Back Up Your Computer to Save Time and Money

Here's a public service message: Back up your computer regularly. This has more to do with your pocketbook than you might think.

Not only was I sick this week, but the hard drive on my laptop crashed. It's gone. The Apple Geniuses (that's what they call themselves!) cannot salvage it. I was able to pull the single most important document (the GRS spreadsheet) and a few posts-in-progress, but I lost a hell of a lot, including:

  • Several electronic gift certificates. (I'll contact the companies to see if they have provisions for cases like this.)
  • Two years of other e-mail, including a number of guest post submissions and, more importantly, conversations with reporters, publishers, and literary agents. (So much for laying the groundwork for a future book!)
  • Two years of digital photos.
  • My iTunes music and video library (including last week's episode of The Office).
  • A huge collection of unfinished GRS articles and ideas, including one of my pet projects, a post I'd been working on for months.

How did this happen? I was dumb. It's been years since I experienced a hard drive failure, so I grew complacent. I was lazy. My backups became infrequent. The last time I archived files was in March, and that didn't include the items I listed above. (Fortunately, however, I moved my financial files permanently to my desktop machine at that time. If I had lost those, I'd be a nervous wreck.)

I've learned some lessons from this:

  • Hard-drive failures can occur without warning. In the past, I've always known a disk was going to fail because I'd get some sort of warning (strange sounds, error messages). Not this time. I had been telling myself that I didn't need to back up because everything was running smoothly. I was wrong.
  • I'm migrating to web-based apps. Google Mail has always seemed clunky to me, but I no longer care. When my computer crashes, I know the data's safe. If I had been on Google Mail all along, I'd still have all the book-project information! If I'd been using Google Docs, all my half-written articles would still be safe!
  • I'm creating functional automatic backup systems. The crazy thing is I already have all the necessary components for automatic backup across our wireless network. I've just been too lazy to put things in motion. I've been backing things up by hand — once or twice a year. Dumb.

When my computer goes down, it has a huge impact on my finances. Just the tangibles alone (gift certificates, iTunes library, computer repairs) are worth hundreds of dollars, and that doesn't count the time. The lost data represents countless hours of work, days of sweat and tears. And, of course, my livelihood is entirely computer-based.

Please learn from my mistake. If you, too, have important information on your computer, make a plan to back things up regularly. At the very minimum, make copies of your most important data: financial information, work documents, and vital e-mail. For more information, check out backup best practices for PCs and how to back up your Mac intelligently. Or check out the official documents at Microsoft and Apple.

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Nick
Nick
11 years ago

There are services you can ship the dead drive to and they’ll extract the data. I think they remove the platters and remount them or something.

Pieter
Pieter
11 years ago

Last time the hard drive on my MacBook crashed was in April. I lost everything – iTunes, work files, you name it. The worst part is that it was my fault the hard drive crashed. One thing you’ll want to try and change is how you use your laptop. I use mine all over the place – at the office, in bed, taking it to the coffee shop. Ultimately, this means I move it around a lot while it’s on and the hard drive is running, which is VERY bad for the hard drive and will generally cause it to… Read more »

Patrick
Patrick
11 years ago

I still remember The Great Hard Drive Crash of 2001 like it was yesterday. All my email, all my documents, my photos, my MP3s, everything was gone. Backup solutions back then were clunky or expensive, so it took me longer than I care to admit to start regularly backing everything up. I started by copying my Home folder to my iPod weekly, as well as moving my important documents to my iDisk. But this involved manual effort, so wasn’t always done. What really blew my mind was when Apple added Time Machine to Mac OS X. Plug in an external… Read more »

Bing
Bing
11 years ago

The data on your crashed hard drive is not necessarily gone, it will simply cost some money to retrieve. One excellent company that can do this is DriveSavers , toll free 800-440-1904. They can recover data from just about any drive, including those melted by fire, destroyed by floods, erased by accident. You might spend a pretty penny, but depending on the data lost, it’s definitely worth it. Sounds like your data might fit into that category. Good luck!

Bryan
Bryan
11 years ago

Backup doesn’t have to be expensive. I put $20 down on JungleDisk+ and pay about $3.00 a month in hosting and transfer fees to backup my data with Amazon’s S3 service. Dropbox covers the 2GB of files I need to be available 24×7. Combined with an external disk and a RAID array, i’m about as covered as I can get.

