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Cloud Storage vs. External Hard Drive: Which Should You Use?

The hyperconnected digital world of today is changing at a lightning-fast pace, and so are our storage needs. Back in the 90s, people made do with floppy disks, which had megabytes of storage.

Fast forward to today, and you’ll see USB sticks that’ll fit in the palm of your hand but are capable of storing hundreds of gigabytes (or even a terabyte) of data. With external hard drives, this capacity grows even larger, easily ballooning into multiple terabytes of storage.

What’s more, cloud storage services completely take physical storage out of the equation: just upload all of your important files to the cloud, and you’ll be able to access them anywhere and at any time—as long as you have an Internet connection.

With such massive progress in storage capacities (and even transfer speeds), it might be time to ask yourself: is it time to ditch hard drives and go all-in on cloud storage? Read on—the answer might surprise you!

What Do External Hard Drives Do?

An external hard drive (also known as a portable hard drive) is essentially a portable version of the hard drive inside a computer. It’s enclosed in a case and is fitted with a circuit board that allows it to be connected to your computer via USB.

What are external hard drives useful for?

These storage devices allow you to store large amounts of data, as they are literally just hard drives enclosed in a (usually plastic) case. They can be used to back up any of your files, such as work documents, spreadsheets, family videos and photos, and so on.

The pros of external hard drives

As with all things, external hard drives have their advantages and disadvantages. First, let’s list their advantages:

External hard drives are overall faster. If you’re using a hard drive, it’s going to be consistently faster than an Internet connection.

Imagine a 1 gigabit per second (Gb/s) Internet connection speed—that’s 125 megabytes per second (MB/s)—that sounds pretty fast, right? Here’s the thing: with USB 3.0, external hard drives can go up to 4.8 Gb/s (600 MB/s). Even now, we have USB 3.2 Gen 2×2, which goes up to 20 Gb/s—that’s 2.5 gigabytes per second. Simply put, external hard drives are nigh-impossible to beat speed-wise.

External hard drives have higher capacities. For example, a quick online search on Amazon turns up external hard drives with terabytes of capacity. On the other hand, although the best cloud storage platforms offer around the same capacity, most cloud storage offers start at around less than a terabyte of storage.

External hard drives are cheaper (kind of). With portable hard drives, you only pay a one-time fee, and generally, these fees are lower per gigabyte compared to cloud-based offers. For example, you can buy a 2 TB external hard drive for around $60—and that’s it.

With cloud storage services, you either pay a monthly fee, or you pay a one-time lifetime storage fee—which is still higher than just straight-up buying a portable drive.

pCloud, for example, is one of the best cloud storage services that we’ve found, and they offer a lifetime pricing option. To get the same 2 TB of storage, you’d have to pay $399, which is almost seven times what you’d pay for a portable hard drive with the same capacity.

Finally, external hard drives don’t require an Internet connection. It doesn’t matter where you are and what you’re doing—if you have a laptop or computer with a USB port, you can use your external hard drive to store and retrieve your data.

The cons of external hard drives

Now, let’s move on to the cons of portable hard drives:

External hard drives can break, or get lost, or stolen. This is one of the biggest downsides to external drives. These drives generally last for 3–5 years, and once they die, that’s it—you can kiss your data on that drive goodbye.

And as with all small objects, portable drives are easily stolen or misplaced. Once someone gets a hold of the data on that drive, there’s little to nothing that you can do to prevent that data from being shared around—unless you’re the type to encrypt all of your files on a hard drive.

External hard drives are less convenient. This isn’t just you being lazy—you’ll have to carry around a data cable as well as a protective case in addition to that portable drive, and both of those things can break.

Imagine that you’re due for a presentation in 15 minutes and suddenly, your data cable just doesn’t work. Where are you going to find a data cable in 15 minutes?

In contrast with cloud storage (which we’ll be talking about in a bit), you’ll just have to log in, download your presentation, and you’re all set—no need to worry about broken cables or a misplaced drive!

External hard drives are non-scalable. Scalability refers to how quick and easy it is to expand the storage capacity of a device. As you may know, once you run out of space on a hard drive, that’s it—you either start looking for a new hard drive, or you start deleting old files and folders.

Unlike portable drives, cloud storage is highly scalable. If you run out of space on the cloud, you can simply pay extra to expand the capacity.

What Does Cloud Storage Do?

On the other hand, cloud storage is a type of online storage that stores your data remotely in term of object, file and block storage. Essentially, you pay a cloud storage provider to store your data on their servers, which will then be readily available for you to download wherever you are, provided you have an Internet connection.

What is cloud storage useful for?

Like external hard drives, you can use cloud storage to store your pictures, videos, documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and so on—there aren’t any restrictions as to the types of files that you can upload to the cloud.

