Adam Schoales
Editor. Geek. Tea Drinker.

Adam Schoales : : Blog

Thoughts, process, and other ramblings.


Got A Backup Plan?

It happens to the best of us. The hot new OS update comes out and we can’t wait to try it. We download it and, despite our better judgement, install it without first backing up our computer. Upon completion you discover a bunch of your important apps aren’t compatible, and you're stuck with a fancy new OS, but a bunch of broken apps. Or worse, the install goes hay-wire and you’ve bricked your computer. If only you had backed up first! 


Simply put, if you aren’t backing up your computer you need to be. Recently I had a friend ask me the easiest way to do so, and I realized that for non-technically inclined people (or just people who aren’t super nerds like me) this may not seem as obvious as it should. The good news is, it's actually much easier than you think, and I'm going to explain to you how.

There’s an old saying in the industry, “if it doesn’t exist in three places, it doesn’t exist”. That might sound like overkill, but what happens if your apartment catches on fire and destroys both your laptop and your back-up drive? That’s why ideally you should have both an on-site and off-site backup. Don't worry! It’s a lot easier than you think. 

I’m going to walk you through three incredibly simple ways to back-up your computer. If you opt for all three methods you’re a superstar, and you will pretty much be covered no matter what happens, but at the very least you should pick one method. 


Do you have a Mac? If so then you’ve got literally one of the very best backup methods built into your computer. If you haven’t heard of Time Machine, it basically automatically backs up your computer, in the background, without any intervention on your part. It’s very much a "set it and forget it" method. More than that, it does incremental backups and versioning. In other words, you can actually “go back in time” to certain dates and pull down older versions of files. I actually used this feature a number of times, including one time in university when I somehow managed to accidentally overwrite my essay with several pages being removed. Pro tip: don't do that. But if you have Time Machine running and you do, you'll be okay!

Because Time Machine does these incremental back ups you’re going to want to make sure you have a hard drive that is actually bigger than your internal drive. How big? At least double, but the bigger the better. I’m a big fan of the Western Digital MyBooks. They’re cheap and reliable enough, and with Black Friday around the corner you can probably get a decent deal. Get the largest drive you can afford, because the bigger the drive, the more data it can hold, which means the further “back in time” you can go.

The Time Machine preference pane. As you can see my backups date back to earlier this February.

The Time Machine preference pane. As you can see my backups date back to earlier this February.

However, this also highlights one of the downsides with Time Machine; you have to have a hard drive plugged in. For desktop machines that’s not so much of a problem, but with laptops it can be a bit of a pain. However there is an even better, albeit more costly, solution. Apple sells an item called the Time Capsule which is essentially a (slightly overpriced) wireless router with a built in hard drive. This means that you can set the Time Capsule as your backup drive and as long as you are connected to the Time Capsule WiFi network your computer will automatically back up, wirelessly. It’s actually pretty amazing. You can also backup multiple computers to the same Time Capsule, which is really handy if you live with less technically inclined people (if you are going to go this route I once again suggest buying a larger capacity Time Capsule to ensure you can store as much data as possible).

Of course, you do need to make sure to actually turn on your computer, and leave it on long enough to backup every once and a while but for most of us that won’t ever be a problem. Side note: if you do go this route, you’ll likely want to connect directly to the Time Capsule via ethernet for the initial backup as pushing tens of hundreds of gigabytes over wireless can be painfully slow. Once the initial backup is done however, it’s smooth sailing. 


This is perhaps the more old school method, but also an incredibly handy one. Essentially you are going to clone your computer hard drive to an external hard drive. It’s best if it’s portable so that once you finished your clone you can perhaps bring it to the office (remember what I said about offsite backups?) and leave it there until your next clone. When should your next clone be? It’s up to you. If you’re hardcore, you could do it every night. Slightly less hard core? Once a week. I set a reminder to do this every month on the first day of the month because I'm already running Time Machine. 

There’s lots of software out there that can help you do the clone, but my personal favourite is SuperDuper! which has been around for ages and just works. There’s a free version and a paid version but for most people the free version should work just fine. A word of warning though: most of this software will erase whatever is on your external drive before it clones, so make sure you’re not using the external drive you keep all your baby photos and music library on. I made this mistake once and, well, lets just say I lost everything. I highly suggest picking up a cheap portable drive on Amazon. I’m a big fan of the Western Digital Passport Ultras. They tend to go on sale fairly often too. And because you’re doing a direct clone of your drive it need only be as big as your internal drive. 

It is important to note however, that unlike Time Machine this process is not automatic. You have to remember to actually make the clone (and verify that the clone works). However should your internal drive fail, this is definitely the easiest way to get up and running again since you can easily use your clone to restore your files to your replacement drive.


Want to kill two birds with one stone, or are you just supremely lazy? Then online backup is the way to go! You get a solid backup, it's totally automatic, and it's offsite. I've tried many of these services over the years (no seriously, I must have tried them all) and my favourite is Backblaze. For $5 bucks month you can back up your entire computer to the cloud. It works a lot like Time Machine in that it will run in the background and backup the contents of your drive, only instead of doing so to an external hard drive it goes up into the cloud. It’s the ultimate “set it and forget it” method. It has versioning support (though it lacks the fancy interface that Time Machine has), and will even backup your external drives if you tell it to. And because it’s in the cloud you can access it anywhere, meaning if you’re at work and forgot to bring that file from home you needed you can simply log in, and download it (so long as it’s been backed up). If you’re whole hard drive dies, Backblaze can ship you an external hard drive with all your data for you to restore from (SuperDuper! would come in really handy here). 

There is one minor downside though, and that’s bandwidth. If you’ve got a lot of data to backup that initial backup is going to take some time. A looooooong time. Especially if, like most people, you don’t have a particularly fast upload connection. However, so long as you just leave your computer on it will finish eventually, and once that initial backup is done it only backs up new files and will take much less time. 

If I had to pick just one method I would probably suggest this one as it doesn’t require you to go out and buy any new hardware, and is very much a “set it and forget it” option. It also makes a great gift for family/friends who aren’t great with computers. You can set it up for them, and not even tell them it’s running. And hopefully they’ll never need to know, but if you ever get that call you’ll have a solution. Use my referral link and we both get a month free.


I said earlier that if a file doesn’t exist in three places it doesn’t exist, and I firmly believe that. However, I also understand that most people aren’t going to take the time and effort to make sure that’s the case. The fact is backups are usually something you don’t think about until it’s too late, and I know all to well the sinking feeling of losing everything. So don’t let that happen! Any one of these methods is good (two is better, and three is best). Believe me, you’ll be happy you took the time to do so. And if you're stuck trying to come up with a Christmas gift for your family members, setting their computer up so they have a backup too is one of the best gifts you can give!

Tip, TutorialAdam SchoalesComment