Alternatively, you can buy a couple of cheap HDDs to keep in your safety-deposit box at the bank.

You cannot afford to not backup your computer.

Lana
Lana
11 years ago

oh no, my sympathies are with you…just as a suggestion for the future, I highly recommend checking out Mozy (http://mozy.com/) or another online backup service. I’ve been using Mozy to back up all of my files online remotely for a long time now (they’ll back up a few gigs for free, then you have to pay a small and entirely worth it fee to back up everything). My files get backed up automatically every day. I havent had my harddrive fail yet, but I know it could happen at any point. Hopefully when it does, online storage like Mozy (as… Read more »

Plex
Plex
11 years ago

Wait! Before you give up, have you attempted to do a data recovery? I had something similar happen, the hard drive was not salvageable, but the data in it was. I just took it to CompUSA and they transferred the information on it to my external hard drive. You may want to look into this if you have not tried it already, it is not expensive ($40) and they can do it in just a day or two. My computer was back to normal a week after it fatally crashed (I had to get a new hard drive, luckily though,… Read more »

Steven Fisher
Steven Fisher
11 years ago

You can still use Apple Mail, you should just be using IMAP instead of POP3.

It’s worth paying for a good IMAP if you can’t find another way to do it and you can find other features you want. Spamcop will slurp your old POP account, for instance.

Steve in Denmark
Steve in Denmark
11 years ago

I keep very, very little on the actual laptop. Everything is on external (LaCie) hard-drives, iTunes, Photos, everything except programmes. I back up onto DVD every time I’ve 4 Gbs of stuff in the back-up folders and I back up all my photos to DVD every 6 months. Automator backs up my financial spreadsheets every Monday (if you keep stuff on your Mac, you could do worse than set up a few Automator back-up programmes to copy things over to an external drive – link it with iCal to do it every few days or so, then you always have… Read more »

Steven Fisher
Steven Fisher
11 years ago

Also, if you’re not using Time Machine, you should be. If you haven’t upgraded to Leopard yet (and your hardware supports it) now is the time. If your hardware doesn’t support it, it’s time to start looking for a new-to-you MacBook.

Brian Slick
Brian Slick
11 years ago

You don’t necessarily need to use GMail exclusively. What is more important is using an email service that provides IMAP access. GMail and MobileMe both do, and both provide web interfaces. You can have your local email client, and still have the benefit of having your email anywhere.

Also, for local backup, look into something like Drobo.

Ken, Seattle, WA
Ken, Seattle, WA
11 years ago

How did you try to recover the files? Putting it in external hard drive enclosure? THats one of the best ways.

Invest in some external mirror back up hard drives. And set up some automatic backup software.

Amy
Amy
11 years ago

My husband is almost paranoid when it comes to backing-up the computer. We have 2 external hard drives. The one with the most recent back-up lives in our safety deposit box at the bank and we switch them out about every other month. For his work info he actually set his calendar to remind him to back-up his work more often so he’s sure to do it.

jrh
jrh
11 years ago

Backing up locally is important and there are a lots of ways to do it. Find one that works for you. That’s your FIRST line of defense. Also, however, you MUST MUST MUST backup remotely. If you have some kind of local disaster (fire, flood, collapse, whatever), all of you local backups could be gone in a poof. I am currently using Mozy Home….unlimited backup, $4.95/mo. I am currently backing up about 70 GB of data for $60/yr. That’s a great deal. If you don’t have too much data, look at Jungle Disk – VERY low rates for small amounts… Read more »

Linda
Linda
11 years ago

Email Itunes and beg beg beg to have them restore what they still have on the site. I lost everything last month and Itunes was super about doing this the one time and they sent me an email on backing up everything. Try emailing them.

Jennifer
Jennifer
11 years ago

I don’t know if I trust Google to back up your data, either. Free services that they’re under no obligation to back up, ensure availability, etc…

I use a combination of Mozy for offsite backup and an external hard drive. I use Syncback (Windows only I believe, there are better Mac alternatives) to automatically back up to the external drive.

I download my Gmail with Thunderbird and back THAT up too.

