Online Backup Services Come of Age

It's a dangerous world--always has been, always will be. Backing up your dearest data to a secure, encrypted server in a remote location is the ultimate insurance against the sinking feeling that accompanies losing something irreplaceable. The ever-present need for off-site backup is one reason online backup companies continue to thrive. Convenience plays a role as well, as you can forgo buying your own external storage devices and software to do local backups. (Keep in mind, however, that unless you have superfast upload speeds, the only practical way to do full system backups is to use an external hard drive or other local backup device.)

Online backup services have an added benefit in that some provide a secure means for you to share your files. Typically you can share files via either a communal account (so anyone with the account name and password can access it) or public folders (accessible through a Web browser). If you work from multiple locations, storing documents online obviates the need to carry those files with you, and makes them easy to pass along to colleagues.

Among the services we looked at, the more security-minded ones do not offer sharing, instead focusing strictly on safe file backup (file sharing could lead to accidental or malicious sharing).

After we examined more than a dozen backup services, we chose five that provided the most attractive pricing for the average user: Acpana Data Deposit Box, Connected Data Protector, FirstBackup, Pro-Softnet's IBackup, and Xdrive.

Other services we encountered--some of which are oriented more toward business users than home or small-office users--include @Backup, Amerivault, DataVault, Intronis Technologies ESureIT, Iomega IStorage Online, Novastor Online Backup Service, Register.com, and SwapDrive.

Picking a Backup Service

All five of the services we selected and reviewed offer the basics: a desktop client program to upload and download files sans a browser, file compression and encryption, and privacy. Their differences lie mainly in price, capacity, usability, and online management of your files. Other things to consider include whether you want to go with a monthly plan or annual pricing. Generally speaking, longer-term plans are discounted; all but Acpana have an annual plan, and FirstBackup also offers quarterly pricing.

Each of the services we tested will help you keep your data safe. We did have our favorites, however, each one shining in different situations. For casual use you can't beat Data Deposit Box's pay-for-what-you-use pricing. Xdrive's ease of use and affordable 5GB plan make it our preferred service for people who need to store from 1GB to 5GB and who like to share files. IBackup is just as inexpensive, but its interface is less convenient to use.

FirstBackup and Connected Data Protector are both worthy services for anyone who doesn't want or need Web-based access, with FirstBackup being cheaper by the year and Connected Data Protector less expensive on a monthly basis.

Acpana Data Deposit Box

Acpana's pay-for-as-much-as-you-use pricing for its Data Deposit Box service is a boon for people who need to back up only modest amounts of data online--for example, e-mail, an address book, or financial and tax records. At 1 cent per megabyte per month, for the first gigabyte you'd pay only $1 a month or $12 a year for 100MB. The added cost for anything above that first gigabyte is only 0.3 cents per MB, which keeps Data Deposit Box competitive up to the point where you should be asking about volume discounts anyway.

Data Deposit Box's set-it-and-forget-it desktop client automates the backup process and handles everything in the background. It lacks scheduling, though; instead, the client backs up files as they're changed. In our hands-on testing, the client seemed to use hardly any Windows resources and didn't interfere with other tasks. It uploaded our 21MB backup set and didn't slow down our Web browsing.

You can manage and share your Data Deposit Box files online, but you can also disable Web access via the client software if you're worried about security.

Connected Data Protector

Connected's Data Protector backup client is nearly as slick-looking as Xdrive's. However, the ponderous scanning of files that occurs each time you switch to the Backup View tab would try the patience of a saint.

So, too, would the software's bandwidth hogging. Although this client was by far the fastest of the five in our tests when uploading files, it sucked up so much of our admittedly puny 128-kilobits-per-second upstream cable bandwidth that surfing the Web was nearly impossible. You'll want to schedule backups for the wee hours, or, if you're traveling, when you leave the hotel for dinner.

$14.95 a month or $164.95 yearly for 2GB of storage is a fair deal for small businesses that want supersecure storage without the headaches of online file management or sharing.

FirstBackup

FirstBackup's classic, tabbed-interface backup client can be installed as either a Windows service or a stand-alone program. We had to search a while for the file-delete function, but otherwise found the application quite intuitive to use.

In our hands-on tests, it required a couple more CPU cycles than Acpana's client, and the upload-progress dialog box didn't properly factor in some files we had deselected; but we found we could still browse the Web while the backup was in progress, albeit a bit slowly. For security, FirstBackup omits online management and sharing, so it's not for the casual user who wants to distribute family photos.

FirstBackup charges $13.89 a month or $124.95 a year for the first 1GB of storage. It isn't nearly as cheap as IBackup or Xdrive; but at $2.75 for each additional gigabyte, it's competitive with Data Deposit Box and Connected Data Protector for larger amounts of data.

Pro-Softnet IBackup

Although $9.95 monthly or $99.50 per year for 5GB is as cheap as pricing gets in the world of online backup, IBackup simply isn't as easy to use as the equally affordable Xdrive.

IBackup comes in two flavors, normal and professional. The professional version provides more security, but for that reason it omits the easy online file management and sharing that the plain-vanilla version offers. Both backup clients use a classic tabbed interface à la FirstBackup, yet we found them both more difficult to learn and use than they should be.

Despite the rough edges of the client interface, the service works quite well. The non-Pro client also offers backup to CD/DVD in case your Internet connection is having a bad day.

Xdrive

The designers of Xdrive seem to have spent time using and perfecting their product's interface: Managing and sharing files online is a breeze, thanks to Xdrive's colorful Web browser/Java-based rendition of a double-paned file selector. The downloadable client is even better-looking, and Xdrive uniquely creates a Windows Network drive to which you can drag and drop files.

At $9.95 monthly or $99.95 yearly for 5GB of online storage, Xdrive ties IBackup for best cost per gigabyte in this roundup. If we have any complaint about the service, it's that uploads via the client were the slowest we encountered. However, while backups were in progress we could still browse the Web at nearly normal speed--a worthwhile trade-off if you want to be able to work while you back up.

Big Drive Backup--In This Package:
Introduction
Single-PC Backup Savvy
Chart: USB/FireWire Hard Drives
Backup Over a Network
Chart: Network-Attached Storage
High-Capacity Direct-Attached Storage
Chart: Direct-Attached Storage
Burlier Backup Software Safeguards Data
Chart: Backup Software
Special Report: Online Backup Services
Chart: Online Backup Services

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