PC Backup Review
Why Buy PC 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 software to meet your needs, along with the details on how we arrived at our ranking of these 10 applications.
Lightbulbs burn out. It’s just what they do. You may not know exactly when a bulb will burn out, but you know it will – you expect it. This is why you probably have a cupboard somewhere in your home with extra lightbulbs. Nobody likes living in the dark for too long.
Computers are not very different, aside from their cost and complexity. Your computer will stop working eventually. It could be tomorrow, or it could be years from now. You could drop it, spill coffee on it, download a virus or simply wear out the components. Your laptop can be stolen at the coffee shop or forgotten on a train. Regardless of the situation, you’re always at risk for losing the data on your computer.
While a burned-out lightbulb is a minor inconvenience, data loss is potentially life altering. You could lose financial records, sentimental family photos and videos, professional documents critical to your career, and more. So much of our life now exists on a hard drive, and if you don’t take measures to protect that data, you’re in for a very bad day.
Protecting your data starts with developing a backup strategy. Without a backup strategy, you’re always just a moment away from permanently losing all of your data. It really doesn’t matter if you chose a simple copy and paste method, an automated computer backup app or an online data backup service – you need a strategy. Restoring files from your backed up data is a minor inconvenience, like replacing a lightbulb, when you have a backup strategy.
Finding Your PC Backup Strategy
There is no hard and fast rule for backing up your data. You can back up your computer in a countless number of ways, and you should do what works best for you. You don’t even need computer backup software. Instead, you can literally copy and paste your important files to an external drive. Also, Windows has a built-in backup feature, though it’s not entirely user friendly.
PC backup software is advantageous because of the continuous data activity on your hard drive. Files change often, especially documents and spreadsheets. Software automates the backup process so your changes are safe. Without it, backing up data can get out of control very quickly.
The 3-2-1 strategy is the most commonly used backup strategy. It's popular because it’s simple and effective. You can always develop your own strategy, but if you follow these principles, your data will be protected:
Three: Always maintain at least three copies of every file you want protected. You can make as many copies as you want, but three is the minimum. Many people assume they just need two copies – the primary and the backup. The third copy is just as important as the first two; think of the third copy as a backup of your backup.
Two: Always use at least two formats for storage. You should never store all of the backup copies on the same computer and especially not on the same hard drive. Think of it this way – you should never keep all of your eggs in one basket because if you drop the basket, all the eggs are broken. The same principle applies to backed up data. You should always keep at least one of the three copies on a second device. That said, it’s even better if each copy is on a unique device. You can back up to a DVD, CD, external drive, additional internal hard drive and cloud storage.
One: Always store one copy of your backed up data off site. If something terrible happens to your home, like a fire or flood, this ensures the data is safe away from the disaster.
PC backup software helps achieve the first two steps, but it doesn’t ensure that you store at least one format off site. To do so, you can back up to an online data backup service. However, if you don’t want to pay a subscription fee, you can also back up to a computer at a friend’s house by using a network connection, or you can back up to an external drive you take to work. Whatever the case, make sure you store one of the formats elsewhere.
Prioritizing Your Data
With the best PC backup software, you can back up everything on your computer. This includes the operating system, the software you have installed, all of the information your software needs and all of your data. You can actually create a bit-by-bit clone of your hard drive that allows you to restore everything on a different computer. However, full-system backups take a very long time. They can also be tricky to restore effectively without prior experience. For most users, this is an advanced feature that will go unused. If you do create a full-system backup or a clone of your hard drive, you’ll likely only use it once a year.
Users are typically most concerned about their files – pictures, videos, music, documents, etc. As such, it’s a good idea to evaluate your files and assign them a priority. This helps you determine which files should be backed up often, which files need encryption and which files don’t need to be backed up at all. Think of it this way: If your house was on fire and these files were physical items, which ones would you save first?
Sentimental Files: Any file that holds sentimental value should be high priority. These may be photos of your children, home videos, journals, creative projects, etc. Sentimental files cannot be replaced. You cannot replicate your child’s first steps or years of journal entries detailing your past experiences.
Practical Files: Files that hold practical value are high priority. These include tax returns, banking info, budget details, etc. Files in this category help you run and organize your day-to-day life, and losing them is a major headache. Some of this data can be replaced, but it can take a long time to recover it.
