You know how easy it is to lose vital files. And so now you regularly back up your system to an external hard drive.
That's a good move, and will protect you in many situations. But what if there's a fire? A flood? A burglary? Any major catastrophe could mean you lose your backup media, as well as your PC, and so for real security you'll need to turn to an online backup service.
It's easy to assume this will be too slow, and certainly your first online backup can take a very, very long time. But after that, the program should only need to upload new and changed files in the folders you've specified, which means performance could be much better than you expect.
A good online backup service may provide other benefits, too, such as synchronising folders with your other computers and generating links for files so you can share them with friends. A web view on your files will make them easily accessible from any device. And sometimes these services even include streaming, so if you back up your music collection then you'll be able to play it from any browser, anywhere.
Which is the best service for you, then? We've put 10 big-name online backup services through their paces to help you decide. Read on to see how they fared and how much they'll cost you. Bear in mind that most providers have more than one plan available, and many offer discounts if you sign up for two or three years rather than one, so it's worth looking around and thinking about the capacity you'll need.
Unlimited for $50 (around £32/AU$56) per year
Perhaps the ultimate in hassle-free online backup services, the Backblaze PC or Mac client can be downloaded, installed and running within a couple of minutes. There's nothing to set up, the program just automatically searches for and saves all of your personal files, on your system and even external drives.
This simplicity does come with a distinct loss of control, though. In particular, you can't tell Backblaze to back up a specific set of files or folders. The program will always aim to back up your entire hard drive (with the exception of system and application files), and any external drives you might have connected, and the most you can do is tell it to ignore certain folders.
The configuration options you do get are also relatively limited. There is a scheduler, for instance, but it can't do more than run your backup once a day. You don't even get to choose the precise starting time (it has to be at the start of an hour).
And there's also a distinct lack of features, with no sync and no file sharing. And deleted files, along with old file versions, are deleted after 30 days. Restoration is at least easy via the web interface, though, or mobile app (iPhone only), and you can optionally have files sent to you on a flash or USB hard drive.
If you're looking to back up all your data, and don't need any other extras, Backblaze may appeal: it's fast, reasonably priced and easy to use. But if you're ever likely to require more control over your backups, we would look elsewhere.
Unlimited for $59.99 (around £39/AU$67) per year
If you prefer a backup service that you can install and forget about, then Carbonite might appeal. You don't have to tell it what to back up, since by default the Windows and Mac clients will protect most of your user files (desktop, music, pictures, the Documents folder). Unlimited storage space means you'll have no worries over file management. And there are very few configuration options to worry about, so anyone should be able to use the program right away.
Many common backup tasks can be managed from Explorer, too. You can add new files or folders to your backup from the right-click menu, for instance. A Carbonite Backup Drive folder enables you to browse currently backed up files, or their previous versions, and any of these can be restored in a click or two. (Of course you can also access your files from the web, or via iOS or Android apps.)
The service is a little short on features, though, with no synchronisation or file sharing options. And it's not as "unlimited" as some of the competition, either. Deleted files are kept for a month only, previous versions a maximum of three months with the Windows client, and there's no versioning at all for Mac users.
What's more, while Carbonite seems very simple at first, if you try to move away from the default settings then problems begin to emerge. Scheduling is horribly limited, for instance, and there's no clear way to launch a manual backup immediately. You get very little control over the system resources or bandwidth used by Carbonite and the program's options are scattered around, so you might access some from its system tray menu, others from the client and still more from Explorer.
There's still a lot to like about Carbonite, of course - the core backup tools are easy to use, restoring files is particularly straightforward and the prices are reasonable. But if you want lots of features that you can customise in great detail, then this may not be the service for you.
Unlimited for US$59.99 (around £39/AU$67) per year
Most online backup tools are cut down, extremely basic, the core essentials and nothing else. CrashPlan takes a different approach, though - it's easily the most powerful tool in this set.
There's support for both compressing and encrypting your backups, for instance. You get an enormous amount of control over when your backups will run, how much resources and network bandwidth they'll take, and how long file versions and deleted files will be kept (anything up to forever). The program can even send you backup alerts via email or Twitter.
All this can be set up with clients for Windows, Mac, Linux and Solaris. These support quick and easy restoration, too, although you can also access your backed up files via a web interface, or mobile clients for iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7.
