Carbonite - Mac review

We have all pretty much accepted that backup is essential as we now cram more sentimental - or costly - digital matter onto our PCs. Potentially the biggest dilemma is whether to backup locally, or to the cloud.

For many Mac users, Time Machine is an attractive option as it is a constant backup solution and comes integrated with OS X. But it does mean that you have to fork out for a Time Capsule or use a wired external drive (or some trickery). Both of these leave you with local backup, which might not suit your purposes if you are always on the move or befall any number of other disasters to your backup drives (perhaps the same burglary that saw your Mac stolen?).

Carbonite brings over a system that has been available to Windows users for a while, but has now been tailored for the Mac, and while it operates in a similar way, it is less intrusive than the Windows equivalent.

A swift download and installation sees Carbonite spring up and set itself for the initial backup. You can opt to have automatic control or complete manual control of the files that are backed up. Unlike some other solutions, Carbonite is only interested in files – it isn't designed to backup all your applications or give you a complete hard disk image.

Control is relatively simple, allowing you to go through and select files or complete folders to backup. This gives you the opportunity to dump whole sections you might not want to backup, or select some files that you do. It is worth checking through the automatic selection as we found that Carbonite hadn't picked up on a video we had dumped on the Desktop, for no apparent reason – but these files get a big red dot next to them that is easy to spot.

The initial backup took us a long time – nearly 3 weeks in fact. There are a number of good reasons for this. Firstly, we were testing it on our normal daily working machine, so rather than just leaving it on all the time we had to pause the backup regularly when we went mobile, had the Mac sleeping whilst in transit and so on. Secondly because we were backing up 15GB of data at the first count, and constantly adding and moving files around during the initial backup.

15GB might not sound like a lot and it isn't, but if you are a starting a new backup regimen on a new Mac, then this figure might be much lower. Whatever your situation, the best way to deal with your initial backup is to leave your Mac on overnight until it is done. Thereafter backup is swift and barely noticeable.

We mentioned pausing, and that's because Carbonite takes into account the fact that you might not just sit in your office all the time with plenty of spare bandwidth to give to it. You can elect to pause the software for 24 hours, which is great if you are heading out for a day of meetings or using mobile broadband.

Taking into account heavy internet users, you also get a low bandwidth option that will reduce Carbonite's loading of your broadband connection. It does make quite a difference as we found that heavy browser work was hampered by the backup when it was running in a normal state. To be fair, we have had "Lower Priority" engaged almost continuously.

Backup does seem to be pretty random, but looking through the status window during the initial backup, it seemed the smaller files were backed up first, with the largest (our email archives) closer to the end. Once the initial backup is out of the way, it backs up incrementally, so you then barely notice that you have it running.

Control of Carbonite is via the System Preferences pane, basically breaking down into three sections: Status, Backup, Restore. As the names suggest, you can view the status and make a few running changes under the status screen, and we've already detailed what you find in the Backup area above.

Your restore options are also simple. You get the same folder/file style navigation and you can simply click on individual files or complete folders to restore. You can restore to the original location (overwriting anything that might already be there) or to a location of your choosing, as well as just to the desktop - into its own folder - which is really handy as you can sort through things without disturbing anything else on your machine.

There is a restore option that can be accessed through the website too, basically allowing to download and get your content back again to a new or repaired Mac. You can also access your backup remotely by signing into the website from any computer – so as long as your backup is up-to-date, you could easily retrieve files using any PC or Mac connected to the Internet.

Downsides? Well, it doesn't really understand that things move, so we found that our backup just kept growing as files moved around. For example, if you have a working area and a completed area, you'll find that your backup has both, even when the files are identical. (UPDATE: Carbonite has kindly pointed out that although the files appear duplicated, the system does deduplicate so if you move files around your backup doesn't grow.)

Your storage capacity online with Carbonite is unlimited, but it is a subscription-based service, so there is an ongoing cost of $54.95 for 1 year (with a $99.95 2-year option or $129.95 for 3). It is something to bear in mind, however you'd probably pay more than that for an external hard drive.

Verdict

You don't get the elegance of Time Machine, but at the same time Carbonite is a simple and effective backup solution.

The advantages here are obvious – all you need is an internet connection and you can restore (or just access) any time, any where, so if you have your Mac stolen whilst on assignment abroad, you can easily get your content back with a replacement machine.

The pro is also going to be the con for some users: you need an internet connection for it to work and to restore your files, i.e., you won't have a local backup. There is nothing to stop you running this in tandem with Time Machine, but you have to decide whether a MobileMe subscription with Apple's Time Capsule would meet your needs, or if backup to "the cloud" is really the way to go.

Fortunately there is a trial period too, so you can give the software a go and see how it works for yourself.

For sheer simplicity and ease of use, we give Carbonite a thumbs up.