An online backup service is one of the best ways to protect yourself against data loss if, for example, your hard drive crashes, you accidentally delete important files, or you fall victim to a ransomware attack. Natural disasters such as fires, floods, and earthquakes can also spell the end of your digital media and documents. Even if you’re among the very few who diligently perform local backups at regular intervals, you could still lose data if you don’t store backups off-site.
Online backup services scan your hard drive for files worth protecting, encrypt them for security, and send them up to the company’s online servers. Once your files are uploaded, you can access and restore your data from anywhere. Online backup services shouldn’t be confused with cloud storage and file syncing services like 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 (and all its subfolders) to the cloud, and in some cases, to offer online collaborative document editing. Some backup services offer folder-syncing capabilities, but few syncing services offer full-scale backup functionality.
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How Much Do Online Backup Services Cost?
Since you’re probably going to be paying for a backup service for years, cost is an important factor to consider. All the services we reviewed are subscription-based and most construct pricing tiers based on the amount of cloud storage you get or the number of devices you can use with an account. A few services offer permanent free accounts, but those plans impose paltry storage limits or restrict key features to the paid versions. Watch out for file-size upload limits as well.
If you want to back up your files as quickly as possible, some services offer bulk upload and restore services, in which they send you a blank drive for you to add your data and send back or one with your data already on it. IDrive, Backblaze, and Carbonite all offer this capability, but charge different rates for their disk courier services.
Home backup users have different needs than businesses. If you need a larger-scale cloud solution for your company, check out our roundup of the best online backup services for businesses. These plans typically cover many more devices and include better administration features, but at an increased cost.
Create a Backup Set and Schedule Uploads
Backup services vary widely in how they set up and perform backups. For example, the totally hands-free Backblaze automatically encrypts and uploads all your important files without any input. Services such as IDrive and Acronis True Image let you choose specific files you want from a file tree. Note that some services restrict you from backing up specific file types or using particular sources, such as from an external or network drive. Make sure the service you choose supports all your data sources.
There are a few common practices for configuring when backups should occur. The most common option is on a fixed schedule, such as once a day, week, or month. The second, which we prefer, is to upload files whenever they’re changed and saved, otherwise known as a continuous backup setting. Services only transfer the modified part of the file in this scenario, so as not to overburden your internet connection or take up unnecessary storage. A third way is simply to upload files manually. Some users may appreciate this degree of control, but this method is only effective if you remember to regularly run the backups.
How Secure Are Online Backup Services?
Many services let you encrypt your files with a private encryption key option (basically a password you choose and need if you want to decrypt your backup files). If you do choose to manage your own encryption key, know that it is your responsibility to remember it. The online backup service itself will not be able to help you reset the password if you forget it. On the flip side, this means that no one (including employees of the backup service and law enforcement officials) other than you can unlock your backups. This is ideal from a privacy and security standpoint. Use a password manager to keep track of your private encryption key if you think you will forget it.
Some services go beyond file encryption. Acronis True Image, for instance, bundles a full suite of security features, including active ransomware protection. A few services let you protect access to your web vault by enabling two-factor authentication. IDrive, Backblaze, Livedrive, and OpenDrive are among those services that include this security option.
(Editors’ Note: Livedrive is owned by J2 Global, the parent company of PCMag’s publisher, Ziff Davis.)
We also prefer those services with clear, easy-to-read privacy policies. If an online backup service says it sells your information to a third party, you may want to choose a more privacy-respecting one.
Restoring Folders and Files
An online backup service isn’t much use if it doesn’t make the process of restoring or recovering your data quick and simple. For example, a service should offer search tools for finding particular files in your backup. It’s also desirable for a service to be able to replicate an entire folder-tree structure so that it can help you recover from bigger data losses. Keep in mind that if you buy a plan that covers just one computer, you may have to transfer the account to a new PC if you ever switch your main device or if you need to restore data from a damaged computer to a replacement.
Many services also offer a feature called versioning. This saves incremental changes you make to files as recoverable snapshots of the file. It’s useful in case you need to get back information from an earlier version or if your latest file save becomes corrupted. Services vary widely in how many versions they keep and how long they’re saved. SpiderOak One and ElephantDrive are among the most generous in this regard and can save an unlimited number of file versions forever.
Web and Mobile Backup Apps
One of the biggest advantages of using an online backup service is that it lets you access your files from anywhere. Most online backup providers let you view and download files from a web browser, but that should be the bare minimum. Many also include file-sharing options, the best of which even let you specify a password for access and an expiration date for the shared item.
Many of the online backup services we tested offer Android and iOS apps, but the quality and utility of those apps vary widely. Some just offer simple document and media file downloads from your existing backups, but the most feature-complete let you back up the data on your mobile devices.
An online backup service’s speed depends on how quickly it can encrypt, compress, and upload files to its servers. This should be of particular concern if you need to back up (or restore) a large amount of data. A high-performance backup service also minimizes its effect on network and system resources. Make sure to check out our speed test results in the review of any service you’re contemplating using. Backup speed should not be the sole determinant of which online backup service you use, but fast upload speeds can certainly make initial and subsequent backups less disruptive.
Alternatives to Online Backup Services
Although we believe that an online backup service is ideal for protecting your files, this solution will not appeal to everyone. Read our guide on how to choose the best backup plan to determine which backup method works best for your needs. For instance, you decide to use local backup software to protect your files on an external hard drive rather than the cloud. You don’t necessarily have to pay for more than one service, however, since several products here offer both online and local backup capabilities.