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by Mauricio Prinzlau • published: 2012/12/05 • updated: 2014/01/14

Online Backup vs External Hard Drive

obrBy 05 Dec'12Google+

One of the most frequent questions we receive is: why would I trust in online backup service instead of backing up my files on an external hard drive? At first sight an external hard drive has many advantages: it is fairly cheap, you can backup your data very fast, everything is under your control and you can keep it with you at all times.

While having a backup on an external hard drive is better than having no backup at all we think that backing up to external hard drives has major disadvantages, too. We are strong advocates of having multiple backups, with at least one backup off-site (for example with an online backup service).

In this article we’ll look at online backup versus external hard drives and show you which option we think is best. 

External Hard Drives
External hard drives 

External hard drives have become very cheap and with new USB 2.0 devices connection speeds have increased dramatically. You can get an external hard drive of 1 TB for $100 at Amazon. But what are the advantages and disadvantages of using an external hard drive for backup? 


  • External hard drives can give you cheap storage

As we’ve mentioned above, storage prices decreased dramatically so that you can get a 100 or 200 GB hard drive at very affordable rates. Also, sizes have decreased making external hard drives extremely portable and lightweight. That way you can carry your external hard drive around making sure you have all the important files you need with you.

  • External hard drives are quite fast

The newer models of external hard drives use USB 2.0 making data transfer to and off your computer very fast. That way you can transfer a 2 GB photo album in one or two minutes. That makes backup very fast, too.

  • External hard drives do not have ongoing costs

Once you purchase an external hard drive there are no costs associated with maintaining that external hard drive whatsoever. You do not have to pay monthly fees, nor do any maintenance to keep your drive is running.

  • External hard drives can be very secure

As you are in full control of your hard drive and your data, you can encrypt your files as much as you like making your external hard drive a secure file vault. That is especially useful, if you have sensitive data that no one else should read or see.


  • Hard drives fail. And your data can be lost.

One thing that you have to keep in mind is that an external hard drive remains a hard drive in the end. The problem with spinning discs is that they fail very frequently. You can be lucky and keep your same external hard drive for a couple of years but in some cases it only takes weeks until a hard drive says goodbye.

  • Your hard drive is always with you. That’s a good thing, right?

At first sight this seems to be a great advantage. You can take your hard drive wherever you are and access your files. But what if there is an accident, like a fire, or your laptop case gets stolen? Then, you will not be able to recover that data.

  • An external hard drive always has to be connected with your machine

In order to access your external hard drive that has to be connected to your machine all the time. If you forget to connected or take it with you you do not have access to your data. Just imagine you have to give a speech but you forgot your presentation at home on your external hard drive. That would be quite embarrassing, wouldn’t it?

  • You have to manage your security

If you are very tech savvy then this might be an advantage because you can manage all the security options that you like your data to have. But for most people this will be an overwhelming task and they rather not encrypt their data all. This will inevitably expose them to security risks.

Online Backup
Online backup services

Online backup and storage has become quite popular in the last couple of years because storage price has decreased dramatically. Therefore, providers can offer online backup at ridiculous prices, it is even possible to offer unlimited online backup for five dollars per month.



  • Online backup is very affordable 

If you are new to online backup you might think that it is an expensive deal. Of course, it can be if you are looking for online backup for a small business. But for consumers it is actually quite cheap. You can get online backup for as little as three dollars per month. Look at Carbonite, for example, that will allow you to backup an unlimited amount of files for only $59 per year.

  • Access your files from anywhere

One of the major advantages of online backup is that you can access your files from anywhere in the world without having to think to take some external device with you. You can access your files from any browser in the world and download the file you need. Sugar sync is a great way to access your files from anywhere in the world and synchronize your files across multiple machines.

  • Share your files with friends and family

Some online backup services, like SpiderOak, allow you to share files and folders with friends, family and colleagues. That way, online backup is very versatile. 

  • Online backup takes care of your file security

Many of the larger online backup corporations will take care of file encryption for you. They will encrypt files that are on your machine and then once again on their servers. This is more encryption than most people need. Using an online backup service you can make sure you’re never forget about encryption.

  • Your files are safe

Apart from security, your files are stored off-site. That way even if your laptop gets stolen or there’s a fire in your house, your data remains safe at the provider’s data centers. Even if your hard drive fails, you can be sure to get everything back up and running in just a couple of hours.


  • You have to trust

As you send your files to a relatively unknown third-party, you have to trust that they treat your files with care and utmost security. Once you send your files over, they still remain your control, but they are no longer only on your computer. Many providers do have the option to encrypt files locally, so that your files can only be seen by the owner of the encryption key – and that would be you.

  • Initial backup can be slow

Backing up online can be very slow depending on your Internet connection and several other factors. However, this is only true for initial backup because first all of your files have to be transferred. Incremental backups are going to be almost as fast as with an external hard drive, because only the changed portions of a file have to be uploaded. SOS online backup, for example, provides you with incremental and continuous backup.

  • You have ongoing costs

If you sign up for an online backup service you’ll have to pay a small monthly fee so that you can upload your files to that service. However, if you have to pay for an external hard drives every two years this can amount to the same costs.

So, which option is the right for you?

If you only had one option to backup your files would definitely recommend signing up for an online backup service. The advantages and flexibility you get from those services outweigh those of external hard drives. 


The good thing is, you do not have to rely on one single backup. That way, we recommend you backup on an external hard drive, using Time Machine (if you are working on a Mac) or Genie Backup (if you working on Windows) and using an online backup service as an additional backup layer.

If you are unsure which provider to choose we highly recommend having a look at our comparison chart or read some of our backup reviews.


Tell us your opinion! How do you use backup? The backup on an external hard drive or an online backup service? We’d love to hear your experience.


By Mauricio Prinzlau – News Editor in Chief
05 Dec'12 Contact Google+
Growing up in cold and rainy Hamburg, Mauricio Prinzlau had a semi-legitimate excuse for passing his time in front of the computer as a kid. After a degree in Business Communication Management, he joined the team as a managing editor and backup expert, where he's in charge of the reviews section.

One Comment

  • Comment by Mitchell Allen

    Mauricio, I agree. I would even go so far as to demote external hard drives to a lower priority than cloud!

    The reason is that I recently found out the my Western Digital MyBook 3TB drive uses hardware encryption! When the USB connection failed, my – presumably – intact hard drive became inaccessible. Worse, the quality of this line of drives is questionable, but the only way to read the data is to buy another MyBook, break it open and swap drives!!!

    (Well, that’s what keeps popping up in Google searches. There are ways to convert the SATA drive for non-encrypted use, but those don’t help me recover my data.)



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