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Backups! How to Save Your Digital World From Doom

It's a fact of life that too many of us learn the excruciatingly painful way: hard drives, like humans, have an unpredictable lifespan. Sometimes they last a long time, but sometimes, well, they die suddenly. Now think of all the physical goods we used to store in shoeboxes and drawers that in today's world exist only in digital form on our PCs: photos, music, home movies, Hollywood movies and TV shows, term papers, work projects, love letters, bank account data and financial forms. They were always perishable -- but, barring floods and natural disasters, most of those things could last a lifetime or more without worry. Not so in the digital age. While many of us have been fortunate enough to have hard drives that last years with nary a hiccup, there's simply no escaping fate. Your hard drive will die, and, if you haven't backed up your precious data, it's gone forever.

That, of course, leaves us all stuck on an eternal treadmill, having to regularly and thoroughly make digital copies of all of our stuff, over and over and over again, lest it disappear. The best we can hope for, then, is finding a system that makes the process as easy and reliable as possible. Thankfully, solutions have appeared in the past several years with a range of services and products to simplify the process. Today, beating the grim reaper before your next backup is far less painful than the days of dragging and dropping individual files, or burning stacks of DVDs or CDs of photo and music archives.

The options today are split between two models: software and online services that allow you to upload some or all of your data to the so-called cloud, and combinations of software and hardware that make regular backups of your data locally. Your choice, then, is to decide what system works best for your particular setup.

Even the most basic backup software or services these days typically offer a bevy of "smart" features, such as incremental file backups. That means that after your first initial backup of everything (a time-intensive process), the software monitors your files and recognizes what was added or altered, and then copies only the changes from then on. Additionally, a few allow you to store progressive versions of files, so in case you accidentally delete or alter a file, you can go back and look through a timeline of earlier versions. And some of the more robust software packages allow backups not only of files and media but your OS as well, so if your hard drive dies or your OS goes haywire, you can restore your PC to a normal state with a few button clicks. Online services also allow file-sharing with friends, and file access and syncing from multiple devices (including smartphones). Here's a look at some of the better options out there for users, with our recommendations and a few requisite warnings.

Online Storage

Devotees of photo-sharing sites like Flickr, Picasa and Kodak Gallery will be familiar with the idea of storing their entire collection of photos on remote servers, an online space known as "the cloud." For the uninitiated, you upload your photos via the Internet to an account, and access them whenever and wherever; should a computer die, they are easily accessible. A number of online services extend that business model to all the files on a computer, creating a comprehensive backup of a hard drive that lives safely and securely in the digital ether. The advantages are many. Should you lose your laptop, have a hard drive die, or, worse, suffer a house fire, your digital domain is as accessible as the nearest computer with an Internet connection. These services typically also have mirrored copies of their copies of your stuff, so, if their servers go up in smoke, they have backups ready for you at another location. This system of multiple redundancies is, in theory, the safest your data can possibly be.

These services typically also have a bunch of other clever features, such as the ability to share files across multiple devices for, say, collaborating on documents with associates, and the ability to load up media files (like video or photos) to be streamed directly from the cloud. And a few can be set up to auto-backup designated files and folders (or your entire system) on-the-fly, which is the essence of "set it and forget it."

Among the more popular and polished services, we're fans of Dropbox, which lets you sync files across multiple devices simply by dragging files to a folder. The service can be set up to handle multiple versions of documents, shares files with ease and just works really well. Accounts are free for up to 2 gigabytes of storage, with plans that currently go up to 100 gigs for $19.99 per month.

A similar but more robust service is Sugarsync, which offers much of the same functionality as Dropbox but also the ability to specify files and folders on your hard drive to keep track of and back up whenever they're adjusted. Unlike Dropbox, Sugarsync works like full-fledged, smart backup software. It also lets you designate files that will be stored with up to five previous versions. Free accounts are 5 gigs, 30 gigs go for $4.99 per month (or $49.99 per year), and 500 gigs go for $39.99 a month (or $399.99 per year).

While certainly offering benefits for specific uses (e.g., protecting small batches of documents and folders, sharing files) these services are still hobbled by substantial real world downsides that make us unwilling to fully recommend them as total data backup solutions. (Get the full lowdown on them here.) Your standard connection simply wasn't designed with that kind of data transfer in mind.

