Is it better to backup to cloud or hard drive?

Data backup is an important part of any digital strategy. With so much of our lives now stored digitally, from personal photos and documents to business databases, having a solid backup plan ensures that valuable data is not lost forever in the case of hardware failure, accidental deletion, malware, or other unfortunate events.

The two most popular backup destinations are external hard drives and cloud storage services. But which option is better for most users’ needs? Here are some key factors to consider when deciding between local storage and cloud backup.


One of the most basic considerations when choosing a backup method is cost. External hard drives are a one-time expense that provides ample storage space for a fixed price. For example, a
4TB external drive typically costs $80-$120. While the initial purchase may seem steep, this single investment provides years of backup capacity.

Cloud storage services, on the other hand, are priced as ongoing subscriptions based on how much storage space you require. A basic plan starts around $6 per month for 1TB. While this may seem cheaper upfront, the costs add up over time especially as storage needs grow. However, cloud services do provide more flexibility to scale up or down as needed.


When backing up sensitive personal or business data, security is paramount. External hard drives offer excellent security as data remains under your physical control rather than on a remote server. The drive can be stored safely at home or work, avoiding the risks of hacking or other security issues associated with cloud services.

However, cloud backup providers take robust measures to keep data secure including encryption protocols and advanced cybersecurity software. Reputable providers are often backed by better security than most individuals can implement on their own. But there remains a risk of remote hacking that doesn’t exist with external hard drives.


The reliability of data storage is another key consideration. External hard drives are susceptible to failure and data loss due to factors like age, damage, file corruption, exposure to magnets, or accidental deletion. While high-quality drives used properly can be reliable, there’s always a risk of equipment failure.

Cloud storage offers excellent reliability through redundant servers and regular data backups. Even if one server fails, providers have systems in place to recover lost data quickly. Cloud data is much harder to lose permanently due to both technological and geographic redundancy.


Ease of use is an important factor for many users. External hard drives require manual backups on a regular schedule, easy portability to store the drive securely, and on-site access to retrieve files when needed. This may be inconvenient for less tech-savvy users.

Cloud backups run automatically in the background without requiring any action after initial setup. Backed up data can be accessed from anywhere via the internet through a provider’s web portal or mobile app. For maximum convenience, the cloud wins hands down.

File Versioning

Maintaining previous versions of files is an important part of any backup strategy. External drives typically require manual file versioning using either separate incremental backups or software tools. This can become complex for many backup users.

Cloud services make file versioning simple by default. Any changes to files or folders are automatically saved as recoverable versions going back days, weeks, or months depending on the plan. Easy access to file histories is a major cloud backup benefit.

Restoring Files

When it comes time to restore lost files from backup, both external drives and the cloud have quick and simple methods. External drive restoration may require connecting the drive and locating the specific files to copy back to your main storage system. Cloud restoration lets you pick which files to download straight from the web app.

The most significant difference is that cloud backup allows restoration from anywhere while external drives require physical access to the device. For convenience, cloud backup wins for restoration just as it does for initial backup.


For sheer backup capacity, external hard drives offer far more storage potential at lower cost. Multi-terabyte external drives are common and affordable, providing huge local backup repositories. Cloud services would become exorbitantly expensive for that much data storage.

However, cloud capacity is more than sufficient for most average users. Hundreds of gigabytes to terabytes of cloud backup space is available for a reasonable monthly price. Unusually large data sets are one scenario where external drives make more sense capacity-wise.

Computer Platforms

Users with multiple computers will also want to consider which platforms are supported. External drives only backup one computer when directly connected but can move between machines by disconnecting and reconnecting. Cloud syncing seamlessly and automatically backs up every connected computer associated with one account.

For cross-platform use, cloud backup is far more efficient and convenient compared to external drive juggling. Most cloud providers also offer mobile apps for accessing backups from smartphones and tablets from anywhere.

Backup Speed

Backup speed is affected by a number of factors including internet bandwidth for cloud services. In general, direct-to-drive USB backups are much faster than uploading data to the cloud. However, after the initial backup, cloud services only send incremental changes which are much quicker.

For large initial backups, external drives are ideal. But cloud backup provides an always-on solution that gradually and safely backs up data behind-the-scenes in near real-time. For set-it-and-forget-it use, clouds are generally faster.


Sharing or collaborating on files is far easier in the cloud. Features like shared folders and file links allow users to easily coordinate on documents and projects. External drives are a local-only solution allowing minimal collaboration.

If you need to provide access to backups for other users, cloud services make collaboration much simpler. Project teams can utilize cloud syncing to maintain consistency as files are worked on from different locations.


So is cloud or hard drive backup better? There’s no universally right choice – it depends entirely on each user’s needs. For most average users, cloud backup provides a convenient and reliable hands-off solution. But external drives can still be ideal for specific use cases like huge data sets, maximum security, or simple manual backup.