And although CrashPlan is hoping you'll pay for online backup space, this isn't strictly necessary. The program can also store your data on local drives, or a friend's computer - and you can do this with a free CrashPlan Home account.
The service is missing some of the bonus features you get elsewhere. There's no synchronisation, for instance, and no file sharing or streaming of your remote files. For online backup, though, CrashPlan is hard to beat: fast, powerful, yet very easy to use, it's one of the best home user backup services around.
Acronis True Image Online
250GB for £39.95/US$49.99/AU$59.95 per year
Best known for its desktop backup software, Acronis is now trying to make an impact in the cloud storage world, and its True Image Online is certainly a good place to start.
A solid feature set includes 250GB of storage, unlimited versioning, easy synchronisation and file sharing. You can use up to five PCs with the service, and all of this is accessible from PC client software, the web or mobile apps for Android and iOS smartphones and tablets.
This is far more configurable than the bulk of the competition, too. You can set a precise network connection speed limit, for instance (no vague sliders here). You're also able to define how many previous versions of a file will be kept, and for how long. And the most versatile scheduler here means you can run backups daily, on particular days of the week, on one specific day each month, when your system starts, shuts down, and more.
All this power does make for a bulkier package, of course. If you're looking for simplicity above all else then the program's many tabs, links and options may seem intimidating, and it certainly takes a while to explore and learn.
If you'd like to configure every aspect of your backup, though, Acronis True Image Online is sure to appeal - and the scheduler will win many converts all on its own.
Norton Online Backup
25GB for £39.99/US$49.99/AU$79.99 per year
Attractively priced, and with support for up to five PCs or Macs, Norton Online Backup looks at first as though it would be an ideal choice for the home network market. Ok, the 25GB storage space is a little low, but it may be enough for some, and you can add more if you need it.
The feature list seems reasonable, too. There's easy file sharing, you can back up particular file types (music, pictures, documents and so on), individual files or folders, and backups can be run automatically, on demand or scheduled for a particular time.
There is a significant problem, though, in that the service presents an almost entirely browser-based interface, which is slow, cumbersome and generally awkward to use. Deciding exactly what you want to back up is more fiddly than it should be, delays in the process meant we were regularly left staring at a blank screen and the system just doesn't make much of an effort to help you out.
Our experience of trying to restore a single file summed this up perfectly. The clunky interface meant it took a while to make this happen. The restore failed, but there was no alert, only a tool tip recommending we check the logs. We had to figure out how to do that ourselves, and even then the log said only "Restore failed (W12152)", with no further explanation.
Norton Online Backup may still be useful if you have a few key files you'd like to back up on several PCs, at minimum cost. Otherwise, give it a miss, since there are much better products elsewhere.
50GB for free, 250GB for $62.50 (around £40/AU$70) per year
ADrive's low minimum prices of US$25 (around £16/AU$28) for 100GB are a great way to get attention, but they're not the only plus point for the service, which is packed with interesting features.
You can upload and manage your files from an Adobe Air program, an FTP client, WebDAV or a browser, for instance. And your backup can include remote files, too: just provide the URL and the service will grab them for you.
A convenient file sharing option creates a link that enables others to download any of your backed up files. Password protection, and the ability to set an expiration date for the link, helps to keep your data secure.
Unusually, Zoho integration enables you to open, edit and save your documents, spreadsheets and presentations, without having to download them first. And the company offers 24/7 phone and email support, which might be useful if something goes wrong.
We weren't so keen on ADrives' desktop client, which is awkward to use and horribly basic, with limited scheduling and no real configuration options. What's more, ADrive's client was the only one in our test which failed in an upload, complaining of a "network error". Maybe there was an error, but what we expect a backup service to do is to keep trying, not give up and wait until the next scheduled run.
For all this, if you're happy to work from the web interface then ADrive has an appealing mix of features, and the 50GB free account (which doesn't include the Air client) could be a good deal for users on a budget.
Unlimited for £48/US$72 (around AU$83) per year
Livedrive is a capable service that seems to tick many of the online backup boxes. You get unlimited storage, for instance, plus Windows, Mac and mobile clients for iOS, Android and Windows 8 devices. Your files can be accessed from the Livedrive web interface, and a built-in media player enables you to enjoy your music and videos without having to download them first.
