Best Cheap External Hard Drives
Published on By Michael Sweet
Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro Review
From $100 Best
This sleek, attractive hard drive is fast and boasts more storage -- 750GB of hard drive storage, plus 3GB of free online storage -- than its similarly priced competition. Reviewers like how speedy the Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro is, making this external hard drive a winner in our book.
Reviewers who gave the Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro (starting at $100, Amazon) a test drive were impressed with both its performance and its looks. One expert posting a Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro review at CNET appreciates the drive's speed, noting that this hard drive's platter spins at a quick 7,200rpm, whereas other comparable drives the site looked at spin at just 5,400rpms. In its Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro review, PCmag points out that the drive was able to copy a 1.22GB folder in 17 seconds when using a USB 3.0 connection - a data transfer rate of about 72MB per second. The CNET expert also likes that this drive includes 3GB of online "cloud" storage at no extra cost and that the backup software is easy to use. But performance isn't all this hard drive has going for it: The expert posting a Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro review at GadgetReview raves about how attractive this hard drive is, saying it looks like a larger iPhone 4. Users posting reviews at Amazon appreciate how fast and visually appealing the Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro is, while shoppers at B&H say the drive is easy to install. One downside: This drive doesn't have inputs or adapters for Firewire or eSata connections (though several experts reviews note that most users don't use those types of connectors anyway).
The Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro is available in both 750GB and 500GB versions, although it's easier to find the 750GB version. Both versions include 3GB of free online storage so you can post and share data online, but with a price difference of just $10 to $15, we'd jump for the drive with larger storage. The Mobile Pro spins at 7,200rpms and is compatible with USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 connections. Although you can use this drive with a Windows-based PC right out of the box, you'll have to reformat it if you're using a Mac-based system. But Mac users beware: This drive is only compatible with Macs using Mac OS 10.5 or newer.
The Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro is a speedy, hard-working drive. Although it's a bit pricier than other drives we researched, we think it's worth the extra cost because it spins faster and has more storage. And the 3GB of free online storage is a nice bonus, one you don't usually get with other cheap hard drives.
Western Digital My Passport Essential Review
From $100 Best
Western Digital has been making excellent hard drives for years, and this one is no exception. The My Passport Essential offers 500GB of storage, comes with reliable backup software, and performs well. With a competitive cost per gigabyte, users and experts give this hard drive high marks.
With 500GB of storage space, this model boasts an attractive cost-to-megabyte ratio, but Western Digital My Passport Essential reviews curb their enthusiasm nonetheless.
Western Digital My Passport Essential reviews posted at Macworld carp about a plastic housing that smudges and scratches easily but give high scores to this model's USB 2.0 performance, saying it's one of the faster drives these experts have analyzed. (Macs don't support USB 3.0, so an external hard drive with a fast USB 2.0 data transfer speed is essential for Mac users.) On Notebook Review, the review concurs about the very fast USB 2.0 speeds, but adds that the USB 3.0 performance doesn't compare with the transfer rates of other USB 3.0 external drives these experts tested. Users posting reviews at Staples are fans, too, noting that My Passport Essential is lightweight and easy to use; one user especially likes the software that comes bundled with the drive. Users posting reviews at Best Buy comment approvingly on the drive's portability, simplicity, and speed, although a few report durability limitations and installation struggles.
The Western Digital My Passport Essential (starting at $100, Amazon) has typical specs for a portable drive in this price range. It features a 500GB drive with a rotation speed of 5,400RPM and supports both USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 connections. You can also use the drive with a Mac if you reformat it. This model weighs 0.31 pounds and measures 4.3 x 3.2 x 0.6 inches. It comes in black, white, silver, red, and blue.
USB 3.0 ports aren't yet common in laptops and PCs, so most people who use an external hard drive still need a USB 2.0 connection. The fast USB 2.0 speeds make the Western Digital My Passport Essential a compelling buy, and its relatively slow USB 3.0 performance will be a non-issue for many consumers. The compactness of this model clearly appeals and 500GB of storage at this price is a reasonable deal.
