The Final Word on Computer Backups

November 2011

Walt Whitman said, "Do I repeat myself? Very well then, I repeat myself." Here I am, repeating myself. But I want to say a few more things about backing up your computer before we move on. Some day you'll thank me.

I made a heavy pitch for Carbonite, and lots of readers responded positively. I like Carbonite, but truth be told, not everyone needs to spend the $59/year that it costs. ("Now he tells me," you say).

If you're a casual computer user with a small number of files that you want to make certain are backed up, use Dropbox. It's free for up to 2GB of storage. You create a folder or directory on your computer for your Dropbox files, and everything in it is always backed up to the cloud. And if you have other devices, such as an iPhone with the Dropbox app installed, then those files are always in sync among your devices.

Also, in my experience, Dropbox backup is more immediate than Carbonite. It seems to back up all my changes immediately, and to immediately back up any new file I put in my Dropbox folder. With Carbonite I've noticed that sometimes a file that I created hours before, or even the previous day, hasn't yet been backed up.

Whenever I'm writing something, I always create the file in my Dropbox folder so that if anything happens, none of my work is lost.

I also use Carbonite. That's because I'm more than a casual user. I have a lot of stuff that I've written over the years, and I sometimes need to refer back to it. I like having all of my files and all of my computer's settings backed up in Carbonite.

In addition, Carbonite saves previous versions of files, whereas Dropbox doesn't. That means that if I've been working on a writing project and realize that I've totally messed it up such that an earlier version was actually better, I can go into Carbonite and locate the earlier version. Carbonite keeps old versions of your files for three months. It keeps one version a day for seven days, one version a week for the previous three weeks, and one version a month for the previous two months.

Suppose, though, that you wanted versions going back for more than three months. Or suppose that you also wanted your software backed up, which Carbonite doesn't do. On my Mac I have built-in software called Time Machine that's similar Carbonite in that it saves previous versions but does so for a longer period, depending only on the amount of free space on your backup drive. Also, it backs up everything on my computer, including the software. If my computer ever comes crashing down, I can restore everything in a matter of a couple hours.

Now let's say you're a small business owner and your enterprise depends on your computer. You can't afford even a couple hours to bring your computer back online if your hard disk crashes. You should get an external drive that you can use to boot up your computer if you have a failure.

This happened to me once. Good boy that I am, I would regularly "clone" the entire contents of my computer to a bootable backup drive using software called SuperDuper. And I ended up needing it. I thought I'd be clever and run a command at a deep level on my computer directly in BSD Unix, the underlying software for Mac OS X. It was supposed to speed things up. Instead, it messed everything up. My computer wouldn't work.

But just the day before I had cloned my whole computer to my external drive. When suddenly my computer wouldn't function, I was able to continue working immediately by simply booting up from my external drive. This also has the advantage that if it had been a serious problem such as a damaged motherboard, I could simply have borrowed a friend's Mac, booted up from my external drive, and typed away.

Getting my internal drive functioning again was simply a matter of erasing its contents and cloning my external drive back onto my internal drive. Everything was back to normal.

I've also done something similar when I go on vacation: clone my desktop computer to my laptop, continue working on my laptop while on vacation, and then clone the contents of my laptop back onto my desktop computer when I get home.

Okay, enough about backup. Promise me, please, that you'll at least use Dropbox to keep your important files safe.

This month's hot tips:

Genie Timeline Free is free backup software for Windows XP and Windows 7. Find free online college courses at www.academicearth.org.

© 2011 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen