Marc Saltzman: Cloud Storage or Hard Drive: Which One is Best?

January 22nd, 2015

Cloud Storage or Hard Drive: Which One is Best?

We look at the pros and cons of each, plus safety tips to cloud storage

You can try to resist, but chances are your life is becoming increasingly digital.

This includes your communication (such as email, texts and instant messages), documents (word processing files, spreadsheets and presentations), media (music, photos, videos, ebooks, and games) and custom web preferences (such as bookmarks).

Not only could losing all of this information be frustrating, but think of how heartbreaking it could be to lose all of those irreplaceable photos and videos, not to mention sensitive docs that might contain corporate info, passwords or financial information.

So, it’s key to back up all of these files — just in case they’re damaged, lost or stolen.

Question is, how should you back up your important files? Perhaps you’re not sure if you should use one of the many “cloud” services or a regular ‘ol external hard drive?

The answer? Both.

Consider both an online and offline solution, as they each have their own distinct benefits and drawbacks. Let’s call it hedging your bets to ensure your data will remain safe and accessible.

Cloud storage, of course, refers to services that store your files for you behind a password-protected website or app. Popular providers include Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, iCloud, OneDrive and SugarSync, to name a few. An external hard drive, on the other hand, plugs into your computer’s USB port (or in some cases, your router’s Ethernet port) and lets you copy files over.

Here’s a deeper dive into the reasons why you should consider both types of storage options:

Why you want cloud backup

  1. Offsite protection

Cloud services can protect your data from local threats, such as theft, fire, flood, nasty virus, power surge and hard drive failure. If someone steals your laptop, they might take your backup hard drive, too, unless you store it elsewhere; a flood or fire could destroy both your computer and hard drive if kept in the same place.

  1. Anywhere access

With cloud services, you can access all of your backed-up stuff – such as documents or media — from virtually any Internet-connected computer, tablet or smartphone in the world. Most cloud services have free apps that make it easy to download or upload files from your mobile device. As long as you can get online, you can access your stuff anywhere and on virtually any device.

  1. Sharing is super easy

Cloud computing can also reduce congestion in someone’s inbox. Rather than trying to email a number of large photos or videos to a colleague or family member, you can simply store them in the cloud and send a link to download the goods. This is incredibly convenient, and easy to do.

  1. Real-time collaboration

Ideal for students and coworkers, cloud computing lets people work together on projects in real-time, even though they’re in different geographic locations. For example, two or more employees can collaborate on a project together, instead of sending revisions back and forth to each other.

  1. It’s free

Consumer-based cloud computing services typically give you between 5 and 7 gigabytes of storage for free, therefore you don’t need to spend any more to backup and protect your stuff. In fact, you can create and use multiple accounts, each with a few gigabytes, making it easy to triple or quadruple you’re allotted storage. There are pricier corporate solutions, too.

Why you want a hard drive

  1. It’s offline

Cloud services are online-only, therefore if you don’t have an Internet connection (or if it goes down), you could be without your data. This isn’t the case with an external hard drive, of course. Cloud services require a lot of faith in the fact that you’ll have an “always on” connection, anywhere and anytime — even at 30,000 feet.

  1. Ample storage

Rather than only getting only a few gigabytes of free storage, per account, external hard drives are often measured in terabytes – more than 1,000 gigabytes (and you can get a 1TB external drive for about $50 these days). If you’re a digital packrat who downloads and stores a ton of music, movies, TV shows and photos, you’ll need more capacity than what free cloud storage solutions offer.

  1. Is your data safe?

While cloud storage protects your data from local threats, it doesn’t mean you’re home free. It’s not impossible for someone to guess your password to gain entry. And it doesn’t mean your data can’t be hacked either. Plus, how well do you trust the company you’re giving your data to? Do you know where your data is being physically stored? Has the company had any recent security breaches?

  1. Easy backup

While a couple of cloud services offer an auto-backup feature, more hard drives have software that can perform scheduled or one-click backup of all your important files. Or, with the Canadian-invented Clickfree drives, you don’t need to click anything – just plug it into your computer and let it find and back-up all your important files for you. Offline backup is also much faster than cloud storage – especially with USB 3.0, SATA, FireWire and Thunderbolt drives.

  1. Best of both worlds

Many of the external hard drives you buy today also have a cloud component: they let you access your files not just anywhere in your wireless network – which can be handy when trying to access your media on a Smart TV — but also when you’re away from home, too (cellular or Wi-Fi). For a “best of both worlds” approach, consider products like Seagate’s Personal Cloud or WD’s My Cloud.

Sidebar: Cloud safety tips

While there are more professional-grade cloud options with beefier security, many Canadians use mainstream cloud services to back-up a few gigabytes of important files for free.

While these solutions are relatively safe, there are a few things you can do to reduce the likelihood of anyone breaking into your cloud account – such as Dropbox, iCloud, OneDrive, and the like.

The first step is to create a strong password no one could possibly guess. A good password is at least 7 or 8 characters long, has a combination of letters, numbers and symbols and mixes upper and lower cases. Some security experts say you can also create a long word string instead, such as “drivingdownthedirtroad” or “giantbluehippoface,” as examples.

If you use these cloud apps on your phone or tablet, ensure you’ve set up a password, PIN or pattern to gain access to these devices, in case your mobile device is lost or stolen.

Possibly the best thing you can do, however, to ensure you’re the only person who has access to your files, is to set up “two-step verification” on your account. This optional but highly recommended security feature adds an extra layer of protection to your cloud account as it not only requires your password to log in, but also a randomly-generated, one-time security code sent to your mobile phone (via text message or an app). Only once you type in the code and your password will you gain access to your files.

Finally, keep in mind, while cloud storage protects your data from local threats, even large companies have experienced data breaches. If you’re really nervous about this, you can always encrypt (password-protect) your files on your computer before uploading them, or be selective about what you upload to the cloud service.

For more of Marc’s tech tips, tricks, news and reviews, follow him on Twitter: @marc_saltzman

Marc Saltzman - Freelance Journalist and Broadcaster, Technology Expert

Marc Saltzman is one of North America’s most recognizable and trusted tech experts, specializing in consumer electronics, business technology, interactive entertainment and Internet trends. Marc has authored 15 books since 1996 and currently contributes to more than 40 high-profile publications in North America, including USA Today, MSN, Yahoo, Costco Connection, Toronto Star, Postmedia, Telus Talks […]