Tracking the astounding pace of digital storage

Ivan Smith maintains a page tracking the price of digital storage over the years. This is one of technology's least appreciated growth stories -- we hear a lot about Moore's Law and the doubling of processing capacity, but storage-density's growth makes the pace of processor improvements look glacial. Every now and then I realize that the 32GB SD card in my camera costs less than the 16k memory upgrade I put in my Apple ][+ in 1980, even without accounting for inflation, and I am croggled. Here are David Isenberg's benchmarks, calculated from Smith's records:
YEAR -- Price of a Gigabyte

1981 -- $300,000
1987 -- $50,000
1990 -- $10,000
1994 -- $1000
1997 -- $100
2000 -- $10
2004 -- $1
2010 -- $0.10

It would be interesting to do the same chart for a megabyte -- you'd go from six figures to fractional pennies in a damned short period.

Cost of Hard Drive Storage Space (via


  1. It looks like the price drop is about an order of magnitude every four years, which is like halving every year.

    Moore’s law has the transistors doubling every two years.

    So this cost reduction has been about twice as fast as the processor improvements. Notable indeed.

    I’m not sure why the chart would be more much interesting if one moved from GB to MB though. It’s just a decimal shift.

  2. As someone who works with large image files I am acutely aware of the progressive change in cost, and I am really, really grateful. :}

  3. Only “issue” i see is that the only storage system that have the capacity to back up a HDD these days is another HDD. Anything else just can’t keep up.

  4. Here you go:

    YEAR — Price of a Megabyte (1024 MB = 1 GB)
    1981 — $292.97
    1987 — $48.83
    1990 — $9.77
    1994 — $0.977
    1997 — $0.0977
    2000 — $0.00977
    2004 — $0.000977
    2010 — $0.0000977

  5. It’s even more staggering when adjusted for inflation.

    Using the data from the Inflation Calculator (, here’s that same chart in current dollars.

    1981 — $699,000
    1987 — $93,184
    1990 — $16,208
    1994 — $1,429
    1997 — $133
    2000 — $12.34
    2004 — $1.13
    2010 — $0.10

  6. I’m the online editor at a small production company. The amount of storage I need for each 45 minute episode of one of our shows averages 300 GB total for offline (editing) and online (HDCAM tape output) resolutions. It’s hard enough to get the bean counters to pay for ample storage and backup now. It would have been impossible even 5 years ago, assuming the same HD workflow.

    What a fascinating modern age we live in.

  7. It gets better, guys – I’ve used this chart to do some rough calculations, and in 30 years Western Digital will pay you $700,000 to take one of its hard drives. SWEET!

  8. It’s close to a year out of date, looks like. WD Caviar Green 2 TB drives run about $75 now, working out to $0.0375 per gig. Hell, it’s cheaper to buy a new 2 TB drive than it is to buy enough DVDs or Blu-Ray discs to back it up.

  9. Now compare this to the astronomical cost that some ISPs charge to move that amount of data. Heck, contrast it with the insane charges to move small, 160 byte text messages over a mobile network.

  10. In the early 80s, I came across an Apple external HDD at a computer store’s sidewalk sale. The clerk wasn’t sure it even worked, but a light came on when it was plugged in. It was $50.

    I forked over the money. I spent a few weeks researching (remember, Brin and Page weren’t even teenagers yet) what was needed to make it work with my Apple ][e.
    [Editor’s note: Apple ][e clone, a ‘Peach 2001’]
    [Author’s note: So sue me. I was poor!]

    All I was missing was an interface card and a cable, something like $150. So, $200 later, I had a HDD running ProDos.

    And try as I might, I wasn’t able to use more than half of its mind-bendingly huge FIVE megabyte capacity.

    A few months ago, I was talking about this to someone. I had to look up the name of the drive on Wiki: The Apple ProFile. I was floored to discover that the ProFile’s price in the 80’s was $,3500!

    That’d work out to $716,800/GB. So I did well – at ‘just’ $10,240/GB.

    The next HDD I purchased brand-new was a 40MB drive, in late 1987. According to the table above, it should have cost me roughly $750 – $1,000. It cost me around $350.