I trust Google with a lot, but not ALL my data.

the.arctic
the.arctic
11 years ago

I’ve known 8 people who have had drive failures with Macs. Three of those were in the same month last year. Not to mention a motherboard failure and a CPU failure. Apple charges premium prices for their excellent design and then skimps on the actual hardware. The solution is quite simple. If you have an Apple product, replace the hard drive before its inevitable failure. Or, y’know buy a better, and invariably cheaper, laptop and hack OS X to run on it.

heather
heather
11 years ago

i had a very close call with data loss just two weeks ago. my external hard drive (home to every photo i’ve taken in the last 8 years) wouldn’t start up after going away for thanksgiving. very luckily, i was able to coax it back to life and retrieve my photos (and other files) and transfer everything to the new external drive i had to purchase. not only did the incident cost me $150 dollars i hadn’t planned on spending, it also cost me a lost night of sleep with worry. luckily, that’s all it cost me. backups are essential.… Read more »

guinness416
guinness416
11 years ago

Gah! I sympathize, this happened to me a few months ago (although it was more of a rage-induced slamming of the laptop than a crash – I learned my lesson). If you have your tunes on an iPod, copytrans (formerly copypod) is wonderful.

Mark
Mark
11 years ago

Check out http://www.grc.com/sr/spinrite.htm

You can’t start the process on a Mac, but if you can put the harddrive in a Windows box and boot up spinrite, you can recover most hard drives (filesystem independent).

I’d say its definitely worth the money to try.

–Mark

Paul
Paul
11 years ago

Very sorry to hear about the crash, JD. I’ll second Steven’s Time Machine recommendation. While you won’t have a bootable copy of your drive (if done over a wireless network, at least), you *will* have something. I do this over our home’s wifi and it’s splendid – fully automatic and transparent.

My hard drive died about a month ago with no warning, and Time Machine saved me.

Chris G.
Chris G.
11 years ago

My recommendations: Mail – Use Gmail, but you can turn on the IMAP feature and setup Apple Mail to interface with it. The best of both worlds, a desktop e-mail client, a web interface when away from your computer, and both perfectly in sync. Read something on one and it shows up read on the other. Likewise for deletes, folder moves, etc. Local backup – Get an external hard drive and use Time Machine that comes with Mac OS X Leopard. Backups are done every hour of changes and it is a real simple interface to restore files. Better yet,… Read more »

Adam Brock
Adam Brock
11 years ago

Do you still have access to the crashed hard drive? If so, we’ve had very good luck with data recovery from a company called Gillware (http://www.gillware.com/). They’ll give you a free estimate on the cost of recovering the data from the drive, and can usually do it without voiding the manufacturer’s warranty. Most of the drives we’ve sent off have been recovered for less than $500.

\\ACB

JC
JC
11 years ago

I am very paranoid about this catastrophe happening to myself again. I have a similar story of losing everything on my last pc, but I am sure I didn’t have near as much data as you did. I recently bought a new pc, and have been doing regular back ups since I bought it. I have a large external drive, and I leave it completely unplugged from the power source and from my pc. The only time I ever connect it is to back up the most recent files, then I unplug and get it back to safe keeping. so… Read more »

AppleMan
AppleMan
11 years ago

JD,
Definitely email Itunes about your library. The same thing happened to me a few years back and they were pretty good about it.

Dave M.
Dave M.
11 years ago

My backup solution for my laptop is HARDWARE 2(500 GB) Iomega External Drives, for redundancy [email protected]$90/ea=$180 SOFTWARE Syncback Freeware http://www.2brightsparks.com/downloads.html#freeware My External Hard Drives (E:,F:) are hooked up to a USB Hub, which I leave plugged in to my laptop (C:). At night, Syncback runs C:\-Hard Drive C:\***\ ! Primary working folder on laptop E:\ ! Silo1 Primary backup of C:\ -Updated daily F:\- ! Silo2 Redundant backup of C:\ -Updated daily -Operates on different surge protector -In addition, everyday E: and F: are synchronized, this is so that other files kept only in long term archival storage on E:… Read more »

Greg
Greg
11 years ago

Something similar happened to my friend’s brother’s G4 macbook. His HDD went corrupt and the “Geniuses” told him to run the HDD repair utility (or whatever it’s called in osx) which would be a good idea if it actually could boot into osx. All he wanted was the pictures on it since it contained pictures from when his first daughter was born. I managed to get them off after some command lime finagling. Like you, he had an external hard drive but only used it once when he received it a few years ago. Really it’s difficult to get into… Read more »

