N.B. Tech: Backing Up Your Files
Good moooorning, GW Law:
Welcome to the first in a series of articles designed to help you, our faithful readers, deal with all your technological challenges. You ask the questions, we give the answers. And while we are confident that we've got all the answers, our advice comes with no warranties, express or implied (Professor Wilmarth, holla!).
Our first question comes from an anonymous mystery-L who writes:
So I keep hearing all these horror stories about people whose computers crashed and other students keep telling me to back-up my files. What exactly does this entail? What are my options, i.e. only essential files on a thumb drive? Or invest in a monster external hard drive? Also note that I know eleventy billion people who email their notes to themselves and that works as a back-up.
Ok, anonymous, let's get started-I know we all have plenty of procrastinating to do before exams.
Musical mastermind Juvenile demonstrated shrewd foresight when he advised audiences to "back that thang up" as early as 1999. His message is even more important today, as we increasingly rely on computers to safeguard our most important information. But what exactly does it mean to back up? To answer this question, we need a crash course in computer science.
Generally speaking, there are three things (categories of data, if you will) on your computer that you might want to back up. There's your operating system (OS), your programs, and your data files. Your operating system is the underlying software that makes your computer work. For PC users, it's most likely some version of Windows; for Mac users, a variant of OS X. Your programs are the tools (other than your OS) that you use to get things done, e.g., Word, Firefox, and Snood. Your data files are, well... the files that store your data! These files include your class notes, your research papers, your pirated music, and those pictures of you blacked out at McFadden's.
While it's possible to back up everything (OS, programs, and data), it's really not necessary. If you purchased your computer from a retail outfit (e.g., Dell), it probably came with all the tools necessary to restore your original operating system and programs. On top of that, backing everything up can take a long time, use lots of storage space, and significantly limit your backup options. As a result, I recommend keeping all of your data files in a central location (e.g., My Documents) and focusing your backup efforts on that location. If you have a large amount of music or video files, you may want to think about keeping those files in a separate folder so you can back them up separately.
Now for the good stuff-your backup options. As our anonymous coward points out, many students back up their notes by emailing to themselves. While this method is perfectly acceptable, especially given gmail's generous storage limit, it has a few drawbacks. You'll end up wasting space on your gmail account as you continually upload new versions of the same file, there's no great way to organize your backups, backing up multiple files can be a hassle, and finally, you have to remember to do it!
The next most popular backup method is probably the thumb drive. This is another completely acceptable solution, but keep a few things in mind here. As with the gmail method, you must remember to back up. Further, you can't just store the files on your thumb drive and assume they are safe! You must keep copies on your hard drive AND on your thumb drive! Thumb drives can (and do) fail. If your thumb drive fails and you don't have backup copies, you're up doo-doo creek without a paddle. The same caveat applies to external hard drives. The key to an effective backup is redundancy, so ultimately your files must exist in multiple places.
Imo, the best solution for a law student on-the-go is an automatic online backup service. An online backup service will include a program that runs quietly in the background, automatically uploading your incoherent class notes to a remote server. The best thing is, many of these services are free! My personal favorite is MozyHome, which offers 2GB of free storage. Check it out here. If you're you a bit more tech savvy and want to be on the cutting edge, check out Microsoft Live Mesh, which offers 5GB of storage and synchronization with multiple devices. If you don't give a rat's ass what I think, you can find a good comparison of various online backup services here.
What are the downsides? If you stick with the free services, you probably won't have enough space to back up all your media files. So I recommend using a free online backup service and pointing it to a folder where you will keep all your critical documents. If you want your music, pictures, and videos backed up, spring for a paid service or invest in an external hard drive. Depending on how pretentious a music fan you are, your media files are arguably less important than your class work, so you can back them up less regularly.
As for me? Well I use Live Mesh to backup my data in real time (and to synchronize my laptop and desktop). For my music library (about 80 GB), I try to make semi-regular backups to an external hard drive (using SyncBack, free version available here).
So there we have it. I hope you all do well (but slightly worse than I do) on exams =)