The Dog Ate My Hard Drive

With lots of easy options, there’s no excuse for not backing up your data. Here are the best ways to do it.

Last month I confessed to being a backup slacker: While I occasionally make copies of some of my files, I’ve got no regular routine to ensure that everything on my computer is secure. On any given day I’m moments away from disaster—I could be hit by a virus, earthquake, power surge, or malicious co-worker, and that’d be the end of my decades-old collection of snappy ideas for romantic comedies. (Underwrite Me: Jennifer Aniston is an opera star who needs life insurance; John Cusack is an actuary with Asperger’s. While trapped in an elevator with a wise-cracking janitor—Luis Guzman—they realize you can’t put a value on true love.)

Yet despite the irreplaceable nature of all my data, backing up, like organizing my closets, has always seemed too daunting to bother with. First, you have to search through your computer to determine what you want to protect, making sure not to keep too many big files that aren’t important. Then you have to spend an afternoon burning the data to a bunch of CDs or DVDs. And finally, you have to find a safe place to store all those discs; inevitably, you’ll never find them when you need them urgently.

But in the last few years, all that has changed. We now live in an era of cheap hard drives that have made all this hassle obsolete. Today you can buy an external drive with mountains of backup space for about 15 or 20 cents per gigabyte, meaning you can get at least two or three times as much room as you now have on your computer for less than $200. And prices are dropping fast: Last month I paid $170 for a 1 terabyte Western Digital external drive—about 1,000 GBs, as big as eight of Apple’s largest iPods. Today, the same thing is selling for $150.

Alternatively, you can rent space remotely. Several companies will let you park all your data on their servers for about $50 a year. If your computer gets wiped out, you can just download all your saved files over the Internet.

Today, the only reasonable excuse for not backing up your data is that there are too many easy ways to do it, and picking the right strategy can be a pain. When I asked readers for their backup plans, I got 150 e-mails outlining at least 35 different purportedly simple ideas. Readers were split on the two main ways to back up: Just about half of them swore by saving stuff to an external drive while the rest couldn’t say enough good things about online services that made backing up as easy as doing nothing at all.

Each method has its pros and cons. Backing up locally is fast and flexible, but it requires that you buy a big enough external hard drive, which is initially more expensive than renting the space on a server. Plus, there’s a security downside—your data won’t survive a fire, flood, or some other local calamity. And even if your days are free of hazards, you can be sure that your external hard drive will eventually fail because all hard drives eventually fail. (There are conflicting figures on this, but failure rates for drives older than three years increase dramatically.)

That’s the main advantage of backing up online: Hard drives at online server farms are themselves constantly backed up, and your data stay safe even if your house gets hit by a hurricane. On the other hand, online services are slow. It takes days—or even weeks—to get your data up to the cloud, and if your computer is destroyed, you’ll wait days to restore all your files. In addition, there are space restrictions online. Mozy and Carbonite, the two most popular online backup services, both offer virtually unlimited backup plans, but there’s still a practical limit of how much data you can transfer in a reasonable amount of time. The services keep different snapshots of your data for only a month, and when you delete a file from your computer, it gets deleted from your backup. This means that if you accidentally deleted a file three months ago and only noticed it yesterday, you won’t find it on either Mozy or Carbonite.

Of course, if you’re really worried about your data, you can always just do both, getting the speed of a local backup plus the reassurance of a faraway backup. In the past, this would have been prohibitively costly. But cheap storage now makes this sort of redundant backup the best option. I tried out several local and online backup strategies to see which ones could get me the best of both worlds.

Local backup. To get started, first buy a big hard drive. I decided to get one twice as big as my computer—I’ve got about 500 GB capacity in various drives on my machine, so I bought a 1 TB drive. This gave me enough room to save a copy of everything I have on my computer now, plus multiple versions of those data over many years into the future. (There’s enough room for multiple versions because backup software saves updates to your data only when it scans your machine.) Next, plug the drive into your computer’s USB slot or get a wireless drive that connects over your home network. People with newer Macs can pretty much stop there; Time Machine, the backup software that Apple built into the latest version of its OS, works silently in the background, and it’s got an intuitive interface that makes restoring your files a snap. As reader RM “Auros” Harman put it: “Time Machine kicks so much ass that they’ve had to import extra ass into Cupertino solely for its kicking purposes.”

After connecting the drive, Windows users typically need to add one extra step: Download software to manage your backups. (Many drives come pre-installed with backup software though many of these default programs aren’t very good.) Of all the apps that readers recommended, I was most impressed by Acronis True Image, which sells for $50. (You can download a 15-day free trial here.) While True Image’s interface isn’t as pretty as Time Machine’s, it, too, seems designed for you to have to make as few decisions as possible. When you load up the software, you’re asked to choose which drives you want to back up (I selected all the drives on my machine); where you’d like the backed-up files to go (e.g., to your new external hard drive); and how often you’d like the software to take snapshots of your machine. The first time you run it, True Image collects and compresses all of your data and saves them to your external drive; this took about four hours for my 500 GB or so of data. I asked True Image to take snapshots of my machine a few times a day; each of these subsequent scans ran when I wasn’t using my machine and took just a few minutes each. Unlike online services, True Image imposes no time limit on your backups—if there’s enough room on your external drive to save the old backup, you can restore what was on your computer last month or even last year.

Recovering your data from the True Image backup is also pretty simple. First choose the date of the snapshot you want to go back to, then navigate to the specific file or folder you want to restore. Per its name, True Image can make a perfect image of your computer, so you’re best off letting it save everything—not just your data but also the system files that run your OS and your programs. This way if your machine fails, you can quickly reconstitute all your stuff on a new computer. (I didn’t try this.)

Online backup. As for the online services, I found both Mozy and Carbonite easy to set up and to use. I preferred Mozy’s slightly better-looking interface, but that was subjective. I also found Mozy a little faster than Carbonite though by no means fast. When I loaded it up, Mozy scanned through my computer and found about 56 GB of pictures, music, and documents that it determined needed backing up. This was only partly right—it had missed many older, bigger folders on my machine that I should have saved, too—but I tested it out with the smaller amount. I’ve got a relatively fast Internet connection—about 16 megabits per second for downloads, 1 megabit per second for uploads—but it still took Mozy about 20 hours just to uploaded these 56 GB the first time, so it would take more than a week to send the entire 500 GB on my computer. Subsequent scans are much faster—Mozy and Carbonite monitor the changes that occur on your drive and then send only those differences to their servers—but if you’re in a hurry to get your stuff backed up, an external drive is a better bet. Restoring your files is also slow: Of the data that I’d backed up to Mozy, I chose about 2 GB of music I wanted to bring back down to my machine. The files streamed down over the course of about an hour. Were I trying to replicate my entire machine, I would need to wait a week. (And Carbonite was even slower.)

If you like, you can download each service and see which works best for you—but I’m going with Mozy. It offers 2GB of storage for free; if you need more space than that, go with its unlimited plan, which costs $60 a year. Carbonite offers a 15-day trial for its unlimited plan, which is $50 a year. Each service keeps your data private and secret using industrial-grade encryption.

But whichever you choose, choose something. In an era of cheap hard drives, you no longer have any excuses for being a backup slacker; at most, you’ll spend $250 on your hard drive, the software, and the online service, and you’ll need about 15 minutes to set everything up. Do it now—buy the drive, install Mozy, or do both, and let the backups begin. The world will never be in danger of losing Underwrite Me again.