There’s nothing quite as gut-wrenching, frightening, and disheartening as losing all your precious files and folders in one fell, painful swoop. All those cherished pieces – the photos of your family in Yosemite, your thesis paper on the migratory pattern of the Red-throated Diver, your 200GB of illegally downloaded music you can’t live without – lost into the eternal abyss due to some software or hardware failure, or possibly, just your own accidental stupidity. However, there are ways to save your tail if you unexpectedly lose your virtual life in a cloud of (hopefully) metaphorical smoke.
Backup software is not just a fad; it’s an essential tool for keeping your digital belongings safe in a landscape prone to digital corruption, pesky malware, and inevitable hardware failure that strikes like a burglar in the night. The available tools range from standalone programs and built-in backup utilities to newer, Web-based software that automatically stores all your data remotely in the cloud. The best part of it all? All three methods are typically quick, reliable and totally free for personal use.
Here are our picks for some of the best free backup software ripe for the taking. Furthermore, check out our hard drive recovery tips and tricks, our picks for the best external hard drives, and our guides on how to choose an external hard drive, and how to back up your computer. Hopefully it’s not too late.
Choose your backup method:
- Back up using Web-based software
- Back up using a built-in operating system utility
- Back up using a standalone program
Back up using Web-based backup software
The idea behind Web-based backup software is simple: create an account and place any file you choose in an online drive accessible from anywhere you have Internet access. Cloud storage does not provide as extensive a backup as all-encompassing methods such as Apple‘s Time Machine and Windows Backup, but it’s a great way to back up and access individuals files and documents on the fly without having to maintain an external hard drive or continually run a backup program. Once set up with an account, the bulk of the software will automatically sync across devices, allowing Android and iOS users to view their documents via an accompanying app available on most devices. It’s not the go-to if you want to clone your entire system, but it’s a phenomenal method for securing, editing, and sharing a fair number off files off-site.
Google Drive (Web-based)
Formerly known as Google Docs, Google Drive is the tech giant’s freemium answer to the Microsoft Office suite. An account comes bundled with 15GB of space – a healthy amount depending on what type of multimedia you plan on backing up – but recent unification of Google’s storage system means your capacity will be shared across Drive, Gmail, and Google+ Photos. Like almost all file-syncing services, Drive is best suited for handling text documents opposed to digitally-heavy files like high-def video and audio, but it can still back up the latter to a certain extent. However, individual documents cannot exceed 10GB, embedded images are capped at 2MB, and spreadsheets are limited to 256 columns, 400,000 cells, or 200 sheets.
Drive features one of the cleanest and sleekest interfaces of any of the software on our list, with a simple white background and side-pane navigation that lets you easily create or upload files with a single click. The downloadable client for Windows and Mac OS X is also incredibly handy, allowing desktop access and syncing with the cloud-based drive through a local folder without ever having to open your browser or access the utility on the Web (the client merely sits in the taskbar or main menu for quick access). Like Gmail, Drive users are likely to have their own share of privacy concerns over the service – but if you don’t feel comfortable, simply don’t use the product.
Be sure to download the accompanying Android or iOS app and check out our guide on how to use Google Drive for a comprehensive list of tips, tricks, and the best practices for using the cloud-based storage drive. It’s not going to take care of all your storage needs, but at least you can relax knowing your files will remain intact even if your computer doesn’t.
As the name implies, Dropbox is Web-based software in which users simply upload or drop their desired backup files in a folder synced over the Web. The free service only offers 2GB of encrypted storage for your multimedia files upon signing up, but users can increase their storage capacity through a series of odd tasks such as referrals, mobile app installations, social media connections, and general sharing methods that boost the software’s visibility and name recognition on the Web. Similar to Google Drive, Dropbox is more apt for backing up, sharing, and revising text documents than large images or videos, but the software can still host and preview any file you throw at it with simplicity and automatic syncing so long as the upload keeps you under the 2GB threshold. Uploading through the Web interface may limit file size to 300MB, but there is theoretically no limit when the files are uploaded via the desktop client or mobile app.
