Like many photographers, I spend a lot of time working in the field away from my office. By extension, that translates into a fair amount of time in front of my laptop computer backing up, organizing, and working with my images and videos before I get home.

For years my workflow depended on portable hard drives, but thanks to increased camera resolution and the need to shoot more video, particularly 4K video, I discovered that I was spending increasingly more time waiting around while bits moved across wires. And when I wanted to work with those files, the experience kept getting slower. I also worried a lot about spinning drives getting damaged in transit.

Portable SSDs are available in every shape and size to meet your needs.

A couple years ago I switched to using external solid state drives, or SSDs, for all my mobile work. Back then there weren't a lot of off-the-shelf products to solve my problem, so I took a DIY (do-it-yourself) approach and made my own. Times have changed, and there are now a proliferation of external SSDs to meet your needs.

Despite this, I still run into a lot of photographers who haven't made the switch, and I'm continually surprised at how many of them have never even considered external portable SSDs, despite the fact that they often have one in their laptop.

Fortunately, we've reached a point where SSDs strike a reasonably good balance between price and performance. In this article I'll take a look at some of my favorite portable SSDs that I've used over the past year, each of which appealed to me for a different reason, and let you know what I like about each one.

The portable SSD solutions featured in this article: (L to R) The do-it-yourself solution, Samsung T3, SanDisk Extreme 510, OWC Envoy Pro EX, Glyph Atom, Glyph Atom RAID

The DIY Solution

For those willing to get their hands dirty, the DIY (do-it-yourself) solution is a viable option. SSDs designed for laptops are plentiful online and there's a huge selection of brands and sizes. At the time of publication, it's possible to get a 1TB SSD for under $240, which is probably enough portable storage to meet the needs of most mobile photographers.

Turning a bare SSD into an external peripheral is surprisingly simple; all you need is an inexpensive hard drive case, like this one from Anker, and a USB cable. Snap the SSD inside, connect it to your computer, and format the drive.

The DIY (do-it-yourself) approach is the most economical method, and is also a great way to recycle an old SSD when you upgrade a laptop. Total assembly time: about 2 minutes.

There are plenty of cases available for around $10, and you can reuse them if you get a larger SSD later. I've been using the Anker case mentioned above for about two years and have upgraded the SSD inside three times. An external case is also a great option if you've upgraded the SSD in your laptop and want to recycle the old one as external storage.

Samsung T3

The Samsung T3 first caught my attention at CES in January, and I've been using one almost since then. The T3's most compelling feature is that it's small; a bit shorter than a credit card, and only 1cm thick. It also weighs close to nothing, making it great for travel. It uses a USB-C plug, but ships with a USB-C to USB-A cable so you can plug it into the existing ports on your computer right out of the box. 

The T3 has become one of my go-to SSDs when I'm traveling really light, as in 11-inch Macbook Air light. I barely notice it in my bag, and often carry it around in a shirt or pants pocket when I'm out working. In fact, this is the SSD that people ask me about most often when they see it, once they realize it's not a card reader for my camera. This is the SSD to take with you if you want compact size, speedy performance, and a bit of style.

The Samsung T3 is a bit shorter than a credit card and 1cm thick. Put it in your pocket and you'll barely know it's there.

The T3 is also comes in a variety of capacities ranging all the way up to 2TB of storage, making it an incredibly compact way to store a lot of data. It's available in several sizes including 250GB ($119), 500GB ($199), 1TB ($399), and 2TB ($799)

SanDisk Extreme 510

The SanDisk Extreme 510 gives the Samsung T3 a run for its money when it comes to portability, being just slightly larger due to its square shape. However, the difference in size is negligible when you consider how small they both are.

What sets the Extreme 510 apart from the T3 is that it's designed for slightly more rugged use, with an IP55 rating for water and dust protection, including an integrated cap that fits over the USB port. It also has a rubber bumper around the edges to protect against drops, and it really works. Finally, there's a small metal loop on one corner in case you want to attach a lanyard or clip the drive to your other gear.

This has turned into my favorite SSD when I need to travel light in potentially adverse conditions, such as during our Nikon D810 Field Test where dust seemed to get everywhere. I've even found myself using the metal loop to clip the drive to an attachment on the inside of my pack for security. My only complaints about the Extreme 510 are that the rubber cap over the USB port comes off a little too easily, and that it's currently only available in one size (480GB).

The SanDisk Extreme 510 might look unconventional, but it's a great choice for mobile use thanks to its water and dust resistance, and rubber bumper to protect against drops.

One interesting note about the Extreme 510 is that in my performance testing it had slightly slower than average write speeds, though I didn't really notice this in practical use. The 480GB SanDisk Extreme 510 costs $249.

OWC Envoy Pro EX

Other World Computing (OWC) is known for high quality products with a focus on the Macintosh market, so it comes as no surprise that the OWC Envoy Pro EX's case is a perfect match for a MacBook computer, right down to the anodized aluminum case. (Well, the silver variety at least.) That said, it should work with any computer as long as you format it correctly.

The Envoy Pro EX is in the middle of the pack when it comes to size, but leads the way when it comes to style, and its build quality is excellent, right down to the smallest details. I would almost call it Apple-esque, which I suppose is the point. I've received lots of comments about this drive, particularly from other Mac users.

The Envoy Pro EX is a great choice if presentation and appearance are of importance, particularly if you're a Mac user. Whether you're visiting clients or just trying to project a professional image, it does the job well. Or, if you just want a SSD that will match your MacBook's style, and potentially outlast it as well, the Envoy Pro EX is a great choice. 