Chester
Chester
11 years ago

I have been working very hard in my spare time to get my backup strategy in order this year. I have seen too many of my friends and family loose all of their files, including all their home movies and digital pictures, to let this happen to me. I have several PCs so I built a Windows Home Server from the spare parts I had around the house. It cost about $300 but was more than worth it as it saved my digital photos just last month. You can buy the whole server from HP for around $500. The server… Read more »

Duston
Duston
11 years ago

While I have no experience with Macs a great solution for the Windows users who may be interested is Windows Home Server. You pick up something like HP’s MediaSmart Server for less then $600. It will schedule backups for all your Windows XP/Vista PC’s on your network daily. It has a lot of other features as well, if anyone is interested Google for Paul Thurrott’s Windows Home Server review. If you don’t like gMail’s web interface you can use any client that supports POP3 or IMAP. I personaly use Thunderbird and POP3 but have many clients who use IMAP on… Read more »

LM
LM
11 years ago

Agree with above posters about trying data recovery. There is one company out there, whose name I simply cannot remember, who has a $89.99 product you can try. If it doesn’t work for you, they will refund the money. If it DOES work, I’m sure you’ll find it is well worth the money. Gosh I wish I could remember for you! Try a google search. We have a network drive hooked to our Airport that allows for regular Time Machine backups. I rarely notice it happening. I highly recommend it. Upgrade to Mac OS 10.5 if you haven’t already. (FYI… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

First, thanks for all of the great suggestions. Here are some more details about my situation: The Apple Store already has my computer and has ordered a replacement drive. I have no idea what there policy is for dead drives. I’ll contact them to see if I can keep (or buy) the dead drive from them, and then try to use one of the services you guys have suggested. One thing that I sometimes forget (and that’s part of why I got into this pickle) is that GRS is a business, and as such, it warrants spending money to solve… Read more »

D
D
11 years ago

I got roped into using Dreamhost a few years ago since my first year was really cheap (a consumer finance story in its own), but now that I keep it up with my and my family’s websites on it, I use it for all kinds of backup. My dad backs up his entire computer to it using SyncBack SE; I use their subversion installation to manage my code and provide a backup, and I used to back up all my files to it (read on). I also just started using dropbox to sync my documents across my computers and serve… Read more »

Steven
Steven
11 years ago

This may be a bit more costly than you’re use to but consider getting a beefy desktop built with a minimum of four identical hard drives (preferrably large ones with good RPM and seek time) and put it into a raid 5 configuration. My recommendation personally is 6 hard drives. It’ll not only boost performance overall but will AUTO backup your hard drives. Here is the beauty of this setup, if one of your hard drive should fail, remove it, replace it with an equivalent hard drive, and all the data will be restored exactly the way it was before… Read more »

John McCarthy
John McCarthy
11 years ago

Another vote for mozy.com. I sleep a lot better at night knowing that a backup is run every evening…

Khürt Williams
Khürt Williams
11 years ago

J.D. This one of the main reasons I live in the cloud. Gmail and Mail.app, Google Docs iCal sync to Google Calendar iPhoto uloads to Flickr or Google’s Picasa iMovie uploads to Vimeo AddressBook to Plaxo You do not need RAID and all that other junk. RAID 5 is NOT a backup solution. RAID is designed to “achieve greater levels of performance, reliability, and/or larger data volume sizes.” Large enterprises do NOT use RAID for backup. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redundant_array_of_independent_disks#Standard_levels Get yourself a network based drive or external FireWire/USB drive and perform regular backups ( if you have a Mac set it up… Read more »

Ryan S.@uncommon-cents.net
11 years ago

Sorry to hear that. Did you try Data Rescue II? I’ve saved lots of data for others with that. I could try it if you want.

reinkefj
reinkefj
11 years ago

The Time Machine was the final straw that moved me from Microsoft / Dell over to Mac. I find it astonishing that you had it and didn’t have it configured. Shoemaker’s children going barefoot too?

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@reinkefj
The sad thing is that I used to do computer consulting. I frequently gave the “you need to do backups” lecture. So, yes this is a case of the shoemaker’s children going barefoot.

