Backing up your important files is critical but a chore. Think how you’d feel if you lost all your family photographs and videos, your beloved music collection, or your clients’ confidential information, much of which is irreplaceable. For this reason alone the online backup industry is booming, making backing up computers simple for the home user as well as the professional.

Carbonite ($54.95 unlimited annual fee) is a software program that automatically backs up the files stored on your hard disk drives to secure U.S.-based servers using SSL encryption for file transfer and proprietary 1024-bit encryption and a 448-bit Blowfish cypher to safeguard data while in storage. You can now also hold your own encryption keys, so no-one else can view backed up data. This means that if your hard drive crashes, or you accidentally wipe your files, you can retrieve them using the supplied software or from any Web browser. Carbonite differentiates itself from its competitors by offering unlimited backup, so all of your photo albums, music collection and home videos can be stored in one location without additional charges for large amounts of data.

Installing and operating Carbonite couldn’t be any simpler. After registering (e-mail and password only) for the 15-day trial, the Carbonite desktop software is downloaded to your computer for installation. There are no complicated server or ISP settings to worry about because Carbonite takes care of everything. You can add as many computers to your account as you’d like. However, you’ll need to purchase one Carbonite subscription for each computer you’d like to protect with Carbonite. Having said that, Carbonite also has a remote access feature, which means you can access your files from any computer using your secure password, regardless of whether or not Carbonite is installed on that machine.

If you uninstall your free trial, your backup will be deleted after 7 days. If you uninstall a paid subscription, Carbonite will keep your backup on file for the full length of your paid subscription. Also worth mentioning is that during your free trial, audio (such as MP3s and iTunes music) and video files are not backed up by default. If you want to test backing up an audio or video file during your free trial, you need to manually add it to your backup. When you pay for your annual subscription, your music and audio files will be added to your backup automatically. Video files will not be added automatically, but you can add as many video files to your backup as you’d like.

Double-clicking on the Carbonite Backup Drive icon placed on your desktop lets you view the files in your backup, arranged just as they are on your computer. Right-clicking on any file or folder adds it to your backup. If there’s a file or folder that you don’t want to back up, just right click on it and select ‘Don’t back this up’ from the Carbonite menu. To make sure an important file gets backed up immediately, you can highlight the file and select ‘Back up this file as soon as possible’. There’s a Low Priority option which causes Carbonite to slow down its use of the Internet so as not to interfere with other Internet-intensive hardware/software such as VoIP telephony (e.g., Skype) and video streaming. Basically, Carbonite reduces its packet size from 8000 bytes to 1400 bytes and sends only one packet at a time instead of streaming multiple packets. Still, you’ll probably want to pause downloads if you’re playing an online game or video streaming as it does affect performance.

You can back up as many files as you have on your computer. As a practical matter, the speed of today’s DSL and cable Internet services will make it very slow to back up more than a few dozen gigabytes of data. To give you an idea, 2GB of data will take around 24 hours to upload to Carbonite servers, while 5GB will take a couple of days. Another consideration is that the current version of Carbonite backs up only the files that reside on permanent hard drives on your computer. Recovering small amounts of data (a few files here or there) will probably take only seconds or minutes. Restoring all of your data will take longer and depends on data volume and connection speed.

Most ISPs will allow you to download about 600-800MB per hour, or roughly 14-18GB per day. For an average user, complete data restoration is likely to take at most a day or two. Carbonite has been designed to operate in the background so that it will not slow down your computer or Internet connection while you are actively using your computer. If you touch your mouse or keyboard, Carbonite automatically slows down until your computer has been idle for a few minutes. It’s very unlikely that you will ever notice a change in the way your computer performs while using Carbonite.

The software will not back up network drives, external drives, and NAS (network accessed storage) drives. If there are files on a remote drive that you wish to include in your Carbonite backup, you’ll have to copy the files to a folder on your local hard drive. If the files are on a shared network drive, you could install Carbonite on the computer on which the network shared drive physically exists, and back the files up directly from that computer. Carbonite has a service plan in the works that will allow you to back up your external drives, but there is no word on availability or pricing.

Carbonite works quietly in the background looking for new and changed files to back up. It looks and feels like part of your computer, and is integrated with your desktop, so there is nothing new to learn. It backs up your files from smallest to largest, and you can open the Carbonite InfoCenter and check the Status page to see which file is currently being backed up. If you’re getting near the end of your first backup and Carbonite is in the middle of backing up a large file, just leave your computer on until the file has been backed up. If you need to shut your computer down for any reason, don’t worry, Carbonite will pick-up from where it left off before you shut down. If you’re not nearing the end of your backup, and/or Carbonite appears to be stuck backing up a small file, you’ll need to reboot your computer to re-establish its connection to Carbonite servers.

If you’ve decided to use an online backup service, Carbonite is the best in the business. There are many positive points that the service provides including ease of use, the security of off-site storage, and low cost. Unlimited backup is another major boon. On the downside, some people may get nervous about having their complete data in the hands of others and feel out of control, and you need a fast always-on broadband connection – the service would be totally impractical on a slow connection and impossible on dial up. But the same can be said about all online backup services.

The long initial upload is also worth remembering as is can take many hours and perhaps days to complete if you are backing up a large hard disk drive. On the plus side, the upload operates in the background which means that your computer can still be used, but it does mean that the computer needs to be on with constant access to a high speed broadband connection during this time. Backing up is becoming an increasingly important part of digital life. There’s no better online solution than Carbonite. Its hand-holding approach and close integration with Windows makes it accessible to all.