Backing up your digital life

computer2bbackupsA few times per year, I go on a mini-rant on Facebook.  It’s more than likely sparked by someone posting how their computer crashed/got stolen/was damaged and how they’ve lost everything.  While I feel bad for them, this didn’t have to be a devastating event.  When it happens to my musician friends, it’s extra painful to witness, because I have a pretty good idea of the kind of stuff they’ve lost, and much of it is irreplaceable.

Ask yourself:  if your computer, tablet, and/or phone suddenly died, would all your files, information, etc. be easily recoverable?  Would they even be recoverable at all?  For many, the answer for both questions is a resounding, “No.”

It’s not surprising:  these days, so much of what we do is online:  Facebook, Twitter, blogging, etc.  Folks often forget that there are also important files that live only on our computers.

Years ago when my computer hard drive died, I lost a composition that was starting to gain some momentum.  I really enjoyed working on it, and it was going to be something that might’ve even been performed.  Out of all the things I lost on that day, that was one of the few things that I could not recover, and I was heartbroken.  At the time, I had various flash drives full of important files, but they were months old.  Once I lost everything and had to piece it back together with outdated backups, I started searching for affordable, easy options.

What should you backup?

question-mark-blackThis is entirely up to you.  Personally, my backups fall into four main categories:  audio recordings, pictures, Finale files, and other misc. documents (Word files, slideshows, spreadsheets, etc.).  I don’t worry about programs/applications because I have legally purchased all of mine (or they’re free), so I can download them anytime I need them.

Take some time to really comb through what you have on your computer.  Make a note of what it important and what’s not.  My rule of thumb is this:  if I delete this file right now knowing that I’ll never see it again, would I care?

Once you’ve figured out what you’d like to backup, make sure and estimate how much space that requires.  This is important and will ensure you have enough space, but not too much.  Of course, you should always have a bit more space than you need, because presumably you’ll always be adding new files that will need to be backed up.

Backing it up:  your options

You have a few options when you backup your computer.  Here are a few to consider:

On-premise device

You can do like I did years ago and have some sort of an on-premise backup, like an external hard drive, a flash drive, or another device that you can save onto (like an iPod).

This is a fairly easy option, except that it’s one of the least safe options.  If something physically happens to your storage device, that’s it.  If it’s stolen, burns in a fire, you’re done for.  If you choose this option, make sure it’s not your only one!

Off-premise device

Some people I know have an off-premise hard drive that they keep at, say, their place of work or at a friend’s house.  This is a good option because if there is a fire at your place, your data is safely stored away somewhere else.  The downside is that you have to constantly back up this device in order to keep it up-to-date, which can be a hassle.

cloud-backupCloud storage

For most people, this is the gold standard of backup solutions.  It’s the easiest, safest, and most versatile way of backing up your files.  There are many, many cloud storage backup options, and all of them have their strengths and weaknesses.  Like most things you buy, it’s a matter of researching to figure out what’s going to work best for you.

Services like Mozy, Carbonite, and Dropbox are good places to start.  They’ve been around a while, and they all offer different pricing plans.  Newer ones (to me, at least) are CrashPlan, SOS Online Backup, Backblaze, and IDriveMicrosoft and Apple offer backup services for their operating systems, and those are worth looking into, as well.  The one that works the best for me is SugarSync, and I’ve been using it for several years now.

corporate-event-planning-checklistIf you’ve never looked for an online backup service before, starting out can be pretty daunting.  If you’re not sure about what you need, here are a few questions to keep in mind when you’re reading about them:

  • What’s the pricing plan?  Usually, these services cost a few bucks per month, but a few of them have free options that work for many people’s needs.  The more space you need, the more you’re going to pay.
  • How does the backup process work?  Most services nowadays have automatic syncing, which means that every time you save a file, it’ll automatically backup the new version of your file without you having to do anything.  I would highly suggest your backup service has this feature available.  Other services offer different intervals that they backup your data:  daily, hourly, a few times a day, etc.
  • Is there automatic syncing to all devices?  Some services let you take your backed up files and put them on other computers.  For instance, if you had some important documents on your work computer, you could back them up and have them also appear on your home computer instantly.  Anytime you were at home or at the office and made a change to these files, they would automatically be backed up and be changed on the other device(s) you have them on.  This is incredibly helpful and should come standard with all serious backup services.
  • What’s the restore process like?  If the unthinkable happens to your computer, how easy is it to restore all your information?  Some services will just have you download all your lost info.  Others have an option where they actually mail you a portable storage device with all your files on it, and you would simply download it to your new/fixed computer.
  • What is the security like?  After all, you’re trusting this company to sensitive files (tax returns, personal documents, and other sensitive information).  They should use the best security and encryption available today.  If they do, they’ll be sure and let you know as you’re researching.  The company will often tout their “military grade encryption,” or let you know that “This is the same encryption used by financial institutions.”  Anything less isn’t worth the risk.
  • How do I designate the files that I’d like backed up?  This is key.  Some services will force you to move the files you’d like backed up into a special folder.  I don’t like this idea because I have a very particular file structure that I’d like to keep intact.  Other services will let you designate a file or folder, no matter where it is on your computer.
  • Can I backup any file type?  Most backup services let you backup any kind of file, but there are some out there that don’t.  Make sure you find out!
  • Can I access my files on the web?  Via an app?  I highly recommend that the service you choose has a way to access your files using any web browser and phone app.  We’ve talked a lot about having a backup of your files made in case of a catastrophe, but sometimes, it’s nice to have your files available anywhere you go.  This has saved me on countless occasions!

ftp_iconOnce you have a good idea of what the various services offer, it’s time to start looking into the bells and whistles.  Below I’ve listed just a few from various backup services.  You may not need these, but they’re something to consider.

