your data.

It’s also a good get if you can find a company that’ll stand behind the quality of the hardware they make with a solid warranty. A good warranty should provide limited coverage for most or all of this time.

You’ll want the drive to have a high capacity. I don’t normally say this when I’m recommending hardware, but in this case, you’ll want to buy as large a drive as you can afford, even if it provides more storage space than you currently need, because the amount of data you have grows. It’s a lot cheaper to buy big now than it is to fill it up and have to buy another later.

Finally, if possible, you’ll want your external desktop hard drive to come with a software suite that’ll help you to manage your backups and file transfers. This point isn’t as important for anyone with a Mac running a minimum of OS X 10.5 or Windows 8 users. (Both operating systems have competent, hands-off backup utility built into them.) But for the millions of people out there still using Windows 7 or another operating system, it’s definitely a must-have.

The External Desktop Hard Drive You Want

It’s fast. In fact, at the time this piece was written, the DriveStation DDR is about 100% faster than any other USB 3.0 external hard drive currently available. That’s not a typo.

Out of all of the hardware I looked at, the $195 Buffalo 3 TB DriveStation DDR hard drive offers the best combination of speed, capacity, useful bundled software, build quality and warranty. It’s not even a close call, because Buffalo has a caching technology in this drive that makes it extremely fast and not prohibitively expensive given its performance.

According to Ngo’s testing, the DriveStation DDR is capable of writing files at a speed of 216 MB per second and reading at 217 MB per second compared to the next fastest USB 3.0 drive, the Silicon Power Armor A80, which musters meager-by-comparison 112 MBps/113 MBps read/write speeds. In those same tests, the DDR actually proved faster than than the $389 Lacie 2Big 4TB RAID 0 drive, which was clocked at speeds hovering at around 183 MB per second. The DriveStation DDR is able to do this thanks to a 1 GB cache of DDR3 memory. In short, by investing in a DriveStation DDR, you’ll be getting the speed afforded to much more expensive Thunderbolt connected drives for the price and compatibility of a USB 3.0 external desktop hard drive. And that’s just for last-gen Windows PCs with USB 3.0 connections. I contacted Buffalo’s PR representative to ask her if there was any difference in the drive’s speed when it was connected to Windows or OS X powered hardware. She told me that there was no significant difference. However:

“… we’ve noticed in our testing that the latest integrated USB 3.0 chipsets from Intel seem to deliver faster transfer speeds. Fortunately, all Macs that support USB 3.0 use the newer generation chipset, so Mac users may experience faster speeds than a user using a PC with an older chipset.” So anyone buying a new Mac or any new Windows PC with a USB 3.0 port and a Haswell chip under the hood will see even faster read/write speeds.”

An internal fan and rear vent keeps it from overheating while an external pair of LEDs on the front of the drive lets you know its working. Its USB 3.0 cable port is located on the back of the drive enclosure. Buffalo’s PR rep also told us that Buffalo sources their drives from Seagate, Western Digital and Toshiba.

Excluding its included AC adapter, the DriveStation weighs 2.2 pounds, which would be heavy for a portable drive. But since this is a piece of kit designed to be left sitting on a desk, its heft doesn’t really matter.

Buffalo covers the DriveStation DDR with a three-year limited warranty, which is one of the longest ones I’ve been able to find.

In both its 2 TB and 3 TB configurations, the DriveStation DDR comes out of the box pre-formatted to NTFS, so you’ll be able to use it right away with a Windows 7 or Windows 8 PC. Mac users, however, will have to reformat the hardware to use a HFS+ files system before they can move any files on to it. But that’s no big deal. (Remember to backup the software bundle to your desktop before you do it though.)

It comes with software that you might actually want to use. The Buffalo DriveStation DDR comes preloaded with a number of utilities including a cache control tool for Windows and Mac users, Windows-only backup software, a power management utility and drive encryption/password protection software.

The Buffalo DriveStation DDR hasn’t been around for very long, but in the time it’s been available, a number of trusted publications and reviewers have heaped praise on it. Everyone that’s reviewed it seems to have spent time with the 2 TB version of the hardware, but the only difference I can find between the two and three terabyte iterations of the DriveStation DDR is storage capacity. So I think it’s safe to apply their reviews to the 3 TB version of the hardware, give or take.

Again, editors who know storage hardware like this thing.

CNET’s Dong Ngo gave the DriveStation DDR an Editor’s Choice Award, saying “Once in awhile, there’s a revolutionary product that changes the conventional expectations for the entire class of devices, and among all USB 3.0-based external hard drives, the Buffalo DriveStation DDR is that product.” More importantly, when I asked him which external desktop hard drive out of all of the one’s he’s reviewed he’d recommend to his family or a friend, he told me that the DriveStation DDR was at the top of his list.

