Backup Solutions Revisited

By: Maureen Davey Last Updated: November 27, 2012

Blue Screen I talked about backup solutions once before, but I realized the other day that my preferences had changed since then, and there are some options out there I didn't always know about that have worked very well for me, so I wanted to revisit the idea here.

Why did I start thinking about how my preferences have changed? I was working on Wednesday night, shortly before going out to enjoy the holidays with friends and family. I was humming along, running about ten different programs and switching between them effortlessly (the magic of a Solid State Drive), when there was a hum, a flicker, and my screens went black.

No time to copy off files. I tried rebooting several times with no luck. Everything from photos to financial info to recent work projects, within seconds, was no longer accessible.

But fortunately I didn't have to panic. I logged into my backup hard drive and started restoring my files from my cloud backup program. (And then went home to enjoy Thanksgiving and let my poor computer have a break. It had been working hard.)

The Importance of Backups

Anytime you're working with files that are not safely backed up, either via cloud backup or a spare hard drive/USB drive, you're running the risk that those files will be lost. Maybe the convenience of not worrying about it for those particular files is worth the risk - but trying to recreate everything you used to have is much more likely to be inconvenient at some unknown point in the future, two seconds after a crash when you're going Agggh I was just about to get to that!

Backup software, depending on the type you choose, can be advanced enough to set it and forget it (although it does behoove you to make sure it's working every so often - many will notify you if they aren't able to back up properly for some reason). If you choose not to make backups, user beware - technology doesn't last forever, and at some point your files will be gone. (The biggest issue being that, in the case of hardware failure or some viruses, you may not get to choose when.)

There's also the peace of mind aspect - I would have spent my Thanksgiving break a lot more panicky if I hadn't known my files were safe. Hardware failure, and possibly needing to buy new parts or a new machine, is stressful on its own - realizing that all your stuff is gone forever will only compound the feeling.

Cloud Backup

I'm a huge fan of cloud backup at this point. The cloud has become an increasingly helpful solution for lots of things (music, photos, web hosting, and much more). Make sure that if you choose this route you choose a company that transmits and stores your files securely (especially if you're backing up financial information). Any legitimate cloud backup company should be able to tell you what kind of encryption they use to transmit and store your files.

Pros

  • Backup software usually runs in the background, so you can set it and 'forget' it (as long as you verify it's working periodically or set it to notify you if it's not).
  • Access your files from any computer (via web login).
  • Your files are stored at a separate location, so any possible damage to your computer/home in worst-case-scenarios we hope would never happen (fire, tornado, etc) would most likely have no impact on the files you've backed up.

Cons

  • Cost. There will mostly likely be a monthly or yearly cost associated with cloud backup. It can be as low as around $3 a month, depending on the service you choose and how much you want to back up (for example, it will most likely cost a little more to back up your entire music collection than a folder of Word documents). Backing up via USB or hard drive is more likely to be a one time fee.
  • Your files are being transmitted to another location - it is possible, though unlikely, that they could be intercepted by a malicious party. This is why it's very important to make sure you use a legitimate service that can provide information on what type of security they offer you. Also, it doesn't hurt to encrypt your files yourself before they're transmitted if they contain sensitive information. (How to encrypt on Windows and Mac).

USB/External Storage

You can easily back up files yourself to a spare USB drive or external hard drive. The hardest part is remembering to do this regularly. There is software that will automatically back up to a spare drive (I'm a big fan of Time Machine for Mac), but again, this will not work unless the drive is plugged in.

Pros

  • Total control over your backup - what, where, when, no one else sees it (unless you give them access to the drive or potentially lose it).
  • No ongoing (monthly or yearly cost) - just the initial cost of the hardware.

Cons

  • You're still using hardware that has the potential to fail. Test the drive often! Nothing worse than your computer biting the dust only to discover your USB drive also failed in the meantime.
  • The potential to misplace/lose the extra drive, or have it affected in a worst-case-scenario setting along with your computer (fire, damaging weather, etc).

Keep in mind, you don't have to pick just one. Take the best of both worlds and do one of each. I use a combination of cloud backup and a spare hard drive that runs Time Machine, and between the two of them, they've always kept me covered.

If you pick just one, my recommendation would be cloud storage. You don't have to remember to copy things every day, and you don't have to worry about your backup drive failing on you too. The ease and convenience is completely worth the cost for me.

Favorite Cloud Backup Services

  • CrashPlan - My new favorite. They offer monthly and yearly (discounted) pricing, and you can back up your main hard drive and external hard drives at no additional cost.
  • Carbonite - I have used Carbonite for a few years and liked the service, but I felt the Windows manager was a better experience than the Mac one. CrashPlan offers some bells and whistles that Carbonite charges extra for, but it's still a solid service, and I never had major problems. They offer yearly pricing.