The Dropbox interface, whether accessed on mobile platforms or through the site, is elegant and easy to traverse given it’s collapsible list and left-hand pane for accessing your documents, photos, links, and various shared folders you’ve set up. The downloadable client for Windows and Mac OS X gives you access and automatic syncing with your dedicated Dropbox folder via the taskbar or main menu, while the software’s nicely-designed photo feature will automatically upload images or videos directly to your account from any mobile device for online viewing. Although the 2GB limit is a bit of a bummer – similar services offer the same feature with more robust capacity – it’s Dropbox’s ease of use and seamless OS integration that make it one of the best carefree utilities for light backups and remote storage.
Microsoft SkyDrive (Web-based)
SkyDrive is the capable backup software you probably never knew existed. Unlike Google Drive, Microsoft’s innate storage utility has been syncing, playing, viewing, and storing files for over five years without catching hold in the mainstream consciousness. A free Microsoft account grants you access to 7GB of free storage – unless you’ve been using the service since before April 2012 – and a small wealth of features including hosting for documents, video, audio, and various settings depending on your device’s available Windows integration. Max file size limits your documents and multimedia to a strict 2GB, but that shouldn’t be an issue if you’re looking to merely back up your more important documents in the cloud.
It’s difficult not to note SkyDrive’s uncanny resemblance to Windows 8. However, the rectangular blue panels keep your files well-organized and quickly accessible on the Web while a similar layout works just as nicely on mobile phones. The downloadable apps for Windows, Mac OS X, and mobile platforms automatically syncs your SkyDrive folder across devices so there’s no need for manually back up, and the accompanying client neatly sits in your system tray for sheer convenience and speedy access without opening your browser. Windows phone and Office Web app users can pride themselves in knowing that SkyDrive is built directly into the mobile OS, providing third-party app integration and nifty features such as remote PC control and file uploading.
Check out the accompanying SkyDrive app for Android and iOS devices if you truly want to reap the benefits of Microsoft’s shot at cloud-based storage. Also, check out our hands-on with SkyDrive in Windows 8.1.
MozyHome Free (Web-based)
MozyHome Free looks like one of the more complex backup utilities on our roundup, but it’s actually one of the more intuitive and hands-off programs when paired with the built-in setup wizard. Once installed, the free software will run you through a native setup assistant, suggesting and helping you choose which files to back up and leaving out any unnecessary OS files that aren’t integral to your peace of mind. A free account comes loaded with 2GB of memory – an appropriate amount for lightweight documents, videos, and images – and the software will automatically sync when your computer is not in use or during a scheduled time period. Max file size, often the crux of cloud-based software, is not an issue as the program has no limitations other than the overall 2GB storage limit.
Unfortunately, MozyHome doesn’t boast the most attractive or user-friendly interface. The Web interface feels far clunkier than the desktop app (the mobile app’s only being slightly better), but the client does appear and sync within your taskbar in a similar fashion to the rest of the backup utilities on our list. Other features, such as 30-day version history and encryption capabilities help push it among the best available, but it also exhibits some of the slowest backup speeds. However, MozyHome Free is still an attractive option for those looking for additional storage through an alternative service without having to pay a dime.
SugarSync has been at the forefront of cloud-based storage ever since dropping version 2.0 in November. The free service offers the same feature set and remote storage functionality as many of its competitors, albeit with a commendable 5GB of storage compared to DropBox’s 2GB, but it does present some other noticeable difference. For instance, instead of automatically syncing a particular folder linked to your account like Google Drive does, SugarSync allows you to choose which file or folder you’d like to sync in lieu of a default one. Likewise, you only need to mark a file to sync instead of having to drag it to specified folder. Plus, the 100MB file size limit is only reserved for uploads through the website, leaving the mobile, and desktop clients with free reign.
The Web interface isn’t particularly glamorous, but the downloadable clients for all major operating systems and mobile platforms are a standout. The mobile tabs are easy to navigate and easy on the eyes, as is the condensed desktop app with its four distinct panels for sharing, searching, storing, and checking various activity. Once installed, the freemium service will place an icon in your computer’s taskbar or main menu, allowing you to view ongoing syncing and access your documents sans the cumbersome Web interface. We would have loved to see a search utility that goes beyond just combing through a folder’s metadata, but we can always keep our fingers crossed for the software’s next incarnation. Still, SugarSync is one of the better pieces of backup software for less tech-savvy users given its less-than-strict functionality and across-platform support.