Choosing an... Online backup service

We look at online backup and synchronisation services designed to serve and protect.

Your data is precious: your family photos, the accounts for your business, the song you fell in love to and that hilarious video of your cat running head-first into a door. Backing up your files is a necessity – the lifespan of the average hard disk is no more than five years, so you’d be a fool to leave it to chance. But even if you copy everything off to a NAS or USB disk, it’s not protected against fire or theft, because it’s all under one roof.

We’ve scrutinised the leading online backup and synchronisation services to find the best deals, so you can be sure your most important files are safe, no matter what.

Managing a local backup routine can be a chore that often gets postponed and forgotten about, but online backup is usually a set-and-forget affair. It’s also more secure than local backup; because the data is taken off-site, you’ll still be able to recover it in the event of fire, flood or theft. Now that broadband is so fast and cheap, it’s realistic to back up all your data online. You can also use sync services to make sure that the work you want to take home gets there long before you do.

Plenty of companies promise fast, secure online backups and synchronisation, but what should you pay particular attention to when choosing a service?

Size of relief
The most obvious factor is how much storage you get for your money. This can vary widely, with some providers offering just 10GB of space while other, similarly priced services provide hundreds of gigabytes or even unlimited storage. However, companies that offer unlimited storage tend to find other ways to limit the amount of data you upload, by not supporting external drives or certain file types, for example. Services with fixed capacity allowances tend to be more relaxed about how you use them, with support for multiple computers on a single account.

Most users have only a couple of gigabytes of important personal files, but you’ll need more space if you want to back up lots of photos, video or audio. Often the limiting factor isn’t how much space you have available to you online, but the length of time it would take to upload, say, 100GB of data.

Band together
Most home broadband connections have an upload speed of between 448Kbit/s and 1.5Mbit/s. It might take around 14 minutes to upload 30MB of data over a basic home ADSL connection, while a Virgin cable connection with an upload speed of 1Mbit/s can manage the same task in around seven minutes. At these speeds, 100GB would take 16 to 32 days of continuous uploads, and much longer if you wanted to switch your PC off an night or if the broadband supplier throttled the connection due to excessive use.

There are no performance scores for individual services because it will depend on the speed of your broadband connection, the time of day and various other contributing factors.

If you have a lot of data to back up or restore at once, it may be worth choosing a company that lets you post a DVD or hard disk rather than shifting gigabytes of data over the internet. For example, Mozy will send DVDs or USB drives to you when you need to restore, which could prove critical if you need to restore more data than your broadband service’s monthly download allowance.

Most services offer throttling, which involves deliberately slowing uploads and downloads to minimise the impact of backups on your other broadband activities. Most will let you pause a backup, too. If you have multiple PCs, choose a service that doesn’t restrict you to backups from only one PC.

Down the sync
As well as online backups, we’ve also looked at synchronisation services. There’s some blurring of boundaries as some online backup providers allow you to back up data from multiple PCs, while a few synchronisation services also have basic backup functions. However, if a service’s key feature is to synchronise data between two or more PCs, we’ve classed it as a synchronisation service.

Most synchronisation and backup services will retain old or deleted version of files. Version retention can be a lifesaver if you’ve accidentally deleted or mangled a section in an important document, whether it’s your financial records or the first draft of your novel. Some services keep only a few versions, such as the last five saved copies. However, as most of us are in the habit of saving frequently, this might not be enough before you notice your mistake. A few services can provide version storage over an unlimited period, which is worth having if you need extra peace of mind.

Extra help
Online backup and file-sharing services are closely related, and many of the companies reviewed here provide both in one convenient package. The most limited only allow you to email links to individual files; others provide a full multimedia browser that not only lets you share entire directories but also incorporates photo galleries or a streaming facility for your audio and video files. Many services also allow you to access and even upload files directly from your mobile phone or tablet.

A backup service is no use if you can’t be sure it’s copying new versions of your files as they change. It’s handy if your service provides some form of logging or can email you to confirm whether or not your backup has completed successfully. Most services have some form of logging or email alert; see reviews for details.

Free for all
Online backup and synchronisation is a highly competitive market including dozens of major and small companies. Because of this, and because of the need to impress prospective customers, many providers offer free as well as paid-for services.

You can get free versions of Mozy, IDrive, and SugarSync, all of which are fully functional. IDrive even allows you to earn extra free storage space by referring other users to the service, up to a maximum of 15GB. Previous free versions limited backup features, but we’ve found no such restrictions in the latest free software clients.

On the next page: Decho Mozy Home review

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