Back Up Your Computer, Phone and PDA

Danny had a laptop crash. I have no details but it’s a good opportunity to extol the virtues of backing up your computer. Disk failures are normal, expected events, not wild outliers, and every computer owner needs to have backup capabilities.

Fortunately, a basic backup solution is easy. Go online or to a computer store and buy an external hard disk drive. I think Windows and Mac OS X both have backup software built in, but I use a third-party program that came with my external drive. It allows me to set the day and time of any backups and which folders I want backed up.

You really have to view this as part of the cost of the computer and not as an additional accessory, in the same way that car and home insurance is part of the basic cost of living.

If you only have a single point of failure in your backup system (like THAT disk failing), you’re still at serious risk. At the very least, burn your important documents (key emails, finances, legal docs, etc) to a CD every quarter or so. Think of it this way – how much time does it take to do that versus the time to reconstruct your will, your business plan, your account numbers, your investment archives?

Make sure your really important stuff is on file with the accountant or attorney or whatever. Even better, copy your backups to an offsite location yourself. You can check out a service like Carbonite, which is supposed to be pretty badass.

The industry-standard scheme is to have a ladder of backups – onsite dailies and weeklys that get rotated, then regular copying of those to an offsite storage depot (this used to mean physically moving stacks of magnetic tapes).

You’ll also want to back up your phone contents. I have an Android phone, so I can mount the phone as a USB drive and have the backup program copy those files. Android also syncs your contacts to the Google account the phone is linked to. However, the text messages and call log are not synced, so I use an app called SMS Backup+ to log text and call information to the Google account as well. (This has the added benefit of being able to read texts and see missed calls if I’m away from my phone but at a computer.)

On your work computer, ask the IT staff about backup options – companies should (and often do) have auto-backup software installed, although sometimes you have to opt in.

Take this stuff seriously. It’s really worth the minor trouble.


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13 responses to “Back Up Your Computer, Phone and PDA

  1. R6T

    If you back files to your phone, I hope they’re encrypted. It’d be enough of an inconvenience to just lose your phone; add losing private financial information and other documents that you probably don’t want to make public and it would turn into a huge headache.

  2. I think you are confusing backing up your phone with backing up TO your phone.

  3. Badger-
    Words hurt Sir, words hurt.

    You have a bad habit of forgetting that us
    mere mortals just aren’t capable of your level of sheer omnipotent intelligence. And this blogger has the educational experience to qualify for coloring inside the lines (barely).

    Not all of us can be as smart, dashing, and epic as the mighty Badger. May God have mercy on my soul.

  4. Stargate Girl

    I luff ya Danny!

  5. For the record, I have no idea if Danny backed up his shit or not. For all I know he’s got daily diffs burned to DVD piled up high in his closet. It’s just that every time I hear of a computer going down I mentally review my setup to make sure I’m prepared if the same thing happens to me.

  6. I can’t restore when the boot up screen doesn’t come up. I called to restore the warranty and was told I missed the deadline by 4 days.

  7. ASF

    The way I think about backups is that there are two forms of data to back up: applications and documents/data. Losing applications is not a big deal because you can either 1) re-install from CD/DVD, 2) re-download from you know where. Thus, applications I back up to an external hard drive that sits on a wireless adapter, which is very convenient.

    Documents/data is what is truly irreplaceable. Typically this is photos and documents (at least for me). Those I also have on the aforementioned external hard drive, but now I’m more paranoid. Dropbox, as Dulst mentions, is a great alternative because it is always available everywhere. However, only 2GB is free, although I think extra space is available for a pittance. I might just invest in that to increase the amount. I would hate to lose my photos.

  8. I used to work in this industry. Trust me, Dropbox doesn’t work worth a shit as a backup solution. It’s a file-sharing program, not true backup. Plus they have experienced serious security issues:

    Consumer-class products such as Mozy and Carbonite are crap, have terrible restore times and horrible technical support if shit hits the fan. Don’t use these services.

    ASF nailed it – when backing up, ask yourself the question, “If my house burned down today, what can I get back with a simple download?” Don’t bother backing those files up. Back up documents, projects and photos that are unique to your computer and can’t be replaced.

    Also, don’t forget to back up your blog.

  9. Random Angeleno

    For data that must be kept confidential like tax returns, financial statements, files with passwords in them and the like, if you keep these files on a laptop that travels with you, you need to encrypt them somehow. I recommend TrueCrypt for this job. It will create a file which can be opened with your passphrase and shows up as a Windows folder which you can organize like any other Windows folder. That way, if your laptop gets stolen, you shouldn’t need to be too paranoid unless you set your browser to remember all your financial account usernames and passwords. That should be a no-no…

    As an extra level of paranoia, I also encrypt my entire external backup disks, again with TrueCrypt which can be set up to operate on the entire external device.

  10. Cheshirecat

    As well as backing up your hard drive data, you should also burn a CD/DVD of boot tools in case you can’t even boot up. I have BART PE, HiRen’s Boot CD and Acronis True Image Rescue Disk for those purposes. I also have backups of those disks on a cheap flash drive as well just in case the CD drive goes tits up.

  11. black

    +1 for ASF. +1 for Bronan. +1 for Angelino. +1 for TrueCrypt. +1 for SyncBack.

    USB powered external drives are cheap for the insurance you’re buying ($120 / 1TB:

    Buy two and swap one offsite on a monthly schedule.

  12. Cheshirecat,

    That’s a good tip, sometimes the OS gets corrupted and can’t boot but the disk data is actually fine; with a boot disk, you can start the system up and mount the disk to get to the data.

    Something like this is a great tool to have, it will make a naked hard disk into a USB drive that can be plugged into a system:


    “Buy two and swap one offsite on a monthly schedule.”


    “drives are cheap for the insurance you’re buying ”

    Bingo, that’s the way to think about it. What’s the cost of the drive, against the cost in money, time and losses if you lose the data?

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