Technology March 2007

Crash Insurance

New programs back up everything you do— in real time, online, and automatically.
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My computer is about a thousand times faster than the one I first used in the 1970s. But it doesn’t feel particularly fast. I still spend time waiting for it to do things, especially start up or shut down or do anything involving a PDF file. The programs I use all day run at what seems a normal, not an astonishing, speed.

What does astonish me is how much data today’s computers can handle—which is where a lot of the new computing power has gone. They can create, transmit, format, and index extremely large files, and they can store practically anything. Every digital picture I have ever taken, every message or Web clip I might conceivably want to see again, every version of every document I have ever created—these all fit on my 100-gigabyte laptop hard drive, with room to spare. But the endlessly increasing data we see and store creates a risk of “loss” in two important forms.

Conceptually, the material you want can seem lost if you can’t find it amid all the unrelated files and messages. This is the problem that search engines help solve for the Internet, and that programs that sort and organize, like those described in previous columns (“The Electric Mind Meld,” July/August 2006; “Making Haystacks, Finding Needles,” November 2006), can offset on your own computer. Information can also be lost physically, through fire, theft, disk crash, whatever—and this is not even to mention the obsolescence of computers and formats themselves (see “File Not Found,” September 2006). For many people, the most damaging potential data loss would be their digital photos, since these proliferate so rapidly, are usually impossible to replace, and are so rarely printed out or preserved in other forms.

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As long as people have used computers, they have been lectured to about the importance of making frequent backups to avoid the heartbreak of data loss. But the task has seemed so boring that non-geeks keep putting it off. Among the many nice features of the new backup systems I’m about to describe is that they make the process far more convenient and automatic than it has been before. Some even make it seem interesting.

In theory, every computer user should have a “backup portfolio,” with diversified holdings like those in an investment portfolio. At a minimum, copies of data should exist in different physical locations, so that a fire in your office doesn’t wipe out both your computer and the nearby stack of backup DVDs. That is the main weakness of the fastest and easiest form of storage, the stand-alone external hard drive—for instance, Western Digital’s My Book Pro, which costs about $300 for a 500-gigabyte capacity. Seagate, Sony, Buffalo Technology, and many other companies make similar, good systems for both Macs and PCs. The biggest size normally available is one terabyte, or more than 1,000 gigabytes. Such a drive is convenient because your computer sees it as just another hard drive (the D:\ drive, for instance, if you already have C:\), which in turn allows quick copying of your main drive’s contents onto the backup drive. External drives have become cheap enough to be a sensible standard investment for any user—for instance, as a repository for video or audio files, like movies or iTunes libraries, that take up a tremendous amount of space and could be replaced if lost. But for data you can’t afford to lose, they’re not enough.

Portable, lighter-weight external drives are a possible alternative, but have their own drawbacks. They’re about twice as expensive per unit of storage as non-portables (a 100-gigabyte portable drive from Seagate, for example, costs roughly $150). To my mind they’re a nuisance to carry around, and easy to lose or damage. I am much more enthusiastic about newly elegant approaches to protecting data, each involving the Internet, exemplified by the programs FolderShare and Mozy.

FolderShare, which runs on PCs and Macs, is a way to make sure you have backups of your most recent work available on all your computers. It was created by a small company in Austin that Microsoft acquired late in 2005. Microsoft has since incorporated FolderShare into its rapidly growing set of Windows Live Web-based services. (The extent of Windows Live offerings, current and planned, would surprise most people. See http://ideas.live.com and http://get.live.com.) Many Windows Live services have free basic versions and more advanced ones for a fee. The Folder­Share.com Web site says cryptically that the service is “now free.”

In essence, FolderShare is a way of synchronizing files. You revise a document at work, and you want to see those changes when you open it on your laptop at home. You create a new spreadsheet at home, and you want it to be available on your office desktop. File synchronization programs have been around for years—the best known is Laplink, which I’ve used since the 1980s—but Folder­Share represents a big step forward. You choose which directories on one computer you’d like to have match with another, for example, the “Documents” and “Photos” directories on each machine. Then, whenever both of the computers are connected to the Internet, Folder­Share automatically updates the older version. (If you have edited the same file on two machines, it will back up both versions.) Its operations are calibrated to happen “in background,” and they place no detectable drag on your normal computer work or Internet activities.

This system is easier and more automatic than carrying a memory stick or portable hard drive for transferring files. I like it better than Laplink, since Laplink works best when two machines are in the same place, connected by physical cables or a local WiFi network. (Laplink can operate over the Internet too, just not as easily.) Folder­Share has one pitfall I am aware of. If you have set it to mirror files as soon as they have changed, then any destructive change you make on one machine—deleting material you meant to keep, accidentally corrupting a file’s format—can show up quickly on the other, overwriting a previously good backup. But you can choose settings that delay synchronization before files are changed.

You can see other valuable, if slightly less polished, online sync systems at BeInSync.com and GoodSync.com. Any of them can make modern working life easier—with minimal effort, you can have the same information on all your machines—and each of them provides an extra element of backup protection for your files.

Mozy illustrates the other elegant approach to backup. Like Carbonite, mentioned here briefly last year, Mozy mirrors your computer’s data not on a detachable drive or another machine but somewhere in the galactic cloud of Internet storage. There are many contenders in the online backup field, with new ones appearing constantly, and constantly changing price plans and features. Mozy, Carbonite, SOS Online Backup, and Xdrive, with different strengths and limitations, are among many worth checking out.

What the programs have in common is automatic, round-the-clock, online backup. You indicate the data you want protected. Carbonite, which offers unlimited storage for a flat rate of $49.95 per year, has as its default setting copying all your documents, videos, pictures, music, and similar irreplaceable information. You can also choose which folders or files you want it to store (it’s pointless to back up program files, which usually require fresh installation to work properly). The systems can take hours or days to perform the initial backup, but from that point on, whenever you’re connected to the Internet, they constantly update the stored version to reflect what’s on your computer. Then if trouble arises—flood, fire, mere disk crash—you can reinstall your programs and download and restore the data you have lost.

The programs have been racing to introduce new features. An important one is fine-grained “incremental” backup. This is the ability to analyze specific differences between old and new versions of a file, and save only what has changed, rather than copying the entirety of a new file over the old one. “Version tracking” is the ability to keep a running record of specific changes, so a user can re-create previous versions of a file. The best programs can back up an “open” or “locked” file—for instance, an Outlook file containing e-mail—even while you are using it.

SOS is the most expensive of the backup programs, at $1,000 or so per year, and generally offers a complete range of advanced features. Mozy has incremental and version features; Carbonite says it will have them soon. These programs and SOS can back up “open” and “locked” files.

Carbonite, made by a company based in Boston, is notably easy to configure and use, and its flat-pricing scheme for unlimited storage, which it pioneered (and which Mozy now offers), will be the best deal for many people—and will encourage them to back up everything.

Carbonite, Mozy (from a company in Salt Lake City), and Xdrive (from a subsidiary of AOL) differ in numerous subtle ways. Carbonite and Xdrive are on the whole simpler to set up and use— Mac-like, if you will. Mozy can be more specifically tweaked to your own tastes, like a PC. Xdrive works on both PCs and Macs; Carbonite and Mozy are for now just for PCs, although both say a Mac version is in the works. All of the programs have free versions or free trials available. Find the one you like best—and then remember to use it.

James Fallows is an Atlantic national correspondent.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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