  11. I have to comment on the ad. Is that the Winchester? I remember my Dad talking about Winchester drives on our drive back from the International Personal Robotics Convention in 1984. 15 meg seemed like an amazing amount of space, but $3000 was an impossibly high price for us.

    We live in great times.

  12. I don’t envy the challenge that this technological pace creates for digital archivists. A while back a coworker of mine had a helluva time trying to find a way to access some old files which had been stored on the mass storage device of its day just a few years earlier: the 2GB Jaz disk ($125).

    1. You have no idea. digital records pose a two fold problem: physical media (like the Jaz drive) and file format (like claris or word). I received records in the form of an original Mac, and had to migrate the files to a slighter new mac SE, and then on to modern formats. took forever.

      1. Yep, a double-tricky problem for sure. A friend of mine did her graduate thesis on the subject (from an art/design perspective rather than a technological/engineering perspective). What she ended up creating was a series of archival display cases containing the same document in various formats and various media, including a hard copy. Kind of a turn-of-the-millenium Rosetta Stone.

  13. Dude, its not hard to ‘do the same chart for a megabyte’. Just strike three zeros off the prices!

  14. When I want to feel really old, I tell my baby sister that my $50 phone has about 20 times the storage as the first computer I got, which I spent about $3000 on, back around 1996. Then, she mocks me.

  15. In 1976 I rode the bus to Ann Arbor and bought my first computer, a KIM-1. I’d saved up for it by mowing a summer’s worth of lawns. The 4K byte RAM upgrade, at $200 (LM2114LS3, IIRC) would have cost me another summer’s worth of mower work.
    That’s 4K.

  16. Currently the prices are already much lower than $0.10, here in germany you can get 2TB for 65 € which is around $90, so you pay roughly $0.045 per GB, less than half of what is stated there for 2010. If only we wouldn’t need more space every time :)

  17. I take my files, express them as a single number, add a decimal in front. Then I take a stick and make a notch that percentage of the way along the stick.


  18. I had an opportunity while visiting NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) in Colorado in the early 1980s to see the Datacomputer, the DARPA (I think)-sponsored project to put a front end on the Ampex Terabit Memory System, which in turn consisted of about ten magtape drives running 2″ video tape to hold digital data. The Datacomputer was on the ARPANET and anybody (on the net, so anyone doing DARPA, DoE, etc. research) could get an account and push as much data as they wanted over to the Datacomputer for storage. Some people even used it for backups! The downside, of course, was that the long-haul lines that held the ARPANET together were about 9.6Kbit/sec, so it took forever to put “large” amounts of data over the net.

    The other downside was that when DARPA literally pulled the plug, people had two weeks’ notice to get their stuff off the Datacomputer. Howls of agony were not negotiable tender.

    All this for 1/5 of the smallest Drobo.

  19. It’s amazing how we create more and more data to fill the space we have so rapidly.

    I work at a software company. We don’t do any video or anything like that. But a Terabyte backup drive for each computer is standard issue. And some people go through them like peanuts.

    It doesn’t matter what the storage costs, we’ll never have enough. “What, I can’t fint every digital photo I’ve ever taken on my pen drive? No way, I’m getting a bigger one.” And it’s not just the desire to be able to store more files, it the density of information we expect in each file.

    Sometimes I look back at the software engineers and scientists that were able to create complex models and simulations and databases using a couple kilobytes of data at most and wonder if there’s anyone left that could still do that.

  20. Now line that up with the size of an average file. Photo wise photo sizes have sky rocketed just in the past few years. Back in the 80’s r even 90’s you couldn’t even fathom a standard house hold or small business filling a terrabyte of data. I currently have 8 terrabytes of data backed up from past years of wedding photos. As the price drops, files grow.

  21. the first digital video editing suite i worked in had 9 gigs of storage. i thought i was king of the world. now petabytes of video storage are common and i’ve got more than 9 gigs on my keychain…
    …. i wonder when i’ll have a petabyte on a keychain?

  22. For a decade now, I’ve been trying to popularize the Buckabyte (BaB) as a unit of storage cost. Like the Farad, it’s deliberately too large for most real-world purposes unless you go to very old or specialized technology, but it’s easy enough to put metric scaling factors in front of it.

    A buck for ten gigabytes would be… I think that comes out to 100 pico-BaB, right?

