Why Use Data Backup Software?
The top performers in our review are NovaBACKUP, the Gold Award winner; Acronis True Image, the Silver Award winner; and EaseUS Todo Backup Home, 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 applications.
When you purchase a lightbulb, you know it will eventually burn out. You don’t know when it will go dark. You just know that it will. Some lightbulbs can last years. Others burn out within months. Computers are no different. You don’t know when it will happen, but your computer will eventually burn out. Usually, when a computer dies, it’s not as simple as a burned-out lightbulb, but the principle remains – you’ll eventually have to replace it.
The difference between a burned out lightbulb and a dead computer is the potentially life-changing ripples that the latter can create. When your lightbulb goes out, you’re left in the dark. It’s a minor inconvenience that can be satiated with a flashlight or candles. But when your computer dies, you can lose a lot of sentimental and vital information. You can lose thousands of photos, home videos and music files, in addition to critical professional and financial documents. So much of our day-to-day life exists in some form on a computer that losing that information can be devastating.
Protecting your computer with a backup strategy is one of the most important decisions you can make to avoid having such a terrible day in the future. 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 best data backup software applications in this review or an online backup service, you need to have a strategy to protect your important data. Backing up your computer turns a potentially terrible event into a minor inconvenience, like changing a lightbulb.
Finding Your Data Backup Strategy
There are a countless number of ways you can back up your computer. You don’t even need data backup software to do it either. You can literally backup files by copy and pasting them onto an external drive. However, since files often change, especially documents and spreadsheets, this simple method can get out of hand really quickly.
The most common backup strategy used by IT experts is the 3-2-1 strategy. It's the most common strategy because it’s both simple and effective. You can customize your own strategy so that it fits your needs, but if you follow these principles, your data has the best chance of never being lost. The strategy is as follows:
Three: You should have at least three copies of every file you want to protect.
Obviously, you can create as many copies as you want, and certainly, the more copies you have of a file, the more difficult it is to ever lose. However, three copies is the minimum number. The best way to think about it is this: You have the main file on your computer, a backup of that file and a backup of the backup. This way, if anything should happen to your backup, you have an additional backup.
Two: Always store the files on at least two formats. You should never store all the backed up copies on the same computer. This is often referred to as the “all eggs” scenario, which is based on the principle that if you keep all of your eggs in one basket, you put yourself at a greater risk of losing all your eggs. If your computer crashes, dies or is stolen and you keep your backed up data on the same computer as your primary files, then you lose everything. So it’s critical that you keep at least one of the three copies on a second device, though it’s preferred that you keep each copy you make on a separate device. The device can be an external hard drive, a burnable DVD or CD, network attached drives, private servers, or an online cloud service.
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 one place and something catastrophic occurs, then both formats are lost.
Data backup software helps you achieve the first two steps, but it doesn’t ensure that you’ll store one format off site. You have to decide how to do this yourself. You can choose an online backup service, which is the easiest way to store your data off site. However, many people have concerns with the security of the cloud and don’t want to pay a monthly subscription. If you count yourself among this group, then you should keep the second format at a friend or relative’s house.
With most of the data backup software apps we reviewed, you can even back up to a remote computer via an internet connection. Similar in principle to backing up to the cloud, you direct the backed up data over your internet to a remote computer, which you can have set up at your office or a friend’s house.
To Back Up or Not: Prioritizing Your Files
With the best data backup software, you can choose to back up everything, including the operating system. In these instances, you are actually cloning your hard drive, allowing you to restore all your installed software and data on a different computer. However, these clone backup sets can take a long time to complete, and they can be tricky to restore. For most users, this is an advanced feature that will never be used. If you do, you’ll likely only use it once a year.
For most users, backing up commonly accessed files is the most important aspect of protecting data, rather than backing up esoteric system files. As such, you may want to consider which files are the most important to you before you complete your first backup set. In addition, since backup sets can take some time to complete, you want to protect your most important files first. Imagine your house is on fire and you only have a minute to save whatever you can – what are the files you would save first?
Sentimental: These are any files that hold sentimental value – photos of your children, home videos, journals, creative projects, etc. For most users, these are the types of files that hold the greatest priority, but this may not be the case for you. Sentimental files are irreplaceable. You can’t go back in time to take home videos of your son or daughter’s first steps.
Practical: These are files that hold practical value – tax returns, banking info, budget details, etc. You need these files to help with your day-to-day life. Losing them will create a major headache and can complicate your financial well-being, but you can recover from the loss.
Professional: These are past and present files that are connected to your career in some way – documents, spreadsheets, resumes and CVs, portfolios, networking connections, etc. You might very well rely on many of these files for your income, which means they hold actual financial value.
