Mobile storage: cloud vs. flash drive

There are pros and cons to both low-cost cloud options and using inexpensive flash drives.

Having access to some important files is a common need for most of us these days. It doesn't matter if you're 15 of 50 (or any age in between). A home work assignment for kids, lecture notes and projects for college students, a sales presentation on the road for adults, or even just the latest photos and videos from a family vacation that you want to share or compile into a home movie. In my case it's often training materials for a client or one or more articles or blog posts in half-finished form that I worked on at my local Starbucks.

Whatever the content, we're working, researching, reviewing, and playing with information in more ways and in more places than ever before – not to mention on a greater ranger of computers and digital devices before.

Finding the best way to carry all these projects and snippets of information with us isn't as easy as it was say twenty years ago when things like floppy disks were universal and offered enough storage space. Today's bigger files sizes and range of devices challenges those 1990s approaches and leaves two big contenders: online storage via cloud service or inexpensive flash drives or even tiny portable hard drive that fit in even the smallest of pockets.

This week saw announcements on both fronts. Iomegaboth announced a tiny USB 3 hard drives that could store as much as a quarter terabyte (256GB) of data. On the other front, announced an upgrade to its free cloud storage from 1GB to 5GB.

While most of us don't need 256GB of data with us, flash drives offer us 5GB for a tiny cost. Multiple flash drives or larger capacity ones will strain no one's budget. The same can be said of the free and paid cloud options (some of which over five times that much storage) from, DropBox, Microsoft's SkyDrive, Amazon's S3, and Apple's Mobile Me.

So, which is better: portable drives you can always carry with you or online storage you can access anywhere? There's no right or wrong choice, and there's nothing wrong with a combination of the two. But here are some things to consider about each option depending the type of data and how broad your needs to access it may be:

  • Diverse devices – Most computers can access flash drives, but smartphones and tablets may not be able to (and managed school and work devices may have restrictions on external drives) – advantage cloud
  • Internet-required – All cloud services need an Internet connection to deliver your data (be it wired, Wi-Fi, or 3G/4G) – advantage flash drives
  • Security – Flash drives generally work with no setup, but without extra action aren't secure (anyone who finds the drive can access anything on it) – and securing them may limit widespread access, while cloud solutions come with encrypted connections and a username/password combo – advantage cloud
  • Cameras, TVs, and photo printers – the use of flash media (dedicated USB sticks or SD cards that rely on a USB reader) has advanced to some devices that don't support Internet access like digital cameras, printers, photo stations in supermarkets and drugstores, and even many HDTV sets – advantage flash drives

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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