Tech Files mailbag: Cloud storage

I often receive email from readers of my Tech Files column who are looking for advice or recommendations or just want to comment on my pieces. From time to time, I’m republishing edited versions of my email exchanges with these readers here on SiliconBeat. Today’s mailbag focuses on cloud storage, something I covered in a recent article and column.

Q: My husband and I each have a computer that we would like to back up to a cloud service.  We’ve spent several hours today trying to research the various choices and are perhaps even more confused than when we started!

Both of the computers are PCs, one with Windows Vista (32-bit OS), the other with Windows 7 (64-bit OS). We don’t need a lot of capacity and just want to be able to back-up our data easily and quickly and have it readily retrievable. 

One additional concern is that we have Office 2003 on the 64-bit computer and do not have the original disks.  Would it be possible to back-up programs as well as data?

We have been looking at Carbonite, Backblaze and Crashplan.  Given the considerations above, would one of these be better for us?  Or is there another service that you would recommend?

We are also concerned about being able to retrieve a limited amount of data when traveling via Samsung Galaxy phone and tablet.  We are thinking that it would be better to address this by using DropBox instead of trying to incorporate file-syncing into the cloud backup.  Does this sound like a good approach to you?

A: Most backup services, including Carbonite and the others you mentioned, are designed to back up your important files and folders, but not necessarily your programs or operating systems.
In many cases, you can ask them to back up your program folder in Windows (or your Application folder on a Mac), but that generally doesn’t mean that you will be able to restore those programs from the backup if your hard drive crashes.

Generally, only a certain portion of the files needed to run a particular application are located in the program folder. Other files are located in library folders and on other parts of the hard drive. And the operating system itself has to typically “know” a program is available if it’s going to run it. Because online backup services often won’t back up particular areas of your hard drive — notably hidden files and folders — it’s likely that the programs wouldn’t run, even if you attempted to back them up online.

There is a backup service called Acronis that might do what you’d like. Acronis offers both backup software and an online backup service. The advantage of Acronis is that instead of backing up just files and folders, it can back up an entire disk image — this is basically a duplicate copy — sector for sector — of your entire hard drive.

Unfortunately, you pay a la carte for Acronis’ software and backup service. The software is only about $30, but the backup service is about $50 a year — for only 250GB of storage space, which for most people is not going to be enough space.

My suggestion would be to buy an external hard drive to back up your disk image if you want to preserve access to Office. If you want to safely store your important files offsite, any of the the online backup services you mentioned will work. And many backup services offer access via smartphone apps to individual files and folders stored in your account.


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  • Another product that offers both backup software and cloud backup is CrashPlan. Everything is free except the cloud storage. Their software allows you to backup and restore between computers on your local network, so I use the spare hard drive capacity on certain computers to back up critical files from other computers.