Joni Mitchell wasn't singing about backing up files when she lamented, “You don't know what you've got till it's gone,” but her words of wisdom in 1970 ring true in the digital age.
Unless you've safely stored copies elsewhere, a hard drive malfunction, power surge, malicious software attack or household disaster like robbery, fire or flood can separate you from your computer's documents, irreplaceable photos and home movies in a flash. And what happens to all the memories you've captured on your smartphone if that vulnerable device is lost, stolen or damaged?
Thankfully, there are numerous easy-to-use services that let you back up your files automatically, with a minimum of fuss. Here's how.
Offline vs. online backup
There are two main options for backing up important files, each with distinct benefits and drawbacks.
- Offline or local backup: You can plug an external hard drive, solid state drive (SSD) or flash drive (also called a thumb drive or jump drive) into your computer's USB port and copy files over for safekeeping, by dragging and dropping them manually or setting up automatic backup (see below). There are also hard drives that join your Wi-Fi network so you can copy files wirelessly. For mobile devices like iPhones, iPads and Android smartphones and tablets, there are special drives, such as the iXpand drive from SanDisk, you can plug in to back up files.
- Online or “cloud” backup: This refers to companies that securely store copies of your files on their servers. You can then access your password-protected files whenever and wherever you like, via a website or app. Popular cloud services include Microsoft's OneDrive, Apple's iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox, IDrive and Backblaze. Some, like Amazon Photos, are tied only to photo and video backup.
With offline backup, you don't have to get on the internet to upload or access your files. Plus, it's a one-time cost to purchase an external drive (most cloud services charge monthly or yearly fees for more than token capacity). And you can store a lot: A 1-terabyte (1,000-gigabyte) hard drive from a name brand like Seagate or Western Digital can cost less than $50 and hold hundreds of movies, hundreds of thousands of photos or millions of documents. Many hard drives come with auto-backup software.
But cloud services have considerable upsides, too. Most importantly, they protect your files from local threats in your home (such as a flood), since your files are stored offsite. You can access all your backed-up stuff from virtually any internet-connected device in the world. And most services have apps that can automatically copy your smartphone's photos to the cloud whenever you snap a new pic.