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Cheap External Hard Drives Buying Guide

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 eye catching Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro (starting at $100) 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.

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. 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.

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