The Smart Way To Backup Your Stuff Part 3: Cloud Storage, Dropbox and Google

So you’ve got a good local backup, now you can move beyond that and backup nearly everything as you work, and synchronizing it across all your computers and devices. This is what I call a cloud backup. There’s nothing like your stuff being backed up nearly as quickly as you edit it.

I’ve reviewed Dropbox and Google Drive, so you can pick between the two. Personally I like Dropbox because it comes with a lot of your folders already set up for you and some cool extra features. I will describe how to do this with Dropbox, but if you replace “Dropbox” with “Google Drive”, it works the same. I’ve added a few Google specific items to the end of this post for convenience.

This is pretty much the smartest thing you can do with your files besides constructing your own cloud backup system in a secure facility.

If you are unsure what the term “cloud” refers to, here’s a pretty good YouTube video explaining it. For our purposes here I am talking only about “Cloud Storage”, which is storing your stuff on an internet based service.

Moving Your Stuff To Dropbox

First thing you need to do is check your Dropbox Folder. It comes with a few sub-folders already set up. You should already have a Photos folder, and you may or may not have the a Documents folder. If you don’t have one, right-click any of the white space in your Dropbox folder and select “New -> Folder” and name it “Documents”.

Stuff You Should Move To Dropbox

Read the below information carefully as Dropbox is much more suited to some things than others. I’m assuming all you have is the starter 2 gigabytes. If you have more space you can add more of these things to Dropbox.

Documents – Most likely if you took all your Documents on your PC and put them in Dropbox it wouldn’t take up 10% of the space. Move them all over first. Doesn’t really matter what kind of Document it is, move it. The programs for editing those documents can work out of your Dropbox folder just fine.

Pictures – You can actually store a lot of pictures in 2 gigabytes. Move your most important photos to Dropbox first. This is what most people want a copy of anyway. Put them in the Photos file. Bonus: Storing your photos on Dropbox gets you a cool slide show on the web interface!

Videos – Dropbox is not a good option for backing up your video collection. They are usually just too big. Now if you have extra space you could probably fit a few of them on here. I’ll talk more about this in another article.

Music – Like Videos, Dropbox isn’t really for music backups. You can put some here but your local backup is really the best place for it.

Now once Dropbox has synced, you can actually work on your Documents directly from your Dropbox folder. This is a really good idea to start doing this as they are automatically backed up every time you save the file.

I also have a few Portable Apps on Dropbox and put my website backups there as well. Just about anything you want to keep handy can be placed there, including data files from a few programs.

Some applications are coming out these days that can work directly with Dropbox too.

 

The Advantages of Working Out Of Dropbox

So now that you have your Documents, Pictures and maybe some of your music moved over to Dropbox you should exclusively work on these things out of the Dropbox Folder. What I mean by this is, when you want to make a change to a file, open your Dropbox folder and change the file in there. The reasons are many, but I’ll show you a practical example of how great it is.

Step 1 – Go install Dropbox on another PC that you own. Use the account that you set up for the computer it is already on.

Step 2 – Open your Dropbox folder after about 5 – 10 minutes. You NEED to be on the internet.

Step 3 – Make a new Document of some kind, say a Word Document in your Documents folder. Type some stuff in it. Save it. Close the document.

Step 4 – Check the Dropbox Documents folder on your other PC (The one you didn’t make the document on). The new file is now there.
Step 5 – Make a change on the original computer you installed Dropbox on.

Step 6 – Check the same file on your second computer. The changes will automatically update.

Optional Step – Go to Dropbox.com on your work PC. Sign in to the site. You’ll see your stuff in the web interface there.

This is the power of cloud storage. In this case it is always up to date. If all your PC’s crash, your stuff is still in Dropbox and will download as soon as you install it on another PC. You can use it practically anywhere in the world.

 

Your Smartphone and Dropbox

Go ahead and get the Dropbox App for your phone. They have Android, IOS, and Blackberry. Sign into it there. Your stuff is now on your Smartphone and accessible from it. If you have Android or iPhone go ahead and get the free copy of Quick Office. You can view and edit  your documents from your phone now if you need to. If you save it on your phone, it synchronizes to your PC’s pretty much instantly.

 

Specifically About Your Pictures

Dropbox has a cool “Camera Upload” function that will automatically upload photos to a “Camera Uploads” folder in your Dropbox folder. So when you plug in your Camera, Flash media (SD/xD/MMC/Compact Flash cards), or a USB drive to your computer and it finds pictures, it can automatically save them to your Drobox account. This is great actually as it automatically backs your stuff up and can be shared instantly with other Dropbox users if you so wish.

