The Smart and Easy Way to Protect Your Data
You can either tear out your hair when disaster strikes, or you can prepare for it ahead of time. Online backup services are one of the very best ways to protect yourself against loss of precious computer data, whether it’s a result of a crashed hard drive or an unintentional deletion.
Hard drive crashes and editing mishaps aren’t the only things online backup can protect you from. There are also more traditional disasters such as fires, floods, and earthquakes, which can spell the end of your digital media and documents. Even if you’re among the very few of us who diligently perform backups at regular intervals, those calamities can still result in data loss if you didn’t store backups off-site. That’s a good reason why an online backup service may be the best way to protect your irreplaceable digital goods.
Online backup services have you install software on you PC that scans your storage for files worthy of backup, encrypts them for security, and sends them up to the cloud—that trendy word that just means powerful, secure, and high-storage-capacity server computers attached to the internet with fast connections. Once your files are stored on those cloud servers, they’re accessible for you to restore to the same PC, should a file go missing. In most cases, the service also lets you access your files from a web browser or mobile device.
Though there’s some overlap, online backup services shouldn’t be confused with cloud storage and syncing services like Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive. Those services do store files in the cloud, but they aren’t designed to automatically protect all important documents and media files, let alone system files. Their strategy is generally to sync just one folder with all its subfolders to the cloud, and in some cases to offer online collaborative document editing. One crossover product is SugarSync, which lets you sync folders wherever they exist on your drive.
Online Backup Pricing Plans
Since you’re probably going to be paying for a backup service for years, you should know from the start what you’re getting into in terms of money. They’re all subscription-based, and there are many ways the vendors slice and dice the fees to make them seem appealing. Some backup services list prices by the month, but those prices often only apply if you commit to a one- or two-year contract. Some offer completely free accounts with lower storage allotments, but many only offer time-limited free trial accounts.
Some online backup services’ prices only cover one PC, while others specify a number of machines you can use in one account. Still others cover unlimited PCs, but limit the amount of data you can back up to the cloud server storage. To level the price playing field, we list the vendor’s principal stated plan for one year of service at the top of each review.
Choosing What to Back Up and When
How a backup service lets you choose which files to protect wildly varies, from the totally hands-free Backblaze, which selects the likely files you’d want to have backed up and immediately starts encrypting and uploading them, to SpiderOakONE and services like it, which simply let you choose whatever files you want from your PC’s folder tree.
Different services allow different types of files from differing sources. Some don’t let you protect system and program files. Others don’t let you back up files and folders on external or network drives. If you have any of those needs, make sure the service you choose supports them. Some services, like Acronis True Image Cloud, can back up your entire hard drive—the best protection against a total disaster claiming your computer.
There are two main ways a service can determine when files should be sent up to its servers for safekeeping. The first is by using a fixed schedule, such as once a day, week, or month. The second, which we find preferable, is to upload file changes as they’re saved on your computer, in a continuous backup setup. With this system, which is used by Carbonite and CrashPlan, most services only transfer the changed part of the file, so that your internet connection is not overburdened.
Security and Performance
Most services encrypt your files with strong systems such as AES 256 or Blowfish before sending them up to the servers. But how the encryption keys are generated is a big differentiator. Several services, such as SpiderOakOne offer a security-and-privacy option in which you alone possess the password, which is never stored on the service’s server computers. Others, such as SOS Online and CrashPlan can have you use a separate password from your main account password for the encryption.
The caveat for these higher levels of security and privacy is that, if you forget your passphrase, not even the provider’s employees will be able to restore your data. Even if compelled by law enforcement, they won’t be able to decrypt your files. Yet you’ll want it to be a strong, hard-to-crack password, too, since it will grant access to so much of your digital life. Your best bet is to use a password manager to keep track of it for you.
The speed with which a service can prep your files (usually involving encryption and compression) and transfer them to their servers doesn’t only impact how long it will take to get a large amount of data—often numbering many gigabytes—up to the servers. The speed also affects how much of an impact on your computer its processing will have. Make sure to check out our speed test results in the review of any service you’re contemplating purchasing.
Restoring Folders and Files
An online backup service isn’t much good if it doesn’t make easy the process of restoring your data and getting back to being productive. Look for a service that offers a search tool to find a particular backed-up file. It’s also desirable for a service to be able to replicate an entire folder-tree structure, so that it can deal with bigger data losses. One consideration in restoring is that if you bought a plan that covers just one computer, you may have to transfer the account to a new PC if you want to restore everything and use the service for that computer.
Versioning is another capability offered by many of the services. This lets you see earlier versions of a file in case you made some unwanted edits. Services vary widely in the number of versions saved and how long they’re kept. Some, like SOS Online Backup and CrashPlan, save every version forever. SOS even permanently saves files you’ve accidentally deleted from the source PC. Some providers don’t consider this an online backup function, but rather an archivingfunction. Call it what you like, it can save your bacon if you need an earlier file version or one that you deleted by mistake.
Web and Mobile Backup Clients
The web is everywhere these days, and the same should hold true for your backed-up files. What’s the point of having your documents and media in the cloud if you don’t have web access to them? Most online backup providers let you get at your files from a web browser, but capabilities vary. Many simply let you download the files, but some let you view documents and photos and play music and videos. File sharing is another feature you’ll find in online backup services’ web clients, and some services even let you specify a password for access and a timeout period for the shared file.
The same comment that applies for web access applies to mobile: You should have access to cloud-stored files no matter where you are and what device you’re using. Most online backup services offer Android apps and iOS apps, and some even offer Windows Phone apps. Like the services’ sites, these apps may just offer simple document and media file download, but many can also display the documents and photos and play the video and music. Many also offer the same file-sharing capabilities of their browser-based counterparts.
Online Backup Extras
Some services go an extra mile, with features above and beyond the call of duty. This includes things like letting you send an external disk loaded with your data to save you from uploading a massive number of gigabytes. Others will restore files using that same physical-disk method. For extra and closer-to-hand protection, some services include software that can back your data up to local storage. If you need faster access to data than cloud storage offers, you might also consider installing standalone local backup software. A couple of the services even can locate your devices and remotely wipe them in case they’re lost or stolen.