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Incremental vs. Differential Backup: What’s The Difference?

WRITTEN BY
Jao Gavino
UPDATED
May 25, 2024

 

Are you looking to back up your files?

 

You may have heard how important it is to have backups of your most important files—after all, backups let you get back up on your feet pretty quickly in case something problematic happens with your precious documents (such as data corruption).

 

However, it’s also important to understand the differences between the different types of backups—each backup method has unique pros and cons that you’d do well to understand to maximize the speed and efficiency of your backups.

 

 

For example, full backups copy everything over to a backup, regardless of whether there are any changes to the files or not.

 

This is highly inefficient, as even unchanged files are copied over, making the full backup process a time-consuming and resource-intensive one.

 

Fortunately, this is where the two other types of backups, incremental and differential, come in.

 

These two methods are faster and more efficient than a full backup, and if you want to learn their pros and cons, how to use them, and—perhaps most importantly—which one is better, then read on!

 

What Is An Incremental Backup?

 

incremental backup

Incremental backups copy over the data that was altered since your last full or incremental backup. (Credit: Vinchin)

 

Unlike in a full backup, where every file—including those that were unchanged since the last backup—is copied, in an incremental backup, only the data that has changed since the last backup are copied.

 

Incremental backups save time and storage space because they only copy new or updated data each time that they are run. This means that incremental backups are more efficient than full backups because the backup process only needs to copy the data that has changed since the last backup—be it a full or incremental backup.

 

How Incremental Backup Works

 

Imagine that it’s your first time backing up your small business’ most important files, as follows:

 

  • Clients.xlsx
  • Catalog.docx
  • Memos.txt
  • Photos.zip

 

Initially, you’d be required to run a full backup—after all, a full backup serves as the starting point for all following backups, regardless of their type. A full backup will take longer as well as take up more space because it will copy over everything.

 

You’ve decided on a weekly backup schedule for these files, and now, a week has passed. Upon checking, only the following files were altered since your last backup:

 

  • Memos.txt
  • Photos.zip

 

It wouldn’t make much sense to perform a full backup again, since only these two files have been changed. If you use an incremental backup, only the changes to these two files’ data will be backed up, saving you time and storage space.

 

Although this simple example uses only four files, bear in mind that businesses can easily have hundreds or even thousands of spreadsheets, documents, archives, and so on just idling on their servers or hard drives, which can easily take up a lot of space and be very time-consuming to back up.

 

Incremental Backups: Pros and Cons

 

The main advantage of an incremental backup is that it doesn’t copy as much data as differential or full backups. Given this, incremental backups are not only faster, but they also take up far less space than the other two types of backups.

 

On the other hand, incremental backups may take a long time to restore data. Consider how incremental backups work, and let’s go back to the example above:

 

If you back up weekly, that means that you performed a full backup at the beginning of the month and then proceeded to perform incremental backups every week. It’s now the fourth week of the month, and—oh no! Multiple files got deleted by accident. Fortunately, you still have your backups from the previous week.

 

However, to restore from an incremental backup, you’ll have to restore from the first week’s backup first, then the second week’s backup, and only then can you restore the data from the third week’s backup.

 

This means that incremental backups take longer to restore, as they have to go through and restore each backup in sequential order.

 

Also, one other disadvantage that incremental backups have is that if one of these backup files gets corrupted (or one of the storage media that you keep your backups on gets damaged), the recovery of your data will be incomplete.

 

As such, you should have multiple copies of your incremental backups—for example, storing them on the cloud might be a good idea.

 

 

Then, What Is a Differential Backup?

 

differential backup

Differential backups only copy over the data that was altered since your last full backup.
(Credit: Vinchin)

 

On the other hand, a differential backup only backs up the files that have changed since your last full backup. This means that if you do a full backup today, tomorrow’s differential backup will contain only the changes made today—not all of those from the past week or month.

 

Differential backups often involve full backups regularly (e.g., weekly). For example, imagine that you’re on a weekly full backup schedule, with daily differential backups between those full backups.

 

If you do a full backup every Sunday, only the files that changed since that backup will be backed up on Monday, and only the files that changed since Sunday’s full backup will be backed up on Tuesday, and so on—until your next full backup.

 

How Differential Backup Works

 

Let’s go back to our list of files from the previous example:

 

  • Clients.xlsx
  • Catalog.docx
  • Memos.txt
  • Photos.zip

 

You perform a full backup on Sunday, which backs up all of these files. The time for the Monday backup comes, and only these two files have changed:

 

  • Memos.txt
  • Photos.zip

 

Once you run a differential backup, only the changes to these two files will be saved, since those were the only alterations made since the last full backup.

 

Tuesday comes, and now all four files have been altered. Since all four files were altered in some way since the last full backup (on Sunday), all of the data that was changed will be backed up.

 

This continues until the next full backup, with each change that was made since Sunday being backed up with each daily differential backup.