At least on the Android app you can set it to automatically upload your pictures when you take them from your phone (or automatically upload when you are on WiFi).

So now you’ve got your pictures automatically backed up from two kinds of devices without even having to worry.

 

A Few Things About Google Services

I said this article was going to be mainly about Dropbox, but it’s worth mentioning a few things if you are a Google fan like myself. If you use Google services for your stuff, it’s pretty much constantly backed up. You can also access most, if not all, of your stuff stored on your Google account from your smartphone/tablet. There are a few things you should consider doing that may not be enabled by default.

I will say before anything else, Google mines data from your stuff. I’m not sure how far this goes, if they mine everything you put in your Google account or not, but I’d assume so. Just be careful what you put on the internet.

Sign Up For Google+ – If you do this and get the Android app for G+ (and possible the iPhone app too) there is a setting that will have it automatically upload your photos from your phone to G+. Don’t worry, by default these photos are not shared, you have to specifically share them.

I can’t stress enough how awesome this is. There’s a commercial I saw about a guy who took all his baby’s pictures with his phone (bad idea), didn’t put them on his computer (bad idea) and then proceeded to lose his phone (very bad idea). He was not aware that it was automatically uploading his stuff to his Google account. His relief when he found out he hadn’t lost his son’s pictures must have been tangible from two states over. I can personally vouch for how great this is, having lost some stuff myself.

Photos Not From Your Phone – Google Drive doesn’t have any sort of auto-upload functionality yet so you’ll probably have to do this manually. Picasa will allow you to do this. If you don’t already use it, I’d suggest starting. I’m sure Google will add this functionality soon.

Sub-Folders – Sadly you’ll have to make all  your sub-folders manually. This may not be true if you have a new Gmail account. Mine’s pretty old and didn’t come with any default folders. I think this is due partly to Google having it’s own organizational methods. I may circle back to using Drive more effectively in another post and address this.

Use Google Docs – Unless you have some privacy concerns, it’s worth noting that Google Docs has most of the same basic features as Microsoft Office. From a web browser no less. Go ahead and just use it for your word processor, spreadsheets, presentations and all that if you aren’t required to use Office for some reason.

E-mail and Contacts – If you’re using Google for all this, it’s worth repeating that you should make a habit of entering ALL your contacts directly into Gmail. If you do this they are syncronized to your smartphone as well. You can also have Gmail check your other e-mail accounts and dump it all into one place, which is handy. Check Part 1 about how to do this.

The Smart Way To Backup Your Stuff Part 2: Local Backups

I’ve talked about local backups before and how important they are. Let me take a moment to define a local backup before I move on to how to do this cheaply, easily, and quickly.

So if you haven’t organized your stuff already go ahead and do that. Just make sure everything is split up by library, and don’t worry about getting too detailed about it.

The first thing you need is a good external hard drive, or a large thumb drive if you just have documents and no pictures. I’m going to assume you have some of all the categories in the previous article, so go get a large external Hard Drive. I recommend getting at least a 1.5 terabyte hard drive. If you can find one with twice as much space as your computer though, that isn’t too much.

Choosing an External Drive

If you just want someone to say “Get this drive” I’ve provided some links below to some good drives on Amazon. You can skip this brief part if that is you. If you want a little more information I’ll explain external hard drives a little so you can make a better choice.

There are, for our purposes, two kinds of external drives to look at. One is what are called “Desktop Drives”. These are bigger external drives that need a power supply and sit on your desk. They aren’t meant to be portable, hence the “desktop” part. These are usually where you find the most capacity for the lowest price. You will find these referred to as 3.5” hard drives. This is referring to the physical size of the hard drive inside it.

The other is the portable drive. These are usually smaller, many no bigger than a large cell phone, and are meant to be carried around. These are sometimes called 2.5” hard drives because they use the smaller form factor drives found in laptops. They are usually a touch more expensive, and their capacity is smaller than the desktop ones for the same price. The advantage they have is that they don’t require an AC adapter to work. They run off the power provided by your computer’s USB port.

Personally, I recommend having one of each, especially if you travel. If you get only one, get a portable drive as they are usually a little more rugged. I’ve had the desktop ones die from getting dropped six inches on carpet. You need to get the highest capacity one you can afford. You can get a 1 Terabyte drive for about $99.

If you have multiple PC’s in the house, get a desktop version and hook it up to your main desktop. I will post how to back up multiple machines automatically soon.

Backing Up Your Computer

Ok so you have an external hard drive and you want to back your stuff up. I’ll show you how to do a manual backup, and an automatic backup.

