Protect Your Data With Online Backup

You can either tear out your hair when a disaster strikes your data or you can prepare for it ahead of time. But that disaster is going to happen eventually, either way. An online backup service is one of the best ways to protect yourself against the loss of precious data, whether it's the result of a crashed hard drive or an unintentional deletion. 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 offsite.

Online backup services scan your hard drive for files worthy of protecting, encrypt them for security, and send them up to the cloud. There's no such place as "the cloud" of course; this just means powerful, secure, and high-storage-capacity remote server computers attached to the internet with fast connections. Once your files are stored on those online servers, you can access and restore your data from anywhere, should a file go missing or a hard drive crash unexpectedly. Most services also let you view and download your files from a web browser or mobile device.

Though there's some overlap, online backup services shouldn't be confused with cloud storage and file syncing services like Box, 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 with all its subfolders to the cloud, and in some cases to offer online collaborative document editing. Many backup services now offer similar folder-syncing capabilities, but few syncing services offer full-scale backup functionality.

Pricing Plans

Since you're probably going to be paying for a backup service for years, you should pay attention to its cost before you sign up. They're all subscription-based, but the services partition their features and fees differently, so it's worth comparing plans closely before committing to one. Most construct pricing tiers based on the amount of cloud storage included, however, or by the number of devices you can use with an account.

Some backup services list a low monthly price, but these rates often only apply if you commit to a one- or two-year contract. Others offer free accounts, but they also tend to impose paltry storage limits or restrict key features to the paid versions.

Choosing What to Back Up and When

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. On the other hand, services such as IDrive and SpiderOak ONE, let you choose specific files you want from a file tree.

Some services restrict you from backing up specific file types or using particular sources. For example, some don't let you protect system and program files, while others don't let you back up items from an external or network drive. If you have any of those needs, make sure the service you choose supports them. Acronis True Image, for example, can back up your entire hard drive and any external drives—the best protection against a total system failure or a local disaster that takes out all your hardware.

There are two main ways a service can determine when files should be sent up to its servers for safekeeping. The first is by using a fixed schedule, such as once a day, week, or month. The second, which we prefer, is to upload file changes as you make changes locally, in a continuous backup setup. With this system, services only transfer the modified part of the file, so as not to overburden your internet connection. A third way is simply to upload files on demand. Some may appreciate this degree of control, but it assumes that you'll remember to assiduously back up important files, which isn't the case for most of us.

Security and Performance

Most services encrypt your files with strong systems such as AES 256before sending them up to the servers. Just how the encryption keys are generated is a big differentiator, however. Several services, such as SpiderOak ONE, offer a security-and-privacy option in which you alone possess the password, which is never stored on the service's server computers. Others, such as SOS Online let you set separate passwords for your main account and for encryption.

The caveat for these higher levels of security and privacy is that, if you forget your encryption key, no one can help you restore your data. This includes the provider's employees and applies even if they should be compelled to do so by law enforcement. Despite that risk, you should still choose a strong, hard-to-crack password, since it safeguards your digital life. Your best bet is to use a password manager to keep track of it for you.

An online backup service's speed depends on how quickly it can prep your files (generally encrypting and compressing them) and transfer them to their 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.

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. Look for a service that offers a search tool to find a particular file. 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, too. Keep in mind that if you bought 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 restore data from a damaged computer to a replacement.

Many services also offer a feature called versioning. This capability lets you access earlier versions of a file in case you made unwanted edits. Services vary widely in how many versions they keep and how long they are saved. Some, like IDrive and SOS Online Backup, save every version forever. Those two even permanently save files you've deleted from the source computer—accidentally or otherwise. Livedrive, on the other hand, lets you keep up to 30 previous version of a file for as long as you like. Some providers don't consider this an online backup function, but rather an archiving function. Call it what you like, it can save your bacon if you need an earlier file version you overwrite or one that you deleted by mistake.

Web and Mobile Backup Clients

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. More advanced web interfaces let you view documents or photos and play music or videos. Many also include file-sharing options, the best of which even let you specify a password for access and a timeout period for the shared item.

Most online backup services also offer Android and iOS apps, but the quality and utility of those apps vary widely. Some just offer simple document and media file downloads, but the most feature-complete include remote backup management, automatic photo and video backup, and built-in media viewers. Many also offer the same file-sharing capabilities on mobile, as they do on the web.

Online Backup Extras

Some services go above and beyond, including extra capabilities that improve the experience. For example, a few offer disk courier services for bulk uploads and restores via an external drive that the company ships and manages. A couple of these services throw in a local backup component, too. If you go that route, you should take a look at our roundup of best external hard drives as well. Others can track your device's location and let you remotely wipe it in case it's lost or stolen.

To find out which service best suits your needs, click through to the full reviews for our in-depth impressions. If you need a larger-scale cloud solution for your company, check out our roundup of the best online backup services for businesses.