Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Triple Coverage: Back Up Your Computer in Three Ways

For years, everyone has told you that you should be backing up your computer on a regular schedule - even though it's a pain to do so - lest you lose precious data to a crash, to malware, to theft or just irreversible failure. But everyone has been wrong. In fact, you should back up your computer in three different ways, continuously. And it is easier than ever to do.

In particular, you should do a massive, automated, constant backup to a cloud service. Why? Because, if there's a home burglary, fire or flood that causes the theft or destruction of both your computer and any local backup drives, you'll still have an up-to-date copy of your documents, photos, videos, music and other files you've saved.

Though this is only one part of the three-part plan I use and recommend, it can be the most daunting. So for the past few weeks I've been testing a cloud-based backup service called Backblaze, which costs $5 a month, or $50 a year if purchased on an annual basis, for an unlimited amount of data and unlimited file sizes.

I backed up 300 gigabytes worth of files from my MacBook Air using Backblaze (which also works essentially identically on Windows PCs), and then tested restoring files in various quantities and via various methods. Both the backup and restore worked very well, and the service kept monitoring the Mac in the background for any new or changed files, and automatically uploaded them.

Back to the details of my Backblaze experience in a minute. First, let me explain the three-way backup system I suggest.

For starters, I advise using one of the online sharing and syncing services, like dropbox download, to synchronize the most important data files - documents, photos and such - between the cloud and a folder on your PCs or Macs. These could also be the files that change most often, or which you are using most frequently at any given time.

By syncing them continuously, and among multiple machines, you are performing a sort of backup. But Dropbox and similar services are likely to be too expensive for most people to use as an online backup repository for all the user-created files on their hard disks. For instance, a Dropbox account large enough to hold my 300GB of uploaded files would cost $499 a year.

Second, make a comprehensive local backup, using an external hard disk. This disk can either be physically connected to the computer or it can be a drive connected to your network. Such a backup includes not only all the data you've created, but also the operating system and apps, and can be used to fully restore the computer.

There are lots of backup programs that can do such backups, but you needn't spend extra cash. Both the Mac and Windows operating systems have built-in full-system backup utilities. On the Mac, it's called Time Machine. In Windows, it's called System Image Backup. Time Machine lets you restore individual files or the entire computer, and works continuously. In Windows 8.1, there's a separate utility for continuously backing up and restoring files - but not the whole system - called File History. System Image Backup must be run manually.

Finally, back up all the files and data you create to the cloud, continuously. That's where Backblaze comes in. There have been services like this for some years. The best known are likely Carbonite and Mozy. But I recommend Backblaze, or a competitor called CrashPlan reviewed in 2012 by my colleague Katie Boehret. In my view, their basic plans have fewer limitations, and in our tests they worked well.

By default, Backblaze backs up every user-created file, automatically and continuously, even if it's not in the main file libraries on Windows, or your home directory on a Mac. The idea, the company says, is to spare users from instructing a backup service what to include, or finding that the service missed something.

However, Backblaze doesn't back up the operating system or programs or temporary Internet files. So you can't use it to entirely restore a lost or ruined computer.

The service works via native Backblaze apps that run quietly in the background on Mac and Windows. It claims strong security, saying it encrypts all the data right on your computer before transmitting it, during the upload, and then again on its servers. You can even add a second password beyond your account password.

It took 12 days to complete my initial backup, but yours might be shorter or longer depending on the amount of data and the speed of your Internet connection. Backblaze doesn't throttle or limit the upload speed, except to leave some upload capacity available on your computer for other tasks. But network interference on the Internet itself can slow down the process.

The company says a typical user backing up the same 300GB of data I did would find it took 16 days for the initial backup.

After the first time, your backups are much faster, because you add or alter only a fraction of the data amount you start with. Backblaze says it doesn't bother backing up exact duplicate files on your hard disk, and compresses those files it can compress. But it says that when restoring files and folders it restores duplicate files as many times and in as many places as they originally existed, and decompresses anything it compressed.

Backblaze also includes external drives connected to your computer in its backups. However, it deletes their files from your backup account if you disconnect the drive for more than 30 days.

In my tests, the backups have gone smoothly, even though I used the computer in multiple locations with multiple network speeds. The service keeps you posted and in control, when you wish, through a system-tray menu on a PC, or a menu dropdown on a Mac.

Backblaze offers three options for restoring lost data. You can download any files you choose, either from the Web or using a download utility. Or, if you have a lot of files, the company will send them to you on physical media, for an added price. You can choose either a 128GB flash drive for $99, or a hard disk of up to three terabytes for $189. You get to keep the drives for any use you like after you receive them.

I tested two of the methods - downloading and the USB drive - and found that both worked perfectly and quickly. I was even able to restore files backed up from the Mac on one of my Windows 8 computers. And I was also able to retrieve files from my Backblaze backup using the company's iPhone app.

I like and can recommend Backblaze. But I recommend even more strongly using it as part of a three-part backup system.

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