Why Use an Online Backup Service?
The top performers in our review are IDrive, the Gold Award winner; CrashPlan, the Silver Award winner; and Zoolz, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a service to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 services.
If you're on the fence as to whether you should back up your computer or not, hop off the fence and decide to do it, right now. Backing up your computer is the most important action you can take to protect your cherished family photos, videos, documents and all other important files stored on your hard drive. It doesn't matter whether you choose one of the online backup services in our comparison or if you choose PC backup software; developing a backup strategy that works for you is essential. Accidents are a fact of life. Hard drives wear out. PCs crash. Laptops are easily stolen or dropped. You may not think about it every day, but you're never more than a moment away from catastrophic data loss.
The fear of losing information is not new. Humans have struggled against losing information ever since time began. At first, we guarded against information loss by committing it to memory. But people forget. So information was passed on to others. But word of mouth is unreliable. So we carved information into stone, clay, metal, wood, animal skins, parchment and paper. But even these deteriorate, eventually. So we made copies of the original until we had libraries full of copies. And then came computers with hard drives.
With such advances in technology, it's tempting to think hard drives, encased in their metal and plastic shells, provide the best protection yet. But that's not the case. While hard drives allow you to literally store multiple libraries' worth of information in your palm, the technology has only heightened the threat of losing data. Hard drives are perhaps the most susceptible mediums for data loss. Consider this: The average lifespan of a hard drive is between four and five years. But a book can hold information for hundreds of years, if not thousands. A stone can last millennia. A hard drive is like a lightbulb – it eventually dies out and needs replacing. If you don't plan for this eventuality, then you're in for a bad day.
Determining Your Backup Strategy
When planning your backup strategy, the best place to start is the 3-2-1 backup strategy. Within the backup industry, the 3-2-1 strategy has long been considered the best principle for protecting your computer. This is because it's simple and effective. In a nutshell, the strategy is as follows:
Three: You should always maintain three copies of all your essential files. You can maintain more than three copies if you want. But three is the minimum. Redundancy is the key to protecting data. Think about it in this way: the third copy is like having a backup of your backup.
Two: You should store your files on at least two different formats. For example, you might have two copies on your primary hard drive and one copy on an external hard drive.
One: Always store one of the formats off-site. This protects information from being lost due to physical threats – theft, fire, flood, etc. If a catastrophic event happens to your home and you keep both formats on-site, then both formats will likely be destroyed.
With online backup services, you're able to achieve the 3-2-1 backup strategy in one simple action. Every cloud backup service we reviewed stores your copies redundantly off-site, which means that there are multiple copies of your files on their servers. If the backup service's hard drive (on which your data is stored) fails, there's always another copy. In addition, the servers are located off-site, away from your primary copies.
However, it's still a good idea to maintain a backed-up copy of your files on a second physical device that you maintain. This is as much for easy access as it is for protection. Having a local backup protects your data in the event that anything happens to the service. For example, if the cloud backup service goes out of business, which is rare but does happen, your data is protected on the local backup. Several of the top online backup services allow you to back up locally while also backing up to the cloud. This means that you can simultaneously copy files to an external hard drive or a friend's computer while uploading copies to the service's servers.
Choosing the Best Online Backup Subscription Plan: Finding the Best Value
The most important concern people have when looking into online backup services is the cost. You want to find the best value. Value is expressed in two ways – storage and devices. Every cloud backup service in our comparison offers multiple subscription plans designed around these parameters, determining your storage and the number of users or computers that you can attach to the account. In some rare cases, as with Carbonite, the cheaper subscription plans lack some advanced features like mirror image backup. But generally, the cost of the plans is built around storage and users.
Your first task is to determine how many computers and devices you want to back up. The average household has between three and five computers, but you may only want to back up one computer. You may also have 10 devices – desktop PCs, laptops, tablets and phones. Consider these devices too. With some cloud backup services, the cost grows with each device that you add. For example, Carbonite’s subscription is for one computer. For every device you add, the cost doubles. However, services like IDrive, which allow you to back up an unlimited number of devices on a single subscription, have the best value, because the cost remains the same with each computer you back up.
The second task is to determine the amount of storage you need. Storage needs to be considered carefully, because exceeding storage can result in additional costs or a freeze on an account. You always want to make sure you have plenty of storage available. For the sake of our review, we determined that 1TB of storage was the minimum requirement of storage for a small family. Services that didn't offer this much storage were disqualified from consideration because the cost to add more storage would be too much.
For example, Mozy is a well-known online backup service, but we didn't include it in our online backup comparison because the most storage available with their subscription plan is 125GB at $119.88 a year to back up three computers. If you want to add 20GB of storage, you have to pay an additional $2 per month. To back up 1TB, you'd pay about $1,169 a year. For comparison, IDrive costs just $44.62 a year to back up three computers (and it costs the same to back up five computers).
