The Best Online Backup Service
You can’t spill coffee on the cloud
If you don’t want to risk losing your computer’s data, back it up. Then back it up again. Then back it up again after that. Simple enough, but it’s a chore — and much like the equally simple chore of flossing, most people don’t do it until after they’ve learned the hard way just how important it is. Nearly 30 percent of people have never backed up their data and, according to the same poll by Harris Interactive, only 10 percent safeguard their files weekly. The best online backup services make the whole process effortless, automatic, and secure. Our top pick, IDrive, is so unobtrusive, you might forget you’re even using it.
Unlike an actual cloud, cloud computing isn’t subject to unpredictable forces of nature. In fact, it’s one of the most secure ways of storing and accessing the files you use every day — and even the ones you don’t. These files sit on cloud servers and are fully accessible for you to restore to your home computer should your local versions go missing.
Pre-cloud technology, the go-to backup solution was an external hard drive, often positioned mere inches from your computer. But that hard drive isn’t much use in a fire, robbery, or even a coffee spill. Most IT experts recommend saving your data in at least three different places, one of which is off-site and accessible via the cloud. Tech blogger Scott Hanselman refers to this as the Backup Rule of Three, stressing that simply backing up your data to a local hard drive or SD card is #notabackup (yes, he even created a hashtag for this).
To find the best online backup services — a critical part of that Rule of Three — we spent more than 40 hours researching and comparing the storage capacity, transfer speed, and overall user experience of 36 services, ranging from big hitters to no namers.
How We Found the Best Online Backup Services
There are plenty of services out there designed for file syncing and sharing (the name everyone knows is Dropbox, but we’ve reviewed all the best cloud storage). With each of those services, you pick and choose the files you want stored: your wedding photos, that work presentation, your master’s thesis. For this review, though, we focused only on services that create a complete second copy of your computer.
We eliminated online backup services tailored to small and midsize businesses.
These services offer features that are essential for running a business, but are redundant or unnecessary for personal use — things like protection for lots of computers, external hard drives, and network attached storage devices.
It boils down to user experience: You wouldn’t install an industrial walk-in freezer in your kitchen if you didn’t have a restaurant to run.
Barracuda Backup, CloudBerry Backup, Data Deposit Box Backup, Dropmysite, Druva Insync, IASO Backup, Intronis, Jungle Disk, MAXfocus MAXBackup, Unitrends Cloud Backup, Zetta.net
We required at least 1TB storage.
The best online backup service shouldn’t lack for storage space, but how much is really enough? Services such as CrashPlan, Backblaze, and OpenDrive render this question irrelevant by providing unlimited storage with a subscription, but others cap the amount of data you can back up.
We took a look at music files — everyone has at least some of those. An average MP3 takes up 5MB, so a service such as MozyHome, which caps its standard subscription at 125GB a month, could hold approximately 25,000 songs. By contrast, 1TB of storage space could hold nearly 10 times that amount: 200,000 songs. That may seem like overkill (who has almost a quarter million songs?) but remember that music is only a fraction of media files — both movies and RAW images take up considerably more space.
How Much Space Do Your Media Files Take Up?
1080p HD Movies
* All numbers approximate (1 MP3 = 5MB; 1 RAW photo = 40MB; 1080p HD movie = 5GB)
Media libraries only grow over time and an online backup service shouldn’t require you to curate and make cuts on what gets saved. Besides, new laptops (let alone desktops) now routinely feature 1TB hard drives — a backup service with anything less wouldn’t even be able to store as much as your computer.
BullGuard Backup, FilesAnywhere, Memopal, Mozy, Security Coverage
We put their customer service to the test.
Scroll through some forums, and you’ll notice something: Online backup services don’t have the best reputation among users, whose experiences with customer support range from “unpleasant” to “rage-inducing.” Computer crashes tend to cause panic, frustration, and frantic phone calls asking for help. The best online backup services won’t add fuel to a freak-out.
With this in mind, we contacted each of our remaining contenders and scored them on what we consider bottom-line quality customer service: quick response times to email; live chat; and an easy-to-read website with clear terms of service, helpful user guides, and an FAQ section.
