Backup Your Data!

You need to backup your data. Put it in your calendar for this weekend or next weekend. Make a plan. All hard drives fail, it’s just a matter of when.

We all know someone who has lost data. Their hard drive crashed. They spilled liquid on their laptop. Someone stole their iPhone. Many of you reading this will have had some experience in losing data of some kind in your lifetime. Yet, most of us put off backing up. We trust our devices, ourselves, and others too much.

I have friends who have lost years and years worth of photos of their children. I have had students who have lost their thesis documents or end of year video projects. I myself lost a year’s worth of music, movies, and documents when I backed up my laptop to DVDs using the wrong speed and didn’t realize until after I had wiped the laptop.

So, it’s time to make a plan. Here are some tips on backing up your data:

1. Buy an External Hard Drive and Back Up Your Computer(s)

This is the most essential thing you can do if you use a laptop or desktop computer. External drives aren’t very expensive, and most if not all of them come with backup software that does everything for your automatically. If you have a Mac, Time Machine does this as well.

Buy a desktop one, or a portable one. They’re around $100 for 500GB to 1TB, with USB 3.0 connections. That’s plenty of storage for most people, and it won’t break the bank.

Bring the drive home, plug it into your computer (and into the wall if it’s a desktop model). If you’re on a Mac, Time Machine will ask you if you want to use this drive, so just say yes. If you’re on Windows, install the software that comes with the drive. Leave it plugged in and turned on as much as possible. It will back everything up (or whatever you tell it to backup) automatically and will continue to do so. Some software checks for changes on the hour!

That’s it. You’re done. You now have a backup of your hard drive. Wahoo! Everyone should be doing this.

Now, let’s take it a step further and really be safe:

2. Use Dropbox for Important Files

Dropbox is free. It gives you 2GB of online storage, and syncs that data to your other devices. It’s just plain awesome.

Think about the most important files that you have that will take up less than 2GB of space. Documents, resumes, PDF receipts, school stuff, work stuff, anything that is really important to you. That’s what you’ll use Dropbox for.

Go to the site and sign up. Then download the little program and sign in. Drop whatever you want to backup in the Dropbox folder and let it do it’s thing. In no time, that data will be living on the cloud.

Now it is accessible by you on any computer you install the software on, as well as any mobile device (like an iPad) that you install the app on. Better yet, you can login to your account from any computer with an internet connection and access your files.

Now, Dropbox can be used for much more than just a backup of important files, but it’s a great way to use the service. You can also share any file that you upload with others. You can pop a folder of photos into your Dropbox folder and it will make a nice gallery that you can share.

It’s a great service and it’s totally free! It has basically replaced thumb drives for me. Speaking of which…

3. Use USB Thumb Drives

We all have a few of these lying around, and I seem to get more of these as door prizes or swag every year. Might as well put them to good use. You can use these in the same way you use Dropbox. Since they commonly come in relatively small sizes (2GB, 4GB, 8GB), especially when they’re free, they’re great for a handful of really important files.

They keep dropping in price though, and 16GB and 32GB models are now $20-35. That is enough space for a number of important things. Why not throw your best/most important photos on a thumb drive? Put all of your documents on another one. Pile your music onto another one, and plug it into your car’s USB port if equipped.

Thumb drives are a cheap way to backup really important stuff. They won’t be of any use when you want to back up your entire machine or all of your media, but they are cheap, convenient and portable. I will often backup my current photo sessions to thumb drives just as an extra precaution. Speaking of photos…

4. Print Your Photos

Ah, analogue backup. There’s nothing quite like a good photo album, or thumbing through an new envelope of prints. Unfortunately, the majority of people don’t print many photos any more. Why would they? We upload them to Facebook and Flickr, we sent them in e-mails, and we view them on iPads, phones, and TVs. Even if you’re not a purist (I still read actual books, and I love prints), printing your photos is an excellent way to back them up.

Photo printing stores/sites often have sales. The one I always take advantage of is when Superstore’s Photolab has 4×6 prints on for $0.10. I go through my pictures from the past few months, export the best ones, and send a couple hundred to Photolab for printing. That’s right, a couple hundred. At $10 for 100 prints,  I can print nearly every important photo from the past six months for under $50.

Now, places like Superstore and Wal-Mart don’t provide the best quality prints (go to Atlantic Photo Supply for that), but they are definitely good enough for family photos, and I have yet to have any major complaints about the quality.

There you have it. A few clicks, and a trip to the store for pickup (if you don’t want to pay shipping) and you have all of your photos “backed up.” Now you can grab a few photo albums and have fun filling them, knowing that if your computer crashed and your external drive broke down, you’d still have your important memories in photos.

