Storage is one of the cornerstones of a working computer of any kind. This is why upgrading your hard drive to a better one is quite a big deal. However, in today’s huge market of various hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid-state drives (SSDs), finding the right one is quite the daunting task.
This is why our internal hard drive buying guide exists – to help you find out what makes a great hard drive and what are the best ones out there. Our guide includes hard drives with the best price per GB ratio, combined with high transfer speeds, reliability, and positive customer reviews. Not only that, we’ve added handy tips and technicality explanations to help you understand what drive would fit your needs the best and what to expect once you buy it.
Best Internal HDD Top List
It’s very hard to determine a single best top pick amongst all internal laptop and desktop hard drives, because of their vast diversity. Some of them are manufactured for NAS, some for backup or surveillance systems. For more options, go to our separate best internal hard drive top list, or check out the fastest internal HDD list for the best-performing consumer hard drives currently available.
To find the best internal hard drive, you definitely must know where you will put it and use it, which is why we built our list from what we consider to be the best 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch drives for various uses. We focused on the fastest and most reasonably priced drives for each category, so most drives on this list are 7200RPM hard drives. You’ll find all of the important specifications for all hard drives on our top list, as well as an explanation for all of those specs after the list.
How we picked the best HDDs
Customer reviews on major retailer sites represent reliability via real-life user experience rather than just numbers provided by the manufacturer. This was the first step in picking the best internal hard drives for our list as all other characteristics become irrelevant if the drive breaks a day after its warranty ends.
We also looked at Backblaze data and other similar sources to determine the most reliable brands and drives. Cloud backup companies can offer a massive amount of hard drive reliability data because they have thousands of hard drives running non-stop all the time.
We looked at various benchmarks from users and other reviewers, but our main focus was UserBenchmarks. Their benchmark results, aggregated from hundreds if not thousands of users, are more objective than separate speed measurements, and they also give us a unified platform on which to compare the drives to one another. A thing worth noting is that UserBenchmarks’ results are usually lower than those of separate benchmarks.
Best 3.5-inch Internal Hard Drives for PC and NAS
These are speeds of only one model in each respective series lineup. For example, Seagate BarraCuda has 4 more capacities available (besides the fastest 2TB model), each with its own transfer speeds.
Best 2.5-inch Internal Hard Drives for Laptops
These are speeds of only one model in each respective series lineup. For example, the HGST Travelstar also features a 750GB model that is slightly slower, on average, than the 1TB model.
How to buy the best internal hard drive?
Even for a non-expert in computers, it is clear that internal hard drives play a critical role in improving computers overall performance. Hard disk drives store most of your data and their main purpose is to access it based on the user`s request. By choosing a reliable and fast hard drive you can dramatically improve your system’s data transfer speeds, decrease boot and game loading times. Your computer will start up faster than before and you will forget the long loading times it took for the browser, files, or any other software to be opened.
The drives listed above are our favorites for each, respective usage. However, there are many more hard drive models out there for you to look through and choose from. Even if you do want to simply follow our recommendations, it’s important to understand what makes hard drives tick and, in turn, how to discern internal hard drives that fit your needs from ones that don’t.
At first glance, choosing the best internal hard drive may seem quite easy – just find one that costs the least per gigabyte from a reliable, well-known manufacturer and you’re done, right? While price and capacity remain the most important factors, there’s much more to hard drives than just that. There’s the form factor (2.5-inch, 3.5-inch), cache size (32MB, 64MB, for example), spindle speed (5400RPM, 7200RPM, for example), sequential read/write performance, etc.
The sheer amount of various capacities and models can be quite confusing because they are so similar to each other. For example, WD Blue HDD series features 1TB models that can feature both the regular 5400RPM, as well as the faster 7200RPM spindle speed, while all other capacities are only 5400RPM. Add to that the piles upon piles of different updated and discontinued drive models and you can see why finding the best hard drive might require a lot more effort than you signed up for.
All of this might seem overwhelming, but don’t worry as we will help you learn the basics as well as the more complex stuff regarding hard drives and their usage. Our hard drive buying guide is not only a list of the best internal HDDs but also an educational introduction into the world of hard drives via tips and technical explanations.
We will go into some basic detail as to how hard drives work, what all of their specifications mean, and how to find the best and most reliable hard drive models in the overwhelming internal HDD market. SO, let’s get started!