Here’s how they ranked:
- The Great: Backblaze, Carbonite, SOS Online Backup, Acronis True Image Cloud, Bitcasa, Livedrive, OpenDrive, SpiderOakONE
- The Good: CrashPlan, iBackup, IDrive, KeepVault, UpdateStar Online Backup
- The Rest: Diino, Dreamhost Dreamobjects, Jottacloud, SurDoc, Symform, Tarsnap, Yandex.Disk
If a service didn’t score at least “Good,” we cut it.
Diino, Dreamhost Dreamobjects, Jottacloud, SurDoc, Symform, Tarsnap, Yandex.Disk
We cut services that don’t have top-level security.
First, the bad news: According to IT security expert Kevin Townsend, there’s no such thing as complete, 100 percent security. “If you use a computer that can connect to the internet,” he says, “you must understand that security is an aspiration and not an attainable condition.” The good news — at least for online backup services — is that the fault for data breaches rarely lies with them. “The one thing we tend to forget is that the primary weakness in cloud storage is us and our own computers,” explains Townsend.
Nearly every service we tested boasts a strong encryption system. Encryption basically functions as a digital padlock, using a complex algorithm (or “key”) to ensure that your data can’t be intercepted or hacked. A key’s strength is measured by the number of digital bits it uses (in AES encryption, for example, there are three different key lengths: 128, 192, and 256).
The most common encryption is AES 256, and it’s no joke: It’s considered military-grade. CrashPlan and Carbonite employ a similarly airtight Blowfish algorithm. Hackers face a near-impossible task breaking into either system, but because employees of the service can access your data, there is a “security hole” that could theoretically be breached.
Being able to generate a private key means that you (and only you) know the password that unlocks the encryption. That key isn’t stored on the service’s server computers, effectively plugging any gap in security. We found the best online backup services offer it as an option, regardless of your operating system.
Security isn’t limited to encryption and passwords.
It also means you can rely on your backup service to come through when you need it most. There are two major ways an online backup service can offer peace of mind:
- Saving multiple versions of a file, including earlier ones that have been edited or deleted. This feature is known as versioning.
- Simultaneously backing up all your data to the cloud and your own external hard drive. This accomplishes two pieces of the Backup Rule of Three at once. Backing up to an external drive lets you restore files much faster than via the cloud — if you’re on a timeline when something goes wrong, your local external hard drive will have a complete carbon copy, and you can get your files back in minutes as opposed to hours (or even days).
To find the absolute best online backup services, we narrowed our list down to the ones that offer local backup, some kind of versioning, and the option to generate a personal encryption key, regardless of operating system.
Carbonite, KeepVault, Livedrive
The best services are easy to use.
All online backup services can store your data off-site, but only a few of them can really keep it off your mind. We wanted to find the most convenient, user-friendly experience possible and evaluated our final contenders on four major factors:
- Multiple computers covered by a single plan. According to a survey conducted by Forrester in 2010, approximately half of all US households own multiple computers. If you belong to this half, your plan should cover all of your computers. IDrive and SpiderOakONE took first place here — they both allow backups on an unlimited number of devices.
- Compatible operating systems. A good backup service should be able to protect a Mac as well as a Windows PC. Linux is a plus, too. CrashPlan, IDrive, and SpiderOakONE are compatible with all three.
- A fully functional, intuitive mobile app. The best services allow access to your backed-up files directly from their smartphone apps. IDrive stood head and shoulders above the rest here; not only is it the only service that offers an app for the Windows Phone, but it also offers innovative features such as social media backups and an auto-upload for photos. If you’re a big Facebook or Instagram user, this is a huge bonus. It’s potentially good for your friends, too; a single IDrive account can secure photos and videos from an unlimited number of Instagram accounts.
- An easy-to-navigate website and desktop app. Acronis True Image Cloud scores highly on account of its clean interface, as does the less attractive, but still easy-to-use SOS Online Backup.
Backblaze, Bitcasa Drive, iBackup, OpenDrive, UpdateStar Online Backup
We ranked our final contenders on their upload speeds.
