GeekTech: Back Up Online and Share the Wealth

Backing up your crucial data is vital... blah blah blah, yada yada yada.

Admit it, that's what you hear in your head every time we smarty-pants here at PC World run a story about the significance of backing up your data. Yes, you know it's important. Yes, there's stuff on your hard drive you'd hate to lose. And yes, you feel a twinge of guilt every time you see these stories because, chances are, you're not doing it.

I know. Backing up is so boring. And using online services takes so long, even with a broadband connection. Plus, backing up your hard drive doesn't make Half-Life 2 run any better, so what's the point? For me, the point is that I never want to spend consecutive weekends ripping my entire CD collection again. Ever.

I have a backup copy of my music, photos, and other important data at home. But like most people I've put off uploading my stuff to an online storage service because, well, tinkering under the hood is more fun than doing something I really should do. Then I ran across a service that makes it worth the hassle, in more ways than one.

What if I said that you could access, and even stream, your favorite music and videos to any Web-connected PC in the world? Or how about sharing your fancy, high-resolution photos with the folks back home through a simple URL in an e-mail?

Okay, how about if I said you can do all this for free?

Pay as You Go--or Not

Check out Streamload. It's an online storage service that offers all the goodies I mentioned, plus you can use it for free if you accept some restrictions. If you're willing to shell out a few bucks per month it gets even better, because the service doesn't charge you for predetermined storage limits (as Xdrive does) or even by the amount of storage you actually use (like Data Deposit Box). Instead, Streamload charges for the amount of data you and your friends subsequently download from your account.

Streamload's free account works like this: Sign up and you can store up to 10GB of data. After that, you can download up to 100MB per month for free. Move up to a paying account, and the storage limit goes away. The company charges you according to the amount of data that you access: For a monthly fee of $5 you can download up to 1GB per month; $10 gets you 10GB; $20 gets you 25GB; and $40 lets you and yours download a whopping 60GB per month. Pay for a full year up front, and the per-month price drops even lower: For example, if you go with the 1GB download plan and elect to pay for a year in advance, the cost is $45 (which comes to less than $4 per month).

Yes, you're paying to download what's yours, which might feel odd at first. But think of it this way: If you're only using the service to safeguard your stuff, and you rarely (if ever) need to access it again, then the price couldn't be more right. You could store up to 10GB for free indefinitely, or literally hundreds of gigabytes for only $5 per month. Of course, you'll pay if disaster strikes and you need to download all that data again; but that might never happen.

It's also worth noting that Streamload isn't some new, fly-by night company. It's been around since 1998, and it's been profitable for the last three years. The company's not going anywhere, and neither is your data. Streamload keeps at least two copies of your stuff, in two different locations, at all times. And if something happens to one copy, the service automatically makes another one.

Get Your Gig On

Streamload recently updated its service interface, and for the most part it's a smooth operator. You can upload and download via the Web, or you can use its free uploader and downloader apps, which I found a bit more pleasant (plus, the apps offer a few extra features).

Uploading takes time, and lots of it. Obviously, your Internet service upload speed affects this greatly. With the T1 line at the office my upload speed maxed at about 162 kilobytes per second, but averaged somewhere closer to 100 KBps. Things were slower on my DSL line at home, where my average upload speed was in the 30-KBps range. Needless to say, uploading 30GB of music files will take a while: I recommend you start the process and go to bed.

Your stuff arrives at Streamload in your Inbox; once it's there, you can organize it however you want. The Web interface is fairly intuitive, and responds quickly to input. Once a file lives on Streamload you can access it from anywhere: You can play it, download it, and even rename it from within the Web interface. When you hit Play on an audio or video file, the service launches your desktop media player and begins streaming the file to your PC. Photos open within the Streamload interface, where you can even add comments.

Streamload keeps you informed about the amount of data you download (there's a ticker in the top-right corner of the Web interface). Streaming a media file affects your download total the same amount as transferring the file would. If you reach your maximum monthly allowance before 30 days are up, you're given the opportunity to upgrade your service and continue.

Send a Song

Streamload is worth a look for all the reasons I've just rattled off. But file sharing is where it really nails the deal. Now, I'm not going to get into a big discussion about the morality of sharing copyrighted material. Like Streamload, I'll just trust that we all know right from wrong.

So let's say you want to share photos from your last family vacation. While services like Ofoto and Yahoo let you upload and share images for free, they often won't display the photos at full resolution. From within Streamload's interface you can either send the files themselves to other Streamload users, or e-mail a link to the files to anyone, regardless of whether they use the service.

The e-mail recipient clicks on the link and sees a version of the Streamload site that provides access to the images. The service works the same way with music, video, and other files. You can also create an entire Hosted Files section with a Streamload URL, so you can simply point people to your shared files.

When a fellow Streamload user downloads one of your files, the download usage is charged against their monthly total. If a non-Streamloader accesses your stuff via a link you send, the download goes against your total. To prevent somebody with access to your files from using up your entire month's bandwidth allocation, you can limit the number of times they can download a file, and you can expire the link you send so it doesn't work after a certain date. If you're sending out links to multiple addresses you can even assign passwords for each person.

I like the Streamload service, even though it's not always flawless. I ran into a few error screens during regular use, and an e-mail address book would be nice. But overall, it runs well and the interface is solid. Obviously it's meant for broadband users, but dial-up folks can use it too--assuming they are absurdly patient.

Finally, I like any company with a sense of humor, and Streamload clearly has one. When you send a link via e-mail, pithy advertisements prefaced by meaningless numbers appear in the body of the message. For example: "#935. Streamload: Don't stream like a little girl!" and "#358. Streamload: More fun than watching a dog eating peanut butter."

Unlimited storage, easy access, a solid interface, and jokes about dogs eating peanut butter--what's not to like?

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