There are some limitations, though. The system only keeps the last 30 versions of a file, for instance (not as many as you think if your software saves documents automatically), while deleted files are lost after 30 days. And features such as syncing, file sharing and document editing are only available if you upgrade to the notably more expensive Briefcase account.
We weren't overly impressed by the backup client, either. It's a little basic, there are few configuration options (although the ability to limit upload and download bandwidth separately is useful), and restoration is more awkward than it should be. Switching to the web interface doesn't always help, either, since this only enables you to download a single file at a time.
There aren't too many compelling reasons to choose Livedrive, then - you'll probably be better off with one of its cheaper and more capable competitors.
2GB for free, 50GB for £54.89/$65.89 (around AU$95) per year
Every great online backup service needs a quality desktop client, and Mozy's for PC and Mac is better than most. Getting started is very easy, for instance, because there's no need to worry about choosing specific folders to back up (although you can). Just select one or more file types - pictures, music, bookmarks, email and so on - and the program will protect them for you.
A vast array of configuration options enable you to define exactly when the backup occurs (either scheduled or when your PC is idle), how much bandwidth it can take, whether backups run when a computer is on battery power, how the system integrates with Explorer, and more.
Restoration is straightforward, too. You can search the backup set by date, or for the latest version, or just restore your entire backup tree with a couple of clicks. Android and iOS apps give access to your data from anywhere, and there's a web interface too.
There are also issues. File versions are kept for only 30 days, for instance, plus there's no file sharing option, and most significantly, you get very little storage space for your money. If you don't need any more, though, Mozy's excellent software may appeal, and the company also provides a free 2GB account, which could prove useful.
2GB for free, 100GB for US$100 (around £65/AU$112) per year
At around twice the cost of Carbonite, SpiderOak is one of the more expensive services here - so is it really worth a look? Maybe.
Capacity isn't overly generous, at 100GB, but you can use as many PCs, Macs and Linux computers as you like on the same account. And there's no deleting old file versions after 30 days, either, since SpiderOak keeps them forever.
Security is excellent, too, with your backups encrypted so that nobody else can access them (not even SpiderOak staff). There are also impressively powerful synchronisation and file sharing features, and the system provides clients for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android and more devices.
There are also complications, though. The backup client is awkward, more difficult to use than most of the competition. It doesn't offer the same fine-tuning options you'll get elsewhere (scheduling is basic, and you can't really control its use of system resources). And we found performance was unpredictable - sometimes it was fast, sometimes it was slow, there was no way to tell how it would behave at any one time.
SpiderOak may still be a good deal for advanced users who need backup, file sharing and sync services. The service offers a free 2GB account, too, which means you can try it out for just as long as you like. If you're a home user who just wants a simple online backup for a single PC, though, there are cheaper and more effective solutions elsewhere.
10GB for free, Unlimited for £69 (around US$107/AU$120) per year
In theory at least, Bitcasa is a very capable online backup service which delivers most of the features people really want: unlimited storage space and versioning, high security (your files are encrypted before they're uploaded) straightforward Dropbox-style syncing, easy file sharing, streaming from the web client (just click a music or video file to play it) and a range of clients to tie it all together (Windows, Mac, and apps for iOS, Android and Windows 8).
There are problems, though, and they start with the client itself. Bitcasa is certainly easy to use - just copy files to its virtual drive and they'll be uploaded to the web - but this Explorer-based approach means you get very little control or feedback. There's no scheduling, for instance. There's also no significant feedback on the current backup task, no option to pause or resume a backup and no way to limit its use of network bandwidth.
This had some unwelcome consequences for us, since we found Bitcasa's activities significantly affected the performance of other software. This isn't a total disaster, since you can always close the program down, restart it later, and the backup will continue where it left off, but it would be easier if we could set up the service to work as we'd like in the first place.
When you also factor in Bitcasa's premium £69 (around US$107/AU$120) per year price, the service may not seem quite so appealing, after all. Still, the core feature set is impressive. And the company's free account provides a reasonable 10GB of space, so if you like its simplicity then it might be worth trying out Bitcasa for a while, to see how it works for you.
- Now why not check out whether you should choose Office, Google or OpenOffice?