The biggest downside to backing up your files online is that it takes time — depending on how much you’re backing up, potentially a lot of time. Couple that with the fact your computer needs to be on and awake to make it happen successfully, and every extra minute you’re waiting for a backup to complete is a hassle. With this in mind, we put our five remaining contenders through a test to measure their file-upload times.
The first time you back up your entire computer, it’s going to take a while no matter which service you choose. We started uploading a 250GB file from a 3.0GHz Core i7 Mac mini on a home network to SOS Online Backup at an upload speed of 5.8 Mbps — the fastest our researcher’s home internet could go (and half the national average speed of 12.6 Mbps). It took us 20 minutes to upload the first gig. At that rate, it’d take another 3.47 days to finish. Even at 12.6 Mbps it’d take about a day and a half.
But after that huge initial backup of your whole machine, you’ll likely only be backing up smaller amounts of data on a daily basis. To test that everyday speed and performance, we timed how long it took each service to back up smaller data packets at a more typical internet speed, 11.6 Mbps.
We started our test with a 100MB packet of 10 folders holding a mix of 50 photos, MP3s, text documents, and other media files — exactly the kind of content you’d find on an average home computer. Then we repeated the test with a 1GB packet of 15 folders with a mix of 250 files to see how each service’s upload time scaled.
It should be noted that upload speed is tricky to measure because it doesn’t depend entirely on the backup service. Your internet provider and bandwidth play roles, as well as your computer’s processing power, the number of individual files you’re uploading (lots of little files take longer than fewer bigger files), and how compressible those files are. But this gave us a good sense of how these five services compare.
Upload Test Results
Online Backup Service
100MB Upload Time
1GB Upload Time
*Rank based on average upload time across multiple trials of both packets at 11.6 Mbps.
The test results for the 100MB packets all fall within roughly the same range — no real winner or loser. More pronounced differences emerged when we tested upload speeds for 1GB of data. SOS Online Backup is the clear winner in the speed category and was nearly twice as fast as the two slowest, CrashPlan and SpiderOakONE, which both had faster 100MB uploads, but didn’t keep pace with the larger upload. IDrive performed well with both sizes.
Speed isn’t everything, though. This test also helped us determine which services best combine impressive speeds with a simple, seamless user experience. SOS Online Backup, which won our speed test, failed to impress us with its barebones desktop application. IDrive and Acronis True Image Cloud, on the other hand, were more pleasant to use.
Our Picks for the Best Online Backup Services
IDrive Simplicity and impressive upload speed helped IDrive stand out as our overall favorite.
IDrive was the only service we tested that never sent us hunting for an FAQ section. Sure, the desktop application looks like software from 1999. Yes, there are buttons that don’t do anything when you click them. But IDrive makes it easy to upload and was second fastest in our speed test. Even the web app was fast enough that we could smoothly preview a video to make sure it was the exact file we wanted to restore.
Scheduling backups is painless, too. There’s a daily backup cadence as well as a continuous data-protection option that backs up your files as soon as they’ve been saved, minimizing the chance of losing anything you created or changed since your last backup.
One of the best parts of IDrive’s desktop application is how much information it presents. We had to use a stopwatch to time most of the other services in our upload test, but with IDrive you can click to reveal an upload-progress bar, and it gave a full report detailing how long each upload took.
IDrive’s interface is clean, simple, and easy to navigate, if a bit ’90s.
Finding and restoring files is easy enough, as long as you know where you saved them on your computer in the first place. IDrive recreates your original hierarchy of folders online; once downloaded, everything is funneled into a top-level IDrive Downloads folder where that hierarchy of folders repeats. The whole experience feels neither super user friendly, nor super dreadful — it just gets the job done.
Unlike many of the services we tested, IDrive allows you to include an unlimited number of devices with a single subscription. A private encryption key ensures maximum security, and an encrypted local backup option lets you access files even when you don’t have an internet connection (you will need an external drive, though). Those oft-neglected users of the Linux and Windows Phone operating systems are also in luck, as IDrive is the only one of our final contenders that’s compatible with both.
