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How to Automatically Back Up Your Computer, Tablet or Phone

Cloud services and external drives make it easy to safeguard your files and photos

spinner image Cloud icon key, button on the computer keyboard
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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?

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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.

Setting up devices for automatic backup

Whether you opt for an offline drive or an online service — or both, to hedge your bets, as I do — you can easily set it to back up your files as frequently as you like: once a week, every night or the moment you create a new file on your computer or shoot a new photo or video on your mobile device.

Local backup

To set up an external drive for automatic backup, you'll need the manufacturer's backup software. This often comes loaded on the drive itself; if not, you can download it from the company's website.

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To demonstrate, let's walk through the process for Western Digital's backup software, called GoodSync for WD. It's similar to the setup for other popular drive brands’ programs, like Seagate Dashboard and LaCie Backup Software.

  1. Download the free software for Windows, MacOS or Linux.
  2. Double-click the .exe file once it's downloaded to start the installation process.
  3. Choose your desired language.
  4. Create a free account, if you don't already have one.
  5. A dashboard will pop up, allowing you to select the folders and files you want backed up (for example, Documents or Music), or you can let the software scan your hard drive and suggest what to back up.
  6. Select the frequency of backup, and where you'd like the copied files to go (the connected drive might show up on your computer as an E: or F: drive).

That's it! If anything happens to your computer, you now have an external backup of your important files.

Another option for Mac users is Time Machine, Apple's own integrated feature for automatically backing up files to an external drive.

Remember: Unless you're using a more expensive “networked” drive that connects to your Wi-Fi, you'll need to make sure the external unit is plugged into your computer whenever a backup is scheduled. You could leave it plugged in all the time, but keeping the external drive separate when not in use can help keep it safe if something damages your computer, like a flood, power surge or malicious software.

Cloud backup

You can easily set up automatic backup for your mobile devices as well as your computer (laptop or desktop). Let's start with mobile, since you're likely capturing memories on your phone.

Many phones and tablets, when you turn them on the first time, will ask if you'd like to automatically upload copies of all files to cloud services affiliated with the main mobile operating systems, Apple's iOS and Google's Android. No worries if you didn't do it then — you can also manually enable automatic backup any time:

  • For Apple devices (iPhone or iPad), go to Settings | Your Name (at the top) | iCloud | iCloud Drive.
  • For an Android phone or tablet, Google Drive gives you 15 gigabytes (GB) of free storage. Go to Google Drive | Settings | Auto-backup. Make sure “Back up to Google Drive” is enabled.

If you'd rather use a different cloud service, you can download its app. Once it's installed, select that you'd like automatic backup and choose whether you want to do so over Wi-Fi, mobile data or both. Keep in mind that if you're on mobile data when your backup occurs, there could be sizable costs, depending on how generous your data plan is.

Cloud storage providers offer similar software to install on your laptop or desktop. There will be some minor differences among services to setting up automatic backups to the cloud from your PC or Mac, the process is generally as follows:

  1. If it's not already included with your operating system, as iCloud is for Macs and OneDrive for PCs running Windows 10, go to the website for a cloud service you want to use.
  2. Sign up for an account at the website. If required, download the appropriate app for your computer's operating system (sometimes called “client software") and install it. Sign into the software when prompted. You'll need to do this only once.
  3. You should be prompted to select specific files and folders to back up. (For example, in Windows, I select the Documents, Pictures and Videos folders.) If not, look for a tab that says something like “Backup” or “Schedule.”
  4. Select when to back up your files. You can set the cloud service to update files in real time, as you work on them, or periodically — say, every other night at 1 a.m. Just make sure your machine is connected to the internet at the chosen time.

If you opt for periodic backups, remember that uploading large quantities of data can affect your computer's performance. You may want to schedule them for when you're not using it.

You may see the name of the cloud service as a drive or folder on your computer, in an app like Windows Explorer or its Mac equivalent, Finder, in which case you can drag and drop files between these local and cloud drives.

Cloud services typically offer a free plan with very limited storage (5 GB or less) — not much if you want to back up data-intensive music and video files. To get more, you'll need to pay for a monthly or annual subscription.

For example, Dropbox charges $9.99 a month for 2 terabytes of storage. So does iCloud, but it also offers a smaller plan: 99 cents a month for 50 GB. OneDrive costs $1.99 a month for 100 GB, but if you subscribe to Microsoft 365 (from $69.99 a year), which includes popular productivity apps like Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint, you get 1 terabyte of OneDrive storage included.

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