Choosing between SSD, SSHD, and HDD builds
In this list, we only looked at HDDs and SSHDs (closer to a hard drive than an SSD) but you could also get a solid-state drive, which stores data electronically, rather than on magnetic platters via moving parts. Seeing how getting a new storage drive is quite an investment for many people, it’s important to understand the difference between HDDs, SSHDs, and SSDs in order to not waste money on sub-optimal solutions for your computer storage.
First things first, you have to understand what are these different devices and what makes them special:
Best internal hard drive build for PCs
PCs, in most cases, have enough space to fit many devices, including hard drives. This lets you build the most cost-effective high-performance drive combination, that being SSD+HDD.
Get a smaller SSD (500GB-1TB) for your OS and bigger, more demanding games and programs. Add a cheaper, much more spacious HDD (1TB+) for documents and less demanding games/software. This way, you get the best of both worlds while somewhat dodging the downsides of unused, super-expensive SSD performance, and the slow transfer speeds of HDDs.
Best internal hard drive build for laptops
Getting an external hard drive for media files and documents while connecting an SSD to the more responsive, internal SATA connection would be, similarly to PCs, the best hard drive combination for your laptop. However, the added external “box” would compromise the portability of your laptop somewhat, so take into consideration how you use your laptop and whether this factor is important to you.
If traveling light is important to you and you want the highest performance for the money, you need to look at SSDs or SSHDs. If you can afford a big enough SSD to hold not only games, programs, and the OS, but also photos, movies, and other basic documents, it would be a huge performance boost and some future-proofing for your laptop.
If SSD prices are too steep for you, get a 2.5-inch SSHD that fits at least a small part of the SSD speeds into one device. To put it into perspective, a 1TB HDD or SSHD drive will be in the ballpark of $50-$70, but the price for a 1TB SSD will be more than $300. 7200RPM laptop drives will also give you fast storage for a reasonable price.
Whichever drive it is, combining storage space and speed into one drive is crucial to having optimum laptop storage. This is because most laptops can hold only one 2.5-inch drive so that one drive should combine both performance and capacity (like the SSD+HDD combo for PCs). Some laptops may allow you to use both an SSD and an HDD via two 2.5-inch hard drive bays but they are few and far between.
Internal hard drive reliability
The technical specifications of a hard drive show how well it will perform and whether it fits your needs, but, as it is with any pricey product, how long it will last is one of its most important characteristics. Considering how much we rely on our data nowadays and how damaging it would be to lose it, being able to tell reliable brands/drives from unreliable ones is a very important skill.
There are two main sources which can help you with that – customer reviews and data collected from data centers, like Backblaze. Backblaze is a cloud hosting company with almost 50 thousand different internal drives running 24/7. They focus on using and evaluating only consumer-grade hard drives in order to help reviewers like us, manufacturers, and most importantly, the customer to easily find reliability data for tons of hard drive models.
Meanwhile, customer reviews are real-life data points for drive reliability. There are thousands of reviews of the most popular drive models, which reduces consumer error to a minimum and can sometimes reveal some crucial issues with the hard drive, like half the drives breaking a day after its warranty ends, etc.
Picking a brand
From our own experience, we can say that there is no single best hard drive manufacturer out there, as anyone can get a lemon. Although it’s still important to avoid less known and thus less reliable brands, any drive can fail no matter if it is Toshiba, HGST, Seagate, or Western Digital, not to mention different models of a different make.
There are two main market leaders who’ve gained the respect of their customers by selling high-quality reliable hard drives – Western Digital (WD) and Seagate. Customer reviews for hard drives of both brands are the highest in the market, showing both company’s experience and dedication in the field of hard disk drives. Drive failures for Seagate hard drives used to be more common than with any other drive manufacturer, but for the past few years, reliability data of their hard drives (from customer reviews and Backblaze) has improved drastically and is on par with WD and Toshiba.
Honorable mentions would be Toshiba and HGST. Toshiba hasn’t pushed the hard disk drive market forward as much as the other two companies and their drives haven’t been as well received or gained the popularity that other manufacturers have. Still, the quality of a major manufacturer is there, it’s just that there are more reliable options.
Meanwhile, Hitachi Global Storage Technologies (HGST) is a very reliable brand that you’ll often find on 2.5-inch laptop drives. Although technically a subsidiary of WD, HGST still produce reliable hard drives under their own name. If Backblaze is anything to go by, HGST drives are twice as reliable as their competition. However, HGST makes most of its drives for enterprise usage and hasn’t become too popular among regular customers (aside from the Travelstar laptop drive).
