Hard drive crashes and editing mishaps aren't the only things online backup can protect you from: There are also more traditional disasters such as fires, floods, and earthquakes, which can spell the end of your digital media and documents. Even if you're among the very few of us who diligently perform backups at regular intervals, those calamities can still result in data loss if you didn't store backups off-site. That's a good reason why an online backup service may be the best way to protect your irreplaceable digital goods.
Online backup services have you install software on you PC that scans your storage for files worthy of backup, encrypts them for security, and sends them up to the cloud—that trendy word that just means powerful, secure, and high-storage-capacity server computers attached to the internet with fast connections. Once your files are stored on those cloud servers, they're accessible for you to restore to the same PC, should a file go missing. In most cases, the service also lets you access your files from a web browser or mobile device.
Though there's some overlap, online backup services shouldn't be confused with cloud storage and syncing services like Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive. Those services do store files in the cloud, but they aren't designed to automatically protect all important documents and media files, let alone system files. Their strategy is generally to sync just one folder with all its subfolders to the cloud, and in some cases to offer online collaborative document editing. One crossover product is SugarSync, which lets you sync folders wherever they exist on your drive.
Different services allow different types of files from differing sources. Some don't let you protect system and program files. Others don't let you back up files and folders on external or network drives. If you have any of those needs, make sure the service you choose supports them.
An online backup service isn't much good if it doesn't make easy the process of restoring your data and getting back to being productive. Look for a service that offers a search tool to find a particular backed-up file. It's also desirable for a service to be able to replicate an entire folder-tree structure, so that it can deal with bigger data losses. One consideration in restoring is that if you bought a plan that covers just one computer, you may have to transfer the account to a new PC if you want to restore everything and use the service for that computer. Versioning is another capability offered by many of the services. This lets you see earlier versions of a file in case you made some unwanted edits. Services vary widely in the number of versions saved and how long they're kept.
The web is everywhere these days, and the same should hold true for your backed-up files. What's the point of having your documents and media in the cloud if you don't have web access to them? Most online backup providers let you get at your files from a web browser, but capabilities vary. Many simply let you download the files, but some let you view documents and photos and play music and videos. File sharing is another feature you'll find in online backup services' web clients, and some services even let you specify a password for access and a timeout period for the shared file.
The same comment that applies for web access applies to mobile: You should have access to cloud-stored files no matter where you are and what device you're using. Most online backup services offer Android apps and iOS apps, and some even offer Windows Phone apps. Like the services' sites, these apps may just offer simple document and media file download, but many can also display the documents and photos and play the video and music. Many also offer the same file-sharing capabilities of their browser-based counterparts.