Here's an example of what we mean: a desktop computer has about 500 gigs of data, a laptop has another 80, and they're connected to the Internet via standard DSL (7Mbps downstream, 768kbps up). Even in a perfect world, the initial load-up of all that data to a server would takes a couple of months, running non-stop at full speed -- and that's assuming no hitches. Heck, to backup only the 80 gigs of data from the laptop it'd still take a week of non-stop uploading to get started. For us, that time frame completely puts the idea in a coffin right there, but beyond that, most Internet service providers have a monthly cap of 250 gigs of data in the first place; a user would doubtless get throttled or booted after a few days anyway. And, finally, the cost of backing up that much data runs $40 (or much higher) per month, or a several hundred bucks a year. We don't know about you, but we have enough subscriptions to pay for right now, thank you kindly.

Beyond the obvious technical limitations, we haven't even touched on reliability issues, which in the end, is the whole point of all this. From our experience and what we've read across dozens of forums and review sites, all of these services suffer from hiccups in some cases... and serious throw-ups, as well. Read the forums of any service, and you'll find hundreds of tales of stalled uploads, failed uploads, corrupted or missing files with downloads, mystery crashes, or simple bugs that make these services the opposite of "set it and forget it." While 100-percent reliability can't be guaranteed by any backup, that's still the goal, and online services add a layer of complexity that currently makes that standard regrettably distant. Like we said, for collaboration on documents, file syncing between devices, sharing, and perhaps backups of a couple gigs of mission critical files, by all means, try out one of these services. But for a full-backup solution, you'll want to break out some hardware.

Local Backup

Currently, the sleekest take on the venerable external hard drive backup is combining automatic backup software along with a wirelessly networked drive that is accessible by all the devices on a home network. The standard by which all other smart software is compared is Apple's Time Capsule, a combo unit that houses a 1- or 2-terabyte hard drive inside a dual-band N-speed Wi-Fi router. When coupled with Apple's included Time Machine software, it is the essence of the heralded set-it-and-forget-it model. (Due to the initial, long backup, you should connect it directly to your PC and let it copy overnight.) It then makes hourly backups of all the items on your hard drive, storing versions of hourly backups for a day, daily backups for a month, and weekly backups until the hard drive is full (and then starts deleting old backups). Included in all this is a backup of your entire OS, as well, meaning that, if the system bugs out, you have the option of restoring it directly from a backup. And other than the initial full backup, all of this largely happens without you ever noticing it.
Surprisingly, not only has Apple not made a Windows version of its Time Machine software, but we also haven't found a reliable and comparable unit to the Time Capsule that offers high-speed wireless connectivity and an internal drive with a low profile. That's not to say, however, there aren't tons of workarounds: many Wi-Fi routers support USB or NAS drives, and you may be happy simply plopping another drive into a spare slot in your desktop. For us, though, the more important factor is really the software, and it turns out there are two great Windows-only packages that fit the bill: Genie Timeline and Altaro's Oops! Backup.

In certain ways, both of these applications outdo Time Machine. Their basic setups are simple, there's no need to hassle with tons of settings, and they can be customized to suit your needs. For instance, you can manually schedule backups, or have them occur as you work (even copying open files). Alternatively, you can specify that they use reduced bandwidth and processing power if they interfere with your work. They both have a nice system for accessing older file versions, and in every other way do much of what Time Machine does. Genie has gotten a bad rap for being slower than Oops, but that may be due to the fact that Genie compresses all the files it copies to save storage space. (In any case, you have the option of turning off file compression.) Genie Timeline comes in three flavors: a free version, a full-featured $40 home version, and a Pro version for $60. Oops! Backup comes in a $37 basic version and a $99 Pro version. Both have free trial versions.

While we fully believe that some day, maybe even soon, we'll all do most of our computing on the cloud, for now, the reliability and stability of local backups make them the most surefire method out there. And, if you don't have a backup plan in place already, hit the links above and get cracking. In a very real way, your digital life just may depend on it.

Tags: altaro, apps, backup,, data+storage, datastorage, dropbox, features, GenieTimeline, how+to+backup+applications, howtobackupapplications, mozy, NAS, OnlineStorage, OopsBackup, sugarsync