There are literally dozens of options when it comes to purchasing an external hard drive for your Mac. Finding the right one can seem overwhelming, especially if it’s your first time and you’re feeling technical challenged.

Luckily Macs are designed to be easy to use and that’s partly why you love your Mac I’m sure, with a few suggestions you’ll be connecting up a new external hard drive in no time. Boasting to your friends on how easy it was.

I aim here to give you some pointers, some ideas on how to go about selecting one for your Mac,

Critical things to consider and I want to give you some ideas on what to think about.

What do you Need to Consider before you Get Your Money Out?

What should you reflect on before you hit that button to buy? Here is the first thing –

What Mac do you have, Macbook Air, Macbook Pro, iMac? I name those three but no matter which flavor of Mac you have, it’s very relevant to know what’s on yours.

Choosing an external hard drive is like a lot of things in life – its essential to understand where you are coming from, so you can understand where you are headed. Why?

What you need to Consider

USB this and USB that

Well, if your Mac is an older model, it may have USB 3.0 or USB 2.0 port. These ports are where you physically plug in your external hard drive.

What’s the difference?

USB 2.0 ports and the Macs with those ports talk to – read and write from there hard drives slower than a Mac with a USB 3.0 port. For example

You might get 30 Mbps on a USB 2.0 port and 110 Mbps on a USB 3.0 port, which is over three times faster.

Your Mac might have USB C (3.1) ports, they look different and those ports are faster, and those Macs talk to there hard drives faster than Macs with USB 3.0. Again you’d expect a speed boost in the region of 3 x

If you purchased your Mac fairly recently, Apple moved to Thunderbolt 3, still using the USB C looking port but these ports are faster again.

USB 3.1, Thunderbolt, USB C ports connections are physically different from USB 2.0 and 3.0 and that is why it is meaningful to know what you have.

Luckily the actual protocols USB uses are backwards compatible, so as long as you have the right physical cable connections or adaptor cables your Mac can talk to read and write from the external hard drive.

And there are Firewire connections

Your Apple computer may also have Firewire ports. Firewire ports are faster than USB 3.0 as they are Apple native. This means that

if you get an external hard drive with Firewire connections they can perform pretty well on an older Mac that say only has USB 2.0 ports.

And then there are Wifi connected Drives

These drives and devices can be convenient for streaming video’s and other multimedia. You can then explore using these devices for backing up your iPhone or iPad as well as your Macs. The Apple Time Capsule is an excellent example of this type of device. Offering wifi routing, a file repository, backup device for Time Machine and remote file access if you wish.

Here’s the Idea 1

Find out what you have.

You can do this by clicking on the Apple symbol top left on your desktop and select about this Mac

About This Mac Screen
About This Mac

Then select system report

Choose System Report
Choose System Report

and you’ll be able to click on the Firewire, USB and Thunderbolt options to see what you have on your Mac. You can also check out the Wifi interface you have and if it is the 802.11ac interface then you’ll get pretty decent Wifi performance from a compatible 802.11ac device.

Find Out What You have on Your Mac
Find Out What You have on Your Mac

Click cancel (the red circle, top left) to dismiss the window.

Armed with the knowledge of the interfaces you have and what options there are to connect to your Mac

  • USB and or
  • Firewire and or
  • Thunderbolt and or
  • Wifi you can:

Think about

What do you Plan to do with the External Drive?

Extra Space?

Is it going to be for additional storage of documents, files, photos, movies, music?

a drive like the Seagate Expansion may do.



Would you like to use the drive as a physical backup for your Mac, using Time Machine?

Backups for your files and folders are a must, especially when your files are too valued to lose. Many things can happen such as;

  • Hard drive head crashes,
  • or you made a mistake and deleted a file or folder thinking you didn’t need it and now you do. And then you need those files back fast.
  • Maybe you relied on your cloud backup, but when you needed it the network was down, or you exceeded your allowance without realizing it and vital files didn’t get backed up.
  • There are and will always be the occasional, cloud mishap. Even with cloud storage technology, maintaining physical copies of your computer’s files and folders locally is critical. Because you never know.
External Hard Drive For Mac and PC

An External Hard drive for Mac and PC? Want to Share?

Would you like to share space with a Windows PC?

Exchange Files between the Macs you have and perhaps some PCs,

Here’s the Idea 2

Decide what you would like to do with the external hard drive as this will drive the next consideration.

What Kind of Speed Do you Want and Need?

Editing photos or HD Movies directly on the drive? Then you’re going to need something with grunt, and is up to the job. Perhaps a Solid State Drive (SSD)

Perhaps your need is to store everyday files, is paramount but speed of access isn’t so crucial.

Equally if you’re thinking about back up,

A drive for backup doesn’t necessarily have to be the fastest drive around.

