Computer Info

Everything That You Have Ever Wanted to Know about Backing Up

by Len Wines, SRA Internet Liaison, with excellent contributions from the EC’s PC maven Bob Stallings

When I learned that a key Emeriti Center volunteer had suffered a break-in that included the theft of her computer, I wondered if she were backed up. I didn’t ask because the answer is so frequently a mournful “No!”

Backup simply means having one or more copies of the contents of your computer. That is what this column is about, because every computer user has lost data or will lose data unless precautions are taken.

The ideal is to have copies of everything that is on your computer. Failing that, at least copies of everything that you have created or otherwise is uniquely yours like email you have received. You can always buy another copy of Word or install it again from the original disks. Here are some backup strategies to consider.

Let’s say you have just completed a poem that you are positive is significantly better than “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Even before you send it to friends who will undoubtedly agree, you should make a copy of it. The most simple way is to use a “flash drive” (sometimes called a “thumb drive”). These are small solid state (no moving parts) devices that use the USB port of your computer.

They are now easily affordable and have multiple uses, like transferring files to other devices. As of this writing, there is a 32 GB flash drive selling for $4.99 with free shipping. You simply copy the file to the flash drive, eject it properly, and you have a backup.

The next to consider are CDs and DVDs. No one really knows the shelf life of data on these, but it typically is long enough, at least for seniors. If your computer can record (also known as “burning”) on these readily-available media, they are worth considering even though their capacities are limited, as is true for flash drives.

The most popular backup medium is an external hard drive of greater size than the one that is on your computer. These are now quite affordable. I just purchased an Hitachi one terabyte external hard drive for $80. (A terabyte is 1,024 gigabytes.) A 500GB drive can be had for $60.

You should look for a backup application that first copies everything on your internal hard drive and subsequently only adds or subtracts changes you have made. The former takes a long time, the latter typically fewer than thirty minutes.

You should consider using an backup application that will allow the external drive to be used as the start-up drive if necessary. This probably doesn’t matter for PC users. For the Mac, there are at least three to consider: Time Machine, which comes free with the most recent System software and backs up continually on a fixed schedule that you can control to a limited degree. Time Machine keeps hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups for all previous months. The oldest backups are deleted when your disk becomes full.

Next are Carbon Copy Cloner, which is $39.95 and SuperDuper! which costs $27.95. Each may be tried for free. When my Mac needed repair, I hooked a hard drive containing a SuperDuper! backup to my wife’s Mac and continued daily to be productive as if on my own Mac.

From The Costco Connection for August, 2012: “Microsoft Windows offers a built-in application called Windows Backup that makes setting up an automated, computer- wide backup easy. Usually, you’ll be prompted to set this up when you plug in your new hard drive. The computer will ask if you want to use the drive as your backup storage device. Simply click ‘Yes’ and follow the instructions.”

Here is a link that provides an exhaustive list of backup applications for Wintel (PCs) computers: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_backup_software>

The ideal is to have a complete backup, however old, off site (as a friend’s house, for example.) One of our sons is the IT person at a Century City all-Mac law firm. Every night during the week he comes home with a hard drive containing all the firm’s files. This is in addition to the same backup at the firm.

It is important to remember that the weakest link in every computer is its hard drive. Were you to know how hard drives actually work, you would reach the same conclusions that engineers reached about bumblebees. Based on their weight and wing beats, there is no way that bumblebees can fly.

One antidote to conventional hard drives that is gaining popularity are solid state drives (SSDs). These are simply large flash drives designed to be in your computer or external to it. No moving parts and speed are are the advantages. However, currently they are quite expensive for the storage they supply. For example, here are three from amazon.com: 128GB for $117; 256GB for $180; and 512GB for $400.

Another backup medium that has become very popular because it is available to desktop computers and also nearly every mobile device like iPhone, Android phones, BlackBerry, iPads, and the like is the “cloud.” Simply put, the cloud (sometimes called cloud computing) refers to applications (i.e., programs) and services (such as backup storage) on servers (large off-site computers) that you can access anywhere with these devices.

Highly-popular is Dropbox. See <https://www.dropbox.com/>. Of course, Dropbox isn’t alone among cloud storage services. Here is a comparison of Google Drive, iCloud, Dropbox, and more: <http://gizmodo.com/5904739/google-drive-icloud-dropbox-and-more-compared-whats-the-best-cloud-option>.

And the final backup scheme to consider is automatic total cloud backup. Essentially, these are services that backup everything on your computer and continue to do so as you add things.

Choose one that offers (at some fee) to send to you the entire backup on a DVD. Keep in mind that the first backup takes a very long time. After that, not very much. My CrashPlan Unlimited Plus ($60 a year) tells me that I’m backed up as of 13 minutes ago and the next backup will be in 2 minutes. Another very popular such application is Carbonite ($59 per year). I believe that Carbonite does not have the physical media feature. See <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_online_backup_services> for many automatic cloud services.

There you have it. Every one of the previous methods is far less expensive that having to use a service that will recover all or most of the contents of a failed drive at a very, very high price. One of the best of these is DriveSavers in Novato, California. <http://www.drivesaversdatarecovery.com/contact/>

Leo Laporte, an important, popular computer authority, expounds a philosophy about backing up, which he has taken from someone named Peter Krogen.

It’s the 3–2−1 backup strategy: 3 copies of your data, on 2 different media, with 1 off site.

Do yourself a favor. Compute with the freedom of knowing that any data loss will be minimum because you read and acted upon the information given here. Keep in mind, you cannot backup retroactively.