Entertainment: Entertainment files include movies, music, podcasts, etc. These are the files you use simply for entertainment. Losing these types of files is usually only temporary because they exist independently of your computer. You may have to repurchase the file, but it is replaceable.
System & Registry: These are the files that your installed software and operating system rely on. You never consciously open and use these files. If you back up these files and your computer crashes, you can restore the operating system and your installed apps with all the settings. In this way, you don’t have reinstalled all your apps one by one. However, restoring these files can be tricky and complicated, so backing them up is generally only recommended for advanced users.
Backup Software: Speaking the Lingo
As with any niche industry, there are specific terms the data-backup world uses that may be unfamiliar to novice users. If you’re unfamiliar with the lingo, you might find the product has a significant learning curve. Here are some common backup terms that you should familiarize yourself with:
Backup Set: This is any set of files you’re backing up at one time. Before you back up any file, you can customize which files you want to include. Once you’ve hit the Backup button, you’ve created a backup set. This helps maintain backups within the backup log, allowing you to track your backup sets.
Full Backup: The first time you back up your computer is the full backup. It doesn’t have to comprise of the entire computer. Your first full backup could be just your photos – you’re setting the foundation for additional backups, which are discussed below.
Incremental Backup: The data on your computer changes frequently. You might change a document, for example, a dozen times in an hour. These changes are addressed by the incremental backup, which is when the software only backs up the changes that you made since the last incremental backup. To restore an incrementally backed up file, the software needs the first full backup and all the incremental backups, like putting together a puzzle with one big piece and many small pieces.
The advantage of the incremental backup is that it’s fast. In addition, since you’re only backing up the changes since the last incremental backup, it barely impacts CPU resources. These backup sets also provide greater control over which file version you can control. Most automatic backup sets are incremental. However, since incremental backups consist of many parts, there’s a greater chance of failure when restoring the file. If any of the incremental backups are damaged or missing, you can’t restore the file.
Differential Backup: This differs from an incremental backup in that it backs up all the changes made to a file since the last full backup. So instead of many small backup sets, it consists of a full backup and one differential backup – the original backup plus the changes made to the file since.
The advantage of a differential backup is the restore process is more reliable and faster because it only consists of two parts. However, since differential backup sets are bigger incremental backup sets, it can hog your CPU resources, and it takes much longer to complete. Many users choose to do a differential backup once a month while using the incremental backup daily.
Cloud Backup: The cloud is term that’s become popular in recent years. Generally, a cloud backup is made over the internet to a server owned by an online backup service. The servers store backed up data from hundreds of thousands of users at a time. Data is constantly moving in and out of the cloud.
You can also create a private cloud by backing up to a private server or network-attached storage. When you back up to a private cloud, you can access the data from all of your devices.
Automatic Backup: An automatic backup is a feature where the data backup software runs backup sets automatically. How often the automatic backup runs vary with the software. Some run every fifteen minutes, relying on incremental backup sets, while others run automatically once a day. The important thing is that you don’t have to think about running backup sets with this feature.
Full Image Backup: This is a backup set where you create an image of the hard drive and make a copy. You perform this type of backup set when you want to be able to restore your operating system and installed software.
Data Migration: This is a feature that comes with most data backup software. The principle is very simple – you’re moving data from one computer or to another computer. Imagine buying a new computer. Data migration moves the operating system, apps and data from the old computer to the new computer.
Data Backup Software: What We Tested, What We Found
PC backup software can be loaded with features, most of which are superfluous to the average user, or they can offer little more beyond backing up your computer. Regardless of whether the app is loaded with features or not, the best PC backup software apps perform well in several categories – backup speed, restore speed, data compression, CPU usage and ease of use.
To ensure that each product in our review was tested in the same environment, we installed and tested each program on the same test computer. In this way, the results produced by each backup app were recorded on the same computer, with the same processor, RAM and hard drive. We also backed up to the same external hard drive and used the same data with each backup set we ran.
It’s important to note that your computer has different components with different specifications. You also have different data with varying potential for compression. As such, you’re not likely to have similar speeds or compression rates as we found. Because of this, we graded our results to reflect the relative comparison of the software performing on the same computer with the same data.
Ease of Use
Backing up data is something that everyone with a computer should do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a first-time computer user or an IT manager with a master’s degree in computer science. Nobody should be excluded from protecting their data because they lack the technical experience. As such, the backup software you use for your home computer should not cater to the advanced user. It needs to be easy and intuitive to use for people of every experience level.
