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.