New Year’s Technology Resolutions, #4: Back It Up

Now that everything is up to date and you’ve removed what you don’t want on your computer, the critical next step is backing up what you do have. There are three ways of doing this, and don’t feel you have to choose; a policy combining two, or even all three methods can’t hurt, and greatly reduces the risk of lost data.

The three methods are on-the-go, file by file; local total backup; and remote total backup.


A typical flash drive.

1. On-the-go, file-by-file: This method is the easiest to implement, and, unless you go way overboard, the least expensive. Simply pick up a small flash drive, those devices around the shape and size of a pack of gum (or smaller!) that plug into your computer’s USB port. These can hold several gigabytes of data, and can be found cheaply in stores or online. For example, Amazon (as of this writing) has a Kingston 8GB flash drive for $6.01, which works out to 75 cents per gigabyte. If you’re willing to spend more, you may find the cost-per-gigabyte equation goes even lower, such as with the $15 flash drive with 32gb of storage ($.47 per gb). The bigger the drive, naturally, the more files you can hold.

Once you have the flash drive, simply plug it into your computer and copy over those files you would hate to lose if your computer were to malfunction or be stolen. These can include crucial documents, cherished photos, and videos that aren’t stored anywhere else. Don’t waste your time or precious space backing up digital songs you’ve bought from sites like iTunes; you can re-download them whenever you want.

When you have your essential files backed up, consider repeating that process on additional flash drives: one to keep in the car; one to keep in a safe deposit box; and even one to keep in your pocket when you’re away from home or office.

PRO: Low cost, eminently flexible– you choose what gets backed up, and when. Also, the flash drives work on both Macs and Windows PCs, without having to reformat.

CON: Tedious when going file by file, and you can miss something essential. Also, if your computer crashes, these backups don’t contain your operating system, so you can’t restore outright from them.

2. Local Total Backup: Like the first method, this one requires the purchase of additional hardware.

An External Hard Drive

A typical external hard drive.

In this case, you’re going to want to get an external hard drive. These typically hold a few hundred gigabytes, but they can go as high as several terabytes (with 1 TB = approx. 1,000 GB). Unlike the first method, this is recommended for entire backups of your computer’s hard drive, so if, for example, you have a computer with a 256GB hard drive, you’re going to want at least that big an external drive for backups. I find that, especially as the computer’s drive approaches full capacity, it’s a good idea to get an external drive closer to double that size or beyond, so there is plenty of room for additional backups. Unlike flash drives which only support USB, external hard drives are available in several varieties. You’re going to want to figure out which method is best for your computer: USB2.0, USB3.0, FireWire 400, FireWire 800, eSATA, or the newest interface, the super-fast ThunderBolt. A faster connection may contribute in cutting backup times (although other factors, such as file size and computer processor speed also factor in greatly).

In Windows 7, once you’ve connected your hard drive, you should run Backup and Restore. You can learn more about the process here, on Microsoft’s site: (NOTE: If you’re running Vista, the procedure can be found here: and if you’re running XP, follow the procedure spelled out here: )

If you’re running a Mac, every version of the Mac OS since version 10.5 “Leopard” has had the built-in feature called Time Machine. If you’re on a Mac, simply plug in the external hard drive we discussed earlier and the computer should recognize that you’ve plugged in a new blank drive. It will then ask if you want to use it for automatic, hourly backups. Simply agree, and it will take care of everything else for you. You can learn more about how Time Machine works here:

Apple also manufactures a device specifically to complement the Time Machine software, called Time Capsule. This is a backup hard drive built into a wireless router. Unless you don’t already have a wireless router in your home or office network, a Time Capsule may be overkill. If, on the other hand, you need to go wireless and start backing up, this may be a way to kill two birds with one stone. You can learn about that device here:

PRO: Comprehensive, capable of recovering your entire system in the event of crash, drive failure, or theft. In many cases, backups are automatic.

CON: External drives are more expensive than flash drives and can be bulky. Plus, they only work when plugged in to the computer and (in the case of such models that require it) receiving power from an electrical outlet. They are hard drives, so they are as prone to failure as the drive inside your computer.

3. Remote Total Backup: Let’s face it, even if you diligently back up your data to a desktop drive every single hour, if there’s a break-in and everything is stolen–including the backup drive–or if there is a fire, flood, or other calamity that claims all your electronics–again, including your precious backup drive, then you’re no better off than if you hadn’t made any backups at all. To be extra cautious, you may want to consider an offsite storage solution, such as those by Carbonite or Mozy, to name just two (both easily found via a web search). This is also sometimes referred to as the “cloud.”

It's a cloud.

It’s a cloud.

These services are responsible for keeping your data safe away from your home or office, so even if your home or office were swept away by a twister like in The Wizard of Oz, your files would still be safe, ready to be accessed when you need them. The catch here, of course, is that the backups are done over the Internet. This means if your internet connection is slow or prone to disconnections, your backups are on the line. Make sure you have a dependable high-speed connection before beginning a huge backup with one of these services. Also, since the files are being kept online, you’re trusting your files (and the files of your clients, family, etc.) to a third party, sending them over a connection that isn’t exactly military-grade security. I’m not one to utilize FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) when talking about new technology, but I do believe in moving forward clear-eyed, aware of both risks and benefits.

Finally, unlike methods #1 and #2, while this method doesn’t require a one-time purchase of new hardware, it does require a regular payment to the company you’ve hired to handle your backups. Bear that in mind when planning your technology budget for the year.

PRO: Data is kept at another location, secure in the event of theft or damage to your computer. Data is then accessible online when you log in.

CON: Backup requires good, fast internet connection; sensitive files are going out into the never-fully-secure Internet; subscription fees may offset the savings by not backing up in-house.

So those are three methods for backing up your crucial files. Like I said at the beginning of this post, since each method has its pros and cons, you may decide to implement two, or even all three methods as part of your backup strategy. If that feels like overkill to you, fine, but please, as a new year’s resolution, use one of them early, and often.

UP NEXT: Resolution #5, Get a Backup Battery


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