Buffalo MiniStation Stealth Review
From $79 Good
If you're simply looking for cheap storage, the Buffalo MiniStation Stealth should grab your interest. This 500GB drive offers the lowest cost per gigabyte of any of the models on our list. On the down side, users and experts complain that data transfer rates are pretty slow for a USB 3.0 drive.
There's good and there's ho-hum with this external hard drive, according to Buffalo MiniStation Stealth reviews.
A top-notch software package that can back up multiple computers and includes data restore and encryption functions and a RAM disk utility for the primary computer wins accolades from Expert Reviews. Consumers' Buffalo MiniStation Stealth reviews at Amazon say the drive is a cinch to set up and they even contain a few suggestions, such as perusing the entire menu of installation options before clicking on the first one so you can choose the software tools you want. The quiet operation and compact size also appeal to users, and reviews posted at B&H often mention ease of use, noting this drive works right out of the box, even with a Mac; several, however, balk at the proprietary cable. Another minor source of irritation is the plastic case, which is susceptible to scratches and smudges.
The Buffalo MiniStation Stealth (starting at $79, Amazon) is available with 1TB and 1.5TB of storage in addition to the 500GB version we put on our list of top picks. It spins at 5,400RPM, which is typical for a portable hard drive. You can use the MiniStation with a Mac -- and it plays nicely with the Mac's Time Machine software -- but you'll have to reformat the drive first. The Buffalo MiniStation can use USB 3.0 and 2.0 connections and comes bundled with a proficient backup software package. It measures 3 x 4.5 x .055 inches and weighs just shy of 6 ounces. It's backed by a one-year warranty.
With 500GB storage capacity and a full suite of software, the $79 price is compelling. If you're expecting a super fast backup drive, the Buffalo MiniStation Stealth may disappoint, but if you're looking for a hard-working drive with a modest (15.8 cents) cost per gigabyte, the MiniStation will prove to be a good value.
Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra Review
From $90 Good
The FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra performs well enough, but its trial backup software doesn't impress users or experts and the cost per gigabyte is pretty high. A good buy but not if low price is your top priority.
After testing a 1.5TB model, the expert Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex review at CNET gives high marks for this drive's speedy USB 2.0 performance, ability to work with Macs without requiring any reformatting, and two-piece design (hard drive and adapter with connector and USB 3.0 port) that lets you mix and match with other adapters (e.g., Firewire) and devices. Lower grades are awarded for mediocre data transfer speeds with the USB 3.0 interface. The review by PC Mag concurs about the relatively slow USB 3.0 speeds, but doesn't consider that a deal-breaker. Still, these experts are unimpressed with the bundled backup software, which they note is nothing more than "trialware." Consumers generally seem pleased. Typical comments found in reviews at Best Buy note the ease of set up and operation and express appreciation for out-of-the-box Mac compatibility. However, a handful of users express concern about the product's durability, complaining that the drive stopped working after a short period, and a few assert the software is useless.
The Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra (starting at $90, Amazon) can use USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 interfaces and it's Mac-compatible without any reformatting. In addition to the 500GB version on our list, the GoFlex Ultra is available in 320GB, 750GB, 1TB, and 1.5TB sizes; all come in black but the 500GB model can be had in red, grey, or blue, as well. It weighs 0.33 pounds and measures 4.4 x 3.2 x 0.6 inches and comes with a two-year warranty.
Although reviewers like the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra, we're hedging our endorsement. There are cheaper 500GB external hard drives on the market that feature better bundled software. If price is less important than the flexibility afforded by the two-piece design, then this is one portable drive worth considering.
Toshiba Canvio Review
From $85 Think Twice
It's obvious from user complaints that the Toshiba Canvio has a serious problem with its cable: It keeps popping out of the drive's connector, a frustrating problem that aggravates many users. Although this drive performs well overall, the cable issue can't be ignored.
