There is one word that has made computer backups the dreaded activity for most PC users: time. Well, the lack of time, more precisely, especially when backups lead to storage snafus, transfer errors, and other hair-pulling exercises.
We have plenty of time for playing computer games, browsing the web, and even making a brochure in Word because those activities are fun and rewarding, for the most part.
Fortunately, the web has become a breeding ground for sites that help solve back-up problems. Sure, you can use a network-attached device over your home network, but that doesn't exactly help you when you're stuck at an airport with your laptop and really, really need to access that one Excel spreadsheet you misplaced in November.
And just because you have the drive, and the connection, and the technical wizardry to do backups doesn't mean you will actually do them. (We know, automated backups should work fine, but you will still run out of disk space and the software will still cause problems.)
In testing these sites, we found that off-loading data to the cloud actually worked remarkably well and led to a curious outcome: we actually kept doing the backups. We know it is an important activity, one that can save your skin when you lose an entire collection of family photos. These sites might actually solve the problem once and for all, albeit with varying degrees of success.
1. Microsoft Skydrive
Like any free service that you use when you sign-up for other services (eg, Windows Live), Microsoft Skydrive is all about the ability to make backups and store files online rather than actually making it easy.
In many respects, Skydrive is just a technical option - a place to put your files online. This is more attractive than it sounds: the service offers 25GB of free storage for docs, photos, or any file you care to post. There is a 'single sign-on' mentality here. Once you sign up for Live, you are automatically grandfathered in to Skydrive so there is no separate registration process.
The service works seamlessly with other Microsoft products - you can use Live Photos (a service that is similar to Flickr) to store your images in Skydrive folders. Office Web Apps also work with Skydrive so you can archive a document to the service, which is slick. The fact that Skydrive works reliably, is from Microsoft, and is free means you might start using it regularly.
Unfortunately, the service is very limited for any serious archiving duties. Unlike Carbonite, it doesn't integrate with your desktop at all, which is odd because Microsoft really should push that.
There is no way to do heavy batch uploads - say, an entire drive or network folder. It is strictly just one file at a time, hit Upload, then repeat. There are a few handy extras - you can create favourite folders, and share links for public files that people can comment on - sort of a poor man's photo portal where you can share some family shots and then have everyone comment on how dumb everyone looks.
Skydrive simply takes too much time to do archives. There is also a very restrictive 50MB per file limit on uploads, which is just lame. It is likely to be a service that you use for a while then quickly forget it even exists as you move on to other things.
Box.net has some great pricing plans. There is a free version which has 1GB of storage and a 25MB file limit, but the $10 plan gives you 10GB and a 1GB per file limit. The business plan at $15 per month, which is the one we tested, comes with 15GB and has a 2GB file limit. The service is well-designed and Web 2.0-savvy in that it makes use of Java and looks like it was made in this decade.
Unfortunately, in our tests, it was also buggy. Box.net is supposed to let you upload by dragging-and-dropping files, which would make it a lot easier to use, but we tried Google Chrome and Internet Explorer 8 and neither of them worked with the service correctly.
Box.net goes way beyond file storage. It is trying to be the Facebook of storage, which is a bit like trying to be the Twitter of mapping tech - it just doesn't really work. We're not visiting a storage site so we can connect with other people, we just want to keep our files safe.
The application frameworks are cool and all, but again – we are not using the service like an iPhone where we want to add a bunch of apps. (Truth be told, the widgets are useful but not our first thought when we have 20MB of documents we want to back up - would you really want to do that from LinkedIn?)
The additional features feel a bit like Box.net wanted to jump on a bandwagon and leverage the service, without actually improving the storage features. We do like that there is an iPhone app, an enterprise option with strong security encryption (pricing varies), and a good content search engine.
ElephantDrive is the ugly stepsister of Box.net. The sites are not related, but they use a similar blue and white colour scheme and offer similar 'entry level' and 'pro' account levels. That said, ElephantDrive is much cheaper - it costs about $5 for unlimited storage and the technology is much more closely aligned with how Carbonite works where you download an app that you use to back up files from your desktop.
Also like Carbonite, you have less control over how you set up backups - we prefer the way Mozy lets you configure backups in a way that mirrors desktop tools that archive to a local drive. ElephantDrive also had problems logging in at times and the online interface for seeing back-up files, while functional, looks about 10 years out of date compared to a fresher Web 2.0 look and feel.
Still, there are several perks to using Elephant Drive. One is that your files are protected heavily during transfer using 128-bit SSL encryption and packaged as 256-bit AEN encrypted files.
As a tool for transferring files, ElephantDrive also works well, although not quite as unencumbered as a service such as Yousendit.com. To share files, you have to log in, find the files, click a share option, and type the email of the person with whom you want to share the files – a few extra steps.
We also liked that we could do a backup and immediately access that file online and retrieve it rather than making a backup that is stored online but not available right away. (Some back-up sites save your archive in a proprietary file and you can't just access it at will.)
Carbonite and ElephantDrive are remarkably similar – they both run in the background and make backups on files over time as you use your computer. They both offer unlimited storage for one price, which is essentially an 'all you can eat' plan where the service will slowly back up the files you select.
With Carbonite, you select the files and folders you want to archive. The reason the backup is unlimited is simply because your internet connection – even if you speed along at 5Mbps or more – is still not fast enough over time to back up more than a few GBs. The service offers annual pricing, and one year costs $54.95 or about $5 per month – about the same as ElephantDrive.
In our tests, Carbonite worked flawlessly – we never even noticed that the service was archiving an entire music collection in the background. Thankfully, these backups use your upload bandwidth so you can still browse the web and check email without too much interference.
The process of archiving is easy, and the Carbonite utility works well, but ElephantDrive actually offers a more functional web interface for viewing files and sharing them with other users. With Carbonite, when you need to restore a file, you use the desktop software to restore them.
The service uses an 'on the fly' paradigm that might be confusing at first. For example, there are dots that appear on folders showing if a backup is pending, in process, or complete.
This is helpful once you get accustomed to the idea, but does not work like traditional back-up software or a web portal and forces you to look at folders and important files to see if they are archived or not instead of just using an app.