Why Use an Online Data Backup Service?
The top performers in our review are IDrive, the Gold Award winner; CrashPlan, the Silver Award winner; and Zoolz Family, 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.
Protecting your computer with a backup strategy is one of the most important decisions you can make to avoid having a bad day in the future. Think about it: Your computer is the primary repository for family photos, home videos, important documents, projects and more. If you don't have a backup strategy, you could lose all of it in a single moment. Your hard drive could wear out and stop working. You could drop your laptop and break the discs. You could spill coffee across the keyboard and fry the motherboard. Someone could steal it. It doesn't matter if you choose one of the online data backup services in our review or PC Backup Software, you need to have a strategy to protect your important data.
Finding Your Data Backup Strategy
The best place to start is the 3-2-1 strategy, which is the most common strategy used by experts in the IT industry. It's the most common strategy because it works. The strategy is as follows:
Three: Every file that you want to protect should have at least three copies. You can maintain as many copies as you want. The more copies you have of a file, the less likely it'll be lost. However, three is the minimum. The best way to think about it is this: the third copy is a backup of your backup.
Two: Store the files on at least two formats. The primary copy is on your computer, but you need to have at least one copy on a second device. This can be in the cloud or on an external hard drive or a second computer. Basically, don't keep all your eggs in one basket. If you drop the basket, all the eggs break.
One: Store one of the two formats off-site. This principle protects against physical threats like fire, flood, etc. If you store both formats in the same place and something catastrophic happens, then both formats are lost.
The beauty of online data backup services is the fact that you can achieve the 3-2-1 backup strategy with one simple app. When backing up your files, the data is copied and uploaded to the cloud, which is a fancy way of saying the data is stored remotely on servers. While on the servers, the files are stored redundantly, which means that there is always more than one copy. In other words, even if the hard drive on the server fails, there's a copy on a different hard drive. And since the servers are off-site, you achieve the last step of the principle.
However, many backup experts still recommend that you maintain a copy of your files on a second physical device, even if you back up to the cloud. The purpose of backing up to a local device is more for easy access to files as it is for protection. Restoring files over the internet can take weeks or months depending on how much data you need to restore. With a copy on a local device, you can restore data more quickly. It also protects against a data backup service going out of business, which is rare but always a possibility. The best online data backup services allow you to back up to a local device while backing up to the cloud.
Finding the Best Value in the Online Data Backup Subscription Plan
Cost is the greatest concern most people have when deciding on a cloud data backup service, and for good reason. Nobody wants to pay more than they can afford. There are two ways of looking at value in relation to the subscription cost: storage and devices. Every data backup service in our comparison offers multiple subscription plans that are structured in various ways. Typically, the subscription plan dictates the amount of storage and the number of computers or users. In rare cases, such as with Carbonite, the lower-tiered subscriptions lack advanced features, like mirror image backup and external drive backup.
First, consider how many computers and devices you want to protect. According to the services we polled, the average household has between three and five computers. If you have a family, then you need to look at subscriptions with multiple users because the cost of the subscription is diffused by the number of devices you protect. However, some subscriptions, like the ones offered by Carbonite, only allow you to back up one computer. These types of subscriptions hold the best value for individuals with one computer but lack value for a family.
Storage is the second consideration. Determining your storage requirements is critical because exceeding the allowed storage can result in a frozen account or additional fees. For the purpose of our review, we decided that 1TB of storage was the minimum requirement for a family. According to Apple, this is enough storage for two million family photos or thousands of home videos.
Services that don't offer 1TB of storage weren't considered for our review because the cost to reach our minimum requirements for an apples-to-apples comparison is too much. For example, Mozy is a well-known online data backup service, but the service only offers subscription plans up to 125GB of storage. That subscription costs $119.88 a year. You can add 20GB for $2 a month, but this raises the annual cost to $1,169 for 1TB of storage. In comparison, IDrive costs $59.50 a year ($44.62 for the first year) for 1TB of storage.
Many of the data cloud services in our review offer unlimited storage. However, unlimited storage is rarely ever truly unlimited. These types of subscriptions typically limit you to one computer, which means that you are actually limited by the hard drive of your computer. If your computer has a 500-GB hard drive, then you can't back up more than 500GB with an unlimited plan, unless the service provides archiving, which is when you can store files in the cloud without having the primary copy on your computer. Also, most of the services that offer unlimited storage state in the user agreement that they can limit your service if you exceed normal usage.