However, unlike portable drives, you can also use the cloud for content delivery, which lets you host and deliver videos, images, and audio to a global audience. For example, you can use a cloud storage platform to host the images and videos for your website, which is simply impossible to achieve with a basic hard drive.

What’s more, cloud storage also allows for collaboration and file syncing. With the right provider, you and your team can work on the same file, regardless of where you may be located. All revisions are saved, and each revision is labeled with who made it as well as when it was made.

The pros of cloud storage

Now, let’s move on to the main benefits of using the cloud to store your files:

  • Cloud storage is accessible anywhere Provided you have an Internet connection, cloud storage is simply unrivaled by how easily you can access it. As long as you have a stable Internet connection, you’ll be able to download your files from the cloud to your laptop, desktop, and even your phone!
  • Cloud storage is pretty affordable Although we’ve stated above that external hard drives are overall cheaper, what we haven’t mentioned yet is how ridiculously affordable the monthly rates for cloud storage are. Let’s go back to pCloud—for $4.17 per month, you’ll have access to 500 GB of storage; for $8.33, you’ll have 2 TB!

Although portable hard drives are still overall cheaper, is $8.33 a month really that bad?

  • Cloud storage doesn’t break That’s pretty much it. Unlike portable hard drives, your files on the cloud will remain safe. For example, pCloud stores your files on at least three server locations. Even if one server goes down, the other two will have backups of your files at the ready.
  • Cloud storage is highly scalable You can simply add to your monthly payment to expand your storage. Plus, you can scale your storage capacity up or down as needed, without any fuss!
  • Cloud storage is more secure by default With cloud storage, you’ll have more security compared to a simple portable drive. For example, most cloud storage providers encrypt your files for free as they are stored on their servers, ensuring that any attackers would not be able to make use of them.

The cons of cloud storage

But what about the downsides to using a cloud storage service to store your files? Well, there aren’t a lot of them, but here are a couple you should know:

  • Cloud storage relies on an Internet connection This means that you won’t be able to access any of your files on the cloud when you have no Internet. If you have an unreliable ISP or a slow Internet connection, signing up for a cloud storage service is probably not a good idea.
  • Cloud storage is slower than portable hard drives As we’ve stated above, external drives will nearly always be faster than your Internet speed.

For example, the average Internet speed in the US is 198 Mb/s (24.75 MB/s) for downloads and 22.89 Mb/s (2.86 MB/s) for uploads—that’s even slower than USB 2.0, which clocks in at 480 Mb/s (60 MB/s) and was introduced more than 20 years ago (a.k.a. in 2001). Yikes.

Should I Use an External Hard Drive or Cloud Storage?

Still unsure with which type of storage you should use? No worries, just have a look at this handy table that shows which option is better (check out the X) for various categories:

External hard driveCloud storage
Generally cheaper
Depends on the plan
Extra features
File syncing, can be used for content delivery

Don’t get too carried away just because cloud storage seems to win out on more categories: each option still has its own merits, and you’re better off weighing them carefully before making a decision.

1. A case for portable hard drives

Our verdict is that if you want to store large amounts of data quickly and cheaply, you should go for an external hard drive. However, this comes with one pretty big caveat—regardless of what model you buy, it will break.

Despite this, you can simply purchase another portable hard drive after 3 or so years to back up your data on the old hard drive, ensuring that you won’t lose out on any data.

2. A case for cloud storage

On the other hand, if you want reliable, highly secure, versatile, and relatively affordable long-term storage, then pick cloud storage. For a few dollars a month (or a one-time fee of a few hundred dollars), you’ll be able to access your files anytime, anywhere.

However, one potential dealbreaker to cloud data is its reliance on the Internet: if you live in the boonies or often travel to places with little to no Internet, you’re better off sticking with portable drives.

3. A third option?

Surprise! There’s actually a third option—just use both! Both portable drives and cloud storage have their own significant advantages and disadvantages, and if you’re having trouble choosing just one (and have the cash), you can simply use them both!

You can keep your most precious files on your external hard drive and keep backups of them on the cloud, ensuring that when your portable drive breaks, you’ll have backups at the ready. And if you ever forget to bring your external drive, you can simply connect to the Internet and download your files! After all, keeping multiple backups on different platforms and in different physical locations is a key part of any solid backup strategy.

It’s also worth mentioning Network Attached Storage (NAS) here, which is something like a combination of the two, and a popular choice for both businesses and home users looking to keep their stuff safe.

Check out our round up of the best NAS providers if you want more information.

Hard drives, hard choices

As we’ve stated above, external hard drives and cloud storage have pretty strong and unique merits: portable drives enable you to store massive amounts of data for a cheap price, whereas cloud storage services grant you unparalleled versatility and allow you to bring that data anywhere (provided you have an Internet connection).

Weigh your options carefully before choosing—it’s your data, after all—or just use both!

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