Professional Files: You use these files for your career, whether for a past position or a current one. Professional files are documents, spreadsheets, resumes and CVs, portfolios, networking connections, etc. Losing these files affects your professional life and can affect your income.
Entertainment Files: Any file that’s used for entertainment is of a lower priority. Files in this category include music, movies, video games, podcasts, etc. Losing these files is inconvenient but not life altering. You can always download your music again or rip the files from a physical copy such as a CD or DVD.
System & Registry Files: These are the files that you never access directly. You likely don’t even realize they exist most of the time. Your installed software and operating system rely on these files to run. If your computer crashes, you can always reinstall software and the operating system manually. Again, it’s inconvenient, but it’s easily fixed. That said, if you use your computer for business, it can be faster to restore system files than to reinstall all of your software, which can minimize downtime.
Hard Drive Backup Software: Speaking the Language
The PC backup software industry has its own language, which can be intimidating if you’re not an IT expert. Below are some common backup terms you should familiarize yourself with:
Backup Set: This refers to the backup image, which contains all the data you select for a specific backup. When you start the app, you select the folders and files you want included in a backup set. After you initiate the backup, an image file of all the data is created and written to the destination device.
Full Backup: When you create a backup set, you’re creating a full backup of the selected files. After the full backup is created, it’s used in conjunction with incremental and differential backup sets. It acts as the foundation that changes are built on over time.
Incremental Backup: This is the most common backup scheme. Every time you change a file and hit save, the software backs up the changes but not the full file. Restoring a file requires the original full backup plus all of the incremental backups. It’s like putting together a puzzle with one large piece and many small pieces.
Incremental backups are fast because they only contain small changes. This means you can run incremental backups while still using the computer, since they have little impact on your CPU. However, they pose a greater risk of failure during the restore phase because there are so many pieces. If you lose any of the incremental backups or if any become corrupt, then you can’t restore the data.
Differential Backup: A differential backup contains all the data that has changed since the last full backup. Unlike incremental backup sets, a differential backup is big, though not as big as the full backup. Restoring a differential backup relies on a full backup and a differential backup.
Differential backups are faster and more reliable to restore than incremental backups because there are only two parts. However, it does take longer to perform a differential backup because it’s much bigger. It also has a greater impact on CPU resources. As a result, it’s common to run differential backups once a month or once a week, while running incremental backups every day.
Cloud Backup: This is when data is backed up to a remote server through a wireless internet or network connection. In most cases, a cloud backup service owns and maintains the servers where data is stored. However, you can also have a private cloud, which is a small server you connect to via your Wi-Fi.
Automatic Backup: A program with an automatic backup feature can run backup sets automatically – you set it and forget it. Automatic backup features can be set to run every time you save a document or at a specific time each day.
Full Image Backup: This is a backup set of your full system. The PC backup software creates an image of your computer’s hard drive, including all the software and settings. You can then restore the image on another hard drive. This type of backup set is useful when you want keep your operating system and installed software. Restoring a full image backup can be tricky, so this is generally considered an advanced feature.
Data Migration: With some software, you can create a one-to-one copy of the data on your current hard drive and load it on another hard drive with the purpose of making the new drive the primary drive. You aren’t backing up your data; you’re moving it to a new home.
PC Backup Software: What We Tested, What We Found
PC backup software can be very simple, or it can be very complex. Some apps are loaded with so many features, only an IT manager can use them effectively. Other programs simply copy your files. No matter how many features an app has, the best PC backup software performs well in several categories – backup speed, restore speed, data compression, CPU usage and ease of use.
To create an apples-to-apples comparison of performance, we installed all the computer backup software on our test computer. In addition, we used the same test data in multiple rounds of tests on each product. This way, we were able to see how each app performs with the same data on the same CPU and the same hard drive.
Please note that your environment is different, which means you may experience different results. This is why we express our results as comparative grades rather than listing the actual average speeds, compression rates and CPU usage. Your computer has different hardware, and you are backing up different data, so your exact results will likely differ from ours.
Ease of Use
As we’ve said before, everyone with a computer should back up their data. Protecting data is not reserved for IT manager, and as such, the best data backup apps are designed around novice users. You should never have to ask “What’s next?” or “Why is this so complicated?”
