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How To Back Up Your Data (and Access The Important Stuff Anywhere)

By Nathan Edwards

With a good backup, your data is safe, and with a good sync setup, you can have near-instant access to whatever subset of that data you deem worthy. The good news is that this is now really easy.

One of the most interesting messages Google tries to get across in its Chromebook campaign is the idea that the hardware is disposable. If your Chromebook falls into a volcano or gets run over or stolen, you're out the cost of the hardware, but that's it. You don't lose any data, and the crook/volcano god doesn't get access to it either. All you have to do is grab a new Chromebook (or any PC that can run the Chrome browser) log in, and you're back in business.

Photo credit: Alex Washburn/Wired via Creative Commons.

Most of us can't use a Chromebook full-time. We use programs that don't yet run in a web browser, we play games that require local asset files and don't sync to the cloud, and we have a lot of data we need to hold onto--more than will fit onto a few lousy gigabytes of local storage. But we can take a page from the Chromebook, as it were, and make our data resilient and flexible--resilient, so a hardware loss doesn't mean data loss, and flexible, so that we can pick up pretty much any computer with an Internet connection and be able to work. After all, if you lose your Chromebook, you don't need to find another Chromebook to access your data; you just need to log in to your Google Account from anywhere.

In order to get Chromebook-level data security on our "real" computers, we need two things: good backup software, and good syncing software. All of your data deserves to be backed up, but not all of it needs to be immediately accessible. With a good backup, your data is safe, and with a good sync setup, you can have near-instant access to whatever subset of that data you deem worthy. The good news is that this is now really easy.

I'm not just idly pontificating; I just did some spring cleaning, including a clean Windows install on my desktop, and this is how I prepared, backed up, and synced my data.

Note that this guide is written from the perspective of a Windows user, but the main points are valid for Linux and Mac OS X users as well.

Step One: Sort it Out

There's a lot of data on your PC--documents, movies, music, programs, game saves, old school papers, and lots more. Some of it is important, and some isn't, but it's probably better to back it all up anyway, unless you want to spend a few hours sorting through it and getting rid of the stuff you don't need anymore. You can use a program like WinDirStat to see what's taking up room on your drives. You should also clear out your Downloads folder, completed torrents, podcasts you've already listened to--whatever's taking up room without being useful.

Step Two: Back it Up

Next, figure out what you do need to keep backed up. For me, that's my user folder and my libraries--Music, Videos, Pictures, and the catch-all Documents--plus my E-books, digital comics, and a copy of my saved games.

The best way I've found to back that stuff up is to use a cloud service like CrashPlan or BackBlaze.

I use and heartily recommend CrashPlan+ Unlimited, which offers unlimited cloud backup for one computer for $4/month. It's also the Wirecutter's top pick. CrashPlan is my favorite because it's easy to use and it incorporates multiple backup methods. The free version of CrashPlan lets you back up unlimited data to a local drive, which can be internal, external, or networked. It also lets you back up to a friend's computer, in as much space as that friend will give you. The paid versions let you also upload your data to the cloud. The basic version of CrashPlan+ with 10GB of cloud storage is $2/month, but I think the unlimited version is easily worth the $4/month. If you have multiple computers to back up, it's $9/month for up to 10 computers.

It takes hours (or even days) for your data to be uploaded to the cloud and saved to your local drive when you first set it up, but it's worth knowing that your data is secure. Your archives are password-protected and retrievable on a per-folder or per-file basis, or as a mass restore project. You can even access files under 250MB from a phone or desktop browser. They're protected from both a cloud outage and something happening to your local backup, and the backups are encrypted, so if your external drive gets stolen your data is secure.

Note that CrashPlan and BackBlaze are designed to protect your data, not back up your system image and your configuration settings and all that. For that, I recommend using Windows' built-in backup to create a system image that updates every week.

Step Three: Identify the Must-Sync Data

For your most-accessed, must-have files, you'll want a web-accessible cloud syncing platform like Dropbox or SkyDrive or SugarSync.

Pick a service you can access on the web or on any platform you're likely to use. Something with good encryption and security, but not something you have to spend ten minutes logging into just to get a specific PDF that you need. And especially something that works with your devices--not just what you have now, but what you're likely to use in the future. Finally, if you're going to be accessing your files from networks or computers you don't own, you'll need your cloud syncing service to support two-factor authentication. Seriously. Enable two-factor on everything. To the right is what my Google Authenticator app looks like.

Next, figure out what you want to be able to access locally on whatever device you're using. For me, that's a mixture of work documents and personal writing. Since I'm a writer, that's mostly text documents, but also benchmark spreadsheets, images, and so forth, as well as assignment letters and invoices.. It doesn't include game saves, music or video files, assignments over a year old, or funny cat jpgs. If you're smart about what you choose to sync--and you mostly work with small files--you can do just fine without paying for extra storage. If you're a designer, photographer, photo editor, or someone who frequently works with multi-gigabyte data sets, you'll probably have to spring for more space.