The price of the Toshiba Canvio (starting at $85, Amazon) is competitive with other inexpensive 500GB external hard drives, but Toshiba Canvio reviews take it out of the running. An annoying design flaw in the connector cable on the EO5A050CAU3XS version prompts angry users to post critical reviews on sites such as Amazon and Newegg. Consumers concede that this drive includes good backup software, delivers fast data transfer speeds, and boasts a sleek design. But many also argue that a short cable that's quite stiff and pops out of the port all too easily is an annoyance too major to overlook. Additionally, some report that the drive failed to recognize users' computers or simply stopped working shortly after purchase. A newer model, the HDTC605XK3A1 (starting at $80, Amazon), doesn't seem afflicted with the same cable connector problems, at least according to a different set of Toshiba Canvio reviews posted on Amazon.
The Toshiba Canvio is available in a variety of storage sizes, including 500GB, 750GB, and 1TB. It spins at a standard 5,400RPM, supports both USB 3.0 and 2.0 connections, and comes with bundled backup software. Just like most of the drives we researched, you'll have to reformat this model to make it work with a Mac. It weighs 5.2 ounces and measures 4.7 x 3.1 x 0.53 inches.
This drive performs well and looks classy, and it sells at a good price. But based on the Toshiba Canvio reviews we've seen, a redesign of the cable was called for and seems to have placed high on the company's must-do list. So if you're hankering for a Toshiba Canvio, think twice about purchasing the older EO5A050CAU3XS model. The newer HDTC605XK3A1 may have resolved the problem, but there aren't enough reviews yet to ascertain for sure.
Verbatim Titan XS Review
From $86 Think Twice
Verbatim's Titan XS offers a competitive cost per gigabyte and has pretty fast USB 2.0 speeds. But the drive doesn't support USB 3.0 connections and still costs close to $90.
The Verbatim Titan XS (starting at $86, Amazon) is an older-model hard drive that lacks USB 3.0 support, but Verbatim Titan XS reviews indicate its software and performance are good enough to satisfy most users. A review posted at Maximum CPU gives the drive's rubbery outer shell a thumbs up and raves about the operational ease of the bundled backup software, which is manufactured by Nero, a popular software maker. This review also clocks the drive's average data transfer rate at about 30MB/s, which counts as pretty fast in the USB 2.0 universe. The review by Computer Shopper, lauds the slim profile but dings the rubber casing, saying it attracts dust and is hard to clean. It also grumbles about the too-short cable, which measures less than 4 inches compared to the more common 18 inches. Users post similar comments in Verbatim Titan XS reviews on Amazon and likewise conclude that it performs well enough for a portable hard drive with a USB 2.0 interface.
The Verbatim Titan XS comes with 500GB of storage space, spins at 5,400RPM, and is Mac compatible with reformatting. Perhaps its best feature is the included Nero backup software, a strong product from a well-respected company. The drive measures 3 x 4.3 x 0.6 inches and weighs 5.5 ounces. It comes with an unusually long seven-year warranty.
Despite the included software, the generous warranty, and the good data transfer speeds, the Verbatim Titan XS seems pricey given its USB 2.0 limitations. The competition has moved to USB 3.0 compatibility and it's time for Verbatim to do the same.
Choosing an External Hard Drive
As people look for space to store more and more digital images, movies, and music, interest in cheap external hard drives is growing. Over the past few years, the price of external hard drives has fallen even as the storage capacity has increased and the backup software has improved. Now you can find portable devices for as little as $50, but be prepared to spend closer to $100 for one of the best cheap external hard drives.
Companies that make external hard drives include Iomega, LaCie, Samsung, Seagate, Toshiba, Transcend, Verbatim, and Western Digital. Most offer a range of portable hard drives with different storage capacities, features, and price points. Most external hard drives are compatible with PCs and Macs, although some need to be reformatted for Macs, and in some cases the bundled backup software may be PC-compatible only.