Cloud Storage Services vs. Cloud Data Backup Services
It might come as some surprise, but online storage services and online data backup services aren't the same. It's an easy mistake. Even many of the services within the industry use the terms interchangeably. But there is a difference. While both services store your files in the cloud, which allows you to meet the 3-2-1 backup strategy, online data backup services can't be used for online storage. With online storage services, your account is like a virtual hard drive, an online repository where you can upload files independently from your computer. You can delete files on your computer and the files can still exist in the cloud. In this way, your computer can have a 500-GB hard drive, but you can have 1TB of data stored online.
Unfortunately, the reverse isn't true – a true online data backup service can't act as an online storage service. If you delete a file on your computer, this change is reflected in the cloud when the app backs up your computer again. You are generally given a grace period to restore the file, but it's usually only 30 days.
To recap, you can use an online storage service as a backup option because these services protection your data, but you can't use an online data backup service for online storage. This is why we've included some online storage services, like Dropbox, in our review.
Online Data Backup Services: What We Tested, What We Found
When you start your first full backup set, you'll soon find it isn't a fast process. Each file has to be copied, compressed, encrypted and uploaded to the servers. Depending on your bandwidth, this process can take weeks and months to complete. This time can be an anxious period, especially if you've experienced a close call with data loss. Likewise, restoring your files can take a long time for the same reason. As such, we tested the backup and restore speeds because these are an excellent indication of performance.
We also closely evaluated the ease of use for both the backup features and the restore features. Backing up your important files isn't a task reserved for advanced computer users. This is something everyone should do, whether it's your first computer or your 100th.
The first evaluation we made was value. We closely evaluated the cost per computer value of more than 30 online data backup services at three levels: a large family with five computers, a small family with three computers and an individual with a single computer. Services that simply cost too much were dropped from consideration. This left us with 22 cloud data backup services, which we thoroughly tested. The best-performing services with reasonable value made our comparison of 10 data backup apps.
Every backup set is a transaction between your computer, the desktop app and the service's servers. As such, there are many variables at play that affect backup speed. For you, the speed of your internet bandwidth is the greatest variable, but the CPU and RAM of your computer also affect how fast the app processes the data. On the service's side, the server bandwidth affects speed. The service is limited by their own bandwidth, which fluctuates throughout the day depending on the number of people access the servers.
To test the backup speed, we performed many backup sets with data sets of varying sizes. We timed each data set to find the MB-per-minute rate of each service. The rates ranged anywhere between 5 MB and almost 300 MB per minute. Each data set comprised common file types – photos, videos, documents and music. We performed tests at all hours of the day and night, including weekends, to account for fluctuations in network traffic on both ends of the transaction. After all the tests were completed, we averaged the data to find the average MB-per-minute rate. Then we applied this rate to 1TB to find out how many days it would take to complete a backup, assuming the rate remained constant.
Unsurprisingly, the average speed of the 22 services we tested was over a month. The slowest speed was over six months. However, the fastest services, Dropbox and IDrive, posted speeds that suggest you could back up 1TB in less than a week, which is remarkable.
Of course, it's critical to emphasize that these speeds are comparative. The results aren't a definitive statement of speed, but a comparison of the services backing up the same data, on the same network and on the same computer. Since your network bandwidth differs from ours, you'll likely experience different results. In addition, it's unlikely that you'd run your first full backup set without any interruptions.
The restore speed is very similar to the backup speed, but in a reverse scenario. Instead of uploading the copied data to the cloud, you're downloading it. The desktop app still has to process the data, and the network bandwidth variables still affect the rate. To test the restore speed, we restored the backed-up data sets from our previous tests. As with the backup tests, we performed multiple tests at all hours of the day and night, including weekends. After the tests were finished, we averaged the data to find the MB-per-minute rate. Then we applied this rate to 1TB of data to determine the number days it would take to restore all of your data.
Generally, the restore speed was faster than the backup speed, but this wasn't always the case. The average restore speed in our tests was about 21 days, but the slowest speed was several months. Conversely, the fastest speed in our tests was less than three days. As with the backup speed tests, it's important to understand that these results are meant to be a comparison and may not reflect the speed you experience. The goal of our tests is to show how the services perform within the same environment.
Ease of Use
If you own a device with data on it that you don't want to lose, then you should back it up. This isn't some task reserved for the technical elite and IT managers. As such, it's important that cloud data backup services provide an app that's easy for everyone.
