Unfortunately, we’ve all been there at one time or another. You’re typing away on that all-important presentation/essay/spreadsheet and * pffft *. If you’re a Mac user, you see an old school Mac with little x’s for eyes or, better yet, a bomb. There’s also what I call Mac’s spinning beach ball of death. PC users get a warning about a system error and the advice to backup. But how can you back up when your computer won’t budge from the warning screen? Any way you slice it your computer’s hard drive has just had a big ol’ slice of disk failure pie.
When is the last time you backed up your work? Not just the one document that preceded the disk failure, but any of your stuff? For most of us, the answer is, oh, 1993. You know there’s a floppy in a drawer somewhere. Alas, that’s just not good enough, particularly when so many of us live virtually. In addition to your important documents, think of the bookmarks in your web browser and all the music you’ve uploaded from your CD collection or downloaded. Gone, daddy, gone.
Save yourself a lot of heartache and recrimination. Rather than beat yourself up, back up your stuff now. In this day and age, there are many options, but the best two are an external hard drive or online storage. Backing up is like flossing: it must be done or you will have someone looking disapprovingly at you for not taking charge of your own well-being.
Option 1: The External Hard Drive
What is it?
An external hard drive connects to your computer usually via a USB port or firewire. It’s non-volatile because a hard drive doesn’t need to be powered to retain the data stored on it. A power surge shouldn’t harm it. If you back up regularly, and your computer crashes, all your data should still be retained on the hard drive.
There are other ways to store data, but none of them give you the size, permanence or speed of a hard drive. Floppy disks and 3.5 disks have gone the way of the dodo bird, as have the drives to read them. If you’ve stored anything on disks, you might as well bin ‘em. Or, if you’re feeling particularly green and crafty, make a bag out of them.
You could back up to CDs, but as is the case with most storage media no one knows how long they will actually last. Also, to back up all your music, for example, you’d need countless CDs unless you compress the data. The average CD holds about 700MB of data. Hard drives on the other hand start at 20GB and go up to 1000GB - mucho data.
Just to give you a rough idea of the value for money, I have about 4488 songs and podcasts in iTunes. Were I to back up my library as tracks that I could listen to on a CD player, I would need around 300 CDs. If I backed up that same library as data, I’d need around 30 discs. But with a 40GB hard drive I could back up all my songs - plus 20gigs more triviata - on one drive.
What’ll it cost me?
LaCie makes an 80GB hard drive that sells for around £80. I bought a 20GB LaCie two years ago for about the same price. Bitter? Not really - that’s just the way technology goes. Innovation = cheaper prices.
If you’re hurting for cash, there are cheaper, non-volatile options such as a USB drive (aka “jump drive,” “flash drive”), but these only have about 128MB to 4GB of memory. That’s enough to shift documents between work/school/Internet cafe and home, but that’s about it. Yet, like hard drives, the more memory manufacturers are able to supply, the cheaper the lower memory products become. You can buy USB drives with 128MB for as low as £3.99 and pay well into the £400s for 4GB. But why do that when you can get a hard drive with 400GB for £89.99?
The good bits:
• Usually, the hard drive will come with software that facilitates the backing up process, but there are lots of free programmes available. I use iBackup (this is different to the online storage service IBackup, which I’ll discuss in a moment). In addition to digging the twee little icon of a raincoat, iBackup suited my particular needs for, well, free stuff.
• You get the peace of mind that your documents, music, TV shows, films, audiobooks, holiday photographs, online bills, the Next Great Novel/Screenplay, address book, etc. are safe and sound.
• Even if you forget to back up regularly, you’ll have at least one version of your data to fall back on.
• If you luck into a new computer, transferring everything from one to the other will be a simple matter of dragging and dropping files from your external drive to your new computer’s hard drive.
• You won’t be like Carrie Bradshaw and lose the entire archive of your columns when your computer crashes and be a big ol’ bizzatch to your hot boyfriend Aidan. Backing up saves relationships.