Courtesy of Backblaze hard drive reliability analytics
Over the years, different hard drive manufacturers, like Maxtor and Samsung, have moved on to other endeavors. But one of the most notable ones is not so far from home – SSDs have experienced huge advancements in performance, capacity, and cost efficiency. Samsung, for example, has gone on to make one of the best internal and external SSDs out there – 850 EVO internal SSDs and T3 external ones. Visit Wikipedia to see the list of defunct hard disk drive manufacturers.
The reason why many manufacturers move over to SSDs is that in the next 10-20 years they might completely outperform HDDs, which are coming close to their technological limitations. For every terabyte added to a hard disk drive by helium, SMR, HAMR, or other fancy new technologies, SSDs grow twice as much in size and much more in performance. But don’t run out to get an SSD just yet because HDDs are still much cheaper and work just fine for many different uses.
Warranties and backups – the backbone of secure data storage
All of these companies are big players and sell millions of hard disks each year, and the number is only increasing. Early breakage or complete duds are impossible to avoid among so many units, but there are a couple things that you yourself can do to ensure the safety of both your data and your budget.
First of all, look for a longer warranty. It’s reassuring that if your device breaks in its first year or two, you’ll be able to get a new one. And the longer this period is, the better, for example, getting a drive with a 1-year warranty, like a Toshiba Desktop 5TB HDD, would be much less reliable than getting a WD Black HDD with a 5-year warranty. You can rest assured that you will almost always have a hard drive whilst in the warranty period. But what about losing the data that’s stored on a broken drive?
The answer is backups! Even if you haven’t experienced hard drive failure before, it can happen at any time, so it’s important to make sure that all of your important documents and files always have a backup. This can be done either by using an external hard drive or by using cloud storage services. The former might be a pricey one-time purchase, while the latter could end up costing more over time. You can choose either, depending on how you manage your budget, but preferably you should use both for extra reliability.
Full system backups are the way to go as some documents or software might still be lost with partial backups, plus you can save your operating system and settings in case the boot drive breaks. Depending on how you decide to back up your data, you can use either Windows or Mac native backup tools, or get 3rd party software, like AOMEI Backupper. Although cloud services can still get hacked and the external drive can still break like any other, the chance of you losing your data is reduced exponentially.
Internal hard drive performance
The speed of HDD data transfer is one of the most important factors you need to look at before buying a hard drive. Capacity is displayed upfront and you can at least roughly tell how much you’ll need but transfer speeds and even spindle speeds often remain as under-the-hood characteristics. Regardless, to improve the overall performance of your PC/laptop, you need a fast hard drive, since your whole system is almost always as slow as its slowest component and that component is often times the hard drive.
But what exactly do we mean by speed and how does it affect how fast a computer is? Well, there are two main speeds that can be attributed to HDDs, them being spindle speed and data read/write speed.
Hard drive spindle speed, 5400RPM, vs 7200RPM
This is the most basic core characteristic of a hard drive’s performance. It describes how many Revolutions Per Second (RPM) the drive’s platters can achieve. This correlates to how quickly the mechanical parts (drive platters and read/write needle) can interact to locate the data you want to read and how quickly data will be written on the drive platters (more on that later).
The two most widespread spindle speed standards are 5400RPM and 7200RPM, both of which have a respective data transfer speed range you can expect from such a drive. You can find various other standards, like 5900RPM and 10000RPM but these are much rarer than the previous two. The price difference between the two spindle speeds is much smaller than the RPM difference – you can expect to pay $10-20 on average more for a 7200RPM drive than a regular 5400RPM one.
Because of technical reasons, like aerodynamics, centrifugal forces, etc. faster spinning drives can hold fewer platters, so finding 2.5-inch 7200RPM drives with higher capacities is more difficult than finding 3.5-inch ones. What might also concern you is the extra energy needed to spin the platters at higher speeds, meaning 7200RPM drives will always use more energy than 5400RPM drives, and will more likely than not be a bit noisier. However, the extra energy usage might add less than a dollar to your yearly energy bill, so whether this is an important enough trade-off is up to you to decide.
Hard drive data transfer speed
This is the much more complicated performance metric of a hard drive that depends on many smaller and larger factors. Data transfer speeds or read/write speeds represent the amount of data that a hard drive can deliver to the computer via its interface. These speeds are usually measured in megabytes per second (MB/s), not to be confused with megabits per second (Mb/s, Mbps). Both values represent data speeds, however, 1 byte = 8 bits, so the same measurement in megabits will result in an 8-times larger number (like the math between inches and feet).