Now I’m going to assume you got a hard drive bigger than the one in your computer. If you have a 1 terabyte hard drive in your computer, you should have at very least a 1.5 terabyte external drive. What we’re going to do is back things up twice.

Quick and Dirty File Backup

So here’s how to do a manual, fast backup. This has no capacity for going back in time and restoring earlier versions of a file. This backup accomplishes two things: It gets you a backup now, and gives you a little peace of mind.

Step 1 – Click your Windows Button.
Step 2 – Click on your Name.
Step 3 – Hold down the CTRL key and click the Documents, Music, Videos, Favorites, Pictures, Desktop and Download folders. This will select all of those folders individually.
Step 4 – Release the CTRL key and right-click on one of the selected folders.
Step 5 – Select “Send to -> “ then select your external drive.
Step 6 – Wait.

This will copy everything in those folders to your external drive. When you want to do this again, repeat Step 1 – 6 and when it asks you if you want to replace the files select “Yes”. Now you have a basic local backup of your stuff. Wasn’t that easy?

Now you just need to remember to do this every so often so that you have a more or less current backup of your files. This kind of backup lets you quickly access your files without having to go through fancy backup software that can sometimes take a while to restore your stuff.

Full System Backup

So now that you have a quick and dirty backup method you can move on to backing up your entire system. This is where that having more capacity on your external drive than your PC comes into play.

You might want to do this before going to bed as it can take a while to complete the first full backup.

Step 1 – Go to your Start Menu and find your Backup and Restore program. This is included with Windows and depending on where you got your computer from it might be under Accessories, Accessories -> System Tools, or Maintenance. It could also be above all the Start Menu folders.

Step 2 – When Backup and Restore loads you’ll see a link stating that Backup has not been set up. Click this link.

Step 3 – On the first screen select your external drive. Mine has a drive letter of J, but yours might say E: and have a slightly different icon depending on manufacturer. Click Next after selecting your drive.

Step 4 – On the next screen, select “Let Windows Choose…”. This is usually the default option. You want this because it will back up EVERYTHING on your computer. This is good because if your hard drive goes out, you can restore from this backup and your computer will be exactly like it was when it was backed up last.

Step 5 – On the next screen leave everything like it is unless you’d rather your computer back up to a different schedule. I find once a week is enough, but you might want once daily backups or something. When done, click “Save Settings and Run Backup”.

Step 6 – Wait on the backup to complete. This can take a while.

Step 7 – When done you’ll want to make a System Repair disc. Put a blank DVD in your DVD burner drive, click the link on the left hand side of the Backup and Recovery screen and follow the instructions.

Step 8 – When the DVD is burned put it in a safe place. You’ll need this disc if your computer crashes and you need to restore your complete backup.

To restore your system from this image, simply boot from the Recovery Disc with your external hard drive plugged in and follow the directions on the screen.

Don’t worry if you don’t have a System Recovery disc for your computer, they’re pretty generic so you can make one from any Windows 7 machine, or download the image for one here: http://neosmart.net/blog/2009/windows-7-system-repair-discs/ (I got this link via Lifehacker.com).

Other Backup Software

I’ve just shown you how to make a near fool-proof backup for your computer that automatically runs every Sunday at 7:00 for your computer. It will restore a machine from a blank hard drive if you have to, or restore specific files. I’ve also shown you how to make a secondary backup of your main files for quick and easy access.

You may want some more advanced software to handle your backups than what Windows comes with. Personally I would suggest that anyone and everyone buy a copy of Acronis True Image Home. This is really the best software out there now. A lot of major businesses use this software for their stuff and it came highly recommended to me. I’ve set up an Amazon store page with this stuff all in one place. The prices are really good on Amazon so I would urge you to buy the software there. I would also buy the family pack if more than one PC is involved.

Nero is also a good backup alternative. I’ve added a link to the Amazon store for it too.

External Hard Drives

I decided to add my recommendations to the store I mentioned above as it puts everything in the right place. I added a few good Seagate and Western Digital drives. Again the prices are really good on Amazon.

So here’s the store.

The Smart Way To Backup Your Stuff Part 1: Basic Organization

As an IT professional I have this near legal obligation to tell people to back their stuff up. I think the State of Texas actually tried passing a law that said, “Every conversation with a computer nerd shall include the phrase ‘back your stuff up’ and ‘Han shot first’.”