 

Differential Backups: Pros and Cons

 

Unlike an incremental backup, a differential backup is faster to restore, as you won’t have to go through and restore each backup sequentially. Since all of the changes since the last backup are saved in a differential backup, you only need two copies of your data—the full backup and a differential backup.

 

This also gives another advantage over incremental backups—you won’t need each and every backup file, so you needn’t worry about a backup file getting corrupted, unlike incremental backups, where missing or corrupted backup files will lead to an incomplete restoration.

 

On the other hand, differential backups are larger and take longer than incremental ones. As each differential backup contains all of the changes since the last full backup, they get progressively larger with each backup, which takes more storage space and time to back up.

 

 

Incremental vs. Differential Backups: Which One Is Better?

 

types of backup

Each type of backup has its own strengths and weaknesses. (Credit: Comport)

 

Now that you know what incremental and differential backups are, you may be wondering, “Which one is better?” The answer is—as always—it depends!

 

As we’ve discussed above, full, incremental, and differential backups have their own unique advantages and disadvantages, as follows:

 

Backup Speed Restore Speed Required Space
Full backups Slowest Fastest Most
Incremental backups Fastest Slowest Least
Differential backups Moderate Moderate Moderate

 

Your choice between incremental and differential backups entirely depends on your needs:

 

For example, if you’re trying to save as much money as possible and don’t mind a longer recovery time, you can simply use incremental backups. These backups take the least amount of space, allowing you to save up on any additional storage-related fees.

 

However, if you can afford the extra fees associated with additional storage space and run a business where time is of the essence, you can utilize differential backups.

 

Such backups offer restoration speeds faster than those of incremental backups, minimizing downtime and allowing you to get your business back up and running as quickly as possible.

 

One additional metric comes into play when you pick a cloud storage platform to store your backups—upload speed.

 

You can basically add this to the “backup speed” column above, as the duration of your upload depends on the size of the backup—larger backups take longer to upload, and vice versa.

 

Weigh your options and priorities carefully, and pick the backup method that meets your (or your business’) needs the best.

 

 

Back Up Your Files Safely With the Best Cloud Storage Providers

 

Now that you’ve picked a backup method, you may want to know where to store your precious backups. You can use portable media, such as portable hard drives, DVDs, and USB drives, but these devices can break or get lost—you wouldn’t want that to happen.

 

Well, you’re in luck: with the power of the cloud, you won’t have to worry about any of these things anymore! You can simply upload your backups to the cloud, and you’ll be able to access them anywhere and anytime!

 

But which of the many cloud storage providers should you choose? We got you. Here are three of the best cloud storage services that we’ve found:

 

1. pCloud

https://www.pcloud.com/

 

pCloud homepage

pCloud is an excellent all-rounder for all of your cloud storage needs.

 

Switzerland-based pCloud (free 10 GB, paid version starts at $4.17 per month for 500 GB) is a highly versatile cloud storage provider, offering myriad features, such as one-time lifetime pricing ($199 nets you 500 GB of storage—forever), file syncing, and virtual drives.

 

In addition to these features, pCloud also offers an easy-to-use backup program that automatically uploads your chosen folders to the cloud, ensuring that any changes that you make are backed up in the safety of the cloud.

 

2. Sync.com

https://www.sync.com/

 

Sync.com homepage

Sync.com is a fantastic cloud backup solution for those that prioritize security.

 

On the other hand, Sync.com (free 5 GB, paid version starts at $8 per month for 2 TB) is a cloud storage service for the more security-minded, offering a bevy of features to ensure your files’ security and privacy.

 

Sync adheres very strictly to international privacy laws, such as the US HIPAA, Canadian PIPEDA and PHIPA, and European GDPR.

 

What’s more, Sync offers 256-bit AES encryption, making it impossible for anyone (including Sync themselves!) except you to access your files.

 

If your backup files’ security is your chief concern, then Sync.com and its easy-to-use interface are objectively the best option for your cloud backup needs.

 

3. Backblaze

https://www.backblaze.com/

 

Backblaze homepage

Backblaze offers unlimited storage for your backups, ensuring that running out of storage space will never be a concern.

 

Backblaze is, quite frankly, one of the best cloud storage service that we’ve found for backups. Why? Simply put, Backblaze offers unlimited storage, allowing you to back up as many files as you want!

 

For $7 a month, Backblaze will automatically back up all of the files that you want on your PC or Mac, including all of your documents, photos, music, movies, and more!

 

Alternatively, you can even schedule these backups, ensuring that you’ll always have a backup of your most precious files at the ready. Plus, all of your files will be encrypted by Backblaze, ensuring their safety in case of a hack or other online break-in.

 

With its unlimited storage capacity, Backblaze is very hard to beat when it comes to meeting all of your cloud-based backup needs!

 

Don’t Back Down, Back Up!

 

Both differential and incremental backups can be used to recover data from your system in the event of a disaster. And now that you know the differences between the two (as well as their pros and cons), you’ll be able to choose the option that best suits your business and financial needs, ensuring that not only your files but also your wallet are safe!