Cloud storage vs external hard drive: which one is better?

For years now, the golden rule when it came to getting more storage was to buy an external drive and spend half of your day moving data across to it (perhaps even more now that Western Digital has announced a 26TB hard disk drive). This trend has been changing, however, as more people have chosen cloud technology.

All of us have seen the 'Low disk space' warning on our computer at some point, and few of us haven't experience at least one corrupted file.

Having a good backup strategy is important, and everyone should know why. You want to make sure that all your documents, photos, music and videos you’ve collected for so long are there for the future. 

You also want to make sure none of your work documents disappear. You also want to have the extra space when you actually need it. How best to back up your files, however, is the issue. For years now, the rule of thumb was to go online, order an external hard drive and spend half of your day figuring out how to transfer your data. 

External drives are certainly fast; however, even after all these years they're just not that reliable. Hard drive failure rates can be as high as 24% over the lifetime of a drive (see BackBlaze's Q1 2022 stats). This means buying a hard drive can sometimes be a bit of a lottery; you may be lucky or very, very unlucky in which case, you may end up losing terabytes of data. 

What about the cloud? Cloud storage maybe not be as fast as external drives but there are good reasons why it should be considered as a complementary storage solution.

1. Universal access unconstrained by geography

We have files on our smartphones, on our home laptops and on business PCs, but a traditional external drive can only back up data on the device it's connected to. On the other hand, cloud storage gives you the freedom to back up files on any internet-connected device, without plugging anything in. 

You only need to have internet access and the necessary login details. Most cloud storage services have dedicated apps for most major operating systems. Access is far easier as well, because you usually only need a web browser and working internet connection to access your files.

2. Security

With external drives, you’re in charge of security. However, a lot of people seem to miss this part – while a hard drive warranty will replace your HDD, it won’t bring lost files back.  Security and the cloud have had their rough patches as well. 

However, in recent years more and more new cloud storage apps have been deploying advanced encryption standards (including two factor authentication and 256-bit AES encryption) that ensure your data is safe at all times.

European cloud services encrypt user files before they transfer to their servers, something that's enshrined by law. By the time files are uploaded they're already unreadable by anyone other than the user.

Security also means physical security. External hard disk drives are prone to mechanical failure, theft, accidental drops and much more. Plus there's only one copy at any one time. Alas, some hard disk drives are known to have proprietary connectors and cables that make it difficult to use if these go missing or are damaged. Portable SSD are more resilient and rugged external drives even more so. However, they can and will get lost.

While files are stored on hard disk drive even in cloud storage services, the providers go to extra length to ensure that there's adequate redundancies in place so that every byte upload cannot be lost even when there is a fire or a catastrophic failure.

Files are usually saved in multiple copies, across multiple geographical locations thousands of miles apart, often across different continents.

3. Sync technology

Sync technology is one feature that’s incredibly handy, but rarely discussed. Selective sync allows you to connect your local folders with the cloud. If you’re working on the go and don’t have Internet connection, sync helps you get the job done. Just select what files or folders you want to back up all the time and presto! Your service provider will take care of it transparently. What's great as well is once you do the initial backup, subsequent backups are usually faster as they'd be incremental ones (i.e. accounting only for saves and changes). Given the ubiquity of 5G connectivity and fast Wi-Fi in workplaces and most households, this is a no-brainer. You can of course run backup software to an external hard drive but it doesn't solve the problem of redundancy (i.e. if your hard drive fails) plus your hard drive would need to be stationary which makes it hard on say, a smartphone.

4. Cost

Putting aside all other arguments, cost is probably the trickiest factor to consider. External drives have relatively linear pricing. The more you pay, the more storage you get.

Some external drives also come with an additional warranty in case of failure. Unfortunately, the warranty does not include file recovery, which can cost as much as $1,500, and which, depending on the nature of the failure, may be ineffective.

Cloud services may seem more expensive due to their subscription-based pricing model. However, the price includes advanced file recovery options as well as other features. In this case, you’re paying for storage, recovery and even more options, which make cloud storage cheaper in regard to the quality of service you get.

In the end, cloud-based solutions are the overall winner for us. Cloud services are becoming cheaper and more accessible every year. They also take care of additional data concerns like file recovery and remote access. With the evolution of the pricing models, including Lifetime options, external hard drives may eventually go the way of the compact disc.

Also check out What is cloud storage?

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.