It’s important to acknowledge that ease of use is an inherently subjective measurement. You might very well find the app we consider to be the most difficult to use in our review to be no problem at all. Everyone has a different technical experience level. To cater to novice users, we evaluated the apps from their perspective. We counted the average number of steps in each phase of the app, paying attention to how many options the steps require a user to choose from. We also evaluated the design of the interface asking first, “Are the backup and restore features clearly labeled and easy to find?” and second, “Is the homepage too cluttered with advanced features?”
After over 30 hours of testing and evaluation, it’s clear that some of the Windows backup software in our review is designed for a novice while other programs are designed for users with more technical knowledge. The apps with low grades aren’t inherently worse; they just aren’t designed for users with little technical experience.
Your first backup can take hours, if not days, depending on the amount of data you want to back up. This is because the files need to be processed, compressed, encrypted and written to a new device. Backup speed is an excellent indication of an app’s overall performance. The less time you have to spend waiting for backup sets to finish, the more time you can spend doing other things on your computer.
To test backup speed, we ran many backup sets with data sets of varying size and varying file types. We ran backup sets with the compression at the highest possible setting, and we ran some with no compression. We also ran backup sets with the highest encryption available, as well as some with no encryption.
After all the tests, we averaged the speeds of each backup set and graded appropriately, with a C grade as the average. NovaBACKUP posted the fastest backup speed. If you backed up a 1TB hard drive at the program’s average rate, it would take about 10 hours to complete. Conversely, the slowest backup speed in the tests would complete the same backup set in about two and half days.
When you lose files, waiting for them to restore can be an anxious time, especially if some of the files are critically important. As such, we tested the restore speed of each hard drive backup app in our review by simply restoring all the backup sets from our backup speed tests. In general, the speeds were faster than the backup speeds but not by much. We gave products with an average speed a C and graded faster and slower speeds accordingly.
It’s important to note that O&O AutoBackup doesn’t have a restore feature. The app literally copies your data from one device to another. To restore data, it requires you to move the backed up files back to your primary drive manually. As such, we couldn’t test the speed, CPU usage or ease of use for the restore phase because these facets of performance don’t apply to the app.
The best PC backup software doesn’t leave a heavy footprint on your resources. You should be able to run it in the background without your PC crashing or slowing down significantly. During all of our backup and restore tests, we used the performance monitor tool on our test computer to measure the CPU usage. We then averaged the results to find the CPU usage for the backup and restore phases.
As with every test we performed, we graded the results using a C grade as the average, with higher grades representing apps that had very little impact on the CPU. It’s important to note that our test computer has a quad-core processor, with the average CPU usage being between 16 and 20 percent. If you have a single-core or dual-core processor, you can expect a higher resource footprint while running the app.
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 PC Backup Software?
Many hard drive backup apps have a long list of advanced features that only IT managers are capable of comprehending. Still, there are some features that even novice users should consider. We list some of these feature below:
You likely have data on your computer that you don’t want people to see – financial records, social security numbers, private correspondences, etc. Encryption ensures that you are the only one who can view these files. Some apps provide up to four encryption options, while other services only allow you to put a password on the backup set.
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, it 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 PC backup app, it's important to have the necessary support in place. This starts with communication. Does the developer offer phone, email and live chat? Most of the companies in our review only have one support contact, an email ticket system, and it can take days before you actually receive help. We also looked for FAQs, tutorials, user forums and a knowledgebase on each company’s website. These support features help minimize learning curves.
PC Backup Software: Our Verdict & Recommendations
The best computer backup service in our review is NovaBACKUP. It earns our Gold Award because it is very easy of use and fast when backing up and restoring. Also, the app has enough advanced features to appeal to more experienced users.
Acronis True Image earns our Silver Award for best PC backup software for similar reasons. It was very fast and very easy to use in our tests. Acronis also offers an excellent cloud storage service that easily integrates with the app for even better protection.
EaseUS Todo Backup Home earns our Bronze Award. During testing, it earned the highest ease of use grade for the backup process, which makes it ideal for novice users. In addition, the backup speed was exceptional, though the restore process wasn’t nearly fast enough to compare to NovaBACKUP and Acronis True Image. That said, this is also the most affordable data backup app in our review.
Backing up your computer is important. If you’re not backing up your computer, you’re only a moment away from losing everything. Using PC backup software or a cloud backup service can be the difference between a mild inconvenience and a major disaster. To learn more, read our articles about PC backup software and other software for your PC.