How to back up your digital life
Backups; We know that we should be doing them regularly, but the fact of the matter is that many of us only consider this retrospectively once the data is lost. In the past backing up used to be limited to just your computer, but most people now have multiple devices – PCs, laptops, tablets and mobiles – all of which store precious data in the form of videos, pictures, emails and documents.
The question you have to ask yourself is this: If I lost my PC/laptop/tablet/phone right now what exactly would I lose? If the answer is too painful to contemplate then read on!
Before we look at individual device types we should explore the different types of backups you can make. Note that this is not an exhaustive guide – merely something to point you in the direction of popular solutions.
What is important is that you should always have more than one backup type, just in case one fails. It also needs to become routine – set a dedicated time to perform backups if you cannot automate them.
Many people just assume that their computers will just run and run, but there are a number of threats to your data. In addition to the age-old threat of computer theft or fire we also have hardware failure, software corruption, viruses and now ransomware. Bear in mind that as our data now moves with us in the form of our mobile phone theft and damage are a daily risk, but malicious software is also an increasing problem. Unsuspectingly opening just one dodgy attachment can result in all of your files being encrypted and you having to pay a ransom to unencrypt them.
General types of backup
Simple File Backups
This is the process of copying files from your hard drive to an external device – be it a CD (for smaller amounts of data), external USB memory sticks or external hard discs. The benefit is that once backed up you can place it somewhere secure, such as a fireproof safe. The main drawback is that if you don’t do this type of backup often then you risk losing all data since the last backup. Leave it for a few months and that’s can mount up. You could leave an external drive plugged into the machine 24/7, automatically backing up data, but if you’re the victim of theft they could take both devices.
Backing up your data is one thing, but you still have to reinstall your operating system and applications. For the uninitiated this can be a daunting task, but taking an image of your drive ensures that if your internal hard disc gives up the ghost you can just undo a few screws, swap out the drive and be up and running again very quickly. As with one-off backups you’re only as safe as the frequency that you do this, but if you combine this with regular data backups then you can minimise your down-time if the worst should happen.
This stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Discs. There are different types of RAID configuration, with the most basic being two drives that mirror each other, copying data to both devices simultaneously. In the event of one hard disc dying the other continues to work and will alert you if there is a problem. Simply swap out the drive with a new one and the working drive will then resync the new drive with your data, meaning that the only down-time you have is when swapping out the drives.
With most people able to access high-speed broadband cloud backups are now a viable alternative. If you have access to Microsoft OneDrive, Apple iCloud, Google Drive or DropBox then you may already be backing up some of your content. All of these providers give you a nominal amount of space free, with tiered monthly pricing to gain more storage. There are also dedicated backup companies such as Crashplan which, again, for a monthly/annual fee will automatically back up your data. The big benefit with cloud backups is that they happen automatically. Your data is available to you from anywhere on multiple device types. The question for many is whether they trust their data with a big corporation, especially given the regularity of large data breaches. Do take a moment to investigate what levels of encryption your cloud data provider offers.
Deciding what to back up
For home users this will be relatively straightforward, but there can be a few curve balls. On Windows PCs almost all of the files you will want to back up will be stored within My Documents, My Music, My Pictures and My Videos, but there may be other locations that have files you want to keep, such as Desktop, Downloads and Favourites. It’s better to just backup the entire user folder e.g. c:\Users\YOURNAME\. Also, depending on which email client you use and how you store your emails you might have to back up another folder. Specific application data may also be stored in c:\Program Data, so it’s good practice to take a moment to go through all of your apps. Don’t forget that if other users have a separate logon for your PC you will need to also consider backing up their data.
Mac’s are a little more straightforward and, as covered further down has an all-encompassing backup tool built in.
Android or Apple tablet/phone
In addition to your device and application settings/data you’ll need to consider any photos and videos on the device. Both iOS and Android have the ability to backup content either to a PC or the cloud, which we’ll explore in more detail later.
How to backup
What you decide to do here will depend which method(s) described above you want to use.
File backups: Although there are tools that will backup your hard drive into their own proprietary file format I’m a firm believer in simply having an exact copy of the file externally. By all means zip (compress) the file if you want to save space, but I’ve had bad experience of backup software (I’m looking at you Microsoft!) where I was unable to restore a backup because the backup software was newer than the one used to make the backup. Duh! Of course it’s going to be newer!
This type of backup can be as simple as dragging and dropping files and folders from one drive to another, but Microsoft did redeem themselves with the elegantly simple SyncToy. This free app allows you to specify source and destination locations and with one click will keep them in sync. There are various other free and paid-for backup solutions that will run in the background and perform backups at specific intervals. One excellent recommendation is Comodo Backup, which is free for local backups and also includes a cloud-based (paid for) offering. Just install it, specify what to backup and where to place it and then set when you want backups to be performed.
If you don’t have masses of data to backup, or want to keep more frequent backups of smaller items such as documents, then a USB stick may be a better alternative to a hard disc. Aside from being significantly smaller they are much more durable than a mechanical hard drive. I use a PNY 128GB USB 3.0 drive. Not only is it blisteringly fast, transferring data at up to 400MB per second, but as it’s available in capacities up to 512GB this is actually often large than the hard drive it’s backing up from. For those using laptops that don’t want a full-size USB sticking out of the size you can opt for PNY’s Elite-X Fit USB stick. Protruding less than 8mm from your laptop it’s available in capacities up to 64GB.
