Finding the right cloud backup solution, either for personal use or for your business, is not a choice to be made lightly. If and when the worst occurs – theft, loss, or irreparable damage of your device – the peace of mind that comes with a securely stored cloud backup can be invaluable.

But with so many online backup options out there, how do you narrow down your search? First, identify your needs. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you need to back up your computer?
  • Are you willing to pay? If so, how much?
  • How much storage space do you need?
  • Is your internet connection good enough?
  • Are you storing private or sensitive information that needs to be protected?
  • Do you often rely on customer support for help?
  • How important is a well-designed interface?
  • What extra features do you want beyond basic backup?

Do you need to back up your computer?

We highly recommend it. In today’s connected world, much of our lives are stored on our computers and other devices. Losing them, either through damage, theft, or otherwise can be devastating. Reliable backup provides assurance that no matter what happens, your data is always recoverable.

Computer backups are generally divided into two categories: local backup, such as an external hard drive, and cloud backup, which takes place over the internet. The problem with local backups is that you must remember to regularly plug the backup drive into your computer and run the backup manually. Furthermore, local backups are just as vulnerable to damage and theft as your PC or Mac.

Cloud backup, on the other hand, occurs continuously in the background whenever your computer is connected to the internet. Most cloud backup services these days are automated, meaning you don’t have to do much of anything beyond the initial setup. Copies of your data are typically stored in multiple locations, minimizing the risk of loss to a very slim margin.

Are you willing to pay?

Most cloud backup services offer a free tier or trial, but they tend to be limited in storage space and/or time allotted. Popular services like Google Drive, Dropbox, and Microsoft OneDrive all have free tiers, but they are limited to a few gigabytes and are designed more for cloud storage rather than cloud backup (more on the differences between backup, storage, and synchronization here).

If you want real cloud backup with enough space to fit all your files, you’ll probably have to pay for a subscription. Prices vary widely, but a good average benchmark price is typically US$10 per month. Some are much cheaper, and some quite a bit more expensive. Each provider has its advantages and disadvantages.

How much storage space do you need?

After you’ve decided you need to start backing up your data, the first question to ask is: how much space do I need? To get a rough calculation, think about what you want backed up. You’ll probably need to store all of your user files, that is, documents, photos, videos, music, downloads, and other media. Add up all that stuff to see how much space it takes up on your hard drive, and remember that you’ll need some room to grow. As a general rule, documents take up the least space, then music and photos, and then videos. If you shoot a lot of video, you’re going to need a bigger cloud.

If you want to do a full system backup, that’s going to require even more space. System backups can restore entire computers, not just files. That includes all your applications, settings, and whatever else you have on your hard disk.

Do you own multiple devices that need to be backed up? Many cloud storage services today allow you to add as many devices – PCs, smartphones, tablets, external hard drives – as you can fit into your allotted space. Make sure the company offers apps for whatever platform you use. Windows Phone users, for instance, will have a harder time finding a service with a compatible app than iOS and Android users.

Some brands advertise “unlimited” storage, but that’s typically limited to just one device.

If you own a business and need several workstations backed up, look for services that offer administrative dashboards so you can monitor and manage your employees’ backups.

Is your internet connection good enough?

Backup programs might claim they can speed up your uploads using some fancy tech, but it ultimately comes down to your internet connection. Anyone with modern-day broadband can use online storage, but those with slower connections could take over a week to complete an initial backup. It might also hinder other activities, such as streaming music and video or even just web browsing.

If you have a slow connection, keep an eye out for services that offer incremental backup, which only backs up parts of a file that have been modified rather than the whole thing. Some apps also allow you to manually throttle how much bandwidth is being used for backup.

Are you storing private or sensitive data?

Security standards vary widely across cloud backup services. There are a number of factors to consider depending on your needs.

The first is transfer protection. Almost all companies will use SSL to encrypt your data as it is uploaded to the cloud. It’s probably best to avoid those that don’t.

Then there’s encryption of your data once it’s actually on the cloud. If it’s not encrypted, the company, hackers, and government authorities could all access your data. Most people will want encryption to protect themselves from snoopers, but others might not care about privacy.

Companies that offer encryption typically use either 128-bit AES or 256-bit AES, the latter being the stronger level of protection. The data must be decrypted with a key, which can either be owned by you or the company. For most personal users, using the company’s key is preferable. You won’t have to store or memorize anything. However, the company still technically has access to your data and could be coerced into accessing it by authorities.

If privacy is really a concern, create your own private key. This means no one – not even the cloud backup company – can decrypt your data. The downside is that if you lose the key, you’ll never be able to access your data again. If it’s lost or stolen, the cloud backup provider is not responsible.

Finally, consider where your data is stored. If your data is stored on servers that are located in a country with poor privacy laws, then your information could be at risk. If the company doesn’t own its own physical servers, your data is probably stored with a virtual server provider like Amazon, Google, or Rackspace, adding a third party and further complicating who can gain access. Look for compliance standards and certifications with trusted agencies.

How much do you rely on customer service?

If you’re not tech savvy, customer service can be an important asset for answering questions and resolving issues. Most cloud backup services will have ticket submission systems, live chat, phone numbers, or some combination of the three. When reviewing cloud backup services at Comparitech, we always run the customer service through its paces to see if staff are fast, reliable, and knowledgeable.

How important is a well-designed interface?

There’s no kind way to put this: some cloud backup apps have ugly and dated interfaces. Some can be difficult to figure out. If this is a concern for you, be sure to test them out with a free trial. A clean, well-designed interface goes a long way toward improving user experience and avoiding frustration.

What features do you want beyond basic backup?

Online backup companies offer a lot more than just copying files from one place to another. Some allow you to share specific files with friends and colleagues. Others provide the means to locate lost or stolen devices. File synchronization, email dropping, hybrid backups – the list goes on. Get to know what’s available and choose the services that best fit your needs.

Read our reviews!

No one-size-fits-all cloud backup solution will make everyone happy. It takes a lot of digging, testing, and research to figure out which companies offer the best value. Luckily for you, we already did most of the hard work and compiled our findings in our thorough Reviews section.

We take into account all of the above criteria and more to give you a comprehensive analysis of the best products on the market. We’re adding more all the time, so be sure to check back soon if you can’t find what you’re looking for.

No matter what you choose, remember that something is better than nothing. Owning a computer without some sort of backup in place is like driving a car without insurance. You may save yourself some money in the short term, but it will eventually come back to bite you.