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Buyers' Guide: Keep Your Information Safe With Backup


Something almost no one worries about is backing up important data from desktop or mobile devices. From yield numbers to family photos, most people don’t think catastrophic computer failures and subsequent loss of data can happen to them – until it does. Data recovery companies often charge more money to get information off a dead hard drive than some computers are worth. Many companies won’t even touch a dead hard drive for less than $100, and that’s before the clock starts running and the dollars start adding up. Stories of $1,000 recoveries are not fiction; they’re very real, and it can sometimes involve weeks of time.

All that can easily be avoided if you invest in backing up your important data. It’s cheaper and easier than ever before. Here are two options to consider: 

• External backup hard drives are larger, less expensive, and much easier to use than in the past.

• Online backup services are becoming commonplace and less expensive.

External Backup Hard Drives

One option to backing up your data is by using an external backup hard drive. These are referred to as external drives, external hard drives, or external backup drives. All mean the same thing. They contain a spinning disk inside a chassis with a read/write head that records and retrieves digital data. They resemble the hard drive found in nearly all home computers and function in almost the exact same way. Where they differ is in memory capacity, speed to upload and download, and in the type of drive you are investing in. 

You can choose from desktop-class hard drives, which require a cord for power and are designed to remain on your desk. These are larger in size than notebook-class hard drives (sometimes called portable or pocket drives), which are generally small enough to fit in pockets and are powered through the cord that attaches to your computer. No additional power is necessary for this style. The portability of notebook-class hard drives may be a factor in your choice, especially if you need to move the drive from computer to computer with ease. 

When choosing an external backup hard drive, you’ll need to decide if you want one with an actual hard drive inside the chassis (the most common and least expensive type) or one with the speed and durability of a solid-state drive (SSD). 

Solid-state drives, or solid-state disks, have no moving parts inside and are far less prone to failure over time. They use flash memory (similar to the memory cards for cameras) to store data. Because there are no moving parts, the SSD will last longer, take a few bumps and drops, and offer much faster copying and retrieval speeds.

The downside to SSD media is that it is more expensive than a traditional external hard drive. SSDs remain eight to 12 times more expensive than traditional external hard drives.

Drive life also varies between traditional hard drives and SSDs. 

Traditional hard drives face motor burnout and data loss due to electrical shock or drops, which result in temporary or permanent loss of data.

Also, traditional drives often have a fan unit cooling the motor, which can draw in dust or debris. This can shorten the life of your drive; if you are using your backup drive in an area that gets dusty, consider using an SSD, because they are completely sealed and do not use cooling fans. 

SSDs are rated by the amount of data that can be written on the drive over time. The more data you place on the disk and retrieve, the more it will diminish the life of the device. If you are using a SSD primarily for backup instead of active storage and retrieval, the device will outlast a traditional external hard drive.


Now Back It Up!

Buying an external backup drive is only half the battle. If you forget to back up your computer to the external backup hard drive, it’s not going to be of any help. 

For the forgetful, there are programs that will automatically back up your data. Many external drives come with a program you can set to automatically back up at times you determine. 

For Mac users, Time Machine will back up your information every hour. For a PC, consider applications like Karen’s Replicator or Second Copy. They are shareware applications, so you can check them out before you buy. 

When choosing your external backup hard drive, be sure you have one of sufficient size. Consider buying two drives for peace of mind. Purchase a drive that at least matches the memory of your computer’s hard drive or exceeds it. 

For example, if your computer’s hard drive holds 500 GB of data, purchase a backup drive with at least 500 GB of space. It’s wiser to get a backup drive that holds more than your computer, as you’ll probably find yourself backing up other things to the drive that will fill up the extra space. Use the second drive to create another backup just in case. It may seem like a waste of money, but an additional investment of less than $100 may make all the difference in getting up and running quickly.

If you’ve bought two backup drives, consider keeping one unplugged when it’s not backing up. By removing all cords from the back of the drive, the chance of an electrical surge ruining the device is almost nil. Just remember to plug in the second drive on a regular basis so it can back up your data.

Online Backup Services

The second option for backing up your data is an online backup service. This type of backup requires an Internet connection and has a recurring cost. Yearly contracts are the norm, and different packages are available. You can back up one or more devices in your home or business via Wi-Fi or modem connection. Price packages may limit the amount of data you can upload, so be sure to compare the packages being offered before buying. These are becoming increasingly more popular as Internet speeds increase and companies offering the service come online. Your own Internet service provider (ISP) may already offer it, so check with them first.

The upside to online backup services is that your data is far safer with them than any type of external backup hard drive. Companies that offer these services will maintain your data on several servers, ensuring that an intact copy of your data will always be available. 

If your computer and hard drive fail, you may be faced with hundreds of dollars to retrieve your data and days of waiting. It may take you no more than a few hours to retrieve your online backup. 

However, there are negatives to online backup companies. For some services, the initial backup can take 20 to 30 days. This delay will leave you open to data loss if a computer failure occurs during this time. 

Another complaint of some online backup services is that the computer’s processor is constantly running as the data is being pulled online for backup. This means that your computer may run slower as its processor is being used for backup instead of being used by a program or general computer use. 

Data security is important. Before signing up, read online reviews about users’ experiences with security to get a sense of reliability. Companies will claim extensive security measures, but user experience or news stories will be a better indicator of their track record.

Remember that once your data goes to an online backup company, it is available to hackers worldwide. 

So What’s Best?

Backing up your backup is the smartest route. This may seem excessive on the surface. If you’ve ever faced a catastrophic failure, however, you’ll appreciate this solution. 

External backup hard drives offer immediate retrieval of data. If your computer dies, the most recent backup of your files is available right away. If your failure is due to an electrical surge, your drive and computer may be permanently lost. 

This is when a combination of one or two external backup hard drives and an online backup service pays off. If your computer dies, you have the external hard drive for fast retrieval and you’ll be able to get back on your feet quickly. If both die, you have the online backup service as insurance.

Although this redundancy may seem expensive, the upfront costs pale in comparison to lost time and data retrieval fees if your computer and backup drives fail.

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