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External hard drives vs cloud storage

By Jon Barrow

It's essential to back up your important digital files, but is it better to do so using a physical hard drive or online cloud storage? In this guide, we compare the merits of external hard drives and cloud storage solutions and recommend which you should use.

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As we store ever increasing parts of our lives on our computers, making backup copies of our most valuable files is more important than ever. We may like to think that our laptops will last for ever, but that reality is that they could break, develop a virus or even be stolen. Should this happen, then irreplaceable photos, videos and documents could be lost.

In the past couple of years, online cloud storage solutions such as those offered by Google Drive and Dropbox have become increasingly popular. But, should you make use of these for your own files? Or is it better to stick to the more traditional storage option of a hard drive you can keep with you? Read on to find out the pros and cons of each approach.

External hard drives

An external hard drive plugs into your computer, adding storage capacity and providing a separate, second repository for your digital files.

It may seem a backward step to opt for a physical solution when cloud storage services now allow you to save information online. But external hard drives are easy to use and are great value, enabling you to store huge amounts of data at little cost. For example, you can buy a 1TB drive (enough to store approximately 2m photos) for as little as £50.

Uploading large files to online services also takes far longer than copying them to a physical drive. Storing your own files on a physical hard drive means they're less likely to be accessed by online hackers (although the big cloud storage brands take security extremely seriously).

Discover the hard drive models that aced our tough lab assessment by reading our Best Buy external hard drive page.

Cloud storage

With this type of storage system, you save your files on the internet. This means your files can't be stolen or damaged by events in your home.

It's true that you won't be able to access your files when you're offline – on long plane journeys for example – but for the majority of the time you'll be able to get to your files from any device, anywhere in the world where there's an internet connection. Friends and family can also view your files at the same time (if you want them too) thanks to some handy sharing options.

Cloud storage also lets you keep files neatly in sync. You can store a document in the cloud, make some edits to it, then open the edited, up-to-date version of the document from another device. There's no keeping track of file versions and accidentally starting again with an older document, for example.

Find out online storage systems we recommend in our Best Buy cloud storage guide.

Which should I use?

Both systems have their own advantages so our advice is use them in combination.

Many top cloud storage services offer a limited amount of free storage – anywhere from 2GB to 25GB. This allows you to try the service with no obligation to see if it's a good fit for you, and to store a limited number of files that you can access anywhere.

You can then store large files, such as HD videos, using your external hard drive (doing so using the cloud could get expensive - it costs £79 per year for 1TB of storage with Dropbox).

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