With cloud storage, all of your valuable data - such as photos, music and documents - is uploaded to a storage provider’s servers over the internet.
Some of the best-known cloud storage services are Dropbox, Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive. They offer a secure online alternative to backing up data to a hard drive.
Read our expert reviews of the best cloud storage services
Why back up to cloud storage?
Cloud storage is a very different approach to backing up to a hard drive or archiving to DVD. Your files won't effectively live in your own hands - you're trusting them to another server for storage.
Pros of cloud storage
Cloud storage has the immediate benefit of being much safer than hard drive backup, as your data is stored remotely. This means that it isn’t vulnerable to damage, theft or loss like a small hard drive might be.
Most cloud storage providers store multiple copies of your files to protect them in the event of a single drive or server failing. Often, previous versions of your files are kept too, allowing you to restore a document to its original state, before unwanted changes were made.
If you don’t have that many files to back up, then cloud services can be very cost effective. Most providers offer a small amount of storage completely free of charge. For example, Microsoft SkyDrive offers 7GB of free storage to everyone; that’s enough for backing up thousands of digital photos.
Some cloud storage services let you edit documents online, and most make it easier to share your photos or files with others by sending them a link
Cons of cloud storage
Cloud storage is less cost effective if you need a large storage allowance. Larger capacities require annual subscription fees. A 500GB external hard drive may cost just £50, but 500GB of cloud storage could cost you £150 per year.
You’ll need to take the speed restrictions of your broadband service into account. Most internet connections in the UK provide upload speeds of less than 1Mbps. This can make it slow going to upload large files, including photos, and makes regular large-scale backups somewhat impractical.
Remember, your files are only as secure as your password. If your password can be easily guessed or hacked, then your data is at risk.
Being able to store backup copies of your files off site and access them from all your computers and devices is a big advantage. However, high ongoing costs and slow upload speeds may deter those with larger amounts of data.
How to back up to the cloud
All cloud storage services require you to sign up for an account, and this is easy to do from the provider’s website. If you already have a Hotmail, Gmail or Amazon account, you will already have a small free storage allocation for your account.
You can access your online storage via your web browser by logging in at the cloud service’s home page to manually upload and download files.
For automated backing up (known as syncing), most services provide a simple, free desktop application. Download and install this from the website and it will sit in the background, invisibly syncing designated folders on your hard drive with your cloud account. Any changes you make to a synced file on your PC will automatically be updated in the cloud.
Most services provide free smartphone and tablet apps that allow you to view your files wherever you are. Download these from the relevant app store.
It’s often possible to invite friends or family to access your files, so they can view a folder containing your online photos, for example.