Storage on the go: the best budget external hard drives

March 14, 2012 at 2:01 PM ET

Hitachi /
Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro

By Kara Reinhardt,

Finding an affordable external hard drive has gotten tougher in recent months. Last year’s flooding in Thailand, home to some of the largest hard drive suppliers, has closed down factories and driven up prices. PC Magazine reports that the average cost of a hard drive increased 28% last quarter. But don’t let price keep you from backing up your files. You can still purchase a high-quality portable drive for less than $100. Here are Cheapism’s top picks:

  • The Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro(starting at $100) offers 750GB of hard drive storage plus 3GB of free online storage. Expert testing reveals that this device boasts faster data transfer speeds than any other on our list. (Where to buy)
  • The Western Digital My Passport Essential(starting at $100) promises a speedy USB 2.0 transfer rate, according to expert reviews, making it appealing for consumers who own Mac computers, which don’t have USB 3.0 connectivity. This external hard drive can hold 500GB worth of files. (Where to buy)
  • The Buffalo MiniStation Stealth (starting at $79) features 500GB of storage capacity and the lowest cost per gigabyte of any drive on our list. Experts admire the bundled software suite, which includes an encryption utility to protect your data. (Where to buy)
  • The Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex Ultra(starting at $90) is another good option for Mac owners, reviews point out, with fast USB 2.0 transfer rates and no reformatting required. It comes with a 500GB capacity but only a “light” version of the pre-loaded backup software -- no problem for Mac users with Time Machine. (Where to buy)

The storage capacity of an expensive external drive can reach up to 4 terabytes; however, when considering which drive to purchase, you'll want to balance capacity with cost and portability. Think about how you plan to use the device. If your aim is to back up your entire computer, the size of the external hard drive you choose should probably match or exceed the size of your computer’s internal hard drive. If you’re simply looking to carry a media library with you when you’re on the go, you can consider a lighter, slimmer drive. A 500GB device can hold more than 150,000 photos, thousands of hours of music, or hundreds of hours of video (depending on file size).

Transferring all those files is a quicker process with a pricey drive, but all the models on our list can use the speedy USB 3.0 connections available on many PCs (but not on Macs, which have only USB 2.0 ports). External hard drives also work with USB 2.0 connections, although the data transfer rate is noticeably slower.

All our picks come with software that can fully automate the backup process or let users choose which files to transfer manually. Sometimes these programs work only on PCs, but Macs with OS 10.5 (aka Leopard) or higher have Time Machine backup software built in. The hard drives themselves can be used with either a PC or a Mac, although Apple owners may need to reformat the drives to make them Mac-compatible.

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