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Larry Magid: Backing up is not hard to do

Larry Magid: Backing up is not hard to do

The most tragic consequence of the recent Maui fires is, of course, loss of life. There was also horrific property loss. What you don’t hear much about on the news is the loss of data, but I’m sure many people who had to flee quickly didn’t have time to grab their computer or an external backup drive.

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Losing everything on your computer may not be tragic, but it can be pretty devastating, especially if it includes important records and documents, precious photos and other cherished digital keepsakes.  Fortunately, there are easy and relatively inexpensive ways to back everything up.

In a moment, I’ll cover external drives, which can be very handy, but if your information is backed up in the same place as your computer, you run the risk of losing it in the event of a fire, theft or other devastating event. My son, Will, who makes his living as a musician and songwriter, once had his laptop stolen from his car, which contained the files of a musical album he had recorded. He had it backed up to an external drive that was in the same bag as his laptop, so that didn’t help. Miraculously, the police caught the thief and got his laptop back but that was sheer luck.

Cloud backup

That’s one reason why I highly recommend a cloud backup, using a service like Microsoft OneDrive, Apple iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox or Box.  These services can automatically back up all your data to off-premise servers that won’t be affected by whatever happens to your device or any external backup drive. Even if there is a widespread catastrophe, your data is likely safe because these services typically have redundant data centers.

I know people who don’t use these cloud services because they are worried about security. It is possible, though unlikely, that a bad actor could abuse one of these services to steal your information, but, on balance, I’m willing to take that small risk to protect against the larger risk. Of course, you should protect your cloud backup with a strong password and two-factor authentication.

Another advantage to most of these services is that they can also sync data between devices. I have a desktop Windows PC, and both a Windows and Mac laptop, and thanks to my cloud backup service, any file I create or modify on one device is automatically copied to the other devices. I can even access my computer files from my smartphone.

I’ve never lost data due to a disaster, but several years ago, during a trip to Washington, D.C.,  I spilled coffee on my MacBook Air’s keyboard, which seeped into the main unit and fried the motherboard. I was in the middle of an important writing project and also had to finish editing and filing some radio segments for CBS News, so I had an immediate need for a computer, my software and my data. It wasn’t cheap, but I was able to solve the problem by buying a new Macbook and restoring all my data. Once I unboxed the new laptop, I connected to the WiFi network at the Apple store, logged into my cloud backup service and watched as every single data file was restored to the new device. I then downloaded the software I needed, including Microsoft Office, my audio software and my preferred browser.  By the time I left the Apple store, my new Mac was a virtual clone of the one that broke.

I have also used my cloud storage system to restore my data to new Macs and Windows PCs.

Many of the cloud services offer some free storage, but typically not enough to back up an entire machine. One option is to just back up the folders where you keep your irreplaceable data, or you could pay for additional storage. Dropbox, for example, charges $10 for two terabytes (200 GB) of storage, which is much more than most families need. iCloud, for Apple devices, costs $1 a month for 50 GB, $3 for 200 GB and $10 for 2 TB. Microsoft includes a free terabyte of storage if you have a Microsoft Office subscription, which starts at $70 a year. For $100 a year, you can get a 6-person Office subscription, which provides each person with a terabyte of storage. In most cases, there is no need to back up your software and operating system, since you can usually re-download those if needed.

USB backup devices

In addition to my cloud backup service, I also use an external drive to back up my data. It’s kind of a “belt and suspenders” approach to provide an extra layer of security.  There are plenty of external hard drives and solid state (SSD) drives on the market that will do the job nicely.

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Kingston recently sent me its XS1000 External SSD to review. The small device (2.73″ x 1.28″ weighing about an ounce) plugs into a USB port and transfers data at up to 1,000 mbps, which is about 7.5 gigabytes per minute. It costs $64.99 for 1 TB or $109.99 for 2 TB. SSD drives use solid state memory instead of hard drives to store data, which makes them faster and less likely to break.

Both Windows and Macs come with backup software. When it comes to ease of use, I give the nod to Apple’s free Time Machine software, but Microsoft’s free File History program will also let you back up your critical data files. There are also plenty of third-party backup programs you can use including a backup tool that comes with the Norton 360 security suite that lets you back up either to the cloud or an external storage device.

In 1962, Neil Sedaka recorded “Breaking up is Hard to Do.” He was talking about love, not data. But breaking up with your precious data can also be painful. Fortunately, Backing Up is NOT hard to do.

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Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.