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Cloud storage vs external hard disk drive: Which is better?

WD external hard drive connected to laptop on desk
(Image credit: Western Digital )

With everything from hard disk failures to malware attacks to worry about, backing up your digital data has never been more important. For a long time, copying your data to an external hard disk drive was the least time-consuming and most cost-effective way to back up data. 

But the storage landscape has changed dramatically in recent years with the introduction of a number of services, many of which make up the best cloud storage services available. Uploading your data to a company’s dedicated servers is often cheaper and more secure than keeping your own physical hard drives. 

On top of that, many cloud storage platforms come with seamless backup and sync systems that can help ensure you’re never left without copies of your most recent files. So, is it time to dump the practice of collecting external hard disks and switch to cloud storage for your data backups? 

In our comparison pitting cloud storage vs external hard disk drives, we'll see how cloud storage and hard disks stack up.

1. Universal access

If setting up a file backup is difficult, the chances that you’ll do it frequently and regularly are low. That’s why it’s essential that you choose a backup method that works seamlessly from any device.

Cloud storage wins handily when it comes to accessibility. To transfer files to and from the cloud, all you need is an Internet connection. Want to transfer files like photos from your smartphone or tablet? You can do it from anywhere, even without Wi-Fi if you have a generous mobile data plan.

Now, try to make the same transfer from your mobile device to an external hard drive. At the very least, you need to connect your phone to your computer and your computer to your hard drive. That’s a lot of wires and it’s not a backup you can easily set up on the go.

2. Security

Security used to be a major flaw with cloud storage, with some cloud providers losing users’ data to hacks. But, cloud security has come a long way in a short time.

Many cloud providers now use virtually uncrackable 256-bit AES encryption to protect your data before it even leaves your devices. Some of these services go even further by offering zero-knowledge encryption—meaning that only you know your encryption key. So even if a hacker got their hands on your data, they wouldn’t be able to unlock it.

To be fair, data security on an external hard disk drive is pretty strong. Hackers can’t access your hard disk unless it’s connected to your computer.

However, if you broaden security to include reliability, hard disks start to look a lot less attractive. More than one-quarter of all modern hard disk drives fail before the end of their warranty period. When that happens, it can be expensive or impossible to recover your data.

3. Sync technology

One of the biggest advantages to cloud storage is that you can keep your files backed up all the time. That’s thanks to sync technology, which runs in the background on your devices and automatically uploads any new or modified files to your storage space. There’s no need to worry about forgetting to back up your files for weeks on end.

You can also run automatic backup software with a hard disk drive. But for that to work, your hard disk needs to be connected all the time. That’s not feasible for mobile devices, and it only increases the likelihood that your drive will fail.

4. Cost per quality

For many people, the goal is simply to get the cheapest backup solution. That may make hard drives seem like the more attractive option, since you can get terabytes of storage for well under $100. Meanwhile, cloud storage often requires a monthly subscription.

However, consider what you’re getting in return for the pricing difference. If an external drive fails, the warranty may pay the cost of the drive itself. But the manufacturer won’t help you recover your files, which can cost $1,000 or more and isn’t guaranteed to work.

With cloud storage, on the other hand, there’s virtually no chance that your files could disappear. Most services create redundant copies of your files on multiple servers around the world. Plus, you get file versioning and advanced recovery options to save your data in case you accidentally delete a file.

For us, there’s little question that cloud storage is the best way to back up your data. You get much more peace of mind and the ability to back up your data continuously from any device. In fact, it might not be too long before physical hard drives become another casualty of digital progress.

  • Nuno Silva
    "More than one-quarter of all modern hard disk drives fail before the end of their warranty period. "

    Where did you get those numbers from? Are you aware that one quarter is 25%?

    No business survives giving warranty to a device that fails over 25% ...