PC World’s Jon L. Jacobi awarded the DriveStation DDR four stars, noting that “where the DriveStation DDR really showed its mettle was in writing our large 10GB file at a scintillating 201.8 MBps, nearly twice what the average USB 3.0 hard drive can manage.”

Over at Laptop Magazine, the DriveStation DDR earned itself another Editor’s Choice Award from reviews editor Michael A. Prospero. Prospero said that “At $170, the Buffalo DriveStation DDR is a cost-effective device for backing up multimedia files quickly. It’s more than twice as fast — and less than half the cost — of a LaCie Little Big Disk, but features the same amount of storage. The fact that the Buffalo drive uses USB 3.0 instead of Thunderbolt makes it much more versatile, too. Although we wish it were more portable, photographers and movie editors on a budget will love the DriveStation DDR’s performance and price.”

On the Apple side of things, Mac|Life’s Ray Aguilera awarded the DriveStation DDR a score of 4.5 out of five stars, saying “Buffalo’s DriveStation DDR offers top of the line speeds on a budget. What’s not to like?”

Overall, given the number of positive editorial reviews from trusted sources for the hardware, its long warranty and (most importantly) the fact that it provides Thunderbolt speeds at USB 3.0 prices, I say Buffalo’s 3 TB DriveStation DDR is the external desktop hard drive to get if your computer has a USB 3.0 port.


The only real downside to the DDR is its high price. The 3 TB version of the drive costs $195, which is a little more expensive than many 3 TB USB 3.0 connected drives out there. But you have to bear in mind that you’re not paying extra for a brand’s cache here. That money’s buying you speed, which translates into shorter backup times and significantly faster file transfers than any other USB 3.0 hard drive out there. And isn’t saving yourself time and frustration the end goal of technology distilled down to its truest form? You could save yourself some money by getting the 2TB version of the drive for $150. But I think it’s worth it to fork over an additional $50 for another terabytes’ worth of storage space if you can afford it. Remember, it’s more expensive to buy a second drive later, so get as much storage as you can the first time around.

There’s also the fact that this is a relatively new piece of hardware, so the pool of user reviews for us to draw any kind of conclusion on the hardware’s longevity is nonexistent. But as I mentioned earlier, Buffalo’s covered the DriveStation DDR with a three-year limited warranty. This suggests to me that they’re comfortable with the durability of the hardware.

But What If My Computer Only Has USB 2.0 Ports?

That’s a valid question. There’s a ton of older Windows computers out there that only came with USB 2.0 ports. And Apple only started putting USB 3.0 ports in their computers last year. If you buy a DriveStation DDR, you should only expect transfer speeds of about 28 MB per second and 37 MB per second for writing and reading, respectively. That’s about average for USB 2.0.

Instead of buying the DriveStation DDR, you could save some money by scouring Amazon or your local big box store for a deal on an older-but-well-reviewed USB 2.0 drive, and maybe you’d be happy with that—at least until you upgrade to a new computer that’s equipped with USB 3.0 ports. By opting for a DriveStation DDR now, you’ll get a spacious external desktop storage solution that can provide you with USB 2.0 speeds now while being ready for zippy transfers when the time comes to upgrade your tower or laptop. That’s smart.

You could argue that the same can be said for any USB 3.0 external desktop hard drive. Take Seagate’s Backup Plus 3 TB USB 3.0 Desktop Drive. It was our last pick for best external desktop hard drive, and you can buy it for around $135 or find it on sale for as low as $100. But here’s the thing: While you might get USB 2.0 speeds out of it now and significantly faster transfer speeds from the drive once you upgrade to a computer with a USB 3.0 port later, the Backup Plus still won’t be as fast as the Buffalo DriveStation DDR is over that same USB 3.0 connection. What’s more, the Seagate drive only comes with a two-year warranty—a year less than what Buffalo offers on their hardware.

If it were me, I’d get the DriveStation DDR.

What If I have a Mac with USB 2.0 Ports and Thunderbolt?

I feel you. Thunderbolt ports have been included in MacBooks and Mac desktops since early 2011, and as such, there’s a whole lotta Macs out there that have them. If you’ve got no intention of upgrading to a new computer any time soon, then I’d suggest getting a Thunderbolt drive. It’s going to cost you a lot of money, but it’ll provide you with transfers that can be up to twenty times as fast as a USB 2.0 connected drive.

As for which drive to get, I’d suggest looking at the Seagate Backup Plus 3 TB Thunderbolt Desktop External Drive for Mac. It’s currently selling on Amazon for $350, offers a two-year warranty, and comes with a bunch of Mac-compatible software that’ll help you to download photos from Facebook and Flickr, perform automatic backups and share your photos and media with a number of popular social media sites. The hardware’s been well reviewed by users and trusted publications alike. You can even rig it to connect to USB or Firewire ports through the purchase of additional connectivity sleds.