You're probably already using one or more cloud-syncing providers, so that will influence which one you choose. I have been using Google Docs for word-processing and Dropbox for file syncing for years, so my work documents are split between Google Drive and Dropbox. Both have Android and Windows apps, both are accessible via the web, and both support two-factor authentication, so I'm likely to keep using them.

Dropbox and Google Drive's PC client only sync the contents of their respective folders--you can't pick existing outside folders to sync, like you can with SugarSync. Right now my only beef with SugarSync is that I'm not already using it, and I use Dropbox and Google Drive shared folders pretty regularly, so I don't have much incentive to switch. If I were starting from scratch, I'd go with SugarSync.

Step Four: Find Your Online Cold Storage

But what about long-term storage? There's stuff you don't need every day, but still need to be able to access from time to time, like wedding photos, insurance documents, old tax returns, instruction manuals, maybe even receipts. If you don't mind paying for extra storage space, you can use the same service you use for your mission-critical files. Both SugarSync and Dropbox offer selective sync, so you're not syncing your Archive folder to your ultrabook, and both offer an extra 100GB for $10/month. Google Drive lacks selective sync, but 100GB costs just $5/month there. If you'd prefer to stick to free accounts, consider using a different cloud client for your less-often-needed documents.

Most of us haven't just stuck to one cloud syncing service--free cloud storage hoarding isn't uncommon.

Most of us haven't just stuck to one cloud syncing service--free cloud storage hoarding isn't uncommon. Even if there's one we use all the time, we probably have accounts with several others. For example, I have 12GB of space on Dropbox, 25GB on SkyDrive, 10GB on Box, 5GB or so on SpiderOak, and 5GB on Google Drive. Of those, I use Dropbox and Google Drive for my work and personal files.

SkyDrive is well integrated with Windows 8, has web access, Android, PC, Mac, and iOS apps, and even supports two-factor authentication now. It's not going to replace Dropbox for me, but it makes sense for me to use for my less-frequently-used files, like my GameSave Manager archive and old document.

Extra Credit: Cloud Living Only

You might not need as much synced file storage as you think. Your music library, especially, is a prime target for cloud streaming.

Music: You can upload up to 20,000 songs to Google Music, in any number of formats, and they'll stream back to you at up to 320Kbps. Now when I buy MP3s on Amazon, I download them to my computer, where Google Music Manager promptly reuploads them to Google Music. I also subscribe to Rdio. Between Google Music and Rdio I have no need of local music storage on my computers, but I do keep a copy of my library on an external drive just in case. You could also use Amazon Cloud Player to store and stream your personal media library, and Spotify for streaming.

Photos: My wedding pictures and other important photographs are backed up on my external drive, SkyDrive, and CrashPlan, and the pictures I take with my phone are auto-uploaded to Dropbox and Google Plus; I probably don't need both. Facebook and Google Plus both offer instant upload of photos and videos from your phone to their servers. Google Plus offers 5GB of free storage (not the same pool as your Google Drive storage), and Facebook's is apparently unlimited.

Video: I just don't watch a lot of video. I own fewer than 20 DVDs/Blu-Rays, and when I want to watch something it's usually either via streaming service or DVR, and I'm not especially enamored of the DVR. If you have an extensive media collection, you can use Plex to access it remotely, but most people can survive just fine with Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu Plus or some combination of the above.

Notes: I've been experimenting with a paperless office by using a Doxie Go scanner and uploading scans to Evernote. Why Evernote? It uses optical character recognition to scan and search within the text of pdfs and photos. To be honest, I don't use it as much as I should. I could probably get by with fewer cloud services, but Evernote has good web and mobile apps and no storage quota (though there's a 1GB monthly cap on uploads). Going paperless probably deserves its own column later, but Jamie Rubin, Evernote's Paperless Ambassador, has been writing weekly columns on the subject for over a year now.

Office Docs: Of course, Google Drive doesn't count your Google Docs towards its 5GB quota, so if you do most of your work in Docs like I do, you may not need much local document syncing at all. Given that Google Drive has a desktop client that lets you easily sync non-Docs files, web access, two-factor authentication and pretty cheap expanded storage options, you could conceivably use it for everything.

Should I Pay?

You should definitely spend the few dollars a month required for cloud backup, but depending on how much data you actually need to be able to access from anywhere, you can probably get by without paying for extra storage space on your cloud syncing service.

What's Your Data to You?

Your data is more important than your hardware, and it's a huge relief to know that it's all protected, and the stuff you need easily accessible, is. The CrashPlan/cloud sync method I've outlined above isn't the only way to do it. How do you keep your data flexible and resilient? Tell us in the comments!