5. Let’s Get Serious

Okay, I’ve been pretty easy on you so far. $100 for an external drive with auto backups, a free Dropbox account, a few thumb drives, and some cheap prints. Not bad. But now we need to get serious. Your computer’s drive WILL fail. Your external drive is then your lifeline. But what happens if that, too, goes kaput? Or, worse yet, what if someone breaks in a steals both? Or, what if you thought you had backed something up, but when you go to look it’s not there and you’ve deleted the original?

5a. Multiple Backups

It’s time for multiple backups. The first step is getting another external drive. You can set this one up to automatically backup just like the other one. But maybe you only plug this one in every couple of weeks. That’s fine. You’re still doing it, and at the very least you’ll have a backup that is a couple of weeks old. This is an easy practice to get into. Just set a reminder in your calendar and do it. Or just leave it plugged in. Two backups are better than one.

When you’re buying your second external drive, you might want to buy a different model or brand than your other one. You never know what the reliability of that specific model is, so it doesn’t hurt to branch out. Whatever you do, don’t cheap out. Buy a trusted brand, and get enough storage for your needs.

5b. A Clone!

Now we are getting into the nitty gritty. Instead of just backing up your files, another option is to actually clone your hard drive. The benefit of this is that if your hard drive crashes, you can actually boot from this external clone and everything is there. You don’t need to go get your computer fixed first and then copy your data back onto it. You can boot right into wherever you left off with your last clone backup, and immediately be working away.

On a Mac, grab Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper! These are around $30 and worth their weight in gold. They will do incremental clone backups automatically at specific intervals. On Windows, try Backup & Recovery Free, or Acronis.

5c. Another Location and Off-site

This is the step that most people ignore. They know it’s a pain in the ass and they think “It’ll never happen to me.” But it could. And this step really isn’t that bad.

First, take that second backup or that clone and at the very least stick it in a drawer somewhere else in your house. Better yet, find a locked drawer. If you have a small safe in your house, pop it in there. Whatever you do, just make sure it’s not sitting right next to your other external drive. Sure, it’s a good backup in case both your computer and the external go south, but what happens if there is a fire, or a robbery? You’ve now lost everything. At least if it’s in a different room, maybe it won’t be stolen, or maybe it won’t be damaged by the fire.

Next, take that second backup out of your house. Even better, do a third backup and take it out of your house. Take it to work and put it in a safe place. Put it in a safety deposit box. Take it to your parent’s house. Just get it out of the house. Now if the worst happens, you have a backup. It may not be completely up to date, but hopefully you’ll retrieve it and do a backup every month or so and all will not be lost.

Oh, remember those thumb drives I mentioned? Do the same with them – throw them in your work bag, or place them in a locked drawer at work.

6. Recap

An external drive with auto backups, a Dropbox account, some thumb drives, prints of important photos every couple of months, a second external drive with auto backups, a clone of your hard drive, one of those in a different room in your house, and at least one backup off-site. Doing any of the above will be better than doing nothing. Doing two or three will save your bacon if your hardware fails. Doing most or all of them will let you rest at ease knowing you have taken steps to ensure that you will not lose important data, or that if you do, you won’t lose much of it.

7. My Backup Routine

Just a note about my own personal backup routine. I am a photographer, so it is vital that I have multiple backups of my client’s photos. Here’s my setup:

  • Most recent photo sessions, all docs, all music on internal 1TB drive in iMac
  • Most recent photo sessions, work docs on portable 500gb drive in my laptop bag
  • Most recent photo sessions on MacBook pro
  • Most recent photo session still on CF & SD cards in camera bag, until next shoot
  • Everything backed up to 1.5TB external drive on home desk using Time Machine
  • Media and previous backups of old MacBook Pro and iMac on 1TB drive on my home desk
  • MacBook Pro backed up to 1.5TB external drive on desk at work using Time Machine
  • Most recent photo sessions backed up to same drive at work
  • Important personal and work documents on Dropbox (I have 24GB of space in my account)
  • Some documents on several thumb drives at home, in laptop bag, and at work

There you have it, lots of back ups! I do not have a clone of my drive just yet. I am waiting for Thunderbolt drives to drop in price a little bit, and I will then be adding a daily or weekly clone to my backups, as well as a third external for photo sessions as they are usually 30-50GB and I’m running out of space!


About Matt

My name is Matt. I live in Nova Scotia, Canada. I am an educator, a photographer, and a lover of all things technology. Check out the About page for more information.

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