The not-so-good bits:
• You need to keep your hard drive separate from your computer - ideally a separate location entirely. That means periodically bringing the hard drive between locations to backup. After all, what’s the point of backing up if both your computer and hard drive are damaged by the same catastrophe because they were in the same place? That said, the back-up itself is most important, so if you do that and decide the keep the hard drive with your computer, you’re still ahead of the game.
• The hard drive could crash, but it’s not as likely as your computer taking a dive.
Option 2: Online Storage
What is it?
Online storage, or file hosting, services are Internet based. They host your content, i.e. documents, photos, music, TV, and film files. Online storage is login and password secure, so when you enter your info you can then upload your data. That’s the simple part. Things get more complicated when you delve into the options the various companies offer. Some are very basic and offer storage only. Others allow file sharing, so that people you authorise can download your content. IBackup, Xdrive, and AllMyData, for example, encrypt your data all Mission Impossible-like, while others don’t. For those of us who are forgetful, a service called Mozy does incremental backups that run when your computer is idle.
The other factors to consider when choosing an online storage service are the interface and customer service. A number of the services require you to download software that supplies the most familiar interface, which is a desktop with folders. Should you have problems with the software, downloading, uploading, scheduled backups, retrieving documents, or other snafus, will you be okay with searching for answers via a discussion forum? Do you have the patience to wait for a return email from tech support? Or would you prefer to ring the company directly?
What does it cost?
Prices are dropping on this service as competitors enter the market. Some of these services are free. For example, if you have an AOL screen name, Xdrive offers 5GB for free. Others charge on a per-gigabyte basis. Box.net charges $9.99 per month for 15GB of storage, but AllMyData is promising 1000GB storage for the same price.
The good bits:
• There’s no hard disk or jump drive to get stolen, lost or broken.
• You have access to your data from anywhere in the world where there is Internet access. If you decide not to bring your laptop for a presentation and instead put your work on a jump drive…and then drop the jump drive down the sewer (as one does), just get online and retrieve your stuff!
• If you have a blog or website, some services allow you to host your graphics and other media with the online service.
• There will be an increase in specialised online storage services. If you fancy yourself the next big thing in porn, there’s MegaErotic. This one allows users to upload adult content and earn membership upgrades and money from people downloading their saucy missives. Yes, it’s frequent flier for pornographers. Web 2.0, baby!
• Unlike a hard drive, this is a recurring expense, either monthly or yearly.
• Where exactly is your stuff stored? Most of these online storage services are networks. While they promise the utmost security, we all know there are some spotty little hackers out there right now conniving how to break in and wreak havoc.
• Who are the people storing your computer’s lifeblood? Some services have jackleg names like SexUploader and Snaggy. These names do not inspire confidence. Others are corporate-owned, i.e. AOL’s Xdrigve and Amazon’s Amazon A3 (“Amazon Simple Storage Service”). With hard drives, there are smaller companies you might not have heard of, but they probably make quality equipment and can charge less for their hardware because they don’t pay for advertising. Online storage services, though, might be a case of bigger is better. I’d be much more likely to purchase storage space from AOL than Big Roger’s StoreYoStuff.com.
• Depending on the upload speed getting all your stuff onto the service the first time can be slow as molasses. I tried Media Max and found that if I changed browser windows while uploading, the upload progress window disappeared. Then I wasn’t sure whether anything at all had uploaded. After trying three times, I gave up.
I prefer the hard drive for the same reason I prefer to drive a manual car: I’m in control. Yes, I’m a control freak and I like to know where my stuff is and who has it. I like the remote access convenience of online storage, but then I get paranoid and start wondering who else has access? I would rather shift a hard drive between work and home. But with prices on hard drives dropping, I plan to buy a large capacity drive and periodically swap it with a smaller capacity drive so that my data’s never solely in one place. High maintenance? Maybe. But that is the way of gadget love.
Ultimately, ask yourself, what’s less expensive? Paying for a hard drive or online service to back up your treasures? Or replacing the hair you’ve ripped out because you never backed up your computer? A wig by Dolly Parton or Star Jones versus an external hard drive? You decide.