In some cases, a hybrid approach provides an ideal balance. Key files can be backed up manually to a local drive while everything else syncs securely to the cloud. This blended approach gives you the security and capacity of local storage alongside the convenience and accessibility of the cloud.

Here are some final tips for choosing your backup strategy:

  • Audit how much storage you actually need – both currently and for future growth.
  • Factor in the importance of reliability, security and ease of use.
  • Calculate the long term costs between one-time and ongoing fees.
  • Consider collaboration needs or platform support requirements.
  • Take advantage of free cloud storage tiers from various providers.
  • Invest in a high quality external drive from a reputable vendor if going that route.
  • Use both cloud and local backups for important irreplaceable data.

With some informed analysis and planning, you can create a personalized backup strategy that protects your most important data while fitting comfortably into your budget. Utilizing the strengths of both external drives and cloud backup services, you can avoid lost files and have peace of mind knowing your digital life is secure.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is external drive backup reliable?

External hard drives can be very reliable forms of backup, provided high-quality drives are purchased and stored/handled properly. However, all drives eventually fail which is why solutions like cloud backup or tape backup are popular for long term storage.

Can cloud backups be hacked?

While hacking is always a risk with online services, most major cloud backup providers use advanced encryption protocols and security measures to protect user data from unauthorized access. Still, local hard drive backup offers the highest level of security for sensitive files.

How often should cloud backups run?

A key benefit of cloud backup is the ability to automate frequent backups in the background without user intervention. Most services offer continuous, daily, weekly and monthly backup options. More frequent backups minimize potential data loss in case files are accidentally deleted or changed on your device.

When is external drive better than cloud?

External local backup is better than the cloud in a few scenarios: when backing up very large data sets due to cheaper storage costs, when internet speeds are too slow for cloud uploading, when maximum physical security is required, or when backing up NAS devices that don’t support cloud sync.

What capacity external drive is best for backup?

The ideal external hard drive capacity for backups depends on your storage needs. For average users, a 4TB to 8TB portable HDD provides ample space at a reasonable cost. Power users may prefer larger desktop drives up to 12TB+. Have room to grow by buying more space than you need today.

Should I backup to both cloud and external drive?

Backing up to both the cloud and an external drive provides a failsafe approach allowing restores from either location if one fails. Cloud handles automated syncing while local drives provide physical control. The combined benefits provide excellent redundancy for irreplaceable data.

Is the cloud safer than external drives?

The cloud offers better redundancy and resilience against failure thanks to servers distributed geographically with no single point of failure. However, external drives provide better security against remote hacking since data stays under your control. Overall, the cloud has better reliability but local drives have better security.

What size files and folders can cloud storage handle?

Most cloud services can handle uploading and syncing files of any size up to the maximum storage capacity of your plan. However, many impose limits on maximum individual file size for upload. Common limits are 2GB per file for basic plans and 5GB or more for higher tiers.

How do I recover deleted files from an external drive?

Recovering deleted files from an external drive requires specialized data recovery software designed to scan for and restore deleted data. Examples include Recuva, TestDisk, and EaseUS Data Recovery Wizard. Be sure to remove the drive immediately after deletion and don’t save anything new to it.

Is it better to use incremental or full backups?

Incremental backups are faster after the initial full backup and save storage space by only recording changes between sessions. But recovering files requires starting from the last full backup. Full backups take longer but provide simplest recovery from any point in time. Use incremental for speed and full for maximum flexibility.

Comparing Leading Cloud Backup Services

When choosing a cloud backup provider, Key factors to consider include:

  • Storage capacity
  • File version history
  • Maximum file upload size
  • Sharing/collaboration options
  • Sync frequency
  • Supported platforms and devices
  • Restore options
  • Security/encryption
  • Price per GB

Here is a comparison of some top providers:

Service Storage Version History Max File Size Sharing Sync Frequency Platforms Restore Options Encryption Price per GB
iDrive Unlimited 30 previous versions 10GB Share files via link Continuous Windows, Mac, iOS, Android Restore from any point AES 256-bit $3.48
Backblaze Unlimited 30 days Unlimited Private shares Continuous Windows, Mac, iOS, Android Restore from any point AES 128-bit $6.00
Carbonite Unlimited 12 months Unlimited Share files via link Daily Windows, Mac, iOS, Android Limited version history AES 256-bit $6.00
Dropbox 2TB 30 days 20GB Share folders Continuous Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android Restore from any point AES 256-bit $12.00


When it comes to cloud backup versus external hard drives, there are good arguments to be made for both solutions. The right choice depends on your budget, how much space you need, and convenience versus security preferences.

For a hands-off, seamless backup experience, cloud services are hard to beat. But for large storage needs, tight security requirements, or basic manual backups, external drives remain a strong option.

By taking advantage of both worlds with a hybrid approach, you can design a robust backup protocol that keeps your data safe using redundant destination both locally and in the cloud. With a little forethought, you can be confident you have all your bases covered.