Mobile Computing: Online Backup Services

Feature: Why You Should Back Up Online

Several years ago, a disastrous fire at the home of actress Kim Novak destroyed, among other things, the computer on which she was writing her autobiography. Novak, so memorable in Hitchcock's Vertigo, took the loss philosophically. "Maybe I'm not supposed to write my biography," she mused.

To fully consider Novak's plight (and her admirable Zen-like response), let's all take a moment to look inward, shall we? Breathe in, and imagine yourself in her situation, discovering your notebook, with all its precious data, transformed into a pile of hot ashes. Or stolen from your hotel room. Or refusing to boot up after you dropped it from the airplane's overhead luggage bin (and it landed on your foot, naturally). How would any of those scenarios make you feel?

I don't know about you, but devastated is the word that immediately springs to my mind. But such a dire fate is not inevitable. And if it should chance to occur, one way to lessen the (emotional) pain is to use an online backup service.

Why Back Up Online?

Most traditional backup methods copy your computer files onto some kind of media, be it an external hard drive, a CD or DVD, or a USB keychain drive. These methods are convenient and quick, and many (particularly external hard drives and DVDs) offer plenty of inexpensive storage space.

The problem is that most of the time, most people keep the external hard drives and DVDs in the same office or building as the computer they're backing up. So, should a disaster--hurricane, earthquake, fire--occur, both the computer and the data backup could be destroyed.

There's also the problem of theft, of course. Just the other day, I was reading the police blotter of my neighborhood's monthly newspaper, "The Noe Valley Voice." I live in what's considered a safe area of San Francisco, so I was surprised to read about all the laptops and peripherals stolen from people's home offices.

That's why I'm a firm believer in online backup services, which save your most critical computer files on a secure, off-site server over the Internet. If you've backed up regularly online, you may lose your computer in a disaster or to a theft, but at least your key files will survive.

How Does It Work?

I've used several online backup services and have found them, overall, easy to set up and use. Essentially, you download a backup utility from the service's Web site. Using the utility, you determine which files to back up automatically and when (say, every weekday at 9 p.m.).

Some online services mimic a hard drive on your computer, letting you drag and drop files to add them to the backup set. The files on the off-site server are usually compressed to save space. Should something happen to your computer, you can access the files from any Web-enabled PC (provided you've remembered your user name and password, of course).

In addition, many online backup services let you set up a shared file folder for high-resolution digital images or other large files. That makes it easier to share those files with others, who access the folder using a password.

So What's the Catch?

The biggest disadvantage to online storage is cost. Backing up an entire hard drive online is cost prohibitive for most of us. For instance, to back up a 50GB hard drive at IBackup, you'd pay $2000 a year--and that's for the service's backup-only plan.

Here's a look at five major online backup services, including annual service fees.

@Backup. The service offers eight plans, geared toward consumers and small businesses with minimal storage requirements. I've used @Backup and found it to be reliable and its Windows Explorer-inspired interface easy to use. But its rates are higher than most. Plans begin at $50 for 50MB and top out at $995 for 2GB.

DataProtector. Connected's online backup and recovery service, for small businesses and home users, includes patented technology that prevents duplicate copies of files on your hard drive from being backed up online, according to the company. For example, if you have inadvertently stored a file in two folders, and you've selected both folders for backup, DataProtector will back up that file only once, which saves storage space and time, the company claims. (I haven't tested this service.) Plans begin at $80 for 250MB and go up to $800 for 30GB.

IBackup. Pro-Softnet's service is for consumers and small businesses who want lots of options to choose from. IBackup offers 21 different plans, including workgroup subscription options that provide online storage and file sharing for a "large number of users," the company says. Unlike most services, IBackup lets you choose your backup interface. You can download a desktop backup utility, for instance, or handle everything entirely through a Web browser. I've used IBackup, and I like the many options it provides and its competitive rates. Plans start at $30 for 50MB and max out at $8640 for 100GB.

Iomega IStorage Online. This service lets you download files backed up online to a wireless Palm OS or BlackBerry device, as well as to a computer. Its five online backup plans include the ability to securely share files with others, the company says. (I've not tested IStorage). Plans begin at $25 for 50MB and go to $180 for 1GB.

Xdrive. This service offers just two online backup plans, which include file sharing--but its rates are among the best I've seen. I haven't tried Xdrive, but because of its compelling rates, I plan to. I'll report my experiences in a future newsletter. Plans are $119 for 5GB and 10GB for $239.

Netting It Out

As you can see, online storage is pricey. For instance, if you bought a Maxtor OneTouch 300GB external hard drive for $296, your one-time cost would be 99 cents per gigabyte. However, if you backed up just 2GB of data to IBackup, you'd pay $162 per gigabyte.

What to do? Here's what I suggest.

Protect Critical Files. Some people say "Remember the Alamo." I say, "Remember Kim Novak." Back up at least your most critical files online. If for no other reason, you may find yourself on a business trip without a file you need. If you backed up the file online, no problem--just go on the Internet and get it. And be sure to back up those files every business day. Because online backup is automated and works in the background, why wouldn't you?

Shop Around. Look for the online service that seems to best suit your needs. If you need to share large files with others, look for a service that offers secure file sharing, as IBackup does. All the services offer at least a 15-day free trial, so you can try them before you commit.

Mirror Your Hard Drive. Notebook hard drives are known to die early deaths. I've had two drives--in the same notebook--expire within one year. So along with online storage of your crucial files, I also recommend investing in a portable external hard drive that both backs up and mirrors your notebook's entire hard drive. Such a drive becomes a virtual replica of your notebook's drive that you can boot from should your computer's hard drive fail (assuming the computer's BIOS allows booting from a USB drive).

CMS Products' pocket-size ABSplus Portable USB 2.0 drive once saved me from near disaster when my Dell notebook's drive died unexpectedly on a trip. Using the portable ABSplus drive, I was able to get back to work almost immediately. On a cost-per-gigabyte basis, the ABSplus drives aren't the least expensive external hard drives available. But when disaster strikes, such drives are worth every penny. ABSplus Portable USB 2.0 drives begin at $229 for 20GB and go up to $419 for 100GB. (For more on external drives, see "Sony's Top Hard Drive.")

Keep Backup Discs Off-Site. Here's another thing I do: About once a month, I back up about my music, video, and digital camera files onto DVD-Rs. I store the discs in the trunk of my car, which is parked on the street outside my home. Should something happen to my home, at least that data is (reasonably) protected in my car. Granted, this isn't a foolproof plan. If I lived closer to my bank, I'd store my DVDs in my lock box there.

At any rate, you get the picture: Back up your most critical data files off-site, whether it's with an online storage service, on DVDs in your bank lock box, or preferably, both.

Do You Back Up Off-Site?

If so, I'd like to know which service you use and why. Please e-mail me with your name and city at james_martin@pcworld.com

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