Carbonite Review

One of the most important things that photographers need to do is maintain up-to-date backups of all of their photographs. Ideally all of your photos should be stored in three locations; 1. In your Aperture, Lightroom, or iPhoto Libraries, or in a specific directory on your hard dive if you are old school about photo management. 2. An external drive that you can plug in to your computer in case your main hard drive fails. 3. Off site, ideally on an automatic backup service, or at least on a hard drive that is stored in a secure location, far enough removed from your main photo library that a single disaster (i.e. fire or flood) couldn’t destroy both locations.

For my remote backup solution I use Carbonite. I’d heard ads for them on the This Week In Photography podcast and on the This Week in Tech Network. Their advertising on these programs led me to believe that they were an ideal backup solution for photographers who had a great deal of data to backup. It turns out that that is not the case. There is a newer service called Carbonite Pro, that was not launched when I started using the service, but as for the standard Carbonite I have not been very satisfied at all with the service.

Sign-up and installation were easy, with good Mac support. The only setup is choosing which directories need to be backed-up. There is a limitation to internal drives, but since my Mac Pro has four drive bays I could end up sending a lot of data their way. Except, they don’t clearly warn you that if you’re trying to back up too much they throttle your upload speed. I have a fiber internet connection and get around 2 mb/s upload, even with my large photo library (I started the upload with about 150 gigabytes, which isn’t even my entire archive) I should have been able to complete the backup in 2-3 months. Due to their upload limitations it took well over 6. Once the first backup is completed the throttling goes away and the transfer rate increases somewhat. The problem, however is that every new file added before the initial backup is completed is considered to be part of the initial, so every new project during that period was uploaded very slowly. Carbonte also spends rather a lot of time thinking and organizing files for upload, but when there are literally hundreds of thousands of files that seems forgivable to me. After the initial upload Carbonite works much faster, and would have become acceptable, except for one other major issue. At some point the Carbonite helper app decided that it needs lots of RAM to run, and I mean LOTS. Right now on my system it is using 1.1 GB of RAM, and I have seen it as high as 1.5 gigs. I can understand Photoshop or Aperture using that much memory, but not a service that is supposed to run in the background. 500 megs seems reasonable considering the number of unique files involved, but anything over one gig seems like poor programming or a memory leak in the software to me.

One final Carbonite feature that I should mention is the ability to access your files from another computer, your phone or an iPad. This could be useful in a pinch to get your hands on an important document if you forgot something you needed. It seems much less useful to a photographer though, as slogging through my Aperture Library over a network connection to find a specific pic sounds like a painful experience. Besides, Dropbox, Amazon Cloud Storage, Google Gmail, and Apple’s iDisk all offer cloud storage for cheap or free that can provide the same sort of emergency access to documents, and each one offers more convenient management and built in OS file manager support. I also worry that too easy access to the Carbonite backup actually puts users at risk of exposing their files if they ever get hacked. At least with something like Dropbox you can limit the files that someone who stole your iPhone could see to those you purposefully put on there. But with Carbonite even the nude pics you might have taken of your spouse become visible to anyone who can gain access to you account.

The bottom line is that Carbonite’s lack of a fixed maximum storage allotment and affordable price do barely make it a worthwhile service, and for all I know the competitors of Mozy and Backblaze may have similar limitations. However the slow as molasses initial backup and mediocre software would probably send me looking elsewhere if I were new to online backup, but they aren’t so bad to send me packing now that I’m an established user.