IDrive’s trump card is a bonus service called IDrive Express. The company will physically ship you a hard drive, which you can use to quickly backup up to 3TB of data — this is a really nice benefit if you want to avoid long, bandwidth-sucking uploads. All you have to do then is return the drive, and IDrive will back up the data to its servers as soon as the company gets it. It works in reverse, too: A full restore is way faster downloading from a physical hard drive if you need your data in a hurry.
Several other services, including SOS Online Backup, also offer a physical restore option, but it almost always comes with a high cost. IDrive personal users can do it once a year for free.
For all its transparency, performance, and perks, IDrive is worth the $60 annual subscription. The fact that your first year is only $45 (or less, if there’s a sale!) is just a beautiful bonus.
Fastest Upload Speeds
SOS Online Backup Perhaps the least beautiful of our final contenders, but it makes up for a minimalist interface with the fastest upload speeds.
We often found ourselves frustrated with SOS’s barebones interface, but if you’re gunning for sheer speed (or love a little minimalism) you couldn’t do better than this powerful service. SOS simply blew away our other contenders, uploading 1GB of data in under nine minutes (the next closest service, our top pick IDrive, clocked in at 11:29). It should also be noted that the website is decidedly easier to navigate than the desktop application, and the FAQ section quickly cleared up most of our questions.
SOS Online Backup crushed the speed test but its bare, no-frills interface didn’t wow us.
SOS also scored highly in terms of security. The service offers a private key option along with AES 256 encryption, but what really impressed us was a feature you don’t see everywhere: unlimited versioning. No matter how many times you edit or change a document, SOS saves every version and allows you to access it easily — it even lets you decide where a file should be downloaded to. Sure, the price tag ($8 per month) is steeper than most other options, but it also comes with unlimited storage.
Best Security and Privacy
SpiderOakONE If you’re an experienced user — or even a mild political dissident — you’ll appreciate its airtight security.
SpiderOakONE offers 1TB of storage for $12 per month ($129 per year), which isn’t the most cost-effective online backup solution. It also finished dead last uploading 1GB of data in our test, requires a software download before you can access the web app, and its red “BUY MORE SPACE” button is larger than the gray upload button that’s used more often. But we’ll say this for SpiderOak: It takes security seriously. The company’s front page even features a testimonial from Edward Snowden.
SpiderOakONE’s attractive interface emphasizes customization (and its buy button).
SpiderOakONE’s three-level security plan is as thorough as it gets.
Aside from privacy, SpiderOak offers some of the most complex customization options of any of our contenders. Though it’s not exactly intuitive, the desktop application looks nice and lets you tailor pretty much everything to your needs. Want to customize your backup schedule? No problem. Need to back up only one type or size of file? SpiderOakONE lets you sort through all of your data and select only the ones you want.
If you value security above everything else, it might be worth the extra money for a SpiderOakONE subscription.
Best Desktop Application
Acronis We fell in love with its desktop application, which prizes simplicity and intuitiveness above pretty much everything else.
Acronis True Image Cloud puts an emphasis on ease of use and simplicity, as evidenced by its clean and attractive desktop application. Don’t get us wrong — Acronis still delivers the goods. The company’s email support especially impressed us, as did the website’s Live Chat option; we used both just to see how they worked, but it wasn’t really necessary given how easy the desktop application is to navigate.
At $100 per year for just one computer (you can pay up to $200 to cover five computers), it’s hard to recommend Acronis as a good value, especially since half of users have at least two computers. The service performed in the middle of the pack in our speed test, and its features don’t allow for a ton of customization. With that said, if you value aesthetics and easy navigation, consider Acronis.
Acronis isn’t a great value, but it combines an attractive look with intuitive controls.
Best Free Online Backup Supplement
CrashPlan Unlimited storage, a high level of security, and an easy way to share files with friends.
If you head to the online forums, you’re likely to see lots of love for CrashPlan. And it makes sense: This is an attractive backup service that offers perks such as unlimited storage, a high level of security, and a straightforward, if unremarkable interface. We weren’t totally sold on CrashPlan in our speed test, and it took us a little extra time to find our way around the desktop application; it looks simple on the surface, but many of the menus are dedicated to sales, even if you’ve already signed up. But you could do a lot worse than this service, especially if you know other people who are using it (CrashPlan allows for easy file sharing between friends). It also has a cool calendar feature for retrieving backed up files.
