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Backup service MiMedia leverages U.S. mail

Who wants to pay for online backup? Nobody. But MiMedia is trying to make you feel good about it.

Why would anyone want to be in the consumer data backup business? Even if you have a great, useful, cheap product, most people simply won't bother to use it. You might as well be selling dental floss. It's got to be depressing.

Erik Zamkoff runs a relative newcomer in this space, MiMedia. He likes selling dental floss. And he has two clever tricks to get more people to use his cloud backup service.

First, he takes the data and media his service's users upload and gives it back to them online in a nice, organized Web viewer they can share with friends. His service segregates music, photo, and video files and gives everything a streaming player--a slideshow for photos, a shuffle-able streamer for music, and a streaming Flash video player for videos. The service transcodes all files for Web playback. There's a solid iPhone app, too. Zamkoff wants people to actually interact with their backups regularly. And by letting users easily share specific media files or directories with friends and families, he thinks they might do just that.

The MiMedia Shuffle Drive, via the U.S. Postal Service, has great throughput. Latency, however, is measured in days.

Second, Zamkoff says that many people don't upload all their data to online backup services. He says the average online storage account is under 10GB, yet the average media collection is over 60GB. It just takes too long to make the initial backup, Zamkoff says. Consumers like to shut down their computers at night, when the upload might otherwise be running. And they have, mostly, limited upstream bandwidth anyway. So when you sign up for MiMedia, the service calculates how long it's going to take you to do your first upload. If it's going to be a while, MiMedia can send you a preconfigured USB hard drive that you can dump your files onto and then send that back to the service in a preaddressed mailer. MiMedia uses the files on the drive to seed your backup set. (Update: Peer-to-peer backup service Crashplan also supports using a mailed-in hard disk as a backup set seed.)

The "shuttle drive" service is no extra charge (although you do have to provide a security deposit via credit card), and the drive you get in the mail can't be used for anything other than backup. The drive arrives prekeyed to your specific MiMedia account and the data is stored under AES encryption.

I calculate (check my work) that if you have 250GB of data to back up (not unreasonable if you take a lot of photos and have healthy music and video libraries), and if the U.S. Postal Service takes three days to deliver the drive to MiMedia, that's bandwidth of about 8 megabits a second, which is, in fact, a lot better upstream performance than most people get at home.

This service is a good way to get consumers to make a real backup, instead of a documents-only set that ignores their precious home videos--as competitor Carbonite does by default.

MiMedia doesn't offer one-price unlimited backup, though. Plans start at $50 a year, but my 250GB example backup will run $245 annually. (Sugarsync, the sync tool I use for backup, has similar price points.)

The service makes a very usable streaming media portal from your backup sets.

You can add as many computers to your backup account as you want. The service does not offer synchronization features, though, and it lumps all your media files together in the Web player. That actually might be a benefit for some users and for families.

The service isn't yet available for Mac OS X. The Android mobile app is also forthcoming.

The MiMedia Shuttle Drive gimmick is a good way to get users to actually back up what matters, and the service's strong portal for backed-up data adds daily utility to the service. Compared with most other cloud storage and backup services (I'm thinking of Mozy, Carbonite, Dropbox, Sugarsync, and Crashplan), MiMedia has more sensitivity to the way real consumers behave. It makes a compelling business out of selling something nobody really wants to pay for.