  23. (Note that the BaB, as with everything else in computer storage, does suffer the problem of whether it’s 1000-based — which hard disk manufacters have always used, arguing that this made estimating equivalent in typed pages easier, though we all know it was just to pad the size for marketing purposes) — or 1024-based, to match addressing and hence the way programmers think of space. Sorry, I can’t sure all the world’s ills.)

  24. I remember going up and down Queen Street* looking for the best deals on skids of 3.5″ floppies. Man, you could store a whole MegaByte on those suckers! Anyone remember the old “Pizza-pie” 10 MB cartridges on the DEC Vaxen or the “Cake Tray” stacks of the PDPs?

    Depending on the current wave of technological hardware innovations and the current uses for computers the bottlenecks swing between storage, processing power and bandwidth. You have to program and work in a completely different manner during the predominance of each factor. When storage space was at a relative premium you had to spend the start of every day clearing off your drives and your programs would have to compress the hell out of everything. This is why, for example, OS X has tonnes of things in little ZIP files.

    Today storage is free, bandwidth is so-so and CPU power is at a premium: this last because you’re probably programming for a constrained device like an iPod. In some ways this resembles the very early days of IT. So it’s time to forget about compressing any local files and to start wondering what you could do by switching to Structured Programming and getting rid of the 15% overhead of OO.

    *This was before the cheapo technology district in Toronto moved to College & Spadina.

  25. @turn_self_off: yes, I actually stopped putting anything on CD/DVD over a year ago. It’s cheaper to build a RAID array and put everything on that, then back up to another RAID array.

    The only time I use DVD or CD any more is if I have to make a music disc that must play on a specific device, or to mail a group of large video files or something to a friend, and posting them online isn’t acceptable (some people do not have high speed).

    1. only problem i have with raid arrays is that they are a bitch to maintain if you have no previous experience.

      i keep thinking about how explosive the data storage at home has been, and how still the best solutions are built as if one have a dedicated staff of experts to maintain them.

  26. @SamSam: Look into the world of microcontrollers (Arduinos etc). Plenty of clever people doing wonders with a few KBs.

  27. I applied a Gaussian model to this data which fit quite well as a log normal distribution in dollars/GB, which gives a prediction of 0.044 at 2015. This is a bit unreasonable, which suggests that either the estimates of the cost are off or that there will be two Gaussian distributions to account for future rapid rates of decline.

    Douglas Fisher

    (Equations and coefficents available upon request)

    1. I would guess that’s because we’re nearing the theoretical limits on HDD storage density.

    2. Look closer: there are *already* hard drives on the market *below* 4 cents per GB.

      I own lots of movies and games- in total, about 500 CDs and 1000 DVDs. I decided a few years back that when it got cheap enough, I’m gonna back them all up (DMCA be damned). I can only hope I’m out of grad school by the time that happens, though, or I’ll never have the time to get it done (and before anyone asks, yes, I have worked a full-time job before, and it’s much, much less time-consuming than being in school).

      1. The movies themselves won’t be too much of a hassle to rip with something like handbrake, since you only have to be present at the computer once every hour or so.

        If you’re planning on also ripping and labeling all the bonus content though, best of luck to you.

        I did a few hundred full dvds that I had gotten from asiandvdclub. I just called up my patience and didn’t allow myself to get frustrated. It took a couple of weeks, but not much in the way of actual work. Just a spare computer.

  28. Sometimes you need to stop to marvel at the tech if you’ve been at this for any length of time.

    My first computer was a Vic=20 with a might 4K of memory. It cost about $500 CDN at the time if I remember correctly.

    Now, I carry a USB stick to work every day that has 2 MILLION times that memory and I paid $15 CDN for it.

  29. I remember buying my first box of 10 5 1/4″ floppies for my Apple ][. Each one held 140K. I thought, “Geez, that’s 1.4 megabytes. I’ll never have to buy another box of floppies as long as I live!”

  30. What I find even more astounding than the drop in price for storage is the drop in size. When I started in computers a 10MB Hawk drive 5 fixed 5 removable was the size of a modern dishwasher and needed a full 15amp circuit to run it, that was back in the 80’s. Today We have pens with 1000x that capacity. 25 years to go from 1 cubic meter holding 10MB to 1cm holding 10,000MB

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