We recognize that ease of use is an inherently subjective measurement – what's intuitive to you depends on your experience level. To evaluate ease of use, we counted the number of steps it took with each service to initiate a backup and restore set. Fewer steps means there's less chance for a novice user to make a mistake. The best apps have between one and three steps, but some apps have as many as 13 steps.
We also evaluated the app's design. Features should be labeled with text, not just symbols. A user shouldn't have to learn how to use an app through trial and error. The settings should be easily accessible. The easiest apps have no learning curve for a novice user while the most difficult apps in our review require some prior experience with backup apps.
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 evaluation were not provided to the companies in advance of publication.
What Else Is Important in Selecting an Online Data Backup Service?
Many cloud data backup apps come with a long list of backup and restore features. Most of these features are superfluous to the average user, who just wants an app that protects data. However, we still feel that some features have more value than others. Below are some important features you should consider:
As mentioned earlier in this article, some apps allow you to back up to a local device in addition to the cloud. Backing up to a local device allows you to restore files much faster because you don't have to download the data. Some services, like CrashPlan, even allow you to connect to a friend's computer through a network.
When you work on a paper for school or a report for work, the document likely sees many revisions. Every time you change the document and hit Save, you create a new version of the file. With file versioning, these versions are stored in the cloud, allowing you to restore a file to previous versions. It's like having a time machine that allows you to go back and reverse any changes you don't like. File versioning also allows you to view the progress of the file. Every data backup service has file versioning, but most limit the versions. However, some services provide unlimited file versioning, allowing you to return to any version in a file's history.
Backup Seeding & Courier Recovery
If you don't have the patience to back up or restore files over the internet, some services offer backup seeding and courier recovery. In both cases, the service sends you an external drive. With backup seeding, the service sends you an empty hard drive. You back up to the drive and send it back. Conversely, courier recovery is the opposite. The service sends you an external drive with your already backed-up data on it. In both cases, the process takes days instead of weeks or months. However, this option can be costly, with the exception of IDrive. This service includes these options once per year as part of its subscription.
Any time you put data into a network that other people can access, there is a security concern. Fortunately, security is a significant priority among most online data backup services. Some services, like SpiderOakONE, even use security as the flagpole feature of their service. Most services protect data with 256-bit AES encryption and SSL encryption during transfers.
For the best security, look for services that utilize zero-knowledge encryption. A zero-knowledge policy means the service never stores the encryption keys on their servers and they never view or access your files. When you have the option to own your encryption key, you are the only one who can view the files. Of course, this has some downside: Forgetting the encryption key means you can't access your files.
You should also look for services with two-step verification. This is a process that protects against front-door access to your account. The most common way for a hacker to access your data is by gaining access to your password. With two-step verification, also referred to as two-factor authentication, the login process has two steps. In the first step, you enter your login as you normally would, but instead of letting you into your account, the service sends you a PIN via text message, phone call or email. In this way, your presence is required.
Help & Support
If you have problems with your account or with your app, it's important to have the necessary support in place. We looked for proper communication channels: phone, email and live chat. We also looked for FAQs, tutorials, user forums and a knowledgebase. Each of these support features is designed to minimize your learning curve and help you make the most of the app.
Online Data Backup Services: Our Verdict & Recommendations
IDrive earned the Gold Award for best online data backup service because of its extremely high value, exceptional performance and ease of use. The backup and restore speeds were excellent, and it received the highest overall ease of use grades in our evaluation. IDrive also has comprehensive backup and restore features and excellent security.
CrashPlan earned our Silver Award. The family plan provides good value with truly unlimited storage for up to 10 computers. The app also performed well in our backup and restore tests, and it was among the easiest apps to use. The Zoolz family plan received our Bronze Award because of its above-average value and performance.
Amazon Cloud Drive and Dropbox Pro are the two online storage services that cracked our top 10 online data backup services. These apps lack many of the backup features you'll find with most data backup services, but they performed well in our tests and provide above-average value. For example, Amazon Cloud Drive offers unlimited storage for unlimited devices for just $59.99. Likewise, Dropbox posted the fastest backup speed in our tests. In addition, it can integrate with over 100,000 third-party apps, which makes it a very versatile service.
Protecting your computer with an online data backup service is important if you don't want to lose your family photos, home videos and critical documents. With a cloud data backup service, data loss becomes a minor inconvenience instead of catastrophic. To learn more, read our articles about online data backup and other service industries.