There are two types of hard drives: those about to fail, and those that will fail eventually. Plan accordingly.
I learned this in my great photo catastrophe of 2012. On vacation in Italy with a fancy-pants camera, I saved gigabytes and gigabytes of Tuscan sunsets onto a new portable drive. But when I got home and plugged it in, the drive started to chirp like a cicada. Gulp. My photos would only show up, briefly, when I gave the drive a firm thwack.
I recovered many of my shots, but it took a week of thwacking and fretting. I became obsessed with backing up my digital life. I copied photos and music to extra drives. I burned DVDs. I printed things out.
Eventually, I found a better way: a program called CrashPlan that, for $60 a year, saves an online copy of everything that passes through my computer.
I’m not talking about services like Dropbox or networked hard drives, which act as extensions of your computer’s storage. CrashPlan has diligently and unobtrusively backed up my entire digital life for the past few years. But technology has marched on, so I recently revisited my backup options.
I tested four of the most popular backup services that claim to offer unlimited storage: CrashPlan, Backblaze, Carbonite and SOS Online Backup. I didn’t include services such as iDrive, Mozy and Norton Online Backup because they sell storage by the gigabyte. (I don’t understand how anybody is supposed to know how many bytes they’re going to consume, like one of those contests where you guess how many jelly beans are in a jar.)
Online backup is effective because it does the worrying for you. The cloud is less susceptible to loss than running (or, heaven forbid, thwacking) your own farm of backup drives. The cloud is protected from fire, flood, theft and your cat. You can access online archives from anywhere, including on your phone. And it makes sense if you’re already paying an arm and a leg for fast, unlimited broadband.
Yes, with the cloud you have to be wary of security, privacy and bandwidth. (I’ll help with that in a moment.) But you’re more likely to actually use it than the alternatives: Reliably dragging a copy of your My Documents folder onto an external drive is just wishful thinking. Dedicated backup drives like Apple’s $300 AirPort Time Capsule are simple enough…until they fill up and you ignore reminders to get a new one.
To make it a fair test, I loaded my four online contenders on four identical Dell laptops stuffed with about 10 GB of video and an external drive with another 10 GB of photos. Then I backed them up, one after the other, through my home Internet connection.
I found a lot to like in three of them (though not Carbonite, which is harder to use and isn’t really “unlimited” unless you pay extra). At $50 a year, Backblaze is inexpensive and simple. SOS offers the most comprehensive archive—it can also back up your phone and tablets. But it’s also the most expensive, at $80 a year.
CrashPlan is still my favorite. It has more of a track record and a much larger clientele, and it offers all of the most important capabilities for $60. If you’ve got a whole family to protect, CrashPlan will back up as many as 10 computers for $150 a year—by far the best value.
CrashPlan is free to download and try on PCs and Macs for a month, so you can judge whether it’s right for you without handing over your credit card.
The first time you run it, CrashPlan scans your computer for the files it thinks you ought to back up. That’s mostly going to be the stuff in your documents folders and desktop, but you can manually add other files and folders.
If you have a very messy computer, Backblaze and an application from SOS coming out in March make it easier to find pictures and documents squirreled away in unusual places.
There’s a lot of fine print, though: CrashPlan and SOS say they’re unlimited and mean it. Carbonite won’t automatically archive any individual files over 4 GB—you have to hunt and select each one, or pay for its $150 Prime service to back them up automatically. Backblaze won’t let you back up certain kinds of files, like applications, at all.
What about portable drives filled with old vacation photos? Here comes the fine print again: CrashPlan and SOS will back up other drives. But Carbonite makes you buy its $100 Plus package to back up external drives. Backblaze does it for free, but annoyingly insists you connect each drive at least once a month to hold on to the archive.
How long does this take? That depends. Home broadband is getting faster, but uploading is usually slower than downloading. On my Comcast connection, uploading 25 gigabytes took me about nine-and-a-half hours with CrashPlan, and an hour longer with SOS.
Just know this: If you have terabytes of photos and video to upload, a full backup could take weeks. If you’re worried about backup gobbling up your Internet speed, all of the programs let you schedule uploads.
After your initial backup, CrashPlan and SOS watch for any time you add new files or change existing ones. Both keep all versions of your files forever. (Fine print alert: Other services delete older versions after a while.) They even keep files if you delete them, which may be a relief or a little bit scary.
So what happens when you need to get your data back? You can download portions of your data by logging into a Web browser or a phone app. This is handy when you leave a file on your home computer you need to access on the go.
You can get all of your data back—and search by file name and date—by installing CrashPlan or SOS’s software on your new computer. If downloading it all will take too long, you can pay CrashPlan $165 to have them express mail it to you on a drive. SOS charges $400 for that.
What about hackers and snoops? CrashPlan uses particularly sophisticated 448-bit encryption before it sends your files over the Internet, locking your stuff not only with your account password but also an optional passphrase that even CrashPlan doesn’t know. SOS allows for an extra passphrase, too, but only for Windows PC customers.
All of these companies should do one thing more for security: offer two-factor authentication. This alerts your phone with a unique code every time you (or someone else) tries to log in on a new computer. I hope they add it soon.
More of us use mobile and Web apps that store our data primarily in the cloud—like documents in Google Drive and photos in iCloud. One of the big advantages to SOS is that can back up photos and contacts from phones and tablets.
CrashPlan says it is looking at phone backups, along with other new features with a software update coming this year. My biggest complaint about CrashPlan is that a bug in its Mac program caused it to crash when I tried to back up a giant collection of photos.
Trusting any company with your entire digital life is a hard pill for some people to swallow. CrashPlan wouldn’t disclose whether it has had customer “data loss events” but says it stores stuff for millions of customers on its own servers in multiple places to protect against failure. SOS says it hasn’t ever lost consumer data.
For the extra nervous, CrashPlan and SOS also let you simultaneously back up your data to a hard drive you keep.
Ultimately, I trust CrashPlan to do a better job safekeeping my data than I can because that’s its business. I’d rather spend my time taking pictures.