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Cloud storage vs. external hard drives: Which really offers the best bang for your buck?

Ben Taylor | July 11, 2014
By now, you know the basic arguments in the on-site versus off-site storage debate. External hard drives are fast (everything backed up in minutes!) and safe from hackers (you control the data), but are susceptible to theft, fire, and hard drive failure. Meanwhile, cloud solutions provide ongoing, reliable service, but are slower than on-site solutions, and (theoretically) more vulnerable to hackers.

By now, you know the basic arguments in the on-site versus off-site storage debate. External hard drives are fast (everything backed up in minutes!) and safe from hackers (you control the data), but are susceptible to theft, fire, and hard drive failure. Meanwhile, cloud solutions provide ongoing, reliable service, but are slower than on-site solutions, and (theoretically) more vulnerable to hackers.

But for today, let's put aside the usual arguments and focus strictly on cost. Assuming your data will not be hacked, stolen, or burnt to a crisp in a house fire, which solution — cloud storage or an external hard drive — is more cost effective, byte for byte?

At FindTheBest, we compiled data on more than 400 external hard drives, including brands like Seagate, LaCie, and Western Digital, as well as more than 80 online backup services, including familiar names like DropBox and Box, as well as smaller companies like BackBlaze and Crashplan.

The Findings

Our first observation: External hard drives have a much more linear pricing structure than cloud services. The more space in a drive, the more you pay — simple as that. In the end, nearly all hard drives end up costing about 10 to 50 cents per gigabyte, with just a few exceptions on either extreme.

In the chart below, glide your mouse over the blue bars to see specific cost-per-gigabyte specs.

In contrast, online backup services vary widely, with features and plan types influencing the overall cost significantly. For instance, top-dollar online backup services often provide better file encryption, multiple restore points (e.g., the option to revert to either 6 hours, 2 days, or 2 months ago), and dedicated, 24/7 customer service. Inexpensive plans typically offer little more than a set-it-and-forget-it backup system. As such, the cost per gigabyte for online backup can range from a fraction of a penny to $10 or more.

Glide your mouse over the blue bars in the chart below to see these wild pricing differences among the cloud storage services.

The bottom line? Neither approach is flat-out more cost-effective than the other. Instead, it all depends on how much storage you need. So let's take a look at the full range of backup scenarios, from a tiny backup to a multi-terabyte solution. In each case, we'll pick the better option — assuming your goal is simply to save money, and nothing else.

The Mini Backup: 0 to 20GB

If you only need to back up a dozen gigs of photos and documents, we don't need to crunch any numbers. The clear solution is a free online backup service. Many big-name backup services, like Box and DropBox, offer plans from 5 to 10GB of storage at a cost of $0. Meanwhile, companies like ADrive and MEGA offer up to 50GB, free of charge.

 

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