I don’t like losing data, and I’m guessing that you don’t, either. I already do local backups, but not only can it a little cumbersome and easy to forget (not to mention drive failures), fire or theft could result in the loss of the both the data and the backup.
So, I also want a backup that’s off-site, easy, and reliable. I’ve taken it upon myself to set up online backup for my wife, parents, and brother, so I’ve had the opportunity to try more than one provider, and wanted to share my experience.
My Criteria for our Online Backup Service
I’ll start by sharing what’s important to me in backup provider so that you know what biases I have and how my opinions may apply to you. Also, my research and review are primarily from Q4, 2011. Features and pricing may have changed.
Unlimited for a low, flat price
I have roughly 300 GB of personal data. The bulk of that are digital photos and videos, and that’s with almost no RAW photos and only rarely is there HD video. Any non-unlimited plan would have been significantly more expensive.
My wife, dad, and brother each have between 50-100 GB, and that grows with every photo-opp. Not only would it have been unpleasant to have to think that each new document, photo, and video could result in an increased recurring payment, I simply did not find anything compelling in the services offered by non-unlimited providers.
Security: Private Encryption Key
Nearly every online backup provider encrypts customer files, but most also store the encryption/decryption key. It is thus possible for a misbehaving employee or hacker to access customer files. While improbable, it is a non-zero possibility. There’s no direct cost for choosing a provider that supports a private encryption key, so I opt to choose one that does.
A couple caveats
- You will have to go out of your way to use a private encryption key for services that support it.
- You will not be able to access the files of your online backup if you lose your encryption key.
- Some services allow you access your backed-up files through the web as an added-value feature. You will not be able use this feature because the service provider will be unable to decrypt your files for you. (When I want functionality like this, I use Dropbox.)
Convenient and Reliable
Once set up, you should not have to think about it anymore. Specifically, once I set this up for my mom, she shouldn’t have to do anything if/until the day comes that she needs her data restored.
Also, it should be fairly easy to restore deleted files or previous versions of files. Ideally, we should be able to get to previous versions by right-clicking on the file in Windows Explorer/Finder.
Services Not considered
Based on the criteria above, a couple services were out of the running.
I first tried Mozy when they had an unlimited plan. I’m glad I didn’t subscribe, because they discontinued it. At $9.99/mo for 125 GB and $2.00/mo for each additional 20 gigabytes, I would be paying about $27.50/mo for my 300 GB of data.
I wouldn’t call Dropbox a backup service (nor would they), but I looked at it anyway, so I may as well mention it. At $19.99/mo for 100 GB (and I don’t know how much for additional space), it’s not cost competitive. Dropbox’s value are in other features, such as easy, instant, secure-enough file sharing with friends, family, and coworkers.
I didn’t go with Backblaze for several reasons:
- They don’t support a completely private encryption key. At best, they store your key encrypted by your password (and they don’t store your password). However, this means that your files are only as secure as your password and the systems protecting your keys.
- At the time I began comparing providers (August and September of 2011), Backblaze would not back up many file types, including ‘ISO’, ‘VHD’, and ‘EXE’. I have many of the these types of files that are actually personal files, and not being able to override this was a deal-breaker. They do now allow this to be overridden (as of Oct 2011), but the service still doesn’t make the cut to me.
- Their file retention, four weeks, is minimal compared to CrashPlan.
- While doing initial research, it was hard to find details such as whether excluded files could be overridden, or how often a changed file would be backed up.
This left two services that I considered:
- Carbonite Home
I’ve been a paying subscriber of both for several months, now (some of my family on each). This gives me a fairly unique ability to make a thorough side-by-side comparison.
The information here is based on both documentation on their website (usually linked) and through my own use of their programs/UI. You are encouraged to double-check any factors that are important to you.
|One-year Cost (and monthly equivalent)
|Previous versions retention
|Versioning frequency; default / max
|every 15-minutes / every minute
|Daily / on-demand
|Inclusion & Exclusion
|Including Files on External Drives (e.g., USB)
|“excluding temporary files and caches”
|many file types, including: 3GP, AVI, EXE, ICO, KEY, LOG, MOV, MSC, REG, and VHD
|Scheduling, Throttling, and Pausing *
|Carbonite may throttle your backup on their end!
|File Prioritizing *†
|Are my files backed up? *
* Rating is out of 5, where 5 is best.
Carbonite Home is a very good value, period.
