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Online backup: We test the best services—Carbonite, iDrive, and Backblaze

We'll help you choose the best online backup service.

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Online backup is an essential hedge against physical data disaster. Whether it’s an act of malice or an act of nature (earthquakes, floods, hard-drive devouring locusts), you never know what could hit your PC or phone, and when. Most of us stand to lose a significant store of digital possessions if our primary device disappears or is rendered inoperable.

Uploading your data to an online backup service covers a lot of the bases. Some people call these “cloud” services, but in reality, your data is stored on servers at the other end of the connection—that is, someone else’s hard drives. But that’s part of the plan! The backup Rule of Three says you should maintain three copies of your data: the original, a copy, and a copy of the copy. One copy should be in a safe place away from the original and secondary.

Cloud backup cheat sheet

We always recommend keeping a local backup for quick restores (see our backup software roundup for desktop solutions), but online can actually serve as both the second and third copies—assuming the vendor keeps its servers backed up, or adequately redundant.

The good news for consumers is that all of the major online backup services we reviewed this year are exceptional products. But while all of the contenders received the same high verdict, each product has its own unique selling point, as you’ll see below. It’s a win-win for consumers, who not only can’t go wrong with any of these excellant products, but can also be exceptionally choosey. Our primary concern here is backup, but we will note other roles that a service can fulfill, whether to share it with others or have it handy when working from multiple devices or varied locations.

Best overall online backup: iDrive

Just as when we originally reviewed all the major online backup services, iDrive remains the most comprehensive online backup service. And though it’s not the cheapest, it’s still affordable and comes with backup clients for nearly every PC and device, including Windows Phone—a rarity these days. The company also provides additional storage for syncing all your devices and PCs, allows sharing of files with anyone, and has the ability to back up to a local drive. 

iDrive has two Personal plans that cover one user with unlimited computers and devices: $69.50 a year for 5TB, and $99.50 a year for 10TB. Business plans allow for up to 50 users, starting at $99.50 for five users, and going up from there, with the 50-user tier costing $999.50. For all the details, read our full review of iDrive.

Best budget online backup service: Backblaze

If you’re not sure what you want to back up, or where it is, or just don’t want the pressure of trying to figure it all out—Backblaze is the online backup service for you. It offers unlimited storage, and backs up everything except items you explicitly exclude. Given all that, it’s ridiculously inexpensive compared to the competition: $6 a month, $60 a year, or $110 for two years for unlimited storage. Per PC. That’s it. It’s the same for business PCs. Read our full review of Backblaze for more details.

Most streamlined online backup: Carbonite

Carbonite Safe is, in its own way, as simple as Backblaze. The only real difference is that Carbonite doesn’t back up everything by default. It selects what it thinks you need to back up, then leaves the rest up to you. It’s pretty successful selecting data if you use the standard locations (My Documents, etc.), so most users won’t need to provide additional input. 

The price of elegance is a little steeper: Basic online-only backup is $72 for one computer for one year, $137 for two years, and $195 for three. If you want the ability to duplicate the backup to a local hard drive and back up videos, then you’re talking $112, $213, and $303, respectively. If you want the ability to retrieve your data via a hard drive couriered to you (much faster than downloading when there’s a lot of data), the rate rise to $150, $285, and $405, respectively. To find out why it’s worth the money, read our full review of Carbonite.

What to look for in online storage and backup

Capacity: Obviously, you’ll need as much storage as you have data, plus a little, or possibly a lot, more if you want to track changes and save previous versions of files. Some services keep multiple versions of files, some don’t. In many cases there’s a time limit.

Cost: Nearly all online services charge for a maximum allowable amount of data, and generally uploads are free. Aside from the free tiers available from a service like Dropbox, pricing is fairly consistent across services, though you definitely get more capacity for your money from some vendors, notably Backblaze.

Features: As we mentioned previously, in addition to backup, you may want to share your files with others, work with them from mobile devices, or even edit them with office applications such as those available with Dropbox, Google, and OneDrive. If you do intend to work online, we recommend that you maintain a local copy as backup, and a hedge against internet downtime. 

OS and device support: Most services provide client backup software for the major operating systems (Linux, OS X, and Windows) and both Android and iOS. Make sure the service you sign up for supports your entire panoply of computers and devices. Note: iDrive even supports Windows Phone.

Privacy: If you’re concerned about the privacy of your data, make sure you use a service that allows the use of a personal encryption key that you define. Do NOT lose it, as it is absolutely required to restore your data. Sadly, using your own key often limits the types of services (e.g., no mobile backup) available.

If private encryption keys aren’t available, read the privacy policy, especially with the free services—there are significant differences.

Reliability: Generally speaking, data centers are backed up to the hilt, and some of the larger ones even back up to different geographical locations. Availability (hopefully 24/7) can also be important. Check for news of outages and the vendor’s own service blogs. In truth, all the services we’re aware of are near-100% reliable.

Speed: Speed in many cases is far more dependent upon your broadband connection than that of the online service, though the geographical location of the storage and the equipment in between can make a significant difference. Check the location of the data servers if speed is important to you. Or, just give the trial a whirl and see if you can live with it.

How we tested

As noted above, the performance of online backup services will vary wildly according to their location and the network equipment between you and the data depository. We installed the software and backed up the same 2GB data set to check for any major issues or glitches in the client software. These are noted in the reviews.

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