Does it still make sense to buy a big hard drive?

For a long time the rule was to "buy the biggest drive you can afford." But is that still necessary?

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
3 min read
You can now outfit your PC with a 4TB hard drive. But should you?
You can now outfit your PC with a 4TB hard drive. But should you? Seagate

Today only, over at Rakuten.com, you can buy a Seagate Expansion 4TB USB 3.0 hard drive for $139.99 shipped when you apply coupon code 5419C15 at checkout.

Four terabytes. For $140. That's quite possibly the best storage deal I've ever seen, at least in terms of price per terabyte.

On the other hand, what on earth would a person do with that much space? Sure, if you use your PC as a media center and record a lot of high-def TV shows and movies, this would be great. (Flip side: If you're hoarding 4TB worth, you need to get out more.) Or if you shoot and edit video, you'll definitely want the biggest drive you can get.

However, I think we've reached the point where the storage rules have changed. Thanks in large part to the cloud, most users no longer need such vast expanses of digital space. Which brings us to the question: does it still make sense to buy a big hard drive?

Size doesn't matter -- anymore
Once upon a time, if you were shopping for a computer, you were advised to "buy the largest hard drive you can afford," the idea being that eventually you'll run out of space. We installed increasingly bloated applications and stored an ever-expanding library of documents and media, always with an eye on how much space we had left -- and it was never quite enough.

But when was the last time that happened? When was the last time you couldn't install a program or copy any more photos from your camera because you didn't have the room? In recent years, hard drives grew so capacious -- and so cheap -- that insufficient space ceased to be an issue.

At the same time, cloud storage and services have obviated the need to have a big drive at all. Consider: instead of a big, bloated office suite like Microsoft Office, you could wrangle all your business documents in Google Docs -- which requires zero space on your drive. And the documents themselves can reside in Google Drive (among other places), again leaving zero local footprint.

Of course, apps and documents are small potatoes when it comes to consuming storage. The big culprits have always been media: music, photos, videos.

Nowadays, though, we keep our photos on iCloud or Instagram, listen to music streamed from Pandora and Spotify, and watch videos streamed from Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, and the like. Indeed, I record a lot less TV on my media center than I used to because these streaming services eliminate the need.

In other words, I'm pretty much done chasing terabytes. I do like having an external drive on hand for backups, but when my primary drive is relatively small (see below), I certainly don't need much external capacity.

SSD for you and me
There's another consideration here: solid-state drives. SSDs run considerably faster than their mechanical counterparts. They consume less power, generate less heat, and survive even the hardest knocks and drops. However, for the moment, in capacity they can't touch what hard drives offer, nor can they in price: a 512GB SSD typically sells for around $400, and few manufacturers currently offer anything larger.

But so what? I'm at the point where I'd gladly choose a 128GB SSD over, say, a 500GB HDD -- which is exactly what I did when I bought my last computer, a Samsung ultrabook. I've used only about 60 percent of the space, and I'm enjoying the benefits of lightning-fast startup and shutdown and all-day battery life.

To answer my own question, then, no, it no longer makes no sense to buy a big hard drive, at least for me. The smarter move is to choose a smaller solid-state drive, then make use of cloud services wherever possible if you bump into the storage ceiling.

OK, enough out of me. What's your take on modern storage? Do you prefer the comfort and breathing room of a huge local drive, or do you find you can get by with a lot less space -- especially in exchange for the awesomeness of an SSD? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.