The State of Online Backup

Having copies of your files safely stored away on an offsite server could be a real lifesaver should disaster strike your computer or office. It's also a promising back up solution for those who travel with laptops and need to back up or restore data while on the road. Unfortunately, if you want to back up large files online, the cost can quickly become prohibitive. There is also far too little choice for Mac users when it comes to selecting a service provider. Nonetheless, if you have deep pockets or aren't backing up giant files, an online backup service can be an effective means of making sure your most critical files are safe and secure.

These days, Mac users seeking an online back up service have a choice between Apple's Backup, which comes with a .Mac subscription, and Synectics' BackJack. Synectics charges $17.95 a month for their basic service and this includes 400 MBs of storage. Additional storage is billed at 4¢ per MB for 400 MBs to 1 GB, 3¢ per MB for 1 to 5 GBs, and 2.75¢ per MB for 5 to 15 GBs per month. Apple, on the other hand, charges $99 a year for a .Mac account that comes with 100 MBs of storage space. If you want to increase that space, Apple charges $60 per year for an additional 100 MBs, $100 for 200 MBs, $180 for 400 MBs, or $350 for 900 MBs.

At first glance, the different pricing schemes make it somewhat difficult to compare and choose one service over the other based on price alone. Adding to the complication, BackJack compresses your data before backing it up. On their website, Synectics claims that files, depending on type, can generally be made smaller by 20 to 50% and that "400 MB of compressed storage represents approximately 1 GB of uncompressed data." Strange math aside, one should be able to squeeze more files into the same amount of space on Synectics' servers than one could on Apple's, but by exactly how much is anybody's guess. Moreover, .Mac users can compress their own data with OS X's built in archive command, but it is an extra step before backing up and part of the charm of an online back up is hands-free automation. Nonetheless, storing 1000 MBs of data on Synectic’s servers costs $503.40 a year. On Apple’s servers, it would cost $449, making BackJack, without considering compression, somewhat more expensive than .Mac.

It should also be noted that Apple's .Mac isn't directly competing with Synectics and offers much more than just online back up. Subscribers also receive web mail, address book, calendar, and bookmark syncing, homepage creation, file sharing capabilities, and a virus checker. They also receive a healthy dose of promotional offers, which often include free or trial software. For more information on .Mac, see my last article, "Having a .Mac attack."

But if you're only looking for a dedicated online back up service and don't need .Mac's other features, then BackJack is a good choice. When it comes to backing up data, BackJack has many more features and options than does Apple's Backup. For example, if you want to store massive amounts of data, BackJack lets you store, and pay for, as much data as you want. .Mac users are limited to 1000 MBs. BackJack also encrypts your data with the highly secure and proven 128-bit CAST encryption algorithm. This occurs before the file is transmitted, making it practically impossible for your data to fall into the wrong hands as it passes over the Internet or sits on Synectics' servers.

BackJack also has the ability to send E-mail verifications after a backup has completed successfully. One can also specify how long BackJack should store a file on Synectics' server after it has been deleted from one's computer. Such files have to be deleted manually with Apple's Backup. You can also configure BackJack to store a number of older versions of your files on the server or none at all.

Synectics' also provides excellent customer support and seems unusually eager to help and provide assistance. Apple, on the other hand, leaves users who need help to wade through support files and discussion groups. Finally, BackJack allows you to set up multiple users, charging an extra $4 a month for each.

When it comes to ease of use, both .Mac's Backup and Synectics' BackJack are easy to install and use. In both cases, one installs the software and then simply selects which folders and files one wants to back up, sets a schedule, and forgets about it. After the initial back up, both services then back up only files that have been modified since the last back up. Restoring is as simple as selecting the file you want and clicking a button or two. Online back up is an industry still in its infancy. Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see how the industry develops in order to attract more consumers and business users that want to back up online. With the ever-increasing file sizes that computer users are dealing with, one wonders if there will ever be an online back up service that can provide a complete back up solution at a reasonable price. Until that time, however, users can separate and back up their most critical files online, making it a handy partial solution even today.

If you're looking for a dedicated back up service, then BackJack can't be beat. With so many features and options, it's definitely more capable than Apple's Backup. However, if your back up needs are less complex, Apple's .Mac is an affordable way to obtain both the security of online back up and all of the other benefits of subscribing as well. To check out the two services, surf to or