You might think the larger the drive, the better. But that's not necessarily the case. The size of the external hard drive you choose should depend on what you intend to do with it. If you want a hard drive to back up the multitude of videos, photos, and music currently stored on your home PC (or several network-linked PCs), or if you're looking for additional and accessible storage for large files (think video or image files), you'll definitely need a large external hard drive -- at least 500GB. But many consumers, especially laptop users who are often on the go, don't need as much capacity and may be better off with a smaller, slimmer, more portable hard drive. We limited our search for the best cheap external hard drives to those with a maximum 500GB.
Other factors are also worth considering when shopping for a cheap external hard drive. Data transfer rates, for one. Most new devices feature a USB 3.0 interface. If you have a PC with a USB 3.0 port, you'll appreciate the blazing speed with which you can back up or transfer files to a cheap external hard drive. (The drive will still work with a USB 2.0 port, but transfer speeds will be slower.) Most cheap external hard drives also include some sort of "bonus" backup software. If you already have backup software, the bonus software may not seem like a deal. But it's worth checking out because many of these programs are effective and easy to use.
Higher-end external hard drives generally offer more storage, faster performance, and extra features, such as backup software with multiple scheduling options and the ability to back up a small network. But for everyday home use or for carrying wherever you go, a cheap external hard drive has all the functionality most consumers need.
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External Hard Drive Reviews: What We Considered
To assemble our list of best cheap external hard drives, we focused on storage capacity, data transfer rates, backup software, and ease of use, and balanced user feedback against that of experts. External hard drive reviews for the devices we researched say consumers get good value for their money; that is, cheap external hard drives are dependable and easy to use. That said, external hard drive reviews written by experts note that data transfer rates -- the speed at which the drive moves files -- aren't all that swift with the cheaper devices. Depending how you intend to use the drive, however, speed may or may not be a critical performance variable. A videographer who transfers many large files every day probably considers speed to be decisive, and 120 Mbps (megabytes per second) would be an acceptable minimum. A home computer user, on the other hand, may not care whether the transfer occurs at 60 Mbps or 100 Mbps. Most consumers only back up several files at a time (after the initial back up that copied the drive's entire contents), which doesn't take long even with a slower drive. Although a rapid transfer rate is no doubt desirable -- and external hard drive reviews report that portable drives with fast data transfer rates will power though even large backups quickly -- frugal users may decide it's a feature worth sacrificing in exchange for lower cost, additional storage capacity, or better backup software.
The fastest external hard drives boast a USB 3.0 connection, which can deliver data transfer rates at least as fast as 100 Mbps in real-world conditions. (Theoretical USB 3.0 transfer rates can be as fast as 5,000 Mbps) Even cheap external hard drives now sport this interface, as do most of the devices we researched, including the Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro (starting at $100), Western Digital My Passport Essential (starting at $100), Buffalo MiniStation Stealth (starting at $79), Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra (starting at $90), and Toshiba Canvio (starting at $85). The Verbatim Titan XS (starting at $86) still uses a USB 2.0 connection but bears a price tag in the upper reaches of the cheap price range, a double whammy that knocked it off our list of picks.
Although many PCs don't have a USB 3.0 connection and Macs don't support USB 3.0 at all, this shouldn't be a deal breaker. External hard drives with USB 3.0 connectivity still support USB 2.0, so you can use USB 3.0 drives with a USB 2.0 computer. However, transfer speed over a USB 2.0 connection is much slower than with USB 3.0; a USB 2.0 drive typically transfers data at about 30 Mbps to 40 Mbps compared to an average of about 80 Mbps to 90 Mbps with a USB 3.0 interface.
USB 3.0 bona fides aside, expert tests indicate that transfer speeds for the products we researched won't win any races. Indeed, the external hard drive reviews written by experts report data transfers with these devices at average to below average speeds. When stacked against that standard, the Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro proves to be one of the faster cheap hard drives out there. According to an external hard drive review conducted by PCmag, their expert was able to copy 1.22GB of data in 17 seconds (or 72 Mbps) using the Hitachi drive's 3.0 USB connection. Many users posting external hard drive reviews at both Amazon and B&H say they were impressed with how fast the Hitachi drive operated.