The phrase, “backup your stuff”  really annoys me because it doesn’t say anything. Most of the time people just tell me, “Yeah I should really start doing that”, then they don’t. Likely because they have no clue how to do it, or see the price tag on a lot of backup solutions (I also hate the word solution when applied to a piece of hardware or software, as if either solves anything). Or they don’t have time.

So what I’m going to do with this set of articles is show you how to back your stuff up for very little cost, or possibly free. I like free. Also I’m going to talk about how to change your habits so you don’t have to worry about it as much. You’ll have the side benefit of being able to get to your stuff anywhere.

Figure Out What You Need To Backup

You need to spend about five minutes figure out what you need to make a backup of. Some of these backup programs like Carbonite will kind of figure this out for you but, really you should know what you have, where it is and how to back it up manually. You also need to know why your stuff is important.

So let’s take a look at what you might have. Here’s a short list of stuff.

  • Pictures – Family photos are the first thing people ask me about backing up. Most people don’t even care about anything else. If their computer crashes they always ask me to get these back if I can’t do anything else.
  • Videos – Falls under the same class as above. Plus you might have movies you downloaded you might want backed up, or at least put somewhere else so they don’t take up space on your computer
  • Documents – Most home users don’t have just a ton of documents lying around on their computer. You might have a resume, some stuff you brought home from work, maybe that novel you are writing, and some other stuff. Tax papers and things like that fall into the ‘documents’ category as well.
  • Music – A lot of people are really attached to all the songs they’ve downloaded over the years.
  • Applications – The programs you have on your computer.
  • E-Mail – Self Explanatory
  • Contacts – Your phone contact list.

Change Your File Habits

I know a lot of people who just throw everything on the desktop and try to remember what it all looks like and hope for the best. This is a bad idea. One trick to a good backup system is having your stuff organized in the first place and being consistent. I don’t know how many catastrophes I’ve had to deal with that would have never happened if there was a little more organization and consistency.

First of all, use the Libraries in Windows 7/Vista. They’re awesome. Put your music in your music folder (iTunes does this automatically), videos go in Videos, documents go in Documents, and pictures go in the Pictures library. This will not only make things a lot easier to find, it also simplifies what you have to back up, and if you do decide to just buy a backup program it’ll make it a lot easier to recover your stuff.

So if you know where your stuff is now, and it’s not organized, go ahead and take twenty minutes to dump everything in those folders. Don’t worry about making sub folders if don’t have them already, just move everything into its proper Library. I’ll post some suggestions on how to organize this further, but go ahead and just dump everything into their proper folder right now. It’s amazing how little time this actually takes.

Note: Cut and Paste, or drag and drop everything where it need to go. If you Copy and Paste you’ll end up with duplicates, which will cause you to use twice as much space.

Change Your E-Mail and Contacts Habits

I’m going to show you how to do something practical now to ensure some things will probably never get lost.

This applies to small businesses as well as home users. One thing I’m always asked, especially when a cell phone dies is, “How do I get my contacts back?”. The other is “Will I lose my e-mail?” in the case of dead PC’s. Well, if you are only concerned about this when your phone dies, you’ve already lost the game. Personally I used to use one of the utilities that came with my phone to import/export my contacts list to my computer and link it up with Outlook. I then backed up everything from Outlook using the Export feature and making copies of my PST files.

Guess what? I lost all that stuff years ago due to a combination of faulty hardware, and a bad backup! I had to start over.

But guess what? I haven’t had to make a backup of my contacts or e-mail since 2007 and I have every last one of them. I have lost many computers and phones since then.

Here’s what you need to do.

 

Step 1 – Get a Gmail account now.

Step 2 – Use the tools Gmail has to import your e-mail from whatever other service you use, or from Outlook/Outlook Express.

Step 3 – Import all your contacts into Gmail, or enter them manually.

Step 4 – Sync your smart phone to Gmail, this works on Android, iPhone, and Blackberry. Believe me, I know, I’ve done it for dozens of people.

Step 5 – Always use Gmail to add new contacts. Always. No Exceptions. Cool thing, if you enter a new contact on your phone into the Gmail address book, it will sync automatically to Gmail. If  you enter one in Gmail, it will sync automatically to your phone when you open your contacts list!

 

Now, barring Google going out of business and all their stuff being destroyed, you’ve got a pretty solid guarantee of never losing your e-mail and contacts ever again. Plus, they’ll all be with you wherever you go.

Another side benefit is that if you use Google’s online services it can show you your contacts on its other services.

The biggest most awesome benefit when you get a new phone all you have to do is sync it to the same Google account. Like magic everything is on the new phone in a matter of seconds.

Part two about actually making a backup of your stuff will be posted very soon!