I just called the Apple Store. They said that if I had requested to have my drive returned at the time I submitted the computer for repair, they could have complied, but that now it’s too late. Too bad I didn’t post this before I took the laptop in…

Jarretthere
Jarretthere
11 years ago

Don’t remember whose tag it was, but this sums it up well: “He who laughs last, has backed up most recently.” Since I work in IT, as a 9-5 and as a side business, I often have to cringe after asking, “When was the first time you backed up your data?” Lots of great advice above, just find what fits for your budget and your degree of paranoia, because with all electro-mechanical devices, it is not a matter of IF it fails, it is a matter of WHEN it will fail. I personally use a second hard drive in my… Read more »

Avlor
Avlor
11 years ago

Lifehacker had a fabulous article on setting up an automatic backup to an external drive for windows machines – here.

If you’re REALLY paranoid – then an external hard drive AND online backup (I saw several links in the comments above, So I won’t add to them) may be the combo to use.

Justin
Justin
11 years ago

That really sucks J.D. I hope you can get anything important back from other sources. My job for the past 3 years has been as a ‘Data Protection’ specialist, which is a fancy way of saying I set up backup systems for billion dollar companies. The best advice I’ve seen for personal or small business backups is in this post by Jamie Zawinski: http://jwz.livejournal.com/801607.html @Khürt Williams You’re right that enterprises use multiple drives to achieve better read performance. The word ‘reliability’ is in there, too, so yes, RAID is also used for backups. A 2 drive mirror can also be… Read more »

Zippy_Slug
Zippy_Slug
11 years ago

Ouch.. wholy carp that sucks..

I’ve about 6 years of digital photos on my desktop and I finally broke down and got a backup solution.. External hard drives are cheap now and huge.. even though they may not be fast, mine backs up everything important overnight.. I guess there is a chance of a lighting strike and loosing everything..

There’s always those off-site upload backup type places.. don’t know how long those would take to send everything.

Tom
Tom
11 years ago

Use Mozy.com

2gb of free backup, or only $5 a month for unlimited.

use my referral link and get an extra 256mb. (and i’ll get extra space too)

https://mozy.com/?ref=2LSDZ1

(if referral links aren’t kosher, just snip that part)

Tom
Tom
11 years ago

Forgot to mention,

I wrote an article on how to do free* offsite backups. Its a bit complex, and not for the non-techie, but if you’re interested, have a read:
http://freeoffsitebackup.googlepages.com

Aaron
Aaron
11 years ago

+1 for Windows Home Server

lauralou
lauralou
11 years ago

so sorry to hear about this! i too fail to back up the majority of my work, and this may bite me in the ass someday. in fact, i think i’ll back up my (completed) thesis this afternoon.

anyway, if you had any gift certificates from amazon, they should be able to resend them to you. my parents deleted the ones i sent them last christmas, so i contacted customer service and they resent them to me right away. good luck!

Danna
Danna
11 years ago

So, it’s too late for JD, but this is the service my husband and I used earlier this year, when our laptop hard drive crashed.

http://www.aerodr.com/

They charge a $279 flat rate and only charge you if they can recover your data. We had a good experience with them and they cost a lot less than similar services.

Danna

Jean MacDonald
Jean MacDonald
11 years ago

For Macs, it’s best to use Time Machine and SuperDuper. Time Machine keeps multiple versions of your files, which is handy if you’ve screwed up a document and want to get an earlier version of it. SuperDuper creates a “clone” of your hard drive that you can use to restore your hard drive (or a new hard drive or new computer). You can actually run your Mac off the clone if your hard drive dies. You can keep the TimeMachine and SuperDuper backups on the same external hard drive. I highly recommend an ebook called “Take Control of Mac OS… Read more »

Larry Gordon
Larry Gordon
11 years ago

I’ve had several hard drives fail on me over the years. I do web and applications development and there’s nothing worse than to loose your data. My work is done 100% on a laptop. I learned many years ago that you can’t rely on your laptop hard drive to last more than 2 years. Just a few notes: 1. Never move your laptop while it’s on and the HD is spinning. 2. The more you move/travel with your laptop the more likely that you are shortening the life of your HD. A couple of years ago I found a great… Read more »

mb
mb
11 years ago

i must be the only person alive who still does this, but burn the music onto cds as well as an external hard drive. the cds are at my parents house, along with a memory stick for important documents. i email everything to myself as well. if my computer dies again, or gets stolen, i know where everything is. good luck with everything.

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