Consumer IQ

Got Digital Life Insurance? Comparing Data Backup Services

Hard. Drive. Fail.

They’re three of the most chilling words in 21st century English. Anyone who’s experienced data loss on a grand scale will remember that full-body flush of panic that hits when you realize your digital life has just vanished into the ether.

With so many of our personal and professional belongings existing only as ones and zeroes, keeping it all on one laptop is asking for trouble.

Why You Need Online Backup

Just as you would buy insurance for your health, home or car, you need to have a plan in place for your digital possessions. Backing up your data onto an external hard drive is an option, but hard drives can get stolen or be destroyed by flood or fire. The solution? Online data backup. Uploading your photos, documents and videos to an unseen, intangible cloud may seem less secure than transferring everything to a physical drive, but the online backup services in this review encrypt your data and store it in centers equipped with motion censors, seismic pedestals, temperature regulators and 24/7 biometrically secured access. In short: once you’ve uploaded your files, they’re not going anywhere.

There are lots of online backup services out there, but we focus here on four popular offerings: Backblaze, Carbonite, iDrive and Mozy. These all cost around $5 per month to backup the contents of one personal computer.

Getting Started

To get started with each service you need to download a small app that will place itself unobtrusively in your task bar. The app will locate all of your personal files, or you can manually select which folders to upload.

Assuming you’ve got a decent number of files to preserve, the initial backup process will take a long time. Think in terms of days rather than hours. But all this uploading happens in the background, leaving you free to use your computer as normal. If your internet is on the slow side, and you want to use other bandwidth-intensive applications without interruption (say, watching high-def streaming video), you can toggle the upload speed in the settings of your backup app.

Once you’ve slogged through the first backup, things get much easier. There are two backup modes: automatic backup, in which files are uploaded as soon as they are created or modified, and scheduled backup, which occurs at a time and interval of your choosing. (The default is usually every night, at a time when your average nine-to-fiver has hit the hay and your computer’s in an idle state.)

Should disaster strike your laptop in the form of theft, a spilled cup of coffee or a hard drive meltdown, the data recovery process is simple, but, as with the initial upload, will take a long time. You can download your entire collection of files or browse and select which ones you need. Excluding Carbonite, which only offers data restoration via download, the other option is to have your files FedExed to you on DVD or USB drive. It’s faster, but be prepared to pay through the nose for the privilege.

Beyond Backup

In addition to safeguarding your digital life against disaster, backup services can be handy for accessing files on the run. Carbonite, iDrive and Mozy all offer mobile apps for iOS (iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad) and Android devices. These allow you to view and share your documents and music from anywhere. (Backblaze has yet to release any mobile apps, but the smart money says it’s only a matter of time.)

Four Services Compared

Backblaze doesn’t have the name recognition of Mozy and Carbonite, but its nifty extras and ease of use make it a worthy contender. Five dollars per month gets you unlimited storage. There is a 15-day free trial.

A newly added feature is Locate My Computer, which uses mapping and ISP logging to pinpoint the location of a stolen computer. Data restoration via FedExed DVD is $99, or $189 for a USB drive.

Pros: Unlimited storage. Computer-locating feature. External hard drive backup.

Cons: No mobile apps (yet). Activating the computer locating feature requires you to disclose your whereabouts.

Carbonite costs $59 per year. There are no limits on storage, but upload speed will slow significantly after the first 200GB. A 15-day free trial will let you decide whether to sign up for the year.

Pros: Unlimited storage. Blackberry app.

Cons: Snail-paced upload speed after 200GB. No external hard drive backup. Cannot restore files from DVD or hard drive.

iDrive provides a free Basic option with a 5GB storage limit. The next level up, Pro Personal, is 150GB for $4.95 per month or $49.50 per year.

Pros: Can backup external drives. Free option provides a generous 5GB limit. Data restoration via USB drive is only $69.95 with free shipping.

Cons: Software not as user-friendly as other services.

Mozy also offers a free backup service, but with a 2GB limit. Its MozyHome offering gives you 50GB for $5.99 per month (reduced to $5.49 on a one-year plan) or 125GB for $9.99 per month ($9.16 on a yearly plan). Restoring data via DVD costs 50 cents per gigabyte, plus $69.95 in shipping and processing fees.

Pros: Can backup external drives. Add an additional 20GB of space for $2 per month.

Cons: Higher price for limited storage.

The Verdict

Backblaze is the eager-to-please underdog, and its interface is slick and simple, but the lack of mobile apps is a big minus. Mozy has long been a trusted name, but the recent switch from unlimited storage to tiered, costlier options takes away from its otherwise great service. iDrive’s interface is a little clunky, but its USB drive restoration option is the cheapest by far.

If you’ve got less than 200GB of files and you don’t need to backup an external hard drive, Carbonite is a solid choice. If you have more than 200GB, aren’t fussed about mobile file access and want to include your external drive/s in the great data protection adventure, Backblaze is a better option.

To get the hang of online backup, download a few free trial versions of backup products and take them for a test drive, experimenting with speed throttling, automatic and scheduled backup, and restoring files through the desktop or web interface. That way you’ll get a clearer idea of the best way to secure your digital life — and memories. That’s a process you can’t afford to skip.

Writer with a background in tech and web video. Originally from Australia, now in New York. Ella blogs via Contently.com.