- PNY offer the incredibly fast 128GB drive, encased in metal, and the more discrete 64GB drive, which protrudes only 8mm from your laptop's USB slot.
- Sliding the metal sleeve left/right protects or releases the USB socket.
- If you want to keep a USB stick in your laptop at all times the PNY Elite-X Fit is extremely discreet.
Drive Imaging: I personally don’t bother mirroring my drive, as whenever something catastrophic happens to my OS I tend to format – reinstall – restore. If you do decide to mirror the drive then it’s simply a case of buying an external drive and running software such as the free version of Macrium Reflect. The process itself can take a few hours if you have a large drive, and speed will also be impacted depending on whether you’re connecting via USB 2.0 or the faster (blue) USB 3.0 socket.
RAID: Desktop PCs will often have room for two internal hard drives. To mirror the drives you’ll need extra hardware to handle writing to the drives simultaneously along with additional software in place, so it’s best to seek expert advice when looking to set up raid. Some motherboards support RAID out of the box, so it’s worth checking your manual as it may just be a case of plugging in a second drive and making a few software tweaks.
Cloud backups: I mentioned the various cloud services earlier. The free versions are great for keeping things like documents and spreadsheets in sync across devices and backed up to the cloud, but you’ll have to shell out a monthly fee if you want to backup all of your files. Furthermore, they won’t be able to backup any data outside of their dedicated folders. For cloud backups of all of your data you need dedicated backup software. I’ve raved about Crashplan before, namely because it’s saved my bacon more times than I care to admit. Install it once, specify the folders you want to backup and it’ll quietly perform this task in the background. What’s especially useful is that these backups are incremental. If, say, you need to roll back to a version of a document from three weeks ago you can do that with CrashPlan. The basic download is free and actually allows you to backup to external hard drives or other computers (both locally and over the internet) for free. Subscribing gets you access to the cloud backup service with unlimited storage space, which to my mind is a better solution. Data is encrypted to 448 bit, which is military-grade, and there are Android and iOS apps that allow you to access your files from anywhere. It even keeps backups of files that you subsequently delete.
I’ve separated this, as for many this will be the biggest amount of data they’ll want to keep, and if you only have a small amount of other data to backup this may change the method that you use to perform it. We take pictures with our phones and dedicated cameras, so often end up with stacks of photos stored in different devices. Google Photos is a must-have here, as they offer free unlimited storage for photos up to 16 megapixels in size. Again, you can buy into their monthly cloud storage if you want to store higher res, but the free option will be suitable for most. Just download the Google Photos Backup app (available for PC, Mac, Android and iOS) and as you add photos it will automatically back them up to the cloud. Its online editing tools also offer powerful tweaking such as crop, rotate and red-eye removal, as well as a number of filters.
Apple Macs ship with a product called Time Machine which take care of what needs backing up, so there’s less to worry about in this regard. Just plug in a large capacity external drive and it’ll take incremental backups automatically as files change. Apple’s iCloud service covers both Mac and iOS devices. They provide 5GB of space for free, with tiered monthly plans available.
You can apply most of the PC backup methods above to a Mac as well, and there are various free and paid apps in the Mac App Store that can assist with this. As I’m not a Mac user I’ll refrain from recommending any specifically, but now you know what you’re looking for it should not take long to find suitable apps that have acquired positive reviews.
Google’s Android operating system has a built in backup facility, which will store your data in the cloud associated against your Google account. Just go to Settings, select Backup and Reset and ensure that Backup my data is enabled. This will safely store app data, Chrome bookmarks, WiFi passwords and various other settings. As a bonus, if you enable Automatic Restore, whenever you buy a new device, log in and reinstall an app it will restore the apps data from the cloud.
Backing up other data may require additional solutions. For example, for SMS text backups some Android phones will include software to do it, but there are apps on Google Play that will also do the same. Depending on what you have installed you may have to consider specific backup requirements, but Android devices can at least be plugged into a USB port on a PC and be seen as an external device, meaning that you can copy content from them as easily as from a USB stick.
Apple’s iCloud will take care of all of your backup requirements – if you’re prepared to pay for it. However, you can limit the free 5GB to syncing of your application data (e.g. contacts, calendars etc.) use Google Photos to backup photos and videos and then backup the remainder to your PC and Mac via iTunes.
Backing up to iTunes is very simple. Either connect the phone/tablet via a Lightning cable or using WiFi and just click on the Backup icon within the Info screen. You can also encrypt this if required. Personally I’d recommend keeping a backup on a PC in addition to any cloud backups just to add a second level of redundancy.
One limitation of iOS devices is that you cannot upgrade the storage. If you’re away on holiday, don’t have internet access and your laptop is back at home you can easily reach a situation where you run out of storage and have no means to free up space on your device without deleting photos or apps. PNY also offer a device called the Duo-Link, which has an iOS socket at one end, USB 3.0 at the other and 64GB of memory sandwiched in the middle. Plug it in, download the app and you’re able to backup music, photos, videos and contacts, which can then easily be copied onto a PC or Mac. So in addition to being a decent-sized backup device for your mobile on the go it also allows you to quickly transfer files to other devices when a cable or wireless connections are not available – very handy!
Asking someone when they last backed up often elicits the same response and when I ask my daughter if she’s done her homework. That slightly guilty look that translates as ‘I know I should, but I can’t be bothered’. But by using a combination of services such as a cloud storage provider, Google Photos and external devices you can be safe in the knowledge that if disaster strikes your most precious digital memories are secure. Trust me, there’s no better feeling!