About half of the online backup sites we reviewed offer unlimited storage. One important distinction worth noting is that unlimited storage is rarely ever truly unlimited. If the service limits the number of computers, like Backblaze, then you're limited to the hard-drive capacity of the computer you're backing up. For example, if your computer only has 500GB, then your storage is limited to 500GB. In addition, if you read the fine print in the user agreement with most of these services, there is always a statement that the service can limit your storage if they feel it exceeds normal usage. So it's important to take "unlimited storage" with some reservation. While it's still generally better than a storage plan capped at 1TB, unlimited isn't always the best option.
Online Storage Services vs. Online Backup Services
Confusing online storage with online backup is a common mistake. In fact, many services within the industry confuse the terms, using them interchangeably. However, there is a difference, and it's an important distinction with how the files are treated on the server. Online backup services are designed around the facilitation of backing up and restoring your data, while an online storage service acts more like a virtual hard drive. Both services store files on servers and both services can meet the 3-2-1 backup strategy, which is why we've included some online storage services in our review of online backup sites.
Unfortunately, the reverse isn't true – a true online backup service can't be your online storage service. With a cloud backup service, if you delete a file on your computer, the file is also deleted from your online account, though you're given a grace period to restore it. For example, if you delete a file from your computer, Carbonite gives you 30 days to restore the file before permanently deleting it from their servers. On the other hand, online storage services store files forever. Your files are only deleted from the account if you log in to your account through a web browser and manually delete the files. However, online storage services, like Dropbox, are often more difficult to use in an automated backup setting because the interface is focused on storage and sharing.
Online Backup Services: What We Tested, What We Found
The biggest frustration with any online backup service is the amount of time it takes to complete your first full backup. This can take weeks and months depending on the amount of data you're starting with. After the first full backup, subsequent backups are much faster because the backup sets only need to update changes. As such, backup speed is one of the best indicators of performance. Likewise, the restore speed is another indication of performance. In both instances, the service's network bandwidth is being tested, as well as the performance of the desktop app, which process the data.
We also scrutinized the ease of use for both the backup features and the restore features. The best online backup service should provide an app with as little a learning curve as possible. A novice user should be able to immediately use the app without any problems.
We started with 30 online backup services. After eliminating eight products for costing too much, we tested 22 services. The best performing online backup services made our final comparison of 10 products.
When you initiate a backup set, you create a transaction between your computer and the service's servers. As such, there are many variables that affect backup speed. On your side of the transaction, speed is affected by the network, which is controlled by your internet provider. The same applies to the service's side of the transaction. They are limited by the quality of their network. Traffic on both sides of the transaction can influence backup speeds, so your backup could be faster in the middle of the night than in the busy part of the day.
In addition, backup speed is affected by your computer's processor, memory and general performance. With most backup services, the desktop app processes the data before uploading it. This means that it encrypts and compresses the data, which can be slower with a weak computer.
To evaluate the backup speed of each service on our lineup, we performed multiple backup sets and recorded the time it took to complete. To account for network traffic, we made sure the upload bandwidth was the same for each product, and we ran tests at morning, mid-day, evening, night, and middle of the night. We also ran tests on the weekend. Then we averaged the speeds to find the overall MB per minute for each service. Finally, we used this average speed and applied it to 1TB of data to determine the number of weeks to complete a full backup if the backup wasn't interrupted.
Unsurprisingly, the average speed in our tests was over a month, though some services were over six months. However, the fastest services, Dropbox and IDrive, were capable of backing up 1TB in less than a week, which is remarkably fast.
As mentioned, it's important to note that your backup speed may differ from our results. First, it's unlikely that you'll allow your backup to run uninterrupted for a month, hogging your bandwidth and CPU resources. As a result, the actual time it takes you to complete a full backup could take much longer. Our results are indicative of the speed and performance and not definitive. As such, you should treat it as an apples-to-apples comparison.
In this scenario, let's assume your hard drive stopped working or your Mac was stolen. Either way, you have to restore all your files, which means the service has to decompress and download the files. The same variables exist with restore speed as with backup speed – you're limited by your network provider's bandwidth, network traffic on both ends and computer specifications. To test this, we restored the backed-up data sets with each service. We performed each test multiple times on the same computer and the same network. We also tested this at various times of the day, including late at night and on weekends.
As with the backup speed tests, it's important to note you may experience faster or slower results. The goal of a test such as this is to provide a comparative platform – each service was tested in the same environment with the same download bandwidth on our network. Considering the average speeds as applied to 1TB of data, assuming that the speeds would remain constant, the service with the fastest restore, IDrive, could potentially complete the restore in less than three days. The slowest, Zoolz, would take over 104 days to restore the same data.
