Backup Strategies

In this tutorial, I’m going to walk through the different ways you can backup your computer with a specific focus on your photos. Why should you backup? There are plenty of reasons to backup your files, some more likely to happen and some less likely. In order to decide the best backup strategy, you need to understand what to backup and what sorts of catestrophic scenarios might occur.

What could possibly happen?

Here are some possible failure scenarios you might be wanting to think about.

Your hard drive kicks the bucket or your computer is stolen

Here I’m talking about your main internal HD and/or your main external HD that you use to house your less used files/photos. If one or both of these goes bad (and believe me, they do - see this study for example) or is simply gone because it was stolen, you’re going to want to be able to have your important files somewhere else.

You accidentally delete some files and have already emptied your trash

We’ve all been there - we’re running out of HD space or we’ve made a New Year’s resolution to declutter and so we delete things to make space and 5 minutes after emptying the trash on your computer, you realize that what you threw away was last year’s taxes or one of your kid’s baby photos.

Your house burns down

This is probably a lot less likely to happen than your HD dying, but it’s still worth thinking about as you think about strategies.

What sorts of files should I backup?

There are a couple types of files to think about here.

Important personal files

This is the type of file that is totally unreplaceable and unique to you - photos, tax returns, personal documents, etc. This is probably what you initially think about when thinking about backing up your files.

Important system files

These are the files that you can recreate but having had them backed up would save you a lot of time - the various preferences on your computer like when to sleep, which iCloud accounts are being synced, which applications are installed, etc. You can always recreate all this if you had to reinstall everything on your computer but it would be a lot easier if those had been backed up in the first place.

Ways to backup

Now we get to the meat and potatoes and talk about various strategies you can take. Each has pros and cons. It’s up to you to decide what’s important, what you want to protect against and then make a choice. There isn’t really a wrong decision here - just do it!

Cloning your drive

This is the way to get the most exact backup of your drive(s) but is also going to get out of date really quickly. With this methodology, you would use a program like SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner to literally clone your HD to an external drive. These tools make such an exact copy that you could plug that drive into a different Mac, restart (holding down the OPTION key) and boot from that drive and it would be as if you were working on your other computer.

The downside to this approach is that you need to have an extra drive for each drive you want to backup and it’s out of date as soon as you edit your next photo or write your next document.

Regularly copy important files somewhere

This methodology is a way to get a copy of your important files somewhere other than your primary drive(s) on a regular basis. This could be as simple as plugging in an external hard drive every week and copying files over to it. My problem with this scenario is that you are only protected as far back as your last backup and you have to hope you remembered all the right files. This can also quickly lead to duplication of files if you aren’t careful and/or files copied onto multiple drives so you never know which is the one you want.

You could also use services like Dropbox, Google Drive or Amazon Drive to copy files to the cloud. Again though, you have to manually copy the files and depending on your internet connection, it may take a while for the files to get out to the cloud.

Use a backup program

The benefit to a bonafide “backup program” is that whenever you are using your computer (or it’s turned on) you’ll have something running on your computer that backs up any new or changed files somewhere for you. All you have to do is initially define what you want backed up and it does the rest, no muss, no fuss.

Macs come with Time Machine on them which lets you define an external drive or network drive to backup to and it handles the rest. I’ve always been a little wary of Time Machine because well, when Apple software works it’s great but when it doesn’t, it’s brutally unforgiving and backups aren’t something I want to take that risk on.

You can buy wireless hard drives that come with software to install on your computer that will wirelessly backup files to the drive. This is a reasonable way to do things if you don’t have a great internet connection and want to have your files locally accessible.

Finally, you can use a cloud based backup service like CrashPlan, BackBlaze or iDrive.

I’ve never used CrashPlan and I understand that they have discontinued their personal plan so this isn’t the best choice as they cost $10/month/computer.

BackBlaze was my personal choice for a couple of years but I found that it was too much of a black box and occasionally it would stop backing files up to the cloud and wouldn’t give me much information about why. It also was a per-device charge which meant I was only backing up my wife’s computer and just praying that mine wouldn’t fail. The final straw was that if you deleted a file locally on your computer, they would remove it from the cloud backup after 30 days. When my wife realized she had deleted some files 31 days after the fact, they were totally gone. :-(

This leaves iDrive, which is my current choice and it’s been great:

  • The first year is $6.95 for 2 TB of space in the cloud and you can pay to have more space. After that it’s about $70/year and covers as many devices as you need.
  • It’s very clear about what’s backing up and what’s not and so far has worked well.
  • You can do local backups to an external hard drive to have files locally as well.
  • It has Android and iOS apps to backup your photos/contacts/videos from your phone.
  • Files you delete locally aren’t deleted on the cloud unless you manually tell it to.
  • The coolest new feature they have is that when you signup, you can request that they mail you a hard drive for you to do an initial backup to, mail it back and voila, your files are in the cloud. Now as you make changes and add new files, you are only uploading the changes.
  • You can also (once per year) request them to mail you a hard drive with your files from the cloud if your internet connection isn’t good enough to do a full restore from the cloud.

The proof was in the pudding for iDrive when my wife’s external hard drive that she keeps tons of photos on, decided to totally die a couple days ago. We had another external hard drive laying around and I was able to plug it in, clean it up and simply restore those files from the cloud. We have a 150 Mbps Fios connection and so in a matter of hours, we had her entire external hard drive restored and back up and running. phew