Cheap External Hard Drives Buying Guide
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With more and more people looking for extra space to store their 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.

At a Glance

Cheapism range: $50 - $115
Medium: $115 - $225
High: more than $225

Best Cheap External Hard Drives

  • Seagate GoFlex Slim (starting at $92)

This most portable of portable hard drives from Seagate also boasts fast data transfers. If you’re a road warrior who needs a speedy backup drive in a very small package, the Seagate GoFlex Slim is the drive for you.

  • Western Digital My Passport Essential (starting at $100)

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.

Good Cheap External Hard Drives

  • Buffalo MiniStation Stealth (starting at $79)

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.

  • Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra (starting at $90)

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. This is a good buy, but not if low price is your top priority.

Don't Bother Cheap External Hard Drives

  • Toshiba Canvio (starting at $85)

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.

  • Verbatim Titan XS (starting at $86)

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.

We identified several hard-working external hard drives priced in the Cheapism niche. To assemble our list of best cheap external hard drives, we focused on data transfer rates, storage capacity, backup software, and ease of use, and balanced user feedback against that of experts. Our top choices are the reed-thin and speedy Seagate GoFlex Slim (starting at $92) and the tried-and-true Western Digital My Passport Essential (starting at $100). The two runners-up are the Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra (starting at $90), which performs well but is a bit pricey for the amount of storage, and the Buffalo MiniStation Stealth (starting at $79), which is a tad pokey but a good value given its very low cost per gigabyte. Two cheap external hard drives we’re passing on are the Toshiba Canvio (starting at $85) due to a design flaw with the data cable, and the Verbatim Titan XS (starting at $86), which doesn’t support USB 3.0 connections but carries a price tag near the top of the cheap range, making it a questionable buy.

When it comes to cheap external hard drives, 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.

Several companies make external hard drives, including 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. 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 you need. 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.

External Hard Drive Reviews

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 120MB/s (megabytes per second) would be an acceptable minimum. A home computer user, on the other hand, may not care whether the transfer occurs at 60MB/s or 100MB/s. 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 100MB/s in real-world conditions. (Theoretical USB 3.0 transfer rates can be as fast as 5000MB/s.) Even cheap external hard drives now sport this interface, as do most of the devices we researched, including the Seagate GoFlex Slim (starting at $92), Western Digital My Passport Essential (starting at $100), Buffalo MiniStation Stealth (starting at $79), Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra (starting at $100), 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 30MB/s to 40MB/s compared to an average of about 80MB/s to 90MB/s 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 Seagate GoFlex Slim proved to be one of the better performers. An external hard drive review by CNET says a 101.9MB/s read speed and an 82.4MB/s write speed with USB 3.0 are good enough to quickly transfer large amounts of data. Notebook Review tests also showed impressive read speeds given the constraints of the GoFlex Slim’s svelte profile, but considered write speeds a tad slow. (Read speeds are almost always faster than write speeds.)

Transfer rates for the three other top picks lag behind the Seagate GoFlex Slim. 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 55MB/s and its write speed at 44.2MB/s, 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 32MB/s, 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 drives 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 SeaGate GoFlex Slim, our top pick, spins at 7,200RPM. The faster rotation speed means the hard drive can find and then send data a little faster than a 5,400RPM drive, which at least partially explains the above-average data transfer rate of the GoFlex Slim.

Portable Hard Drives 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. With 320GB of portable hard drive capacity, the Seagate GoFlex Slim may be the smallest hard drive on our list, but user reviews at Amazon say it’s plenty large, and one user writes of having stored several thousand songs.

The other models we researched feature a more ample 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 320GB Seagate GoFlex Slim, for example, starts at 29 cents per gigabyte. That may seem like a bargain until you consider the 500GB Buffalo MiniStation Stealth, which 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. Although the per gigabyte cost of the GoFlex Slim looks pricey compared to our other choices, it’s the fastest and the most portable of the bunch (thanks to its small physical size).

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.

Portable Hard Drive 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 Seagate GoFlex Slim is the clear winner. Expert reviews rave about its diminutive dimensions: less than half a pound and a mere (approximate) 5 x 3 x 0.35 inches. Even with its casing, the GoFlex Slim is actually smaller than most portable hard drives without their case. The downside of such a skinny profile is portable hard drive capacity of 320GB. But if you don't need a portable hard drive to take with you, you can 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.

External Hard Drive 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, that 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. 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 two Seagate devices we researched is muted, at best. The Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra 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. A handful of consumer reviews of the Seagate GoFlex Slim posted on Amazon assert the software is confusing, and one claims it crashed his PC three times before he finally removed it.

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.

External Hard Drive 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.

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