CrashPlan’s desktop app is pretty enough, but not super easy to navigate.
Where CrashPlan truly shines is in its value as an online backup supplement. The service offers free automated daily backups with no strings attached, so long as you can provide your own local storage device (an external hard drive or any computer connected to the internet will work). And it’s really easy to use:
You supply the hard drive, and CrashPlan’s free software will pretty much take it from there.
Other Online Backup Services to Consider
If you don’t care about customization and want a simple service you can set and forget, give Backblaze a try. It’s the cheapest service out of everything we tested and seems to be designed for total beginners: It automatically chooses what to back up and defaults to a slow upload speed. (It said it’d take a painstaking 23 days to upload an initial 60GBs, but you can dig in the preferences to unthrottle your upload.) The biggest downside to Backblaze is restoring files, which involves a journey to the Backblaze website, then to your email, and finally to a bulk zip of files. There’s an option to get your data shipped to you on a hard drive, but that’s also cumbersome: Pay $189 up front, then email customer service to let them know you’ve shipped it back for a full refund.
If you own a small business and like the idea of using the same service for all your needs, Carbonite offers attractive values for both personal and business solutions. The company also achieved a perfect score on our customer service evaluation, so you know you’ll be in good hands.
Did You Know?
Security is mostly up to you.
Cloud services aren’t impervious to breaches, but according to Townsend, they have so many defenses that most hackers aim their sights at an easier target: the users themselves. “It is easier for hackers to break into our PC or laptop or smartphone, steal our cloud credentials, and just download our files than it is to attack the better-defended cloud companies head on,” he explained.
This isn’t meant to scare you, but it should be a wake-up call. Once you get your private encryption key, it’s up to you to keep it safe. Don’t use the same password that you use for your email account, and don’t store it in a place that could potentially be breached, like inside your phone or under your favorite park bench. The best place for your password is in your head — so long as you don’t forget it. If you are worried about forgetting, check out our password managers review to find one that works for you. (If you have more than three passwords memorized, you should probably be using a password manager.)
Continuous backups are the best way to keep your data safe and up-to-date.
All services back up data on a fixed schedule; only a few do it continuously. One of the reasons we love IDrive is because it offers a continuous data-protection option, which backs up files as you create and edit them (SOS Online Backup offers a similar feature). As soon as you save your updates, you’ll be able to access the new files. This is an especially convenient feature, as most other services recommend making a habit (and therefore a hassle) of checking in your scheduled backups to ensure they are actually happening.
If your backup seems especially slow, make sure your internet provider isn’t imposing a bandwidth cap.
Low bandwidth can be the result of several different factors, including a slow internet connection and issues with your local network. Some online backup services, like Backblaze, contribute to this by limiting or “throttling” bandwidth. If you notice your uploads and downloads going slower than they should, check to make sure your internet provider isn’t imposing a bandwidth cap. If it is, adjust how much bandwidth your backup service is sucking up from the desktop application. Your backup will go a bit slower, but you’ll still have some bandwidth left for cruising the web.
The Bottom Line
To truly avoid a data disaster, it’s best to have three backups: two physical hard drives in separate locations and one in the cloud. We recommend IDrive for its seamless and secure continuous backup that makes keeping a copy of your data in the cloud as easy as autosave.
Buy an external hard drive. Remember the rule of three: Backing up your data in just one place is never enough. No matter which online backup service you choose, you should also be backing up the same data to a local hard drive.
Take a few hours to organize your files. Just like a bedroom, a computer needs regular tidying. Before backing up your data, take some time to go through it all, delete redundant folders, and reorganize files in a way that works for you. You’ll thank yourself when you don’t have to hunt for that Excel spreadsheet of lucky lottery numbers.
Look into a password manager. You’ll be the only person who has access to your personal key, and a password manager will help ensure you never forget it. Our favorite is Dashlane and it has a no-risk freemium version.