CrashPlan+, although only marginally cheaper, is an excellent value considering how much more data they keep for previous versions of your files. On top of that, they’ve had awesome promotions recently that brought their prices to a fraction of Carbonite’s.
Previous Versions and Retention
By default, Carbonite will backup your changed file once every 24 hours. They will then keep previous versions (including deleted files) for 30 days. You can also force a changed file to be backed up again immediately using the Carbonite submenu of its Windows Explorer shell extension.
CrashPlan, on the other hand, will backup your changed file within 15 minutes by default, but you can change this to as frequently as every minute! You can also choose how many copies will be kept from the last week, three months, year, and beyond. Further, files you delete can be kept indefinitely!
CrashPlan is the clear winner here, allowing you to not worry at all about whether your backup will be completely there for you.
Inclusion and Exclusion
Including Files on External Drives (e.g., USB)
With CrashPlan, you can choose to backup files on removable drives; something you can’t do with Carbonite Home. The caveat is that that the drive must be attached at least once a month so that CrashPlan can verify you still have that data that you want backed up.
While Carbonite HomePlus will backup files on external drives, it’s only available for Windows users and not cost competitive.
CrashPlan backs up everything “excluding temporary files and caches.” This is great as long as none of your files look like temporary files or caches; a list that you cannot override. The list is not problematic for me and unlikely to be for most others.
Carbonite excludes many file-types by default, many of which can easily be personal files, and there’s no central place to change this. This is a significant annoyance to me because everything I keep in directories I’ve chosen for backup are files of mine that I want to keep and want backed up. The average user is likely not to learn of this before installation and may even not notice that some of their files aren’t backed up until it’s too late. At least it’s apparent within Windows Explorer which files are being excluded (more on this in the User Interface section, below) and from each one you find you can remove that type from exclusion.
Over many years, others have expressed the same sentiment, yet Carbonite hasn’t changed this behavior and maintains minimal disclosure of this behavior. While not a big obstacle for me, it’s enough to make me think twice about recommending Carbonite to others.
Again, CrashPlan is the clear winner here. You still don’t have to worry at all about whether your backup will be completely there for you.
Scheduling, Throttling, Pausing, Prioritization
To me, these factors are mostly just important during the initial backup period, which could just be a matter of days, or several months.
† Although Carbonite scores better here, Carbonite caps the backup speed, which means that your backup may take significantly longer. So, they need better configurability here more than CrashPlan does. More on this in the Carbonite’s Capping section, below.
When it comes to choosing when backups are allowing to run, both pretty much have just the essentials: create a daily time window (beginning and end hours) and choose the days of the week the window will be open. Carbonite was a little more thoughtful by adding an option that is essentially: “start at a particular time each day and run until finished.”
It would be nice to choose that backups simply go slower rather than not at all during the off hours. Maybe even give us advanced users a weekly grid by the hour (the seven days of the week on the y-axis, the 24 hours of the day on the x-axis) and let us choose ‘on’, ‘off’, or ‘throttled’ for each hour.
CrashPlan allows you to cap your sending rate, allowing you to choose a rate for while you’re “present” and another for while you’re “away” (although they don’t communicate what those mean very well).
Carbonite’s approach is to give you the ability to easily set it into “low priority” mode from the tray icon (but you can’t configure it and only on their website do they explain what “low priority” actually does, and even then it’s not very clear). I turn this on when I know there’s other browsing that may be going on that I don’t want to adversely affect too much.
However, Carbonite will also cap your rate of backup more the further along you get (more on this, below)! At some point, you may not even need to throttle yourself.
The ability to pause is important to me because I make Skype and VOIP calls fairly frequently. Others may find it important for playing games or uploading photos and videos.
Carbonite edges out here slightly because it has some nice small periods to choose from, like 10 and 30 minutes. It’s too bad neither allow you to enter a specific amount of time.
Carbonite allows you to choose specific files to be backed up before others. Simply right-click on it and choose ‘Back up this file as soon as possible’ in the Carbonite shell-extension submenu. I use this often to backup my newest files first; the ones that haven’t made it onto my external hard-drive backup, yet. The UI to do so can be a little quirky, though.
In order to prioritize some files to be backed up before others in CrashPlan, you need to use Backup Sets. While Backup Sets is great for grouping files to be backed up to different destinations (viz., CrashPlan’s servers vs external storage vs a friend), I don’t see this as a reasonable way to prioritize files backed up to CrashPlan’s servers
User Interface / User Experience
Here’s what’s important to me in an realtime backup User Interface :
- Are the files that I want to be backed up backed up?
