If you can only do one thing to maintain your computer, backing up your computer is the one I would recommend. Computer hardware eventually gets old and dies, and if I were superstitious, I would say that the time it is most likely to die is when you don’t have a good backup.
Superstition aside, it is always safer and less stressful to have a recent backup of at least the data you have created on a computer; the computer can be replaced, the operating system can be reinstalled, but the pictures, documents, favorites, and emails might be lost forever if you haven’t backed them up. Here’s some of the best ways to make sure your data is kept safe, from easiest to a little harder.
HowToGeek has excellent articles on computers and computer repair. Read more about the theory of backing up in their article "Which Files Should You Back Up On Your Windows PC?"
When people talk about using the cloud to back up information, they mean they are either storing their information on a web-based backup service, like Carbonite, iDrive, or SOS Online Backup, or on an online storage system, like Google Drive, OneDrive, or iCloud. Really, the main difference between the two is whether or not they offer a backup software solution. I feel the ones that do are the easiest and most worry-free form of backup there is right now.
PC Magazine has an article comparing the most frequently used cloud backup services, but my favorite, from experience in the trenches, is Carbonite. The Carbonite personal account costs about $60 per year, and is completely automated (other than applying software backups, which may require a manual restart). That’s one of the reasons I like it so much: the average user that we help is not a computer technician. He or she is just a normal user, with average computer skills, who does not need a backup solution that requires a programmer to set it up. Carbonite is easy to set up and use, even if you’re a beginner.
Another reason is that Carbonite saves each copy of your data for 90 days. If you get a virus, and the files it damages get backed up to Carbonite, their customer service will help you get back to a version of the file that is not infected, as long as it’s not more than 90 days old. Every time I’ve had to call Carbonite on the phone, they’ve been extremely helpful, friendly, and professional, as well. We’ve referred them to many customers, and never been disappointed.
Carbonite is not the only product out there. You should research them and pick the one with good user reviews, a price you can live with, and the features you want. All in all, this is about the easiest way to be sure your valuable pictures and other data are safe with the least amount of effort, even if something happens to your computer.
Many computing devices are connected to THE CLOUD - it's just another word for the Internet!
The other way to store data on the Internet, aka in the cloud, is to use a file storage service. At Mighty IT, we use Google Drive, but you could also use Dropbox, OneDrive, iCloud, Evernote, or any one of many other alternatives. These are usually a bit more difficult to set up, with less accessible customer service on average, and a little more work to make sure your data is safe. They generally are more useful, too -- they have some features not usually offered by the backup services, like file sharing, setting up sharing workgroups, and accessing your files from multiple devices. You can also use them to back up your data, but it’s usually not as automatic as with an online backup service.
Let’s talk about Google Drive, since that’s the one we use every day and are most familiar with. Everyone who works for Mighty IT gets a Google GMail account (if they don’t already have one), and with that, they get a free 15GB of cloud storage. This can just be used through the web browser by uploading, downloading, and sharing files, or through the application that can be downloaded to the PC. When the user sets it up, s/he tells the software where to store the Google Drive folder, which is then backed up to the cloud whenever anything is added, deleted, or changed in it. Then we share what that employee needs from our Google Drive, which is a terabyte (or 1000 GigaBytes) of all the information, software, invoices and accounting data, etc. for Mighty IT. We pay $10 per month for the large amount of space we use, but most individuals can get away with much less -- maybe even the 15GB they give you for free!
Online storage is actually a pretty simple, cheap way to back up your important stuff, but you have to take the initiative to move or store those files to that folder; otherwise, nothing will be backed up. Moving the location where your mail program stores your email on your computer can be extremely difficult, however, and copying your mailbox to that folder every time you use it is pretty tedious. Google Drive has a solution to that, though: the folder sync utility, which since 2017 has made Google Drive behave almost like an online backup service. Several other file storage services have or are developing similar sync or backup utilities, so they might be worth a try, too. Just remember, setting them up can be a bit more complicated than the online backup option.
Make a plan for what can happen if your computer won't start -- has your hard drive failed?
The last backup solution for casual users is to employ a USB thumb drive or hard drive to back up their important data. This is the least automatic of all the methods listed here, unless the manufacturer has provided some backup software with the drive. We haven’t found that software to be very reliable in the long run, so the main way we recommend to back up with a USB drive is just 1) plug it in, 2) copy important files onto it, 3) unplug it safely, and 4) put it away somewhere for safekeeping.
Step 1 speaks for itself. If you have plugged in a USB mouse or printer, you can easily plug in a USB drive. Step 2 is just a little harder; it does take some knowledge of the file system and where important data is stored to get all your information backed up. In step 3, all you have to do is find the USB icon in the system tray, usually located in the lower right hand corner of your Windows desktop. Once you’ve located it, right click on it and select “Safely remove hardware” (or something similar) under the correct USB device. In Windows 10, the process looks like the pictures in the right sidebar. If you are not careful to stop the USB drive correctly before removing it, you can damage the drive itself or damage the files you have stored on the device or both, so always follow step 3 when you’re finished with your backup.
Finally, step 4 demonstrates one of the true advantages of online storage and backup services: your data is stored somewhere else, so if there is any physical threat to your computer, like a fire or flood, your important data is safe. Not only do you have natural disasters to worry about, if someone breaks into your home and steals your computer and picks up the USB drive on their way out, your backup goes, too. At least one of my clients takes his USB drive to a safety deposit box every weekend, and swaps it out for another one, so there is always one off-site. That may be a little overkill, but you do need to be sure to unplug it (so it is not infected if your computer gets a virus) and keep it in a drawer or cabinet away from your computer, to protect it from physical threats.
There are just a couple more important things to remember about USB drives, and about backups in general. First of all, never have anything that you really need to keep only stored in one place. In other words, don’t copy your stuff to the cloud or to a USB drive and then, thinking it’s absolutely safe, delete it from your computer hard drive. The basic tenet of backing up is to always have at least two copies of data you consider important, so if you want to delete it from your main hard drive, copy it to a USB drive AND to the cloud. Then you know if will always take at least two catastrophes for that picture of your family to be lost forever.
The second thing to remember is that USB drives are not of the same quality as they used to be, so don’t expect one to last as long as they used to. Flash drives need to be replaced fairly often, and USB hard drives wear out, too. The USB interface itself lasts for approximately 1500 insertions and removals, according to PremiumUSB.com, and the solid-state media inside can withstand anywhere from a few thousand write cycles to around 100,000, depending on its original quality. It’s probably better to be on the safe side, and buy a new flash drive around every year or so. If you’re using an external USB hard drive, maybe every two years would be a good idea for replacing it. You are storing your most valuable data on there, so don’t wait until it breaks to replace it. They get less expensive all the time, also, so it will probably be cheaper every time you replace one.
The procedure for correctly removing most USB devices on a Windows 10 computer
The number of customers we've seen who have lost all their family pictures to a virus, or their novel or essay to a failed hard drive is heartbreaking. Please don't let yourself become one of those statistics! Use the hints above to set up your own backup, or have us (or any other technician you trust) do it for you if you're overwhelmed by the idea or don't have time. You'll be extremely glad you considered all the things that can cause data loss and made a plan for that eventuality if it ever happens to you.
As usual, please use our contact form below to email me with any questions you have about this or any other computer-related topic. If I don’t know the answer, I guarantee I can help you find it!
Mighty IT Computer Repair & Training
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