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External Hard Drives Performance

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 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.

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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 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 72MB/s) 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 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.

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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 Hitachi Touro Mobile Pro, 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 Mobile Pro.

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