But let’s talk about that price: $350. For a little over half that price, you could get a 3 TB DriveStation DDR external desktop hard drive that’ll best the Seagate’s Thunderbolt connection’s transfer speed. So if you plan on upgrading to a new Mac in the near future, Thunderbolt port or no, I’d get the DriveStation DDR. The only time I can see MAYBE buying a Thunderbolt drive instead of a DriveStation DDR is if you plan on daisy chaining them to one another through. But that’s it.

What About a Mac That Has USB 3.0 Ports and Thunderbolt?

No contest. The Buffalo DriveStation DDR. No other USB 3.0 drive on the market currently touches it for speed, and it outpaces Thunderbolt’s transfer speeds as well. It can throw files back and forth at transfer speeds of speed of 216 MB per second for writing and 217 MB per second. That’s almost twice as fast as a standard USB 3.0 drive. And, like I mentioned before, at $195, it’s not much more expensive than most other USB 3.0 drives from reputable companies, but it’s way cheaper than any large capacity Thunderbolt drive out there.

By comparison, the cheapest 3 TB Thunderbolt connected drive I could find was the LaCie d2 USB 3.0 Thunderbolt Series External Hard Drive for $289. But it costs over $100 more when you stop to consider that in addition to the cost of the drive, you’ll also have to buy a Thunderbolt cable to use with it. What’s more, the LaCie d2 USB 3.0 Thunderbolt Series’s maximum read/write speed is 180 MB per second. That’s slower than what the DriveStation DDR can deliver. Keep in mind if you use drives to transfer data to other computers, other computers are more likely to support USB 3.0 than Thunderbolt.

The Competition (What Hard Drives Did You Look At?)

Fortunately, there are a lot of thorough reviews of external hard drives, which provided a solid starting point. Before I did anything else, I eliminated any hardware with a connection that’s slower than USB 3.0. After hitting all the reviews we could find from trusted sources such as CNET, Storage Review, PC Magazine, and eliminating slowpoke technology from the mix, I talked to CNET’s senior associate technology editor Dong Ngo, who’s reviewed basically every hard drive that’s come out in the last decade, about what to look for in an external desktop storage solution. All the publications unanimously agreed that DriveStation DDR is the fastest USB 3.0 drive out there and gave it multiple Editor’s Choice awards. This wasn’t exactly a close call.

Photo credit: CNET

That said, for the sake of being thorough, I then focused my efforts on tracking down every viable alternative to the DriveStation DDR by cross-referencing professional reviews and Amazon user reviews. By doing this and limiting my picks to hardware in a 3 TB capacity (4TB drives are often not cost effective and are less reliable) and USB 3.0 connectivity (because it’s the de facto connectivity option for most modern computers), I was able to narrow down my list of potential candidates to 40 options.

Hardware from Seagate, Western Digital, HGST, LaCie and Toshiba were at the top of the list. But to make sure I wasn’t missing out on any great dark horses, I also looked into hard drives from Fantom, Apple, Buffalo and Iomega (now owned by Lenovo.)

In the end I was able to whittle the number of options down to four picks from Seagate, Iomega and Western Digital, due to the fact that a large number of the drives that I was considering were no longer in production, had been replaced by newer iterations, were miscategorized (i.e. were actually portable drives or were equipped with USB 2.0 ports), weren’t single drive backup solutions or were prohibitively expensive when measured against similarly-specced equipment. I also disregarded anything that couldn’t be ordered via Amazon Prime (because waiting sucks) or were made by a company that doesn’t have a lot of stock available through other popular online outlets like Newegg or NCIX, or on actual honest-to-God store shelves. Once I’d gotten this out of the way, I took these four drives and spreadsheeted their specs out, paying attention to street price, capacity, price per terabyte, connectivity options, read/write speed and whether or not the hardware comes with any valuable software and warranty.

I’ve already mentioned the Seagate Backup Plus 3 TB USB 3.0 Desktop Drive. Like the Buffalo DriveStation DDR, it’s backwards compatible to USB 2.0. Unlike the DriveStation DDR, the Backup Plus can also be set up to be used with Firewire- and Thunderbolt-equipped computers by buying connection sleds to pair the drive with. But despite being $60 cheaper and having more connectivity options than the Buffalo hardware does, none of the Seagate’s connections will provide faster read/write speeds than what the DriveStation DDR can provide. To even get close to the DriveStation DDR’s transfer speeds, you’d have to invest in a $150 Thunderbolt sled to pair with your Seagate Backup Plus or buy the drive and the Thunderbolt sled together for $350. In either case, you’ll end up spending more money than you would on a 3 TB DriveStation DDR. So I’d pass.