Transfer rates for the three other top picks lag behind the Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro. Read and write speeds with USB 2.0 and 3.0 connections on the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra are decent, according to an external hard drive review by PC Mag. CNET, which tested a 1.5TB version of the FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra, reported excellent speeds using a USB 2.0 interface but slower than average rates with a USB 3.0 connection. The Western Digital My Passport Essential delivered mediocre data transfer rates with USB 3.0 connectivity, according to Notebook Review, although the USB 2.0 data transfer rates are above average. Data transfer with the Buffalo MiniStation Stealth is are pokier still. Tests conducted by Expert Reviews pegged the MiniStation Stealth's read speed at 55 Mbps and its write speed at 44.2 Mbps, results that these experts assert are among the slowest they've recorded with a USB 3.0 interface.
Although external hard drive reviews of the Toshiba Canvio focus considerable attention on problems with the USB cable (it reportedly pops out easily), a handful of consumers who like the product appreciate its speed. One user who posted an external hard drive review on Newegg claims to have measured the Canvio USB 2.0 speed at 32 Mbps, which is about as fast as USB 2.0 drives can transfer data. At Best Buy, a consumer describes as "insanely fast" the transfer of thousands of songs and several gigabytes-worth of photos in less than 30 minutes.
The Verbatim Titan XS 500GB is a USB 2.0-only model, and data transfer rates simply can't compete with USB 3.0 drives. Nonetheless, external hard drive reviews posted at both Maximum CPU and Computer Shopper say this model offers good, competitive USB 2.0 data transfer rates.
One more thing about external hard drive speed: Specs usually mention the rotation speed, which refers to how fast the hard drive actually spins, measured in RPM (revolutions per minute). Most external hard drives feature a rotation speed of 5,400RPM while the Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro, our top pick, spins at 7,200 RPM. The faster rotation speed means the hard drive can find and then send data a little faster than a 5,400 RPM drive, which at least partially explains the above-average data transfer rate of the Mobile Pro.
Capacity.How much portable hard drive capacity you need depends on the size of your computer's internal hard drive and whether you want to back up all or some of your files. If you plan to regularly back up your entire computer system, the portable hard drive capacity should at least match that of your primary computer. Beyond that, experts don't say much about the pros and cons of a larger versus a smaller drive because on this matter, at least, practicality trumps all. Users with tons of data to back up are advised to choose an appropriately sized external hard drive; currently, portable hard drive capacity maxes out at 4TB (terabytes). Most consumers, however, will find that an external hard drive with 320GB (gigabytes) or 500GB is more than sufficient.
A chart detailing portable hard drive capacity of devices produced by Seagate notes that a 500GB drive can hold up to 160,000 photos, 8,330 hours of music, 500 hours of digital video, and 125 DVD-quality movies. That's a lot of data storage for a typical household. The Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro is available in two sizes 500GB and 750GB. With the price difference between the two just $10 to $15, the 750GB version offers the better deal for shoppers. This external hard drive also includes 3GB of free online storage, something you won't find in most cheap hard drives.
The other models we researched feature 500GB of portable hard drive capacity. A review on Best Buy reports the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra holds a trove of large photos taken during travels that are now instantly accessible. The Buffalo MiniStation Stealth likewise offers the right combination of portable hard drive capacity and speed, according to comments posted on Amazon, but just in case you're concerned about running out of space, you can bump up to the 1TB version for just $35 more. The Western Digital My Passport Essential gets a thumbs-up from consumers posting reviews at Newegg, where they laud the combination of small physical size with generous portable hard drive capacity.
For some frugal consumers, cost per gigabyte is a related consideration. The 750GB Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro, for example, starts at 13 cents per gigabyte, while the 500GB Buffalo MiniStation Stealth goes for about 16 cents per gigabyte. The per gigabyte cost of the other 500GB portable hard drives we researched ranges between 16 and 20 cents.