The WD Elements portable is ideal as an everyday storage or backup external hard drive.

Speed of access to the external hard drive will also be determined by what your Mac is capable of. An older Mac with a USB 2.0 port isn’t going to be able to do much with an SSD drive. It’ll work of course because of backwards compatibility but you won’t get the true speed because

the processor, and internal drives aren’t SSD so you simply can’t ship the data out to the drive fast enough.

The exception maybe where you need an SSD because it is more robust than a mechanically based hard disk drive. An external drive like the LaCie which is rugged is an example of this.

What Do You Want and Need?

But if you have a Mac with a USB 3.0 ports or Firewire ports then it makes sense to get yourself a USB 3.0 or Firewire external hard drive if your happy to spend a little bit more for the extra Firewire performance. The G Drive desktop USB supports both USB 3.0 and Firewire.

What if your Mac is newer and has USB C Thunderbolt ports? Internal SSD disks. Then

You could get an SSD based Thunderbolt drive like the Samsung T5 if performance is king for you,

They do tend to be pricey. If maximum juice in your storage isn’t what you need and what if price is a consideration?

Then you could consider getting yourself a basic USB 3.0 based external hard drive like the WD Elements, teamed with an adaptor cable and take advantage of the cheaper drive.

Here the Idea 3

You decided earlier what you wanted the external hard drive for. Does this dictate the speed of disk you need? or Does the port connections of your older Mac dictate what you are able to have?

Where will you be?

Where oh Where will You Be?

Are you going to want to take the hard drive with you? Are you a professional needing to take your photos or video work to the client.

or will you do you do most of the work with the new external hard drive in your office or at home?

or are you a student needing a external hard drive for your course work and occasionally taking the drive with you would be useful.

You could rightly accuse me of generalizing here but the point I want to make is that,

It is likely that if you are a professional and your external hard drive needs to come with you this may suggest a need for a high speed, high quality, perhaps rugged drive like the Transcend Military Drop Tested drive.

Working mainly at home or in an office and the drive is for backup, of an individual Mac or several Macs or to share with a PC well then a desktop device may well be the thing you are looking for, something like the G Drive desktop USB 3.0 may be ideal.

If you are in the student category then you may want something portable but you don’t need or can’t afford the ‘high end’ so a nice portable drive would be perfect so something like the Toshiba Canvio Advance.

Here’s the Idea 4

Deciding where you will need to use the external hard drive will help you narrow down your field of choice.

Capability and Quality

And what I mean here is that

External Hard Drives for the consumer come in two main quality flavors.

  1. the traditional mechanical drive – Hard Disk Drives (HDD)
  2. the electronic drives – new Solid State Drives (SDD).

Mechanical drives, also known as hard disk drives, have moving parts within them, moving parts of course will wear out over time depending on how often they are used and for how long.

MTBF (Mean Time Between Failures) figures or the now more commonly quoted AFR (Annualized Failure Rates) only give you a taste of how long your hard drive might last, based on a statistical pool of a manufacturers disks and accurate figures for particular drives can be hard to source.

A mechanical drive that is used everyday for hours on end is likely to fail faster than a mechanical drive that is used once every few days or once a week for the weekly backup and only for the minutes it takes to do a backup and is then put away.

Solid State drives store your data electronically, there are no moving parts but available capacities are lower than mechanical drives and costs for larger capacity drives could give you indigestion.

Let's Net That Out

Let’s Net that Out

The lowest quality drives are laptop type drives – Hard Disk Drive (HDD).

They are smaller, lighter and have lower power requirements. All that combines to equal lower cost and these are typically the hard drives you find in portable external drives.

They may be described as basic drives at the more cost effective end, or come with software at a higher cost.

Then you have desktop drives, again typically hard disk drives, they can have disk spin speeds of 5400 RPM or 7200 RPM so can perform very well depending on your speed requirements.

They can come in larger capacities, tend to be more reliable than laptop quality drives, last longer and are typically powered from the mains.

The high end is typically occupied now by the solid state drives SSD’s. With no moving parts they tend to be sturdy and are arriving in smaller form factors. They are now appearing as internal drives in Macbook Airs and Macbook Pros, iMacs and are turning up in portable external drives.

Their high speed is their main claim to fame. Along with a much higher cost.

Here’s the Idea 5

Have a think about the quality level you need for the types of files you are going to store. Bear in mind that good quality comes at a cost. If you have decided a basic drive is for you then think about getting two – a second copy of your data may come in handy if you have a drive failure.

Is it all in the Name?

A well known manufacturer with a good reputation in the external hard drive marketplace should be at the top of your consideration, companies like Western Digital, Seagate, Toshiba, Samsung, LaCie sell thousands of drives and have great reputations.