In a magnetic hard disk drive, a read/write needle has to seek out the place on the drive’s platters where data has to be either read from or can be written to. The read/written data is sent to/from the computer through the drive’s controller, which decodes signals from both sides so that the HDD and the computer can “understand each other”. The seeking, decoding/encoding, and many other forms of latency add up, making, let’s say, one megabyte of data to be transferred more slowly. The time it takes for it to be transferred can be measured precisely by sending set amounts of data in a controlled manner and measuring how long it takes to transfer them.
You may have heard about sequential and random (4k) read/write speeds being mentioned here and there, but what are they exactly?
The difference between the two is huge – sequential speeds are usually measured in hundreds of megabytes, while random speeds of even 7200RPM hard disk drives rarely exceed 5MB/s. This is because moving the mechanical parts between multiple positions is much more time-consuming than having them move in one “line”. Random speeds correlate to loading games or operating systems, where tons of smaller configuration and source files have to be loaded, while sequential speeds are equal to moving large movies or documents to/from the hard drive.
Although the former will likely be the more accurate representation of real-life performance, there are many more minuscule factors that can add up and drastically change this speed between different benchmarks. However, in broad strokes, if a drive has high sequential speeds, it will most likely have fast random access as well. Seeing how random speeds of HDDs are much more difficult to pin down to a certain number, we, as all other reviewers, will focus only on sequential speeds.
As we mentioned before, you can generally expect 100-130MB/s from 5400RPM drives and 150-200MB/s from 7200RPM drives, but these values can vary a lot between different computers, different software, and even different units of the same drive. Most of the time manufacturers won’t display any estimates since real-life benchmarks can differ a whole lot from idealized benchmarks. These speeds are often displayed on newer OSs when you paste large amounts of data on a drive but are measured much more precisely and reliably via third-party benchmark software, like CrystalDiskMark.
Other performance factors
Spindle and data transfer speeds can both tell a lot about how well a drive performs and are the most crucial elements of overall performance. However, there are a few other factors that affect loading and file copying speeds:
Cache size – as we mentioned before, the drive’s cache (disk buffer) works as a filter for data and uses command queueing and other fancy technological tricks to ensure slightly higher performance and data integrity.
The hard drive’s cache (also known as a disk buffer or cache buffer), measuring between 8 and 256 MB, is not to be confused with your computer’s onboard RAM cache (soft disk cache) which is a part of the RAM memory dedicated to storing frequently used data for the fastest access. Both cache types, however, are somewhat combined in an SSHD.
SATA version – pretty much all consumer-grade internal hard disk drives use the SATA (Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) connection, which has been designed specifically for use with storage devices. However, there are different versions of the SATA interface – SATA 2.0 (3Gbps / 300MB/s bandwidth) and SATA 3.0 (6Gbps / 600MB/s bandwidth). There’s also SATA 1.0 (1.5Gbps / 150MB/s) but it has become a relic of the old days at this point.
The problem with interfaces is that the connected device might be faster than what the connection can handle, which is referred to as bottlenecking. Fortunately, bottlenecking isn’t an issue with consumer hard disk drives, since they are too slow to be bottlenecked by either interface version. Still, it’s something worth noting, especially if you change your mind on HDDs and decide to go for an SSD which would most definitely be bottlenecked if you have the older SATA connection.
One more thing to note here is that some manufacturers will strongly emphasize the SATA 3.0 interface speeds and stamp 6Gbps all over their sales pages – this has nothing to do with actual drive speeds and only represents how much data the connection could handle.
Internal hard drive capacity and usage
Just a few years ago, 1TB drives were large enough even for some professional’s needs, with 2TB and more being overkill for most systems. Nowadays, we use and produce tons more data than we did even just a year ago, which is why 1TB drives have become one of the smallest in the market. So how much capacity do you need for all your data and some future-proofing?
Well, the answer is quite vague – what drive capacity you should buy depends on your needs. The average user will store a couple spacious games and tons of photos and documents on their computer, professionals, like game developers or video editors could go through the same amount of data in a day, while a year of office work with basic documents could fit onto a heftier USB thumb drive. However, the main focus is always the same – to ensure you don’t suddenly run out of space one day but also don’t overpay for tons of space you will never use.
With that said, there are some recommendations to make this easier. A rule of thumb that some computer experts have suggested is to double the amount of data you use now to account for basic growth, then double it again to account for the increase in high-definition data sizes in the couple following years. For example, if you’ve now used 500GB of your storage, quadruple it to get the capacity you should get to future-proof your system, which in this case would be 2TB.
