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CrashPlan – The Best Online Backup Bang for the Buck for Multi-Computer Families

Crashplan backup

Ask any computer expert, and she will stress the need for not only local backups, but offsite backups as well. One option to get offsite backups is to use an online service. For many years, I was a happy subscriber to Carbonite. As the number of computers in my household grew, however, I needed a more economical solution. My wife and I each had a desktop and laptop, and I also ran a Windows virtual machine on one of my Macs. That made five systems that I needed to backup. After a bit of research, I settled on CrashPlan, and haven’t looked back. Not only is the CrashPlan+ Family Unlimited plan a good choice for a family with many computers, but CrashPlan might also be a good choice for you if you don’t want to pay anything at all.

CrashPlan’s Two Faces

To understand how CrashPlan can be both a good choice as a paid plan and as a free plan, you need to understand what CrashPlan is. CrashPlan is both a free piece of software that you can use to backup computers to one another, and is also an online backup service. As a free piece of software, you can use CrashPlan to automate backups from one computer to another computer, either locally or remotely. If you pay for the service, you can also send those backups online to the CrashPlan servers.


CrashPlan As a Free Service

If you want to avoid paying a subscription fee, you won’t get automatic backups to the CrashPlan servers. You can still get automatic offsite backups, however. All you need to do is find someone else, such as a friend or family member, with a computer at another location. You could even use your office machine if your company allows it. With CrashPlan installed at both the source and destination, you’ll get unattended and automatic backups. These backups will be incremental, so only changes will be backed up. The backups will also be encrypted with 128 bit encryption (both the files and the transmission), so you don’t have to worry about your data being compromised en route, or by your trusted friend at the destination.

As you can see from the above screenshot, using a second computer of your own as a backup destination is pretty simple. You pick it from a list (after installing CrashPlan on it), and then activate the backup. To backup to a friend’s computer, you’ll need a backup code that he or she will generate on the other end.

CrashPlan As a Paid Service

If you use CrashPlan as a paid service, you can still use all of the options available with the free service. This means that you can send your backups to another computer of your choosing, if that is what want. With the paid service, though, your backups are also sent to the CrashPlan servers. These backups, unlike the free backup option, will be continuous and in real time. This means that CrashPlan monitors your system for changes, and can be set to backup changed files as frequently as once a minute. Changes are monitored at the block level, so one change to a file doesn’t necessarily mean that the entire file is re-sent to the backup destination. With the paid service, you also will have the option to restore files from a web interface, and the file encryption is 448-bit instead of 128-bit.

Paid CrashPlan accounts also provide for what CrashPlan calls “backup sets.” Backup sets allow you to specify which files go to which destination. For example, you could send backups of your personal photos to your online CrashPlan account, and backups of certain documents to your work computer.


CrashPlan vs. Carbonite

Carbonite is perhaps the most well-known backup service, advertising on both radio and television. The differences between Carbonite and CrashPlan probably won’t be readily apparent to most users, when installed on a single machine. One big difference between CrashPlan and Carbonite, though, is that CrashPlan allows you to backup attached drives. Carbonite only backs up your internal drives, unless you upgrade to the $99 HomePlus plan. In this time of fast connections, such as Thunderbolt, many of us store just as much information on external drives as we do on internal drives, making the backup of external drives very important.

Another important difference is in pricing. The CrashPlan+ plan ($49.99) and Carbonite Home plan ($59) aren’t too far apart in pricing, although you have to upgrade to the Carbonite HomePlus plan for $99 to get external drive backup. The bigger difference arises if you have multiple computers. The CrashPlan+ Family Unlimited plan will back up anywhere from 2-10 computers for a total of $119.99. For Carbonite, you’ll need to splurge for the $59.00 plan for ever computer, or switch to a business plan (the cheapest of which is $229 for 250 GB of storage). CrashPlan is the clear winner if you want to back up multiple machines.



Security is a concern anytime you send your data into the cloud. By default, your CrashPlan account uses an encryption key that is kept with your data on the CrashPlan servers, and encrypted with your password. If you’re paranoid about CrashPlan possibly getting access to your data, you can also provide your own key. Don’t lose it, though, because then your data would be inaccessible.


Other Features

Some other features of CrashPlan are as follows:

  • Unlimited file sizes;
  • Deleted files are kept forever;
  • Backup scheduling;
  • Data compression (another way, in addition to differential changes, to keep the transfer size down);
  • Send a backup drive to CrashPlan, to get a jump start on your backup (paid plan only)


User Interface / Experience

The screenshots above are taken from the Mac version of CrashPlan, but the look is similar on Windows as well. The backup screen gives you a list of your destinations, a link to the list of files being backed up, and various pieces of data about your setup.CrashPlan UI

If you go to the screen where you pick your backup sources, you’re presented with a directory tree. You simply place a check mark next to each directory or file that you want backed up. Your choices are recursive, so you don’t have to drill down into a directory if you want the entire contents of the directory backed up.Change File Selection

How about how CrashPlan runs? I’ve been using CrashPlan for almost 5 months now, and haven’t noticed it. That’s a good thing – I set up the directories on my computers that I wanted backed up, and haven’t had to think about it since. I have checked online, and my files were there waiting for me.


Summary – the Three Big Differentiators

Frankly, when I looked at online backup solutions, many services looked the same. Three features stood out for CrashPlan. First was the ability to back up to multiple destinations (to my own destinations, and to my online CrashPlan account). Second was the ability to back up external drives, without bumping up to the higher-priced plans. Third was the pricing. If you have multiple computers in your house, it is hard to beat CrashPlan.

During my research, my biggest worry about CrashPlan had to do with the pricing. I was struck by how economical it was to backup multiple computers, and wondered how long CrashPlan could charge those rates. With all the data that I’m backing up to CrashPlan, it would be a huge inconvenience to have to move my backups elsewhere. One can only hope that CrashPlan users don’t fall victim to a sudden price increase. Still, it speaks well for a service when the biggest gripe I can come up with is that the prices might be too fair.

To see current prices, head on over to the CrashPlan site.


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