The OWC Envoy Pro EX is a well-built, stylish SSD that's relatively compact. It's also a perfect visual match for a silver MacBook or MacBook Pro. 

The Envoy Pro EX is available in a range of sizes including 240GB ($195), 480GB ($339), and 1TB ($559).

Glyph Atom and Atom RAID

The Atom and Atom RAID from Glyph Technologies are a bit heavier than the other SSDs in this article, but that simply reflects their build quality. These things are solid. Really solid. As in, I'm pretty sure I could run over them with my car and they would still work, solid. Both are enclosed in a very sturdy aluminum housing which is encased in a rubber sleeve to add some shock protection.

The Atoms are also the only SSDs in this article that feature support for USB 3.1, Gen 2. In a nutshell, this means they have twice the theoretical maximum data transfer rate of the other devices in this article (10 Gbps vs. 5 Gbps). The Atom comes in a candy bar shaped case similar in size to the OWC Envoy Pro EX.

The Glyph Atom is one of the most solid portable drives I've ever come across and is a great fit for serious production use where things get banged around a lot. 

The Atom RAID includes two SSDs in a RAID 0 configuration to provide even greater speed when transferring data, and it can deliver. Physically, it's about 50% wider than the standard Atom and a bit heavier, but otherwise similar in design.

The Glyph Atom RAID is every bit as solid as the Atom, but includes two SSDs in a RAID 0 configuration for even more speed.

Both Atom devices use a USB-C connection and ship with native USB-C to USB-C cables as well as USB-C to USB-A cables. It's a nice touch that Glyph provides cables for both types of connections out of the box. My only complaint about the design is that the LED status light on these drives is bright enough to illuminate the corner of a room in the dark.

The Atom and Atom RAID are hands-down the most durable SSDs I've tried, and the ones I would choose for a production environment where they get used, abused, and banged around every day. I've been using them non-stop for several weeks, shoving them in and out of bags with other gear, and am consistently impressed with how rugged they are. Whether the additional speed of the RAID model is justified depends on your requirements, but it's there if you need it.

The Atom is available in capacities of 275GB ($129), 525GB ($229), and 1TB ($399). The Atom RAID is available in capacities of 1TB ($419) and 2TB ($819). You pay a bit of a premium for the RAID version, but if you need the speed it will probably cost you one way or another.

Performance

DPReview doesn't do in-depth performance testing of products like hard drives. There are other sites that do a great job of things like that. However, in addition to using all these drives over the past several months, I put them all through some real world use tests on a 5K iMac using a Lightroom library with about 10,000 photos, as well as a 250GB Final Cut Pro X project. I also ran some common benchmarking software for a baseline comparison.

In real world use there was very little noticeable performance difference between any of the drives, with the exception of the DIY solution, which seemed just a bit slower when importing large amounts of data. Of course, this will depend on what SSD you use for a DIY build, so results may vary.

For slightly more objective results I ran speed tests on all the SSDs using Blackmagic Disk Speed Test and AJA System Test, both of which provided almost identical results. I also included a popular portable spinning hard drive, the WD My Passport, in the test for comparison.

 

Capacity Tested

 Write Speed Read Speed
DIY solution*  250GB  253 MB/s  266 MB/s
Samsung T3  1TB  383 MB/s

 406 MB/s

Sandisk Extreme 510  480GB  285 MB/s  420 MB/s
OWC Envoy Pro  960GB  378 MB/s  409 MB/s
Glyph Atom**  1TB  472 MB/s  431 MB/s
Glyph Atom RAID**  2TB  804 MB/s  572 MB/s

WD My Passport 5400 rpm portable hard disk

2TB  69 MB/s  104 MB/s

* Average results for two SSDs: a Samsung EVO 840 and SanDisk Extreme Pro. (Results for both drives were similar.) Actual performance for DIY solutions will depend on the SSD used, and possibly the enclosure as well.

** Tests for the Atom drives were performed using a new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, which has Thunderbolt 3 ports capable of supporting the drives' USB 3.1, Gen 2 interface.

When looking at these numbers, keep in mind that it's possible to get slightly different results by adjusting the test parameters, though when I did so the overall trend stayed the same between drives. The take home message here is that all the drives are insanely fast compared to a portable spinning hard drive. That in itself shouldn't be a surprise, but the table shows just how much faster the SSDs can be.

There are some interesting things to note from the data, however. I was surprised that my home-built DIY drive was consistently slower than the commercial offerings, especially since it's basically just a bare SSD plugged directly into a USB 3.0 interface. It's possible that different SSDs would have performed better in the same enclosure.

It's also possible to see the advantages of the newer USB 3.1, Gen 2 transfer rates on the Atom drives, especially when you throw a RAID 0 configuration into the mix. Of course, to take advantage of these speeds you'll need a computer that supports the new standard as well.

Conclusion

If you're still using regular hard drives for your mobile photo work, there's never been a better time to make the switch to portable SSDs. Of course, there are compelling reasons to stick with spinning hard drives; they deliver huge amounts of storage at low cost. Every photographer has their own price/performance threshold, but that ratio is getting better all the time.

From a performance perspective, almost any portable SSD will likely meet the needs of most photographers. The most economical solution is the DIY approach. It's incredibly easy to assemble your own portable SSD, and prices for bare drives have come down a lot, especially if you're willing to pick up a recently discontinued model.

When it comes to commercial SSD models, the best choice will likely come down to your specific needs. Do you need fast and light? Style? Rugged build? Each one has a sweet spot. Finally, don't limit yourself to the SSDs included in this article. There are lots of options on the market today, and some may meet your needs better than these. If you haven't made the switch, go online, see what's available, and take the plunge!