There's a joke about there being two kinds of people: those who back up their data and those who haven't lost everything yet. It's painfully true. Losing your files can be heartbreaking, career-ruining, and expensive if you need to hire an expert to help you recover them. Backing up your data is a preventative measure that avoids all those problems. Backing up sounds like a tedious chore, but it doesn't have to be. There's a backup solution for every kind of person—the lazy, the diligent, and the rest of us.
My take on backing up is that anything is better than nothing. Even my backup plan is a little scattered. Most of my files are backed up to Dropbox, though my professional work is all in Google Drive. Still, if any one of my computers or phones were to crash, get stolen, or burn up in a fire, I would be able to put the pieces of my digital life back together. It wouldn't be fun or simple, but I could do it. So it's not an ideal plan, but it's something.
If you're more ambitious or you've been burned by data loss in the past, you're probably ready for a thorough plan that makes restoring all your data nearly effortless. The most thorough plan involves making at least two backups, such as one online and one local. A thorough strategy costs more to maintain and takes a little extra time to set up. A lot of us would rather trade some risk for a simpler solution, and that's perfectly ok.
How to Back Up Your Data: The Lazy Person's Plan
Can you back up your data with minimal effort and not pay anything to do it? Yes, but your plan will have some weaknesses.
If you're a bit lazy and you don't want to spend any money, think about backing up your most important data first. What's most important? It might be your photos, contacts, or scanned documents, like old tax paperwork. It might be "everything on my phone but not my computer." Whatever the case, identify it. What's most important to you?
The next step is to ask yourself, "Is there a file syncing service or online backup plan that would be a natural fit?" For example, if your most important stuff is on an iPhone, the easiest solution is to turn on iCloud to back up your phone. You get 5GB for free if you own an Apple device, and you can choose how much of your phone to back up. For example, you can back up the device and all its settings but not back up any apps. Or you might choose to only back up the photos you take. Sure, you might need to pay for more storage space now or down the line, but iCloud+ (the paid version of iCloud) doesn't cost much at all, starting at 99 cents per month for 50GB. The real benefit is you don't need to do any work other than flip a few switches when deciding what to back up—no researching providers and their plans or setting up new software.
If many of your most important files are on computers, a file syncing service with a good amount of free storage is a great place to start. Here are a few file-syncing apps that PCMag recommends and how much free storage each one offers:
Google Drive (15GB; this space is shared with Gmail files)
Microsoft OneDrive (5GB)
You don't have to pick just one. You can have accounts with all these services if you want. For example, you could back up your work files to Google Drive, put your photos on Box, and keep PDFs of old scanned documents on OneDrive. By spreading out your data, you're less likely to hit the free storage limits.
All these services are excellent for lazy people because they take minutes to set up and really no time at all to maintain. They're set-it-and-forget products. You install a piece of software and select the files or folders you want to back up. That's it.
If your machine crashes, gets stolen or sinks to the bottom of a lake, you can go to the website of the service you're using, log in, and get your files back.
One downside of spreading your files across a few different services is it takes longer to restore them than if you had all your data backed up in one place. As I said, this plan isn't perfect, but you may be willing to tolerate its weaknesses for a free and quick solution.
How to Back Up Your Data: The Goldilocks Plan
If you're willing to do just a little more work and pay a little bit of money, you can get a lot more value out of your backup plan. A good mid-level effort backup plan would be to pay for a larger amount of storage from a syncing service or online backup tool. That way, you can consolidate all your data into one place. With this type of plan, you can choose to back up your entire system or just important files and data.
Having all your files together means you can restore them or move them to a new device in one fell swoop. You don't have to hunt around to different services to get everything back, the way you would if your data were spread out over several free services.
For this kind of backup, you'll likely end up paying roughly $50 to $75 per year.
Based on hands-on testing, PCMag's top two picks in this category are IDrive and ShadowProtect SPX Desktop (Windows only). Another good option is Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office, which bundles together backup tools and security software, but it's slow.
ShadowProtect and Acronis are online backup services, but not file-syncing apps. IDrive is both. The difference is online backup tools emphasize backing up and restoring your whole computer, whereas syncing apps focus on syncing files and data as their primary job. File-syncing services make the most recent version of your files available to you across multiple devices, and by default, they provide a backup. However, they don't give you robust tools for restoring your files, settings, and system data in the case of a data loss. Online backup services do. They also help you choose exactly what to back up and how often.
The only weakness in using a single, dedicated online backup tool or syncing service is that you're trusting all your data to one company. If the company hosting your files goes kablooey, what would you do? In a best-case scenario, a company will give you plenty of advance warning before it goes under so that you can retrieve and move your files. In reality, sometimes companies fall apart overnight without warning. How do you create a stopgap for that problem? Simple: You take a perfectionist's approach. You back up all your files in more than one place.
How to Back Up Your Data: The Perfectionist Plan
Perfectionists will tell you there are three rules to backing up: redundancy, redundancy, and redundancy. So, let's talk about making three copies of your files.
The first copy is the original file on your device.
The second copy is one made by an online backup service or file-syncing service.
The third copy is one that's backed up to a secondary local hard drive.
Several online backup providers also offer software that saves your data to local storage for this kind of redundancy. But a true perfectionist will want to have a local copy of their data, too. Why? In addition to creating a third copy of your files, a hard drive also makes it easier and faster to get your files back. You don't need to rely on an Internet connection and you aren't waiting for hours while files download from the cloud to your computer. Some online backup companies offer a service where upon request, they will mail you a hard drive with all your files on it so you can restore them, but even then, you lose a day or two waiting for the hard drive to arrive, and it doesn't solve the problem of only one company holding your only backup.
To make this local copy, you need local backup software. You can use Acronis or ShadowProtect (which I mentioned earlier) or even something that might be included with your computer, such as the Backup and Restore tool in Windows or TimeMachine for Mac.
How much does this kind of plan cost? If you buy the software rather than using something included, plan to pay around $100 a year for online services. And unless you already own a beefy hard drive, plan to spend $100 to $200 for a good quality hard drive. You can easily spend thousands of dollars, but you don't have to. Browse our recommended external hard drives (or our list of the best external hard drives for Macs) for a sense of what you can get for your money.
Does this all sound like too much work and expense to you? That's fine. This level of protection isn't for everyone.
Start Backing Up Your Stuff Today
The important thing isn't having a perfect backup plan; it's having any backup plan at all. It helps to have the right backup plan for your budget, your willingness to actually carry out the plan, and your tolerance of risk. There's no shame in going with the quick-and-dirty minimal option, because in the case of a data loss, having something is better than nothing. The only truly bad plan is putting it off indefinitely because eventually, everyone suffers a crash, a theft, or a disaster. It's only a matter of time.
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