But this isn’t set in stone, plus, some people might want to completely change what they use their system for, like changing a work computer to a gaming PC, and so on. So, if you’re not exactly sure what capacity to get and have the fiscal liberty to pick from various capacities, here are some suggestions:
- The average user – if you store only a couple games, software, and many different documents and files, 2-4TB of storage will be plenty for your needs in the following years.
- The hardcore gamer – if you have some documents/files here and there and your PC is stock-full of various games, 4-6TB would most likely last you a long time. Modern triple-A games usually take up 40-60GB, meaning 1TB can hold 16-25 such games. The progress of virtual reality games and experiences will surely make them take up even more space, so future-proofing with a couple extra terabytes has never been more necessary.
Also, don’t forget to get a fast 7200RPM drive, or more preferably, the SSD + HDD combo (500GB SSD + 4TB HDD, for example). For gaming laptops, an SSHD might be a reasonable and more space-effective solution for performance. Get 7200RPM drives if you want to replace the internal 2.5-inch one in your console to avoid hardware compatibility issues with SSHDs.
- The professional – if your job involves tons of rendering and other video/photo/game editing data, you probably know well enough that you should have a large and fast storage. 4TB and up would be a starting point for a beginner, with different professional’s needs being all across the board.
Fast drives are also important here, and in this case, getting a bulkier RAID system with multiple drives might be a good idea. RAID systems combine multiple drives in various combinations to ensure either high transfer speeds or extra data integrity.
- The office worker – if you work mainly with basic text documents and a few pictures at your workstation, that workstation will do just fine with a 1-2TB of storage. If you’re looking to find a storage solution for an entire office, larger NAS systems with NAS-optimized drives would be the best solution as they allow multiple computers to use the same storage.
- For backup – backing up your data is important, so getting a backup drive roughly half the size of your main drive is a good starting point. This lets you backup at least the most important documents that you can’t exactly re-install or restore otherwise. Since backups rarely affect your main workload, the backup drive can easily be a slower, cheaper 5400RPM drive, as long as it’s from a trusted manufacturer.
RAID and NAS
The vast majority of hard disk drive users will simply connect the one drive they’ve bought to their computer and use it. However, there are a couple ways you can combine multiple HDDs to gain much higher performance, data security, and unified access between multiple devices.
Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID) is a system that connects multiple hard drives into one storage device which can use the summed up performance of multiple drives for speed, or store backups onto the same system to avoid data loss or partially do both. TechTarget has a relatively short yet simple explanation of the specifics of RAID with illustrations.
In short, to make a RAID system, you need at least two drives (preferably same capacity) and a controller, either onboard your computer’s processor (software RAID) or connected as an adapter (hardware RAID). After connecting everything, you can choose, via software, what RAID level (configuration) should be used:
- RAID0 – uses what’s called striping to store parts of the same data to multiple drives, allowing those multiple drives to combine their limited performance and load files more quickly, effectively doubling the transfer speeds of a single drive.
- RAID1 – simply stores copies of the same data to multiple drives (mirroring), thus cutting in half the total capacity of the system. If one drive fails, the other(s) can be used to retrieve the data.
- RAID5 – combines the functionality of RAID0 and RAID1 by striping the data over multiple drives with added parity data. Parity data ensures redundancy, meaning that the parts of a striped file that are lost when a drive fails can be retrieved fully via these parity bits from the remaining drives. The only notable downside is the need for at least 3 drives (5+ optimum) to create a RAID5 system.
- RAID10; 01 – either stripes data over one pair of drives and then mirrors that data onto another pair (01), or mirrors half of the striping data in one pair and the other half – on another pair (10). Both configurations need at least 4 drives.
Network Attached Storage (NAS) is a device that allows you to put one or more drives into a centralized storage device for a Local Area Network (LAN). Basically, this is a “storage box” that you can connect to multiple computers via USB or Ethernet cables, or via your Wi-fi connection, if you can get your hands on such a fancy NAS bay. NAS stations with multiple drives often support different RAID levels to further improve the practicality of their storage.
As we mentioned before, there is no “one drive to rule them all” and your best storage solution depends mainly on your needs and wants. Whether it’s high performance, low price, a combination of both, or a more specific usage (like RAID or NAS), we are confident in our picks for the best internal hard drives for each category listed above.
We hope you’ve found the best internal hard drive on our list, or at the very least – the knowledge needed to find one on your own. If you have any questions or information to add to our HDD buying guide (tips, technical info, personal experience, etc.), leave a comment down below and we’ll be sure to answer.