Before you run for the hills, let’s close our eyes and recall that moment. We’ve all had one, and I want you to think about yours:
- When you were up late working on your college essay and your computer goes dark… taking your essay with it;
- When you hit play on a video of your kid’s birthday party, and it’s corrupt;
- When you’re an hour into writing a literary masterpiece and suddenly your program crashes… and you hadn’t once hit save;
- When you spilled a latte over your laptop… and 5 years of photos drowned in a sea of caffeine and froth;
- When you go to find a file on your computer, and it’s just… gone.
We’ve all had that moment, and it’s usually followed by a renewed zeal for backing up our data. But over time we get lazy, we become lax, and a new digital tragedy lurks in the future. Enough time has passed that we’ve forgotten the pain and frustrating of losing our precious files and memories, so we carry around a low-level anxiety and hope for the best.
Why We Hate Backing Up
Many of us don’t back things up because we think the process is a pain in the butt. Eons ago, this is what my backup system looked like:
(Just FYI— I’d need 2 1/2 of these old timey 100MB zip disks to store just one photo taken on a current iPhone.)
I had to remember to plug it in, and I had to be selective of what I dragged on to the disk or I’d run out of space. A backup of my entire computer took forever— I had to sit with it all day, popping (expensive) disks in and out as they filled up. Often something would go bad mid-process and I’d have to start all over. Not exactly incentivizing… or sustainable.
Happy to say that backing up looks a lot different today. There are so many options that make it not only easy, but free as well. So what’s your excuse? Even if you’re a card-carrying compu-phobe, I promise you can do this… and you should. Like, right now.
Step One: Get an External Hard Drive
USB external drives come in a range of sizes. While memory sticks can be good for protecting a few important files, like a thesis or novel you’re working on, you’ll want to look for a larger, “desktop class” hard drive that has at least double the space of your hard drive so you have room for two backups of your computer. So, if your computer has a 500GB hard drive, you’ll want an external hard drive that’s at least one terabyte. The more space you have, the more backups your drive can hold (this comes in handy when you accidentally deleted a file, or an important paragraph inside a document, and you have to “back in time” to find an earlier version).
External hard drives start at as little as $50, and go up to thousands of dollars depending on the drive’s capacity, speed and type. These days, drives come in two types: Mechanical hard drives, with spinning disks and a fan inside (they make that familiar whirrrr when you fire them up) and solid state drives (SSD) construction, meaning they’ve got no moving parts. Solid state drives (SSDs) are fast (due to their lack of moving parts) and reliable (those spinning disks are temperamental, as anyone who has had a hard drive die and make that skreeech sound can attest). Both are good options if you’re keeping your drive at home, but if you’re taking it on the go, a SSD drive is built to get knocked around a bit more.
Here’s the one I use when I travel:
And here’s the one I use at home:
Step Two: Plug it in to your computer
Whether you’re using a Windows or a Mac computer, when you plug in a hard drive to your USB port, your computer will ask you if you want to use this drive to backup your computer. Say, Yes, yes, you do.
On Windows: If you don’t get this prompt, you can just go to the Start Menu, type “backup” in the search box, and hit Backup and Restore.
On Mac: If you don’t get this prompt, you can always go to System Preferences > Time Machine to set it as a backup disk, too.
Step Three: Back that thing up!
You can start a backup anytime, but it can slow your computer down a bit, so a good time to run it is at the end of the day. Especially your first one, which can take hours (subsequent backups won’t take as long, as the software is only backing up things that have changed or been added on your hard drive).
When you’re ready to start your first backup:
On Windows: Go to the Start Menu, type “backup” in the search box, and hit Backup and Restore. Click “Set Up Backup” button and select your hard drive. Hit Next. Approve the default settings (they should be fine), and hit Next again. On the last screen, hit “Save Settings and Run Backup”. Now your backup is running, and you don’t want to turn off your computer. Now it’s off to the races! After this first backup, it will make regular backups whenever this drive is plugged in. You won’t have to ask it again.
On Mac: Go to System Preferences > Time Machine, and hit “Select Backup Disk” and choose your external drive. Then sit back and relax because you’re backing up! From then on, Time Machine will run regular backups in the background whenever this drive is plugged in. You won’t have to do a thing.
NOTE: Make sure you don’t turn your computer off during a backup. That will mess things up.
Let’s just say that your backup drive sits right next to your computer in the kitchen each night. Now let’s say that an unfortunate flambé accident causes a small kitchen fire that covers your entire desk with Cherries Jubilee and flames, taking out your computer, hard drive and all. There are no guarantees when it comes to backups— stuff happens. But having a redundant backup in a second location can make you feel much more confident that your files are safe and secure. I highly recommend it.
You could use two external hard drives to accomplish this, perhaps storing the second one in a fireproof safe, or just another part of the house. Or you could use the cloud.
Backup your computer to the cloud (that is, to a remote server or to multiple remote servers)— it’s a concept that might sound foreign but it’s actually easy-breezy. What you want here is one that allows you to backup your entire computer, so that if it got run over by a car, you could buy a new one and restore it to an identical copy, with everything intact. Cloud services like Dropbox or Box, Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive are handy for file storage and transfer, but they don’t allow you to backup your entire hard drive and do a complete restore.
Pay-per-month systems like Carbonite, BackBlaze, Mozy or SugarSync will back up all of all your files in the background while you work. It’s like having a virtual external hard drive. Note that because your data is being uploaded to the cloud via your web connection, the very first backup of your hard drive can take a long time. Not just hours… maybe days. This is normal, but once the first one is done, things happen quickly and out of sight. It’s a “set it and forget it” system (one of my favorite phrases).
Another great perk: You can access your files from anywhere. Having a cloud backup means that you can grab a file from any device, anywhere you are. A convenient addition to the peace of mind you get from knowing your data is safely stored in another location.
In spite of conveniences, there are minuses to cloud storage. First, and most notably, someone else has your data. This makes most people squeamish, though the top rated services guarantee that your data is safe, encrypted, and secure. That said, if you ever want to permanently erase your data, you’ll have to trust that the company storing it has wiped out all the copies. Depending on whether your outlook on cloud services is half-empty or half-full, you may have different ideas about the safety of all this.
Another concern: Getting the hang of copying stuff to the cloud vs. moving stuff to the cloud. Be sure you’re careful about copying and pasting to create copies of your files—not moving the original files.
Some cloud storage solutions offer unlimited storage, and will store any file. Others have a cap on the amount you’re able to store, and won’t upload files bigger than a certain size (usually large video files are affected). Make sure you read through the features and pricing plans to ensure you know all the parameters before you buy.
That’s it! I hope this inspires you to go out and backup your computer before it’s too late. These days, so much of our lives is documented online: I’d hate for chunks of it to vanish because you didn’t know your Carbonite from your solid state. Day three of Get Your Tech Together Week is done-zo. Tomorrow? I’ll be setting you straight on going paperless. Scanners, start your engines!
Do you have a story about backing up? Share it in the comments!