Larger external hard drives often boast lower per gigabyte costs even though the total cost propels you out of cheap territory. The 1TB Hewlett Packard HP Portable, for example, costs approximately 15 cents per gigabyte and retails for about $150. The mammoth Seagate 4TB GoFlex Desk drive sells for $279, for a per gigabyte cost of only 7 cents.
Size and Weight.If you're looking for a small, lightweight hard drive to carry around, there are plenty of choices. Most of the portable hard drives we researched are easy to transport. When it comes to portability, though, the Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro is the clear winner -- it weighs less than half a pound and measures a mere (approximate) 5 x 3 x 0.59 inches. Of course, if you don't need a hard drive that's portable, you can always opt for a larger, heavier, desktop device such as the Seagate GoFlex Desk 4TB. This drive weighs a hefty 2.4 pounds and measures approximately 6 x 5 x 2 inches but offers much more storage than the Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro.
Backup Software.Most, but not all, portable drives come bundled with external hard drive backup software. When it comes to deciding which external hard drive backup software is best for your needs, personal preference rules. For instance, users who want to automate the entire process (the hard drive automatically backs up the files as specified) should choose a model with external hard drive backup software that makes this easy; those who prefer manual backups (specify the files to copy every time a back up is run) will be indifferent to this functionality. Experts generally say the included external hard drive backup software is easy to install and use, although it often lacks some of the bells and whistles you'd get with software bought separately.
All of the external hard drives we researched include a backup program. Consumers and experts like the external hard drive backup software bundled with most of the models on our list, citing the programs' effectiveness and ease of use. The Buffalo MiniStation Stealth comes with a suite of programs, including external hard drive backup software and an encryption utility, which Expert Reviews considers a nice bonus. Tech Radar gives a thumbs-up to the external hard drive backup software included with the Western Digital My Passport Essential, and points to useful features like the ability to create an encrypted password or run a diagnostic test. CNET reviewers found the Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro software to be easy to use and point out that one bonus with the Mobile Pro's software is that you can use it to create a backup schedule. One expert review of the Verbatim Titan XS says the preinstalled Nero backup software is well suited to scheduled backups of basic files. The Daily Tech likes the Toshiba Canvio software, especially its simple interface and customization options.
By comparison, enthusiasm for the external hard drive backup software included with the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra device is muted, at best. The Seagate comes with a "light" version of the backup program; another $50 will get you the full-featured external hard drive backup software, which allows for online backup and backup plans for several PCs. Experts at both CNET and PC Mag pan the limited functionality of the bundled external hard drive backup software.
Mac users, heads up: Many pre-loaded external hard drive backup software programs don't run on Macs. However, if you have a Mac OS 10.5 or above, you've already got built-in back up in the form of software called Time Machine. Mac users may prefer to stick with Time Machine even if the external hard drive backup software is compatible -- partly because they're already familiar with it and partly because its performance is at least as good as what you'd get with the external drive.
Since we're speaking of Macs, we want to point out that most cheap external hard drives are compatible with both PCs and Macs. That said, some cheap external hard drives are formatted for PCs when they leave the factory so Mac users will need to reformat the external hard drive before using it. (Check with the manufacturer to determine if the drive needs reformatting; all the models on our list will work with a Mac after reformatting.) Remember, though, Macs don't use USB 3.0 connections so the external hard drive will run at USB 2.0 speeds.
Ease of Use.External hard drives are very simple devices and a cinch to use. Installing and setting up a drive involves little more than plugging it into your PC and running the included software. There's really nothing else to do unless the device requires an external power source; most portable hard drives simply draw power through the computer's USB port.
We found very few complaints about ease of use from expert or consumer reviewers regarding most of the external hard drives we researched. The Toshiba Canvio 3.0, however, suffers from a usability problem that angers many consumers and explains its low standing on our list. The reviews we found report that the Canvio's cable is too short and stiff and easily disconnects from the port. Quite a few consumers express their frustrations in reviews posted on Amazon and Newegg, where some also comment about corrupted video files and limited longevity.