Every few years I find that I need to purchase a new hard drive. Choosing a drive to buy is never simple. Drive capacities grow very quickly, as the price per gigabyte drops. Further, a large number of storage products is available from dozens of manufacturers. A great many articles explain how to choose a drive that would work with your computer, and how to install it. This one will tell you about getting the best deal for the hard drive you need, and how to avoid some of the hidden pitfalls of drive pricing.
We started with the hard drive price chart at http://www.factblender.com/. The FactBlender chart shows over one thousand hard drives from large online merchants as colored dots, positioned by their capacity and their price. As storage technology and prices change frequently, go to the FactBlender website to view the up-to-date chart. Several patterns emerge from this visualization:
1. There’s a sweet spot
As you look at larger and larger drives, you might expect prices to climb higher. But doubling the drive capacity does not necessarily mean a doubling of the price. When we wrote this, the least expensive SATA 3.0 drives sized 250MB, 500MB and 1TB cost $44.96, $62.98 and $89.99, respectively. For about twice the price, you could quadruple the capacity! This goes on only up to a point, however. To lay your hands on the largest of drives, you will need to shell out more than twice the price of two smaller ones. The inflection point, where prices start climbing faster than capacity, depends on the current manufacturing state of the art. It changes over time too. From a capacity standpoint alone, it would make the most economic sense to purchase the drive that gives you the most gigbytes for your dollar. According to factBlender, at the time of this writing, the Hitachi Desktar 7K1000.B holds this trophy at 1TB, $89.99, and 11.11 GB/$.
2. Smaller isn’t necessarily cheaper
When we inspect the lower range of the capacity spectrum, we find some surpring facts. When we wrote this, the least expensive drives sized 40GB, 60GB and 80GB cost $44.95, $42.99 and $39.99. In fact, the least expensive spindle-based drive in the entire collection was that $39.99, 80GB Samsung SpinPoint SATA 150 drive. Not only is price no longer correlated with increasing capacity, it is going the other way! What’s going on? We suspect that as consumer desires migrate towards larger drives, the demand for smaller devices falls. As they reach the end of their manufacturing lives, they are made in smaller quantities, and the costs of producing, stocking and supporting them rise. These changes are reflected in the retail price.
3. Wide gaps in prices
What about similarly sized drives — would their prices cluster in a tight price band? No, it turns out that prices for the same amount of storage spread across a wide range. For example, while the least expensive SATA 3.0 1TB internal drive from Hitachi lists for less than $100, the most expensive 1TB drive from that vendor lists for more than $300. Other vendors follow this pattern, offering several drives at differing price points for each major capacity. The more expensive products often carry more features, such as larger RAM buffers and faster claimed throughput. You should ask yourself whether the added features are important to you, and whether they justify the difference in price. The lower priced drives are quite capable. The higher price points allow vendors to collect more from consumers willing to spend as much, while still competing hard at the lower end of the range.
4. Some capacities are more common than others
Hard drives are available only at certain capacities. While there are 500GB drives, there are no 520GB, 550GB, and almost no 600GB drives. The more common sizes are 80, 120, 160, 250, 320, 500, 750, 1000 and 2000GB. Drives are also available at some less-common capacities, such as 100, 150, 200, 300, 400 and 640GB. When looking for a drive, start with the more common sizes. By definition, there are more products available there. As a result, the competition is much fiercer, leading to better choice — and prices. For example, there were 22 500GB internal drives under $100, starting at $62.79, while there was only one 400GB drive at that price range, at $79.46.
5. Prices change all the time
Each time we looked at a fresh copy of the chart, it was different from the one before. The overall patterns remained the same; drives were available only at certain capacities, the inflection point was the same, and bigger drives were generally priced higher. But at the micro level, nothing remained the same. Prices of individual drives appeared to change slightly each time. You could almost say they were fluctuating. We attribute much of this frequent change to the fierce competition between vendors, especially at the lower price range and around the 1TB inflection point. If you are looking for the best price, keep track of the product price for several hours, or even days, and purchase when it shifts lower.
When you read this, technology and competition would have moved forward. Larger drives would be available at lower prices. The inflection point would have moved upward, to 2TB and beyond. To find where the best deals are, get a fresh copy of the chart (at factblender.com), find the capacity that gives you the most gigabytes for your money, and choose from the best devices at the lower end of the range. If you are looking for the best possible deal, check the chart over several days to take advantage of possible fluctuations in prices.