You never know when your hard drive is going to crash, or when you’re going to accidentally overwrite a key file. Use an online backup service to automatically and securely protect your documents, photos, and other media.

“Oh no, my hard drive crashed!” “Argh, I didn’t mean to overwrite those edits!” Everyone says things like that from time to time.

But not everyone has the same experience when it comes to what happens next. Some of us end up weeping over priceless lost photos and videos, or gritting our teeth for hours as we painstakingly recreate critical work documents from memory.

But others shake their heads in minor irritation and then smile, knowing that they dodged a bullet, that they can easily recover their data, all because they had the foresight to protect it with an online backup service.
Hard drive crashes and editing mishaps aren’t the only things online backup can protect you from: There are also more traditional disasters such as fires, floods, and earthquakes, which can spell the end of your digital media and documents.

Even if you’re among the very few of us who diligently perform backups at regular intervals, those calamities can still result in data loss if you didn’t store backups off-site.

That’s a good reason why an online backup service may be the best way to protect your irreplaceable digital goods.
Online backup services have you install software on you PC that scans your storage for files worthy of backup, encrypts them for security, and sends them up to the cloud—that trendy word that just means powerful, secure, and high-storage-capacity server computers attached to the Internet with fast connections. Once your files are stored on those cloud servers, they’re accessible for you to restore to the same PC, should a file go missing.
In most cases, the service also lets you access 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 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. One crossover product is SugarSync, which lets you sync folders wherever they exist on your drive.
Pricing PlansSince you’re probably going to be paying for a backup service for years, you should know from the start what you’re getting into in terms of money.

They’re all subscription-based, and there are many ways the vendors slice and dice the fees to make them seem appealing. Some backup services list prices by the month, but those prices often only apply if you commit to a one- or two-year contract. Some offer completely free accounts with lower storage allotments, but many only offer time-limited free trial accounts.
Some online backup services’ prices only cover one PC, while others specify a number of machines you can use in one account. Still others cover unlimited PCs, but limit the amount of data you can back up to the cloud server storage.

To level the price playing field, we list the vendor’s principal stated plan for one year of service at the top of each review.
Choosing What to Back UpHow a backup service lets you choose which files to protect wildly varies, from the totally hands-free Backblaze, which selects the likely files you’d want to have backed up and immediately starts encrypting and uploading them, to SpiderOakONE and services like it, which simply let you choose whatever files you want from your PC’s folder tree.
Different services allow different types of files from differing sources. Some don’t let you protect system and program files. Others don’t let you back up files and folders on external or network drives.
If you have any of those needs, make sure the service you choose supports them. Some services, like Acronis True Image Cloud, can back up your entire hard drive—the best protection against a total disaster claiming your computer.
SecurityMost services encrypt your files with strong systems such as AES 256 or Blowfish before sending them up to the servers.

But how the encryption keys are generated is a big differentiator. Several services, such as SpiderOakOne 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 and CrashPlan can have you use a separate password from your main account password for the encryption.

The caveat for these higher levels of security and privacy is that, if you forget your passphrase, not even the provider’s employees will be able to restore your data.

Even if compelled by law enforcement, they won’t be able to decrypt your files. Yet you’ll want it to be a strong, hard-to-crack password, too, since it will grant access to so much of your digital life. Your best bet is to use a password manager to keep track of it for you.
Choosing When Backup HappensThere 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 find preferable, is to upload file changes as they’re saved on your computer, in a continuous backup setup. With this system, which is used by Carbonite and CrashPlan, most services only transfer the changed part of the file, so that your Internet connection is not overburdened.
PerformanceThe speed with which a service can prep your files (usually involving encryption and compression) and transfer them to their servers doesn’t only impact how long it will take to get a large amount of data—often numbering many gigabytes—up to the servers.

The speed also affects how much of an impact on your computer its processing will have. Make sure to check out our speed test results in the review of any service you’re contemplating purchasing.
Restoring Folders and FilesAn online backup service isn’t much good if it makes it hard to restore the files you’ve lost. Look for a service that offers a search tool to find a particular backed-up file.
It’s also desirable for a service to be able to replicate an entire folder tree structure, so that it can deal with bigger data losses. One consideration in restoring is that if you bought a plan that covers just one computer, you may have to transfer the account to a new PC if you want to restore everything and use the service for that computer.
Versioning is another capability offered by many of the services.

This lets you see earlier versions of a file in case you made some unwanted edits. Services vary widely in the number of versions saved and how long they’re kept. Some, like SOS Online Backup and CrashPlan, save every version forever. SOS even permanently saves files you’ve accidentally deleted from the source PC. 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.
Web ClientsThe Web is everywhere these days, and the same should hold true for your backed-up files. What’s the point of having your documents and media in the cloud if you don’t have Web access to them? Most online backup providers let you get at your files from a Web browser, but capabilities vary. Many simply let you download the files, but some let you view documents and photos and play music and videos.

File sharing is another feature you’ll find in online backup services’ Web clients, and some services even let you specify a password for access and a timeout period for the shared file.
Mobile ClientsThe same comment that applies for Web access applies to mobile: You should have access to cloud-stored files no matter where you are and what device you’re using. Most online backup services offer Android apps and iOS apps, and some even offer Windows Phone apps. Like the services’ sites, these apps may just offer simple document and media file download, but many can also display the documents and photos and play the video and music. Many also offer the same file-sharing capabilities of their browser-based counterparts.
ExtrasSome services go an extra mile with features above and beyond the call of duty.

This includes things like letting you send an external disk loaded with your data to save you from uploading a massive number of gigabytes. Others will restore files using that same physical-disk method.

For extra and closer-to-hand protection, some services include software that can back your data up to local storage.

A couple of the services even can locate your devices and remotely wipe them in case they’re lost or stolen.

There’s your online backup service landscape, with all its surprising variations on features and capabilities.

To find out which service best suits your needs, dig into the reviews linked below.

CrashPlan$59.99CrashPlan is an innovative online backup service that boasts an excellent interface, unlimited storage plans, and the ability to back up to your own (or even your friends’) Internet-connected computers.  Read the full review ››

Carbonite$59.99Carbonite is an easy-to-use, secure, and reasonably priced online backup with no storage limits and good mobile apps, but it lacks some features found in the competition.  Read the full review ››

SpiderOakONE$129.00SpiderOakONE’s strong focus on privacy is the biggest reason to choose it for online backup and file syncing.
It’s not great for novices, however, and its premium plans are expensive. Read the full review ››

Acronis True Image Cloud$99.99Acronis True Image Cloud is an online backup service that has the distinction of letting you save an entire copy of your hard drive to the cloud and restore it to a PC, but some features we’ve come to expect in online backup services are missing here. Read the full review ››

OpenDrive$50.00OpenDrive offers attractive pricing plans and good collaboration options, but it provides less hand-holding than some other online backup services. Read the full review ››

SugarSync$74.99SugarSync is a highly intuitive file-syncing and online backup service, with simple installation and the best control we’ve seen over what syncs where.

But it’s not cheap, it lacks collaboration and privacy features, and its backup performance was slow in our testing. Read the full review ››

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Michael Muchmore is PC Magazine’s lead analyst for software and Web applications.

A native New Yorker, he has at various times headed up PC Magazine’s coverage of Web development, enterprise software, and display technologies. Michael cowrote one of the first overviews of Web Services (pretty much the progenitor of Web 2.0) for a general audience.

Before that he worked on PC Magazine’s Solutions section, which in those days covered programming techniques as well as tips on using popular office software. Most recently he covered Web… More »

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