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Types of storage devices

Explore the many ways to boost your digital storage capacity and find the right solution for you.

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Figuring out how to store precious photos and important files can feel overwhelming. It’s worth remembering, though, that storage capacity is no longer dependent on the capacity of your computer. There are plenty of options at every price point for stashing files while saving storage space on your computer, phone, or tablet. Here, we’ll break down your choices–from cloud storage to hard drives.

Cloud storage

Cloud storage is the newest, most versatile type of data storage. “The cloud” is not one place, but a huge collection of servers housed in data centers around the world. When you save a document to the cloud, you’re storing it on these servers. Because cloud storage keeps everything online, it doesn’t consume any of your computer’s secondary storage, allowing you to save space

This option boasts significantly larger storage capacity than physical options such as USB flash drives, hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs). Cloud storage saves you from having to hunt through your devices to find the right file, and allows you to travel light. (It also won’t leave you in a pinch: Our founder actually invented Dropbox after forgetting his USB flash drive for an important out-of-state meeting!)

In the era of remote work, cloud computing is thriving: It acts as a bridge between async workers, making collaboration from afar–such as transferring a large file to a colleague–a breeze. 

Crucially, if you break or lose a hard drive or USB flash drive, it’s unlikely you’ll ever get that data back. These risks don’t exist for cloud storage—your data is backed up and accessible whenever and wherever you are so long as you have access to the internet.

Digital data storage is measured in megabytes (MB), gigabytes (GB), and terabytes (TB). Dropbox–a cloud storage provider where you can utilize 5 terabytes (TB) and up of storage– doesn’t use up any of your computer disk space.

Online Backup

Cloud storage is a great solution for storing individual files and folders, but you should also secure all your content using online backup. Dropbox Backup–which is part of all our plans–can eliminate the headaches of a broken, lost, or stolen computer by automatically backing up a copy of your files and folders that you can quickly recover from the cloud. It’s also helpful if you ever need to set up a new computer or laptop: Instead of tracking down all of your content from various drives or cloud accounts, Backup gets your new computer up and running in a few clicks.

Computer Storage: RAM and external storage devices

Video describing how backup makes migrating files to a new computer easy.

Primary storage in computer systems: Random Access Memory

Random Access Memory, or RAM, is the primary storage of a computer–the hardware where the operating system (OS), application programs and data in current use are kept so they can be quickly reached by the device's processor. Any file you create or save on your computer saves there temporarily. Every computer has both primary and secondary storage; it’s necessary for saving files and running tasks and applications.

When you’re working on a file on your computer, it will temporarily store data in your RAM. RAM allows you to perform everyday tasks like opening applications, loading webpages, editing a document or playing games. It also enables you to jump from one task to another without losing your progress. Generally speaking, the larger the RAM of your computer is, the easier it will be for you to multitask.

Secondary storage

Every computer also has another storage drive–secondary storage–used for storing information on a long-term basis. (Translation: RAM is crucial to what you’re doing right now, but secondary storage enables you to pick up your work later.) Any file you create or download saves to the computer’s secondary storage. Generally speaking there are two types of storage media used as secondary storage in computers: hard disk drives (HDDs) and solid state drives (SSDs).

Secondary storage devices are often removable–with notable exceptions, as with MacBooks–so you can replace or upgrade your computer’s storage, or move your storage drive to a different computer.

External storage devices

In addition to the storage space your computer contains, you can purchase external, standalone storage drives, which helps with easy file transfers from one device to another. (If you eventually choose to transfer files from external drives to the cloud, we can help with that, too!)

External HDDs and SSDs

You can get both HDDs and SSDs as external drives. These generally offer the largest storage capacity among external options, with external HDDs typically offering up to 22 terabytes (TB) of storage and external SSDs usually offering up to 8 TB of storage.

External HDDs and SSDs work in precisely the same way that their internal counterparts do, and can connect to most computers. They’re decent–though slightly unwieldy–solutions for transferring files across devices.

Hard Disk Drives (HDDs)

The hard disk drive (HDD) is the original hard drive. These magnetic storage devices have been around since the 1950s, though they’ve evolved over time. HDDs are used for TV recorders, servers, and laptop and PC storage.

Solid-State Drives (SSDs)

Solid-state drives emerged far more recently, in the ‘90s. Unlike hard disk drives, SSDs don’t rely on magnets and disks, but instead use a type of flash memory called NAND. In an SSD, semiconductors store information by changing the electrical current of circuits contained within the drive. SSDs not only work faster and more smoothly than HDDs, they also generally last longer. (HDDs are vulnerable to damage and wear). Outside of newer PCs and high-end laptops, you can find SSDs in smartphones, tablets, and sometimes video cameras.

Flash memory devices

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A flash memory device–sometimes called a USB stick, a memory stick, or a thumb drive– contains trillions of interconnected flash memory cells that store data.

These small, portable storage devices have long been a popular choice for extra computer storage–and they can hold up to 4 terabytes. Before it was quick and easy to share files online, flash drives were essential for easily moving files from one device to another. They can only be used on devices with a USB port, though. Most computers have a USB port of some sort, but newer ones, such as USB-Cs, may require adapters.

In addition to USB drives, flash memory devices also include SD and memory cards, which you’ll recognize as the storage medium used in digital cameras.

Optical Drives

CD-Roms, DVDs, and Blu-Ray discs are used for a lot more than playing music and videos—they also act as storage devices. Collectively, they’re known as optical storage devices or optical media, and use lasers to read binary code–minuscule bumps along a track that spirals outwards from the center of the disk. CDs can store up to 700 MB of data, DVD-DL can store up to 8.5 GB, and Blu-Ray can store between 25 and 128 GB of data.

Floppy Disks

While they may be obsolete at this point, we can’t discuss storage devices without at least mentioning the humble floppy disk, aka the diskette. Floppy disks were the first widely-available portable, removable storage devices. The storage capacity of floppy disks never exceeded 200 MB, and the iMac was the first personal computer released without a floppy disk drive in 1998.

The best way to store large amounts of data

If you're running out of space on your devices, it's time to look into an alternative data storage device. Even external storage devices such as flash drives can run out of space, break, or get lost. That's why the best way to store all your files is in the cloud. It's safer, faster, and easier to access. We hope to see you there!

Think outside the hard drive–shaped box

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