We acknowledge that ease of use is an inherently subjective measurement. Your learning curve will depend on your level of experience. That said, we evaluated and graded the ease of use from the perspective of a novice user. We counted the number of steps it took with each app to initiate a backup and restore set. We evaluated how well the app was designed and how the interface directs a user from one step to the next.
The best backup software is clearly designed for a novice user. Many of the apps in our review, however, had overly technical interfaces that make it easy for such users to get lost. These apps are not inherently worse than the easier apps. They are simply designed for a user with a higher technical level of experience – one who wants to have more control than a standard novice. Still, our review focuses on the novice user, which is why these products have lower grades.
The first full backup set you perform can take many hours, especially if you have a 1TB hard drive that is nearly full. Every file in the backup set has to be read, processed, compressed, encrypted and written to the destination device. This is the most important factor with backup software performance. The best backup software is capable of processing data quickly so your computer’s resources aren’t hogged for long.
We ran multiple backup sets to determine average speeds. We ran backup sets with full compression, and we ran sets with no compression. Some sets had encryption, and some sets had none.
After nearly thirty hours of testing and after all the data was collected, we were able to compare the speeds and grade the data backup software accordingly. Products with a C grade were average, with higher grades being much faster and lower grades being much slower. If the speeds were applied to 1TB of data, then the fastest product in our review would complete the backup in about 10 hours, while the slowest product in our review would complete the same backup set in about two and a half days.
The restore speed is very similar to the backup speed but in reverse. The software has to convert the processed backup data and write it to a new device. This process can involve decompression and de-encryption. As with the backup process, you should expect it to take a significant about of time when restoring large amounts of data. In addition, we graded the average speed, and products with an average speed received a C grade. The difference between the fastest speed and the slowest speed was similar to the backup speed tests.
One product, O&O AutoBackup, has no restore feature. It simply copies data from one device to another. This means you have to manually move files from the backup location to your computer when you need to restore them. The process isn’t difficult and doesn’t take a long time. However, the app still received a failing grade for this criteria because it doesn’t actually involve itself with the restoring process.
The best backup software doesn’t hog your resources and runs in the background while you use other apps. To test this, we monitored the CPU usage throughout the backup and restore tests. We recorded the average CPU usage for each backup and restore set we performed and then averaged the data and graded the results.
Products with an average grade used between 16 and 20 percent of our CPU, which is a quad-core processor. If your computer only has a dual-core or single-core processor, you can expect much higher CPU usages that can result in a significantly slower computer when you’re running backup and restore sets.
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 PC backup apps in our comparison through retail purchase. The software developers 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 a Data Backup Software?
Many data backup apps have a long list of advanced features that only IT managers are capable of using effectively. Still, there are some features that even novice users should consider. We list some of these feature below:
If you’re like most people, you have important data stored on your computer that you don’t want other people to view – financial records, social security numbers, private correspondences, etc. When you back this information up, you want to encrypt it so only you can view the files when you restore them. Some apps provide up to four encryption options, while other services only allow you to put a password on the backup set. More encryption options are ideal because some data requires more security than other data.
The best data backup software easily integrates with cloud services. We discussed online backup services previously in this article, but backing up to the cloud is a very good idea. Not only does it ensure your backed up data is protected off site, but it has a very high level of data redundancy. When data is stored on the servers that cloud backup services use, the data is constantly redundant. Often, the data is stored in multiple locations to ensure geo-redundancy. Generally, you have to pay a monthly or yearly subscription fee, but some apps provide free online backup storage for the first year.
Help & Support
If you have problems 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 on each company’s website. Each of these support features is designed to minimize your learning curve and help you make the most of the data backup app.
Data Backup Software: Our Verdict & Recommendations
The best data backup service in our review is NovaBACKUP. It earned the Gold Award for being both easy to use and fast for both the backup process and the restore process. This app is technical enough to appease high-level tech experts while being easy enough for a novice user.
Acronis True Image earned our Silver Award for best data backup software. Similar to NovaBACKUP, it was very fast and very easy to use in our testing. Acronis also offers an excellent cloud storage service that easily integrates with the app.
EaseUS Todo Backup Home earned our Bronze Award. The backup process earned the highest grade in our ease-of-use tests, which makes it one of the most valuable apps for a novice user. The backup speed was also among the fastest. However, the restore process didn’t compare to NovaBACKUP and Acronis True Image. That said, it’s also the most affordable data backup app in our review.
If you’re not backing up your computer, then you’re living on the edge of disaster. In one single moment, you could lose it all. Backing up your computer ensures that moment is little more than a mild inconvenience and not a major disaster. To learn more, read our articles about data backup software and other software for your PC.