CrashPlan full review

CrashPlan is backup software with a difference. Why not backup your data offsite to a friend's computer?

We all know the importance of backing up data, and there are many existing services which offer automatic online backup to a secure server. CrashPlan offers just such a service to subscribers, but its most interesting and novel feature is one we've not seen elsewhere - backing up to a friend or relative's PC.

In its basic form, CrashPlan is a free-to-use program for personal use, with the ability to backup designated folders to either a nearby external hard drive, another computer on the local network, to CrashPlan's own server (which does require payment). Or to a friend's PC over the internet.

The latter idea is to utilise spare hard disk space on a trusted friend's home computer, since many people have storage space to potentially donate, along with an always-on broadband internet connection. In testing, this service worked well and didn't require any specialist configuring of firewalls or ports to get two distant computers communicating with each other.

The optional subscription service, CrashPlan Central, lets you back up to the company's own online servers. Capacity for stored data is listed as ‘unlimited', and prices start at $54 a year for one computer; or $100 a year for the Family Unlimited Plan which protects as many computers as you wish, within one household.

We tested the augmented CrashPlan+ version which removes the commercial advertisements cluttering the free verison, and adds continuous real-time backup. The $59 charge also provides priority customer support, and exchanges 128-bit Blowfish encryption for 448-bit. It's also approved for commercial use.

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Backups to any chosen storage type can be scheduled to occur regularly, from ‘every day' to ‘every minute', with ‘every 15 minutes' the default. After the initial upload is made of your chosen collection of files and folders, only incremental changes are uploaded.

CrashPlan's settings page is highly configurable, so that you can, for example, set it to exclude certain filenames, or those with particular extensions. And since CrashPlan's operation is entirely unseen in the background, email alerts can be arranged in order for you to verify that backups really are occurring as planned, along with warning emails sent when they aren't.

One foible we discovered was the relative difficulty in stopping the steady flow of background updates when we needed to. This became obvious while we were overseas using a 3G wireless modem, and wanted to stop expensive bandwidth from being gobbled up by CrashPlan's well-intentioned work.

To stop backups, you can go into Settings, Network, and then change ‘Limit sending data when away' to None; alternatively CrashPlan's support site has instructions for entirely shuting down the background daemon. Bewarned, though, that whether this cross-platform app is installed on Windows, Mac or Linux, this is an advanced tweak that typically requires using a command prompt.

[UPDATE: We have also been informed by CrashPlan that you can pause updates in a slightly easier way from any of the app's setup tabs, by double-clicking on CrashPlan's green house icon in the top right corner. This opens an elementary text input field at the window's bottom, from where you can type 'pause' or 'resume' to control the service. Add a number for pause time in minutes. If you're on holiday for a week, that'll be 'pause 10080'.]

As it stands, laptop users with occasional 3G connectivity may be concerned about an unwanted drain on bandwidth from scheduled backups while on the road. We'd prefer to see an easy ‘off' switch provided at a higher level in the interface to make this easy.

But the cross-platform support is crucial. With an engine built around Java, CrashPlan is designed to work seamlessly between PCs running Windows, Mac or Linux - or even Solaris - operating systems, effectively increasing your options when counting on a friend's PC for free offsite backup.

Offering ‘unlimited' data storage is one thing, but with most people's home broadband based on ADSL technology - where the A stands for asymmetric - poor upload speeds are a hindrance to the first uploading of tens or hundreds of gigabytes of important data.

To overcome this, CrashPlan offers a service to make the initial transfer from a hard disk that you send direct to them, and which is returned to you when its contents are backed up online. This is only available to US customers though.

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CrashPlan: Specs

  • Windows XP/Vista/7
  • Server 2000/2003/2008
  • Linux 2.6 Series kernel
  • OpenSolaris/Solaris 10
  • Mac OS X 10.4 or later
  • 1GB RAM
  • 1GHz+ CPU
  • 250MB drive space
  • 800x600 display