Ease of Use
Backing up a computer isn't just for the technical elite. Everyone who owns a device with important data on it should be able to back up their device without any trouble. As such, the best online backup services cater to the novice user. To test ease of use, we analyzed each stage of the backup and restore process – account setup and installation, full backup, automatic backup, full restore, and partial restore. We counted the steps and noted how well features are labeled and defined. We evaluated the interface. You should never be left asking what a symbol means or what the next step to the process is.
Top Ten Reviews seeks, whenever possible, to evaluate all products and services in hands-on tests that simulate as closely as possible the experiences of a typical consumer. We obtained the accounts in our comparison either on loan from the companies or through retail purchase. The services had no input or influence over our test methodology, nor was the methodology provided to any of them in more detail than is available through reading our reviews. The results of our evaluations were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
What Else Is Important in Selecting an Online Backup Service?
Many cloud backup sites come with a long list of features. Most of the features are superfluous to the average user, who just wants to protect their data. However, some features are more important than others. Below are some important features you should consider:
As mentioned earlier, it's a good idea to keep a backup on a local device in addition to your online account. Usually you'd use backup software for this, but many of the online backup services have a local backup feature built into the desktop app. This allows you to run backups to an external hard drive or even over a network to a friend's computer.
Every time you edit a file and hit save, you create a new version of the file. You might only see one file on your computer, but when the backup service uploads the changes, it also creates a new version of the file. Having multiple versions of a file is like having a time machine. It allows you to turn back the clock on the file. You can return to any point in the file's history, view the progress of the file or make new changes. While all backup services provide file versioning, most services limit the number of file versions. The best cloud backup services don't limit your file versions.
Backup Seeding & Courier Recovery
Since a full backup can take months, you may not have the patience to wait for your data to be protected, especially if you experienced a close call. To remedy this, some services offer backup seeding and courier recovery services.
Backup seeding is an option where the service sends you an external hard drive. Using the desktop app, you back up your data to the external hard drive and mail it back. It's physically added to the server. The process takes just a few days. Conversely, courier recovery is an option where they send you an external hard drive with your backed-up files on it and you restore it to your computer.
With most cloud backup services, backup seeding and courier recovery is an additional fee. However, IDrive provides both once per year as part of the subscription.
There is always risk when putting any data on the internet. Fortunately, cloud backup services know that data security is critical, so they encrypt your data. However, data encryption isn't always as safe as you think, so it's important to pay close attention to the service's security features. Most services utilize military-grade 256-bit AES encryption. Some services use an even higher bit level – 446-bit Blowfish encryption.
The most critical security feature is whether you own the encryption key or not. If you don't own the encryption key, then employees of the service can access your data. These services maintain the right to the encryption key for the purpose of serving warrants if they feel you're storing illegal documents. Best intentions aside, a private encryption key means that no one can access your data without your encryption key.
There is a downside to maintaining a private encryption key – you're responsible for making sure you don't lose or forget it. If the key is lost, then you can't access the files. The service can't reset the key.
We also looked into whether or not the online backup service owns and maintains their servers. We considered this to be an important security feature because it shows responsibility. The service controls the environment, the personnel and the security protocols. If the servers are ever compromised, you know that the service is responsible and not a third party like Amazon S3.
Help & Support
Most backup services are relatively easy to use but having excellent help and support features is important for those moments when the apps may not be working properly. You should look for FAQs, tutorials, user forums and a knowledgebase. These are all designed to help you overcome technical issues and make the most of your product. They offer a wealth of information that you can search for answers first before contacting customer support. In case you do need to contact customer support, most services offer telephone, email and live chat options.
Online Backup Services: Our Verdict & Recommendations
We awarded the Gold Award for best online backup service to IDrive primarily because it combines a high value with exceptionally fast backup and restore speeds. IDrive is also among the easiest cloud backup app to use. It comes with comprehensive backup and restore features, and the subscription includes backup seeding and courier recovery.
CrashPlan earned our Silver Award because the family plan offers exceptional value by providing truly unlimited storage to 10 computers. In addition, its performance was among the best in our review. Zoolz received our Bronze Award because of its exceptional value. And while the backup speed was just above average, the restore speed was exceptionally fast.
Amazon Cloud Drive and Dropbox are both online storage services that cracked our top 10 online storage services. While some of the backup features are lacking, both services provide excellent speeds for both backing up and restoring files. And both services provide high value. Dropbox can integrate with over 100,000 apps while Amazon Cloud Drive has unlimited storage and integrates with all your Amazon apps. Both services deserve some consideration.
Don't risk it. Protect your computer with an online backup service. All of the services on our lineup provide an easy, effective and affordable method to meet the 3-2-1 backup principle. With a cloud backup service, you don't have to worry about the threat of losing family photos, home videos, important documents and other critical information. To learn more, read our articles about online backup services.