What would you do if your hard drive crashed, you accidentally deleted important files, or you lost your laptop? Or what if a fire or flood meant the end of your digital media and documents? Using a backup service is one of the best ways to protect yourself against these and other types of data loss.
In previous years, we differentiated between local backup software and online backup services. The first makes a copy of your data that you store wherever you choose, such as on an external hard drive. Online backup services encrypt your data for security and send it to the backup company's servers for off-site storage. Each method has its merits, but more and more frequently, backup companies give you both options. As a result, we now look at the best local backup software and online backup services in this one article.
ShadowProtect SPX Desktop
Best for Reliable Disk Imaging
- The most reliable and mature image backup software for Windows
- Fast, reliable, and restores to the same or different hardware
- Boots backed-up systems as virtual machines
- One-term permanent license (subscription plans also available)
- Obscure interface for first-time users
- For Windows and Linux only
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Best for Value
- Easy setup
- Unlimited devices per account
- Free local backup
- Fully encrypted
- Fast upload speeds
- Excellent value
- Storage isn't unlimited
- Limited Linux support
- Complete disk image backup only for Windows
Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office
Best for Combination of Backup and Security features
- More backup tools than any other app
- Local and cloud backup options
- Full disk image backup and restore
- Includes file syncing
- Protects against ransomware and malicious URLs
- Some cutting-edge technology may be risky to use
- Disk-cloning feature didn’t work in our tests
- Performance issues with upload speed and mobile apps
- Poor phishing and middling malware blocking results
SpiderOak One Backup
Best for Secure Backups
- Strong privacy features
- Supports an unlimited number of computers per account
- Excellent versioning capabilities
- Includes file-sharing and folder-syncing options
- Well-designed, full-featured desktop application
- Lacks multi-factor authentication option for web logins
- No longer offers mobile apps
Best for Unlimited Storage Backups
- Unlimited storage
- Supports multi-factor authentication and private encryption keys
- Ability to back up or restore via mailed drive
- Fast upload speeds in our tests
- Single-computer licenses only
- Convoluted backup selection method
- No File Explorer or Finder integration
- Lacks folder syncing feature
- Very basic mobile apps
Best for Single PC Backups
- Unlimited online backup storage for one computer
- File Explorer integration
- Continuous backup option
- Plus and Prime plans include antivirus software
- Each computer protected incurs the full subscription price
- No real mobile app
- Private key encryption option limited to Windows
- Lacks file sharing, folder syncing, and disk imaging capabilities
- Base version doesn't back up external drives
Best for Folder Syncing
- Unlimited storage
- Effective desktop and mobile apps
- Solid versioning and sharing capabilities
- Supports two-factor authentication
- Base tier protects only a single computer
- Lacks standard backup encryption options
- No continuous backup setting or disk imaging option
Best for Custom Backup Plans
- Reasonable pricing and unlimited storage plans
- Continuous backup option
- Useful web interface
- Permanent free account
- Only Secure Folder can be encrypted with private key
- Disjointed desktop interface
- Unintuitive restore options
Why Should You Back Up Your Computer?
Several years ago Delta Airlines had to cancel more than 1,300 flights, at a cost of $100 million, not because of weather or mechanical problems, but because the company's computer systems went down. If it can happen to a big corporation like Delta, don't think it can't happen to you. All technology, whether it's a brand-new iMac or a ten-year-old PC running Windows 7, can potentially take a sudden nosedive.
Hard drive failure is a common occurrence, and ransomware can make a computer's contents inaccessible. Sometimes data loss happens for reasons beyond the technological, as in the case of theft or natural disasters. Your business assets—documents, plans, financial spreadsheets—as well as your personal assets—family photos, videos, and music—deserve to be protected. Backup software and services do just that.
Both Windows and macOS have beefed up their built-in backup tools in recent years. Windows 10 and Windows 11 include a File History feature and a full disk backup feature, and macOS includes its Time Machine software. Both also offer some cloud backup, with iCloud and OneDrive, as well. These are all well worth running, but they have some limitations, lacking some of the extra benefits you get from running standalone backup software.
How Does Backup Software Work?
The concept behind backup software is pretty simple: Make a copy of your files on storage separate from your main hard drive. That storage can be another drive, an external drive, a NAS, a rewritable disc, or "the cloud," meaning someone else's servers. Should you lose the files, either through disaster or simply by deleting them or overwriting them, you can just restore them from the saved copies.
For this to work, the copies of your files must be updated regularly. Most backup software lets you schedule scans of your hard drive for new and changed files daily, weekly, monthly, or continually (or at least, say, every 15 minutes). Usually, you also have the option to tell the backup service to monitor your drive for changed or new files as they occur.
More granular options include whether backups are full, incremental, or differential. The first should be obvious—all the data you've selected for backup is copied in its entirety. Incremental backup saves system resources by only backing up changes in files from the last incremental backup, and differential backup saves all changes from the last full backup. With incremental, you need the latest full backup and all the intermediary backup data to restore a file to its original state, whereas with differential, you just need the last set of differential backup data and the first full one.
A step further than the simple copying of files is copying the entire hard drive, including system files, as what's called a disk image. A disk image contains every bit of data on the drive and offers stronger protection, since it enables you to recreate the whole system after a hard drive failure. Some products can even update a disk image nearly continuously. But that extra protection comes at the price of more complexity in setting up and restoring. Usually, you'll need to run a pre-boot environment from startup media to restore a system image, since doing so from within your main OS isn't possible.
