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If You Own Any Kind Of Computer You Need This

Last week my hard drive crashed. It was working fine and then the screen locked, the computer powered down, and that was it. Kaput. Dead. If you’ve never had a hard drive crash on you, you’re lucky. But let me give you a sense of what you could lose if yours does: everything. Photos, videos, files, it could all disappear.

I’m reminded of an old adage: “There are only two types of hard drives. Those that have failed, and those that will fail.” This is true of old school “hard drives” and new SSDs, NVMes, and so on. If it stores your data, eventually it’s going to fail.

Depending on how the drive crashes, it’s possible you might be able to recover what’s on there, but don’t count on it. In fact, don’t count on your hard drive at all. The best thing you can do for your future self is getting some sort of cloud backup. You should do it right now. Here’s why.

Backup Early, Backup Often

Despite the main hard drive of my PC nuking itself beyond repair, this is a list of everything I lost: time. I didn’t lose any files, photos, or anything. Not even the random gifs on my desktop nor memes I’d forgotten I’d downloaded. I spent most of a Sunday fixing the issue, but once I had a replacement drive connected, it was just a matter of re-installing Windows. My files auto-loaded back to where they were. I had to re-download a bunch of programs and games, of course, but again, all I lost was time.

I’ve built and repaired computers since I was a teenager, but those skills had nothing to do with not losing any data. The troubleshooting and repair could have been outsourced to a computer repair company (Geek Squad, Apple Genius Bar, etc) and I’d still have just lost time.

The only reason I didn’t lose any files is that I have multiple backups of everything important. Both a local backup and a cloud backup. This is about as secure as it can get for regular people, with a redundant hard drive locally in case something happens to the computer, and something not local incase something happens to the house (like a lightning strike). Cloud backups are still hard drives, however, which is why it makes sense to still have a local backup.

You can easily create backups for all your files with only a tiny bit of computer knowledge and you should do it right now.

Best Practices (Local and Cloud Backups)

As a writer and photographer, my job requires countless files of all types. Drafts of novels, thousands of photos from years as a travel writer, not to mention countless product photos, reviews, and more that clutter up any hard drive. I don’t trust any hard drive, nor can I afford to.

Despite following my own rules, I still lost nearly every photo from a 3-month trip in Europe in 2014 because I thought it was backed up, a drive crashed, and it was all gone. Met my best friend on that trip too, and only have photos from my phone (which auto-saved to the cloud).

So these days for extended trips and anything important, I have a multi-step process. It’s perhaps a little excessive for most people, but should give you and idea about one end of the range.

For my real cameras, I keep everything on their SD cards as well as copying the photos/videos to a computer and/or my phone every day. That’s two separate locations. Most of these photos I back up to Google Photos at least once a day as well. My phone’s photos backup there automatically whenever it’s on Wi-Fi. At the end of a trip, I copy all the photos and videos, usually many gigabytes worth, to an 8 terabyte RAID 1 (two mirrored drives in one case). When the SD card is full, I copy it all to a separate hard drive. That last part is redundant, but why not.

So generally, my files have this level of backup:

  • SD card (temporary)
  • SSD backup during trips/on location (temporary)
  • Cloud (Long term)
  • RAID 1 and separate SSD (Long term)

So in the end, every important photo/video is on a RAID 1, an SSD, and in the cloud. SSDs especially shouldn’t be used for long-term storage. I end up replacing them every few years anyway. It’s worth noting that the SSD that failed came with my gaming PC and was from a no-name fabless company and was a little over a year old.

Do you need all of that for your files? Probably not. But I would say that everyone should at least have a cloud backup of their important files. It costs very little, sometimes even free, and it can save you so much heartache losing your old photos.

What to Get

This isn’t a buying guide per se. I can tell you what I’ve used and had good luck with, but I’ll defer to colleagues that have done deep dives into the varies services and hardware for specific recommendations.

So for me, with an Android phone, I like the convenience of Google Photos. I also use Google Drive for work, so a $10 a month Google One account is a no-brainer. That gets you 2 terabytes of storage across all Google apps. You can get up to 15GB free, and plans as low as $20 a year.

Owning Office 365 also gets you 1 terabyte of Microsoft’s OneDrive, so that’s how my desktop was backed up in my crash I described earlier.

Right now my setup includes a mix of SSDs and traditional hard drives from Samsung, Seagate, and Western Digital. My RAID is a 16GB LaCie 2big.

Wirecutter has a variety of hard drive and SSD recommendations. Full disclosure, I am an editor at Wirecutter, but I don’t work directly with the folks who worked on those guides. They also like, as of this writing, Backblaze for cloud backup. They have some compelling reasons why a full backup service like that is a great idea, and I don’t disagree.

If you’re new to all this, or not very computer savvy, check out their How to Back Up Your Computer guide.

Don’t wait. This is absolutely worth spending a few hours setting up. You’ll be glad you did.

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