Western Digital’s My Book 3 TB External Storage Drive Backup and File Storage costs $122. That works out to about $33 per terabyte compared to the Buffalo DriveStation DDR’s $65 per terabyte, so it sounds like a pretty good deal. But a standard USB 3.0 connection can’t beat the speeds obtainable by the DriveStation DDR. I was also able to find a number of complaints about the shoddy build quality of the USB port on the back of the drive enclosure, and it has a shorter warranty than the DriveStation DDR does. No like.

Then there’s the Iomega 3 TB EZ Media & Backup Center. It’s $40 cheaper than the DriveStation DDR is, and it comes with built-in NAS, so you can connect it to a router and view your drive’s content from any Internet-connected smartphone, tablet or computer. But as I started researching it, I found that it only garnered mediocre reviews from editorial types and users like you and me, along with reports that its read/write speeds were pretty slow by USB 3.0 standards.

Additionally, the $110 Toshiba 3 TB Canvio Desk Desktop External Hard Drive has a bulky AC adapter that gets in the way of everything near your power bar or wall socket and gets pretty warm while it operates.

LaCie’s Porsche Design P’9233 USB 3.0 3 TB Desktop Drive looks pretty, but there were too many incidents of out-of-the-box hardware failures reported by people that own it for me to recommend it.

The LaCie 3 TB Minimus Hard Disk USB 3.0 received mediocre reviews, and at $130 it’s basically the same price as the much more flexible Seagate Backup Plus.

The Rocstor Rocpro 900e 3 TB offers eSATA, Firewire 800 and USB 3.0 connectivity, but it costs $248 and hasn’t been widely reviewed, so I can’t take it seriously as a contender.

The $250 Apricorn ADT-3PL128-3000 Aegis Desktop 3 TB 128-bit Encryption USB 3 Hard Drive features a built-in security keypad and 128-bit encryption, but most people I know really don’t need to bother with that level of security, especially not for that price.

Oh, and none of these external desktop drives are as fast as the Buffalo hardware is. So don’t bother with them.

There’s also a lot of well-reviewed USB 2.0 hard drives out there, and given their comparatively slow transfer speeds, you can get them for dirt cheap in stores and online. Take the 3 TB Western Digital Elements USB 2.0 Desktop External Hard Drive for example. It’s got a four-star average with 1859 five star ratings out of a total of 3190 total reviews, and it only costs $116. It looks like a deal, but honestly, you shouldn’t buy it or any other USB 2.0 drive for that matter. While a USB 2.0 drive might be compatible with USB 3.0 ports, you can buy a MUCH faster USB 3.0 drive for $20 or $20 more. And the Buffalo DriveStation DDR’s speed makes USB 2.0 drives like the WD Elements seem almost laughable by comparison.

For the time being, there’s no other external desktop hard drive—no USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt hard drive, period—that can match the Buffalo 3 TB DriveStation DDR Ultra Fast USB 3.0 Hard Drive With DDR3 RAM Cache‘s speed, especially at its price.

What To Look Forward To

Buffalo might be the first company to speed up USB 3.0 transfers using a memory cache, but you can bet they won’t be the last. Chances are we’ll see similar setups from other big names in storage in the near future. When it happens, we’ll be sure to let you know about it. Oh: pretty soon USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 2 will both be things—but not so soon that you need to worry about holding off on buying new external storage or a new computer if you feel like you need either one. We’ll let you know when either of the standards are included in an upcoming chipset.

Why Not Buy a Portable Drive Instead?

Two reasons: storage capacity and speed.

First let’s go over capacity. As a rule of thumb, a 1 TB portable drive costs about as much as a 2 TB desktop drive and a 2 TB portable drive costs about as much as a 3 TB desktop drive.

Desktop drives are also faster. Desktop drives will almost always offer faster read/write speeds than portable drives drives do thanks to RAID options (we’ll get to that in a minute) and caching.

You Mentioned RAID

I did, but I’m not going to talk too much about it here because it’s aimed more at professionals than normal people and chances are that if you don’t know what it is, you don’t need it. I’ll tell you that it stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks. If you want to know more, my colleague Wes Fenlon knows a lot more about RAID technology than I ever will, and he’s written an excellent primer for the Wirecutter on the subject.

What About Solid State Drives?

There’s no denying that SSDs are the future of storage. They’re fast, quiet, and, as they have no moving parts, are more power efficient and resilient than a traditional hard drive. But for the time being, they’re prohibitively expensive. A Crucial M500 960GB drive costs close to $600 on Amazon, and that’s without a drive enclosure. That’s crazy.

So for the time being, let’s just stick to hard drives.

This story originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 8/8/2013 and is republished here with permission.


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