What’s the Difference Between Cloud File Syncing and Cloud Backup?

Not all cloud file storage services are the same. There’s a big difference between file syncing tools like Dropbox and online backup services like Backblaze when it comes to backing up your important files.

How Cloud File Syncing Services Work

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You’re probably familiar with services like Dropbox, Google Drive (or Google Backup and Sync), and Microsoft OneDrive. These services provide a special folder, and anything you place in that folder is synced with your online storage, as well as between other devices you’ve set up. Your files are also available via web browsers.

These services are very useful, but they’re not quite the same as a backup service. Using them is better than not creating backups at all, of course. If your lose your laptop or your computer fails, you can still access your files on another device.

The Problem With Cloud File Syncing as Your Only Backup

File-syncing tools weren’t really designed with backups in mind. First of all, Dropbox and OneDrive don’t officially support synchronizing folders outside your main Dropbox or OneDrive folder, and Google Backup and Sync requires some configuration to back up other folders. So, if you have important files you want to back up elsewhere on your PC or Mac, that’s a problem.

Because these services are designed for syncing, if you delete or change a file on another device, that change will sync and the file will be deleted or changed on all your computers. Most services do provide ways to restore old versions of files and recover deleted files from the trash, but you can’t just restore all your files—or the files in a folder—to the state they were in at a point in time, as you can with traditional backups. This is a problem if ransomware or something else tampers with your files.

Cloud file syncing services also have less storage space available. You can pay Dropbox or another syncing service for additional space, but it’ll probably cost you less to get unlimited storage from a dedicated backup service.

Syncing services also aren’t as secure. While we aren’t too concerned about storing many types of personal files in cloud file syncing services, there are some types of files—for example, tax returns or other sensitive financial documents—that we wouldn’t want to keep there. Cloud backup services generally allow you to provide your own encryption key that secures your files against snooping on the backup server. Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive don’t offer this feature. You could encrypt individual files before uploading them with separate software, but that’s more work.

How Cloud Backup Tools Work

Dedicated backup services work differently. They don’t automatically sync your files between all your devices. They work more like a traditional backup tool, which would back up all the files on your PC or Mac. However, instead of backing up those files to an external hard drive or another computer on your local network, they back it up to the backup service’s online storage.

The backup software can back up files stored anywhere on your computer, so you don’t have to put everything all in one folder.

Backup services generally cost money, unlike cloud file syncing services that offer free tiers with a small amount of storage. However, if you want to back up a large amount of data, they’re generally cheaper than paying for a cloud syncing service. For example, Dropbox charges $10 a month for 1 TB of storage, while Backblaze provides unlimited storage for $5 per PC or Mac per month.

There are other similar services, like Carbonite and iDrive, but we recommend Backblaze over them. We previously recommended CrashPlan, a similar service, but it no longer offers backup plans for home users. However, Backblaze does delete its backup copies of files you delete from your PC after 30 days. We would prefer Backblaze keep deleted files for longer, just in case.

These services also provide more assistance if you ever need to recover from a major disaster. You can always just download your backups for free. But, if that would be a huge download, you can also pay to have terabytes of your data mailed to you on a hard drive. If you need to restore terabytes of data from Dropbox or Google Drive after a disaster, you’re stuck downloading it yourself. Backblaze actually allows you to return that drive to them for a full refund afterwards, which would make this service free.

What Should You Use?

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Everyone absolutely needs some sort of backup system. And, whatever you use, you should have a offsite copy of your data. This protects you in case your local backup is destroyed or stolen.

But cloud backups aren’t mandatory. For example, you could do everything yourself, backing up your data to local hard drives with something like File History on Windows, Time Machine on a Mac, or third-party backup software. And then you could store a copy of your backup at a friend’s house, or in a safe deposit box at a bank.

You could also try to cobble together your own free online backup system by dumping all your important files into a Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive folder and syncing them. But many of your other files—like pictures, videos, and music—may not fit unless you pay for additional data. And you’d probably want to create local backups on an external hard drive, too, to make it easy to restore deleted files or revert to previous versions of files you might need.

Or, rather than worrying about all that, you could just use an online backup service that does everything for you. You won’t have to think about plugging your backup drive in and manually creating backups, so your backups will always be up to date. You won’t have to sort all your files into a single folder for syncing. You won’t have to worry about how much space you have available, since you’ll have unlimited backup space online. And your backups will be stored in an offsite location, so your data will be safe even if your house burns down or all your electronics are stolen.

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Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Twitter.