  • File sharing.  Can you share a link of your backed up files?  If so, can you give permission to people to edit?
  • Remote wiping.  If a device gets lost or stolen, can you remotely wipe the info on that device?
  • Number of computers.  How many computers can you backup?  Some services only allow 1 computer, others offer several.
  • Automatic picture backup.  Sometimes it’s nice to backup the pics that you take on your phone automatically.
  • Mirror image backup.  What this does is instead of backing up individual files that you choose, this backs up your entire hard drive.  Everything.  It makes a copy of your whole hard drive so that you could restore your system to the exact specifications that you had it at.  If you have a system that you really like and want to keep your settings, this is a perfect solution for you.

Other considerations

It’s easy to get lured in by amount of storage space, but don’t be fooled!  When you’re paying for a backup service, you’re paying for just more than a place to store your stuff.  You’re paying for an interface, tech support, maintenance, security, additional features, and much more.  For me, SugarSync is the total package.  Sure, there are other services that give you more space for the same (or less) money, but they don’t offer nearly all the important features that SugarSync does.  And for that, I’m willing to pay.

Just to give you an idea of what I backup, my largest files are photographs, as I take them in a high resolution.  I’m storing about 16 GB of pictures alone.  I have thousands of audio files,  over a thousand Finale files, countless Word documents, old college papers, music PDFs, downloaded books from Google Books, and tons of other miscellaneous stuff that one accrues in this digital age.  All that adds up about 50 GB.  If I left out the recorded music, the space would be about 42 GB.

stylized_dollar_bill_money_clip_art_18576A good beginning budget is about $10/month.  I’ve found that most people can find a backup service they like with the space they need for $10/month, and very often less.  If you have significant storage needs (audio files can take up huge amounts of disk space, for example), then get ready to pay a little more.  Believe me, $10/month is well worth the piece of mind.  Be careful of free price plans:  they don’t offer as much space as you’ll realistically need, and they don’t offer all the features that paid plans do.

Compare, compare, compare!  Almost every backup service’s website that I’ve been to has a comparison chart that shows why it thinks you should buy their service.  Of course, they’re a bit biased, but you can learn a lot, because that’s where they show their strongest and most unique features.

Take the time to Google “online backup services” and really make sure to do your homework.  Before you click on a link, make sure that you are reading an article that was written within the past year.  The technology changes so fast that anything older than a year will be outdated.  There are several articles that review and compare multiple backup services at once.  There are also articles and videos that compare two or three services at a time, and those can help paint an even better picture of what you need and what will work for you.

feature_address_bookWhat about contacts?  Do you have all your phone and E-Mail contacts backed up?  If you lost your phone, could you easily recover your hundreds of cell phone numbers?  Some backup services help with this.  For those that don’t you have some options (more on that later).

On my last Facebook mini-rant that I went on about backup services, my good friend Jeff Johnson really took it to heart.  Apart from being a talented music teacher and musician, he’s also a great photographer.  He told me that he had most of his stuff backed up in some way, but it wasn’t comprehensive.  He has an adorable little girl and takes the most wonderful pictures of her as well as his lovely wife.  After I got him thinking about losing any of those pictures, he said he immediately started doing his research and chose Dropbox for his backup needs.  He also now uses a mirror hard drive so that in case one fails, he has another one ready to go.

sugarsync200x2001As I mentioned before, I use SugarSync to backup all my computer files as well as my phone pictures.  I use Google to backup my contacts and have for years.  This was before backup services started offering features to backup your phone contacts.  One afternoon, I sat down at the computer and input a few hundred contacts into Google:  phone numbers, E-Mail addresses, etc.  I’ve never regretted it.  My phone is linked to my Google account so that if my current phone dies, I can get a new phone and easily download all my contacts to it.  I can add new contacts on my phone or I can go into my Gmail account and add contacts through there.

All my E-Mailing is done through Gmail’s web interface at, so I don’t have to worry about losing any important E-Mails.


Thanks for reading this long blog post!  I hope this has nudged you to start backing up your files if you haven’t been doing so.  According to one study I found, 40% of data loss has to do with hardware error.  Another 29% had to do with human error.  Don’t forget about viruses (there are some really nasty ones out there these days).  Something will happen to your computer, it’s just a matter of when and how.  If you don’t have a backup service in place, the cost of hiring a technician to come in and try to recover your data (no guarantee it will work!) can be hundreds of dollars.

If you’re not backing up your files, start researching today to find the best backup service for you.  It’ll save you time, money, and a bit of your sanity!