May 24, 2010, 4:48 PM — The key factors in buying a hard drive are drive type (internal, external, portable, network-attached, or solid-state) and capacity. Beyond that, most shoppers look at price, not at extra features.
We investigated ten prominent retailers--both brick-and-mortar stores and Websites--in search of attractive product options and reliable buying advice in six purchasing categories: hard drives, HDTVs, laptops, desktop PCs, digital cameras, and printers.
(See the box of links at right for our appraisals of the other categories we looked at, and for a description of our methodology for choosing the winners and losers in each category.)
Here is what we found in the hard-drives category.
Our research for this story covered ten retailers: Amazon.com, Best Buy, CDW, Newegg, RadioShack, Sears, Staples, Target, TigerDirect.com, and Walmart.
For buying hard drives, Amazon edged out Newegg among online-only sellers to finish first overall. Both scored very high on hard-drive selection and price; in fact, models often sold for $20 to $30 less at Amazon and Newegg than at other stores and Websites.
Among brick-and-mortar stores, Best Buy, which came in second on the overall chart, delivered the best shopping experience. Best Buy employees generally answered our questions accurately or admitted that they didn't have an answer. Best Buy's hard-drive prices were often higher than those at top online retailers. But we found the 640GB My Passport Elite (including a drive dock) on special sale at Best Buy for $100, down from $140; Amazon's price is $119. (Click to enlarge the chart to see how all the stores did.)
At the other end of the spectrum, RadioShack carries almost no hard drives, and Sears sells most of its drives through third-party partners via its convoluted, poorly designed Website.
Most online retailers inundate you with hard-drive options. The top-rated sellers--Amazon, Best Buy, Newegg, CDW, and Staples--had selections of 400 to more than 1000 drive models.
CDW offers a wide selection of drives; but the site is a bit too detailed to be easy to use, and its prices tended to be high. Best Buy and Target have fewer options at their Websites, and their pricing online is the same as at their physical stores.
Staples finished slightly ahead of Best Buy for in-store selection: One store we visited had especially strong offerings of portable and desktop external drives, as well as several single-bay network-attached drives. Other Staples stores we checked were less well-stocked, however.
Both Walmart and Target offered a modest selection of drives in-store--usually limited to models from two or three manufacturers (Hewlett-Packard, Seagate, and Western Digital).