At the same time, an option that was once complex, limited and expensive is suddenly becoming effortless, capacious and even free: online backups, where files are shuttled off to the Internet for safekeeping.
Online backup means never having to buy or manage backup disks. You can have access to your files from any computer anywhere. And above all, your files are safe even if disaster should befall your office--like fire, flood, burglary or marauding children.
As it turns out, the Web is brimming with backup services. Most of them, however, offer only 1GB or 2GB worth of free storage. Nobody offers unlimited free storage, but lately, they've gotten a lot closer. Two companies, Xdrive and MediaMax, offer as much as 25GB of free backups; two others, Mozy and Carbonite, offer unlimited storage for less than $55 a year.
Xdrive This service, owned by AOL, offers 5GB of free storage. It's polished, easy to use, and as fully fledged as they come. Right on the Web site, you can back up entire lists of folders at a time, a method that works on Macintosh, Windows or Unix.
If you use Windows, however, an even better backup system awaits. You can download Xdrive Desktop, a full-blown, unattended backup program. It quietly backs up your computer on a schedule that you specify, without any additional thought or input from you.
Better yet, a new disk icon appears on your PC (labeled X), that represents your files on the Web. You can open and use its contents as though it's an ordinary, if slowish, hard drive. A Mac version of Xdrive Desktop is in the works.
As a bonus, you can share certain backed-up folders, so that other people can have access to them from their Macs or PCs. (This requires, however, that they sign up for their own free Xdrive accounts.) You can view your backed-up photos as an online slideshow, or organize and play your backed-up music files on the Web page.
Upgrading your storage to 50GB costs $100 a year, which isn't such a good deal. But if your Documents folder fits in 5GB, then congratulations; you've got yourself a free, effortless, automatic backup system. Happy New Year.
Mozy In many regards, the recently introduced Mozy is a Carbonite copycat. The price is $55 a year, storage is unlimited, an automated background Windows program keeps your PC continuously backed up and a Mac version is planned.
Mozy offers 2GB of backup at no charge. If you're willing to do the company's marketing for it, you can nab another free gig for every four people you persuade to sign up.
Mozy is more flexible, too--and more technical. It can back up only changed portions of files. You can specify times and dates for backups (instead of offering only the Continuous option, like Carbonite). You can view 30 days' worth of backups, too--a feature that prevents you from deleting a file from your PC accidentally and then finding its deletion mirrored in your latest backup. And Mozy offers dozens of novice-hostile options like "Enable Bandwidth Throttle" and "Don't back up if the CPU is over this % busy."
MediaMax Talk about value. How does 25GB of free storage strike you?
The service began life with an emphasis on organizing and sharing photos, video and music--which it still does well. But its new Windows backup program, now in beta testing, adds automated unattended backups of any kind of computer files, just like its rivals.
It's pretty bare-bones; for example, it offers no continuous real-time backup, no choice of weekdays--only an option to back up every day, every three days, or whatever. And you can back up only folders, not individual files or file types.
In times of disaster, MediaMax will give you your files back, but won't put them in their original folders. More important, the free account lets you download or share only 1GB of data a month. That pretty much means that to restore your hard drive after a crash, you'll have to upgrade to a paid account. Still, when you're standing there, sobbing over the smoking remains of your dead hard drive, you probably won't mind paying $10 or $25 to get your stuff back.