Backup your life online: our free cloud storage guide
LOSING data when a hard disk fails, or a laptop is lost or stolen, can be a traumatic experience.
It's particularly galling if we don't have copies of all those documents, photos, and music backed up on a separate hard drive, or online via a cloud storage solution.
A recent survey for Kroll Ontrack found that about 40% of us don't have any kind of backup system in place for their files. Even among those of us that do, at least a fifth of us know it's not up to date.
All the more surprising when we consider that these days, many people's most treasured records of their lives - wedding and baby photos spring to mind - are all digital.
Thankfully, it is now very easy to ensure that all of our most important files are duplicated and safely backed up online.
What to look for
Space is the obvious differentiator between backup services: the more GBs we need, the more likely it is that we'll have to pay.
But that doesn't mean there aren't spacious free options available. Here's a quick run down:
Free with other services:
|BT Cloud (BT Broadband customers)||5GB / 50GB|
|iCloud (for owners of Apple devices)||5GB|
We'll look at who's offering the best price for extra space below.
There are a number of other features worth looking out for there too.
Some cloud storage services synchronise documents saved in a particular folder on your device with a remote server, updating them automatically each time they are modified.
On top of that, processes such as two-step verification make strengthening the security of your data online even simpler.
Many popular online services, including Dropbox and Gmail, offer two-step verification which works by sending a code to a registered mobile phone which must then be entered online in order for users to successfully login to their accounts.
Free online backup services
A quick search of the web for 'online backup' reveals a plethora of free online backup services that will allow you to create a copy of your precious files and store them in the cloud.
This guide picks out three from the biggest players because many people already have an account with them.
This Microsoft service, included with Windows 10, gives new members 5GB of free cloud storage space - recently reduced from a more generous 15GB.
The OneDrive desktop application is easy enough to install, creating a folder on the computer's hard drive for local storage of any files we want to store in the cloud. This then copies them across to our OneDrive cloud storage without any fuss.
OneDrive also gives users the option of accessing any other files not in the OneDrive folder via its "fetch" functionality, a feature not offered by Dropbox or Google Drive.
It does require users to sign up for a Microsoft account - which can also be used on Xbox Live, Outlook and other Microsoft services - although it may fight with other accounts used to log in to services like Skype.
The next step up is 50GB of storage, which will cost users £1.99 a month.
Of the three big free storage options, Dropbox offers new users the smallest amount of cloud storage space, just 2GB - but it does give users various chances to boost that.
The most common way people can increase their free allowance is by referring new members, each of which earns us an extra 500MB, but they also work with technology manufacturers to offer new owners upgrades of up to 50GB when they link their new kit to their account.
Aside from clever offer like that, one of the reasons Dropbox is so popular is that as well as being simplicity itself to use, it's compatible with what seems like almost every device on the market.
Once we've downloaded the Dropbox app to your computer, all we have to do is move - or copy - the files we want to upload into the dedicated folder; if we're connected to the internet, the app will start synchronising in the background.
For those who want more than the free allowance, Dropbox charge £7.99 a month for 1TB of storage.
Google offers the most free online storage of the providers listed above, giving people 15GB. And because it's from Google, Drive has a few extra bells and whistles with which it tries to distinguish itself from the competition.
As well as acting as a desktop backup service, like Dropbox and OneDrive, Google Drive is deeply integrated with Google Docs.
This allows for features such as live collaboration on documents between multiple users, the ability to leave comments and feedback on shared documents, and a "revision history" system which allows us to go back through the changes made to a document at each save.
For those who need or want more storage, there are a range of options from 100GB at $1.99 per month and 1TB for $9.99 a month, up to the frankly ridiculous 30TB for $299.99 a month.
Degoo is a bit different from those above: it started out as a peer-to-peer service under which our data was stored on other users' computers and, in turn, their data was stored on ours.
The more we shared, the more space we got: up to 100GB a month.
This was such an unusual concept that when it launched we reviewed it in full - click here for that.
Now, however, they seem to have reverted to a more typical cloud storage model, where all of our data is stored on their secure servers - and everyone who signs up gets the full 100GB free of charge.
While other cloud storage systems rely on us dragging the files we want to backup to a specific folder or drive, Degoo asks us to highlight which of our existing folders we want backed up.
Once the initial backup is done, it'll monitor those folders for changes whenever we're online, and back them up whenever something in them is updated, moved or deleted.
Free backup from ISPs
When looking for a new broadband provider, we're normally more interested in prices and speeds, but the bigger providers also like to offer extra value in the form of various inclusive services.
The rise of cloud storage led to both BT and Virgin Media offering remote storage to their own customers - but only a couple of years after adding cloud storage to their broadband deals, Virgin Media announced in March 2016 that they'd be closing theirs.
That leaves just one UK ISP offering free cloud storage to their personal customers: BT.
If you do use a backup service provided by your broadband supplier, remember that if you were to leave, you normally have 90 days in which to download any data you need that is stored with that provider before it is removed.
BT's Cloud backup service gives BT Broadband customers 5GB of free storage with most packages or a hefty 50GB for those with a Broadband Plus or Infinity 2 deal.
Whichever package we have it's possible to upgrade - to either 50GB for £3 a month or 500GB for £9 a month.
Easy file sharing and backup options are available as well as the option to schedule automatic backups.
Pay monthly backup plans
A couple of the smaller UK ISPs also offer online backup plans for a monthly fee - but since Eclipse stopped selling broadband to non-business customers, there's really only one name in the ring.
Rather like their home broadband deals, Zen's backup storage options aren't the cheapest - but they come with the same features as are available to business users.
They also offer a range of plans for a range of prices, starting from £4.95 per month for 5GB to £39.95 for 100GB.
Backed up to the hilt
As we hope is clear, the options to backup online are numerous and varied in storage space, features and price.
People who simply want to make copies of their most crucial files and photos should check to see if their broadband or email provider offers a service - people with BT or Gmail will automatically have access without needing much more than their usual log in details.
It depends how much storage we need, and where and when we want to be able to access our data which is the best online backup option for us.