As mentioned, you can make local backups or online backups, sometimes called cloud backups. Online backup services securely send your data over the internet and save it on remote file servers in encrypted form. The big plus of this option is that the data is off your premises, and therefore not susceptible to local disasters. The downside is that they tie you to annual fees, and uploading and downloading backups is slower than loading local copies.
Don't confuse online backup with cloud storage and file syncing, which is what Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, and OneDrive offer. Those services do store files in the cloud, but they aren't designed to automatically protect all important documents and media files, let alone system files. Their strategy is generally to sync just one folder (and all its subfolders) to the cloud, and in some cases, offer collaborative document editing. Backup software and services do more.
Home backup users have different needs than businesses. If you need a larger-scale cloud solution for your company, check out our roundup of the best online backup services for businesses. These plans typically cover many more devices and include better administration features, but at an increased cost.
Create a Backup Set and Schedule Uploads
Backup services vary widely in how they set up and perform backups. For example, the totally hands-free Backblaze automatically encrypts and uploads all your important files without any input. IDrive and Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office (formerly Acronis True Image) let you choose specific files you want from a file tree. Note that some services restrict you from backing up specific file types or using particular sources, such as from an external or network drive. Make sure the backup solution you choose supports all your data sources.
There are three main practices for configuring when backups should occur. The most common option is on a fixed schedule, such as once a day, week, or month. The second, which we prefer, is to upload files whenever they're changed and saved, otherwise known as continuous backup. Services only transfer the modified part of the file in this scenario, so as not to overburden your internet connection or take up unnecessary storage. A third way is simply to upload files manually. Some users may appreciate having such a fine degree of control, but this method is only effective if you remember to regularly run the backups.
How Secure Are Online Backup Services?
Many online backup services let you encrypt your files with a private encryption key option (basically a password you choose and need if you want to decrypt your backup files). If you do choose to manage your own encryption key, know that it is your responsibility to remember it. The online backup app and company won't be able to help you reset the password if you forget it. It sounds frightening but it's actually ideal from a privacy and security standpoint because it means no one—including employees at the company and law enforcement officials—except you can unlock your backups. Use a password manager to keep track of your private encryption key if you think you will forget it.
Some services go beyond file encryption. Acronis, for instance, includes security features such as active ransomware protection. A few backup applications, including IDrive, Backblaze, Livedrive, and OpenDrive, support multi-factor authentication.
Restoring Folders and Files
A backup service isn't much use if it doesn't make the process of restoring or recovering your data quick and simple. Backup services should offer search tools for finding files in your backup, for example. It's also desirable to be able to replicate an entire folder-tree structure so that it can help you recover from bigger data losses.
Keep in mind that if you buy a plan that covers just one computer, you may have to transfer the account to a new PC if you ever switch your main device or if you need to restore data from a damaged computer to a replacement.
Many services offer versioning, which saves incremental changes you make to files as recoverable snapshots of the file. It's useful in case you need to get back information from an earlier version or if your latest file save becomes corrupted. How many versions are kept backed up and how long they're saved varies. SpiderOak One Backup (formerly called SpiderOak One) is among the most generous in this regard and can save an unlimited number of file versions forever, but many services limit you to a set number of versions within a time limit such as 30 days.
Web and Mobile Backup Apps
One of the biggest advantages of having online backups is that you can access your files from anywhere. Most online backup providers let you view and download files from a web browser and mobile apps, but that should be the bare minimum. Many also include file-sharing options, the best of which even let you specify a password for access and an expiration date for the shared item.
The quality and utility of mobile apps vary widely. Some just offer simple document and media file downloads from your existing backups, but the most feature-complete options let you back up data on your mobile devices and even control backups on other systems remotely.
Online Backup Speed Performance
For the services that offer online backup, how fast they work depends on how quickly they encrypt, compress, and upload files to their servers. Speed may be of concern if you need to back up or restore a large amount of data. Having high performance also minimizes the backup app's effect on network and system resources.
Our latest round of speed tests was performed in 2021. Backup speed should not be the sole determinant of which one you use, but fast upload speeds can certainly make initial and subsequent backups less disruptive.
You'll notice that ShadowProtect SPX Desktop is missing from the table, as it only offers local backups. The company that makes ShadowProtect offers other backup solutions that are online, however, and sold separately.
If you want to back up your files as quickly as possible, look for bulk upload and restore services, sometimes also called courier services. The company sends you a blank drive, and you add your data to it and send it back. Or when you need to restore your data, some services will send you an external drive with your data already on it. IDrive, Backblaze, and Carbonite all offer these services, but charge different rates for them.
Those Who Back Up and Those Who Have Never Lost Data
There's a saying that there are two kinds of people: those who back up their data and those who haven't yet suffered a data loss. You don't want the first time you think about backing up your data to be after a catastrophe.
For more information, read our guide on how to choose the best backup plan to determine which backup method works best for your needs. For instance, you might decide to use local backup software to protect your files on an external hard drive rather than—or in addition to—saving data in the cloud. You don't necessarily have to choose, as several products here offer both online and local backup capabilities.