- Can I get to the backed-up copies of my files?
What I like most about Carbonite is that they place a small indicator on every file and folder that is backed up (a green circle) or will be backed up (a yellow circle indicating in-progress). Just while browsing your own files you know that your files are (or will be) backed up.
Further, you can get to information about a file’s backup by right-clicking on it, and choosing ‘Properties’ within the Carbonite sub-menu. There you can see when it was last backed-up, and choose to back it up first if it needs to be.
When it comes to CrashPlan, if want assurance that your files are backed up, you’ll have to audit the file restore area.
Overall, both seem to barely get the job done. The UI works enough; full of quirks and not short of annoyances. Both have shown wrong information; CrashPlan has said “Less than a minute remaining” when it obviously has much more to go (probably hadn’t finished determining what files need to be backed up), while with Carbonite I’ve seen it say both “backup is up-to-date” and “backup is pending” at the same time.
You’ll rarely win points with me creating a custom-skin for your app. It’s difficult to deviate from standard UI of the OS and create something that looks and feels professional. More importantly, such apps usually have usability shortcomings that would not have been present had effort been directed to making a more usable UI than a custom one.
For example, Carbonite’s Restore UI can’t be resized, nor can the upper area be given more space within the UI. So, you’re only able to see about 11 files in the Search Results at a time.
On a couple occassions, CrashPlan’s UI failed to clean up the canvas, resulting in a view with overlapping elements.
Carbonite Home users’ backup speed is capped to 2 mbps for the first 35 GB, 512 kbps for the next 165 GB (200 GBs total), and then 100kbps for all data beyond 200 GB. At best, 250 GB would take over 11 weeks for the initial backup to complete. Add roughly 1 day per gigabyte and 300 GB would take over four months.
With their contempt for the safety our data that we’re paying them to protect, I have a hard time feeling anything more positive than animosity toward Carbonite for their bandwidth capping. The little money they’re saving in bandwidth and storage in the short term is costing them in rapport.
A couple notes about CrashPlan
Backup to Friends
This is a nice bonus to an already-great value! Instead of or in addition to backing up to CrashPlan’s servers, you can securely backup data to friends and family that have CrashPlan installed.
For my mom who has a very small amount of data, we use CrashPlan Free and have her data backed up to a couple of us rather than buying another subscription for her.
The Family Plan
The Family plan could have made a great value an unbelievable one, but there’s a caveat: Everyone in the plan shares one login, and everyone can access everyone else’s backed-up files. We love each other, but that doesn’t mean we are all okay with each other being able to read all of our files! I opted for us to each have our own subscription.
Impact on computer performance
It’s difficult to be sure about this type of thing, but it seemed like my computer performance was slower with CrashPlan installed, and was better when I uninstalled it. Further, the CrashPlan service managed to rack up the most CPU Time (according to Process Explorer) despite that:
- I only had CrashPlan set up as a backup destination for my mom’s data; it wasn’t even backing up my data, and
- as a software developer, I have a lot of other demanding software running on my computer.
CrashPlan has built a well-featured service at an excellent price, but if the program’s UI, the website, and unsigned executables are a hint at what’s going on under the hood and at the data center side, it’s a little hard to feel completely comfortable that our data are in good hands with them.
Simply put, I’d recommend CrashPlan over Carbonite.
The one thing I really like and that’s clearly better about Carbonite is it’s shell integration, which gives a lot of peace-of-mind that each file is backed up. That peace of mind can take a long while to arrive with their capping, though. Right now, that capping is limiting Carbonite to less than 5% of my upload bandwidth, forcing me to keep my laptop on 24/7 for several additional months to complete the initial backup so that they can save a little money. Further, having to override excluded file-types one-by-one is another significant annoyance to me and not something I think most people should have to worry about and work around. Those make me averse to recommending them.
CrashPlan, meanwhile, offers tremendously more value by storing all your files longer with less hassle while also throwing in features like backing up to friends. Their user interfaces makes me a little less comfortable with them, but not enough that I’m worried that they won’t deliver when it comes to what’s most important: a complete restore in the event of a drive failure or loss. Which brings me to …
… one final note
With both services, I can only assume that our data is as secure as it’s supposed to be (that they’re doing what they say they’re doing, and that their implementation doesn’t have security flaws). And at this point, I can also only assume that a full backup would be a smooth process (I hope Carbonite doesn’t limit restore bandwidth!).