The 10 Best Rugged Hard Drives
This wiki has been updated 31 times since it was first published in October of 2015. Whether you're a photographer, field researcher or journalist, you're going to need a data storage solution that stands up to the rigors of your lifestyle. With varying degrees of dust resistance, and waterproofing, these shockproof, rugged hard drives are built to withstand harsh conditions and extreme temperatures, so you can rest easy knowing all your files are safe and secure. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
March 24, 2021:
It was a forgiving round of updates for us, with all of our former choices still being available and continuing to present as great selections, which left us with very little to modify. The most substantial change I made was giving the Buffalo MiniStation a bit of a boost in its placement, as I felt that its integrated cable storage and relatively low price per gigabyte would make it an enticing option for many.
If security is more of a concern for you than durability, then you might also be interested in our list of encrypted drives. Or, if convenience trumps both of those considerations for you, then you might want to take a gander at our rankings for wireless hard drives.
January 17, 2020:
There are more portable drives available today than ever before, and the popularity of advanced protocols like USB 3.1 Gen 2 and Thunderbolt 3 means that many have significantly increased in speed over external drives of the past. For example, the OWC Envoy Pro EX and LaCie SSD Pro both maximize the throughput of the NVMe format, and are able to read and write sequentially at nearly 3 gigabytes per second, which is every bit as fast as the fastest internal drives. Those two, however, are restricted to use with computers that utilize the Thunderbolt 3 standard. Though while USB 3.1 Gen 2 is less than half as fast, the SanDisk Portable, CalDigit Tuff Nano, and Crucial X8 are fast enough to satisfy all but the most demanding users. The SanDisk comes from a company with an absolutely stellar reputation, as does the Crucial X8, and the CalDigit is particularly compact.
If blazing speeds aren't absolutely necessary, though, there are plenty more options worth checking out. The Silicon Power B75 Pro is quite slim and relatively affordable and the LaCie Portable is available with incredibly large capacities as well as the ability to use RAID 0 or 1 configurations, though the LaCie is only available in HDD versions, which are slightly more prone to shock damage than SSDs. Nonetheless, its rubber exterior should prevent any such problems. We also included the Buffalo MiniStation and Apricorn Aegis, which, though somewhat low-capacity compared to others, offer high levels of data security, something that government contractors and high-level corporate users may require.
It should also be noted that many of these will work just fine with Apple computers, though you'll need to make certain to format them to the proper file system before use.
The BASICs of Data
But the question remains, where do we store those ones and zeros?
Every single controversial meme, funny picture, or charming animal video viewed on a computer is ultimately constructed of nothing but 1s and 0s. While it's commonly known as binary, this system is a number system called base 2, which consists of two digits (just like base 10 consists of ten digits from 0 to 9) and the fact that it uses only two numbers is integral to the existence of computers. The common versions of such chips as CPUs and GPUs are built of countless microscopic switches that are either on, or off. Layer upon complex layer of circuitry, chipsets, and instructions all find their way into a system, all composed of transistors so small they're measured in nanometers. Thanks to this complicated network, a chunk of metal and silicon springs to life and enables all sorts of communication and entertainment. But the question remains, where do we store those ones and zeros?
Streaming services are more popular than ever, and they fill a useful role; even though internet connections can falter and Wi-Fi sometimes suffers from interference, each piece of streamed information isn't so crucial that you'll notice a few misplaced bytes. And should your PC crash, simply restart and reconnect to the service. However, not all data is replaceable, and not all connections are repairable. So for photographers dedicated to whitewater rafting, or construction engineers with grand plans and AutoCAD designs, many manufacturers have created rugged, portable hard drives some of which you could literally drive a vehicle over with no ill effects other than a few scratches.
It's So Hard To Say Goodbye (To HDDs)
When deciding on a road-worthy drive, it's important to first have a rudimentary understanding of how they work. This is where the conversation diverges slightly, as the term "hard drive" is relatively ambiguous as of late. Though magnetic drives have long ruled the roost in terms of maximum capacity and affordability, flash-based options are getting much larger, and their price tags are getting much smaller, leading to a changing of the guard when it comes to long-term data handling. Nonetheless, traditional HDDs are still tops as far as budget, efficiency, and availability go, and they'll still be important players for years to come.
When deciding on a road-worthy drive, it's important to first have a rudimentary understanding of how they work.
Conceptually speaking, magnetic storage works a bit like optical media (CDs and DVDs) and even the antiquated phonograph or turntable. Rather than grooves in a slab of plastic, or microscopic laser etchings in a metallic layer, hard drives register a spiral track of magnetic charge on each of a number of metal discs. Unlike those removable and portable media, however, the storage drives are self-contained reading and writing machines, including all the cache memory, mechanical parts, and magnetic heads needed to access information and ship it off to the PC's SATA bus.
On the other hand, solid-state drives are changing the portable PC landscape for multiple reasons, not the least of which is their blazing speed when compared to prior storage methods. Even more important to some is the physical reliability of flash-based hardware — because it doesn't involve any moving parts, there's much lower risk of fatal errors to the equipment, whether due to heat, moisture, or a fall to the ground. Plus, only in the last several years has NAND memory become stable enough for corporations and the general public to rely on for safe storage. Though, while you may find some extremely high-performance SSDs out today that are nearly everything-proof, you'll certainly spend almost an arm and a leg for such a design that has any significant kind of capacity.
Solid As A Rock
When dealing with rugged electronics, there are multiple official specifications that stand out. The most visible is the venerable ingress protection, or IP rating. These incredibly helpful classifications consist of two digits, each of which clarifies the level to which the unit was verified. The first number refers to dust, the second refers to moisture, and each class denotes a very specific amount of protection, which increases with higher numbers. Keep in mind that just because an item lacks a stated IP rating, or contains an X in one of the places, it may still protect somewhat against ingress, but it didn't receive a certification from the official testing board. If you're looking for a specialty rugged storage drive, it's probably worth it to find models that are legitimately rated to withstand both dust and water.
If you're looking for a specialty rugged storage drive, it's probably worth it to find models that are legitimately rated to withstand both dust and water.
Another extremely meaningful specification found on some of these durable devices is courtesy of US military regulations. A seriously comprehensive protocol developed over several decades, the MIL-STD-810G standard outlines the range of usable conditions and resilient qualities that US-allowed gear must display. This wide-ranging catalog of requirements relates to temperature, humidity, dust ingress, physical shock, and more, and its stipulations are based on meticulous research and meta-study evaluation, in order to ensure that DoD hardware never loses functionality, even in an emergency. This thorough engineering is why even non-violent audiovisual professionals often prefer to take this military-certified gear along with them into the field — in case journalism or a jungle expedition turns into a veritable war zone.
Furthermore, if your data is important enough to protect physically, it's likely to be rather sensitive, as well. For that reason, a lot of specialized rugged drives are constructed with a specific eye on security. From low-tech methods like ultra-strong resin insulation to prevent physical tampering, to onboard microchips that enable hardware-powered, 256-bit encryption, many of these models are as just as good at keeping your files private as they are at keeping them undamaged.
As mentioned earlier, there's a pretty large gap between the least and most expensive choices available. Also, many manufacturers continue to refine these products in order to ensure long service lives. Whether you're most concerned about speed, security, or just pure reliability, there's a model that will fit your needs and your budget.