Online Backup vs External Hard Drives

obrBy Mauricio Prinzlau — Last Updated: 22 Jun'15 2012-12-05T08:08:41+00:00Google+

One of the questions we are most frequently asked is, “Why would I trust an online backup service instead of backing up my files on an external hard drive?” An external hard drive has many advantages: it is fairly cheap, you can back up your data very fast, everything is under your control, and you can keep it with you at all times.

Online Backup vs. External Hard Drives

Online Backup vs. External Hard Drives

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

In this article, we 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 the new USB 2.0 devices, connection speeds have increased dramatically. You can get an external hard drive of 1TB 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 mention above, storage prices have decreased dramatically, so you can get a 100GB or 200GB hard drive at a very affordable rate. Also, sizes have decreased, making external hard drives extremely portable and lightweight. You can now carry your external hard drive around, making sure you have all the important files you need with you.

  • External hard drives are quite fast.

Newer models of external hard drives use USB 2.0, which makes data transfer to and from your computer very fast. You can now transfer a 2GB 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 it whatsoever. You do not have to pay monthly fees or do any maintenance to keep your drive running.

  • External hard drives can be very secure.

As you are in full control of your hard drive and data, you can encrypt your files as much as you’d like, making your external hard drive a secure file vault. That is especially useful when 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 is still a hard drive at the end of the day. The problem with spinning discs is that they fail very frequently. You can be lucky and keep the same external hard drive for a couple of years, but in some cases, it takes only 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 and access your files wherever you are. But what if there is an accident, like a fire, or your laptop case gets stolen? Then, you will not be able to recover your data.

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

To access your external hard drive, it has to be connected to your machine all the time. If you forget to connect it or take it with you, then you have no other way to access your data. Just imagine you have to give a speech but you forgot your presentation on your external hard drive at home. That would be quite frustrating, 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’d like your data to have. But for most people, this is an overwhelming task, and they’d rather not encrypt their data at 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 ridiculously low prices; it is even possible for them to offer unlimited online backup for just 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, which allows you to back up an unlimited number 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 take some external device with you. You can access your files from any browser and download those you need. SugarSync is a great way to access your files from anywhere and synchronize them 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. Therefore, online backup is very versatile. 

  • Online backup takes care of your file security.

Many of the larger online-backup corporations take care of file encryption for you. They encrypt the files on your machine and those on their servers. This is more encryption than most people need. By using an online backup service, you can make sure you 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 your provider.

As you send your files to a relatively unknown third party, you have to trust that they treat your files with utmost care and security. Once you send your files over, they remain in your control, but they are no longer only on your computer. Many providers have the option to encrypt files only locally so that your files can be seen only by the owner of the encryption key: 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 true only for initial backup because all of your files have to be transferred then. Incremental backups are 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 drive every two years, this can amount to the same costs.

So, which option is right for you?

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


The good thing is you do not have to rely on just a single backup. We recommend you back up on an external hard drive, using Time Machine (if you are working on a Mac) or Genie Backup (if you are working on Windows), and use 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 reading some of our backup reviews.


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


2 thoughts on “Online Backup vs External Hard Drives”

  1. 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.)



  2. Hi Mauricio,
    Nice twist at the end to use both solutions. You really are right if a person’s data is that important. In our digital world a complete family photo album could be lost or a video library. In my case I am running more and more websites and I should charge clients for a back up service and make cost a mute point. Thanks for suggesting both.


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