They have invested in their brand and have a vested interest in keeping their user base happy.

Here’s the Idea 6

Go with a well known manufacturer that has been in the hard drive space a long time. You’ll thank yourself for it.

Where is my Warranty?

Between you and me, the more reliable the hard drive the keener the manufacturer is to give you a longer warranty.

And its no secret that hard drives do fail. Mechanical parts wear out. SSDs loose there electrical charge (the thing that keeps your data on the drive).

This may sound like a boring subject to bring up but you can tell a lot from the warranty offered by the manufacturer. The absolute minimum you should expect is a year’s warranty. Preferably two. On the most reliable and quality drives the manufacturers aren’t afraid to offer three years warranty.

Though three year warranties are more likely to be seen on desktop drives.

How much Hard Disk Space will I need?

How much have you got? Sound facetious?

Not really,

The latest Macbook Pros can have up to 2TB of SSD internal disks

and the latest Macbook Air up to 512GB of SSD internal disk, hard drive capacities and what we store is ever increasing.

  • If you are planning on storing a farm of photos or movies. or
  • Wanting a hard drive to back up a single Mac or more than one or
  • Want to share the new external hard drive between Macs and or PCs

Then you’ll need a pen and paper.

So go get some.

Get a Pen and Paper

Here’s the Idea 7

Total the amount of disk capacity you plan on storing and then give yourself 50% head room, if

you are simply using the hard drive as a repository for your photos, movies or music.

Here’s the Idea 8

If you want the external hard to back up a single Mac or a few Macs, then total the amount of disk capacity you plan on backing up and double it to give yourself head room to grow your backup. It’s not that unusual to want to store several years of backups.

Here’s the Idea 9

If you are planning on a mixture of storing files, backup and sharing between Mac and PC. Work out the amount of file storage you want. Add 50% head room, then

work out the amount of back up you need, double it. The total of the two is the size of disk you need.

Other features you may want Security and Plug and Play

Let’s think about security first. Are your files or your backup filled with sensitive data you wouldn’t want anyone to get access to?

Mac OS has you covered with security and drive encryption. It is one of the most secure operating systems you can get. And you yourself can set that up on a hard drive using Disk Utility in a few minutes.

External hard drives sold with hardware based encryption and for that matter backup software should be looked at carefully as

often the hardware based encryption and that backup software is designed for a PC

and won’t work on your Mac. Double check because you’ll be paying extra for those features you won’t be able to use.

Let's Play

Now lets look at plug and play

Many hard drives are sold as plug and play. A feature a new disk manufacturer likes to emphasize because it should make your life easier when your new external drive arrives. You plug it in and you can go ahead and use it.

Beware, look carefully at the small print, plug and play to what.

  • A drive supplied as ‘plug and play’ formatted to NTFS, will be fine on a PC and can be attached to a Mac and read by a Mac but the Mac can’t write to it.
  • A drive supplied as ‘plug and play’ as ExFAT will be fine on a PC and can be attached to a Mac, read and written to by a Mac.
  • Drives supplied as ‘plug and play’ formatted to HFS+ are designed for Mac. The WD My Passport for Mac is an example.

PCs can’t read or write to HFS+ but your Mac can. Sometimes you’ll find it’s better to reformat them on your Mac to Mac OS Extended (Journaled) file system (HFS+). Even though they are already formatted to HFS+. Just in case your Mac decides it prefers it that way.

Here’s the Idea 10

Don’t be overly concerned, reformatting an external drive takes only a few minutes to do. I have an article on the site telling you how.

And if you assume you’ll do doing that then you’ve read behind the headline ‘selling point’ and see that you can reformat any drive,

Your Mac would probably prefer you to do that anyway

And you’ve just opened up the market for you to buy any drive you want because your Mac can put on the security, encryption, and formatting. All in minutes.

Attractiveness and Design

Is how the external drive looks key to you? You have a stunning looking Mac, it may be a priority to you how the new addition looks and why not?

I would suggest – and far be it from me to dictate

that you think about all the considerations above and if the pool of drives on your shortlist tick all those boxes, then hell go for the one with the best design.

Drives come in all shapes and sizes, and for that matter color ways, the funky blues and reds of the Toshiba Canvio Advance might just be your thing, or the rugged orange looks of the LaCie drive. Or the aluminum proportions of the G-Drive or you may just want a basic, cost effective, portable like the WD Elements drive.

And there you have it

The 10 ideas for you to choose an external hard drive for your Mac. If you’re still not sure, go over my ideas one at a time.

Put them into priority order for you

And choose based on what is crucial and if you have that covered then throw in some nice to haves as well.

Photos by Andrew Neel on Unsplash