We put everything on our computers and phones. Pictures, movies, music, text messages, bank statements, tax returns, recipes, dank memes, our digital life is all over the place. So what happens if you take your phone for a swim and get an unexpected lesson in the difference between waterproof and water resistant? Or what if your computer’s hard drive decides to take an early retirement? Even five years ago, if you weren’t super paranoid and over-prepared all the time, those things would have meant starting from scratch. But now that the cloud is basically everywhere, those problems go from being total catastrophes to just a big annoyance. Here’s how to back up your everything, and do it on the cheap!
If you have an iPhone, you’ve heard of iCloud. Not sure what it is? Basically, it’s a computer (or really, a LOT of computers) that sits in Apple’s warehouse with the sole purpose of holding your stuff for you. iCloud is built in to every Apple device, and iPhones and iPads will back up automatically to it every night while you’re asleep. To see if it’s doing that, go to Settings > Your Name > iCloud. Then scroll down to where it says iCloud Backup, and make sure that’s turned on. Once that’s done, you can rest easy knowing that even if your iPhone dies in a fiery blaze, you can buy a new one, hit “restore” during setup, and it’ll be like nothing happened. iCloud backups include app data, Apple Watch data, call history, device settings, Health data, HomeKit configuration, Home screen setup (how your apps are organized), iMessage and SMS conversations, photos and videos, purchase history from Apple services, ringtones, and your Visual Voicemail password. If you’re going with the minimalist approach on your device, the 5GB of iCloud storage you get for free might be enough. But if you’ve got a lot of apps on your phone, or if you use iCloud for other things like pictures, there is a 50GB option for $0.99/month, and higher tiers available if you need them.
On Android, things are just a little more complicated for you, but it can still be done! Your Google account is the key here, so make sure you know your username and password for that. Android has a built-in backup feature which can be found at Settings > Backup and reset. In that menu, make sure “Back up my data” and “Automatic restore” are both checked, and that will take care of things like your Android data and settings. Google also automatically backs up all of your Google-centric data, like contacts, calendar, and Gmail. But if you’re looking for a more complete option and aren’t afraid of a few technical shenanigans, check out Helium from the Google Play store. You’ll need to have a rooted phone to be able to use Helium, but if you do, you can back up to Google Drive or Dropbox, similar to how iCloud functions. The catch with cloud storage and Helium is that if you want to restore from a cloud backup, you’ll need to pay $5 for the premium version of the app to do so. That’s a pretty small price to pay if you ever need it, but just be aware of that from the outset. Restoring from a PC file is free, so that’s always an option too, but you’ll need to remember to connect and do the backup somewhat frequently.
iCloud Photo Library
iCloud comes to the rescue again for Apple device owners. We take pictures all the time, of everything, and Apple wants to make sure we can keep them all. iCloud Photo Library ties in with your iCloud account, obvs, meaning that $0.99 you’re paying for the 50GB storage plan counts for your pictures, too. Also built in to all Apple devices, iCloud Photo Library can be turned on by going to Settings > Photos & Camera and hitting the switch on, you guessed it, iCloud Photo Library. Once this is done, your device will start uploading all your pictures to iCloud, and you can even set it to free up space on your device if you’re running low on storage. If you do that, it will take the pictures you haven’t looked at recently off your phone or iPad, leaving only a small preview until you look at it again. Then, it just downloads the full version again from iCloud until you’re done. If you have more than one device set up for iCloud Photo Library, they’ll all stay in sync with each other, with pictures from your iPhone showing up on your MacBook a few seconds after they’re taken. You can also sign into iCloud online to see all your pictures on the web!
Making up for their lack of a complete phone backup solution, Google has a killer picture management app in Google Photos. If the words “free” and “unlimited” sound appealing to you, you might want to check it out. That’s right: pictures can be backed up to Google Photos unlimitedly, for no moneys. If you have pictures that are over 16MP, Google will automatically compress them as they’re uploaded, but that still leaves plenty of room for great quality. Google Photos also comes with some decent editing tools (think Instagram filters and standard crop/rotate options), and a compelling shared album feature that lets several people contribute to the same album, after which everyone can download only the pictures they like. Google Photos can also free up space from your phone as you go, using the same save-the-original-in-the-cloud technique.
If you’re on a Mac, backing up your computer is super easy. All you need to do is get an external hard drive like this one, plug it in and turn on Time Machine. You can do that by going to System Preferences > Time Machine and selecting “Back Up Automatically.” It’s important that whatever external drive you buy has at least the same amount of space as your computer’s hard drive so that you can be sure it will have enough room for all the files that you’re backing up. Time Machine will ask which drive you want to use, tell it the one you just plugged in. As long as that drive is connected to your computer, Time Machine will create hourly backups of the past day, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups beyond that, all automatically. Time Machine backups are similar to iCloud backups in that if your computer ever completely fails to the point where you need to buy a new one, you can just restore from Time Machine and get right back to work, no additional set up needed. I recommend making sure those backups are encrypted in case you ever lose the drive, that way no one can get into your stuff.
If you’re running a Windows machine, you’ll also need an external drive like the one above. On Windows 7 and 8, click the Start button, then go to Control Panel > System and Maintenance > Backup and Restore. Click Set up backup, and follow the steps in the setup wizard. You’ll choose how often you want Windows Backup to run and what files it backs up (or you can let Windows choose). Again, make sure that the external drive you have has at least the same amount of space as your computer’s internal drive so you don’t run out of room for your backups. When it does its thing, Windows Backup will also create a system image, letting you do a complete restore if your computer dies a horrible death.
Local backups are great for quick fixes and peace of mind, but they’re not enough for a total backup solution. What happens if there’s a fire or flood, or if you’re robbed while on vacation? In case of something catastrophic happening in one location, you want an offsite backup to be available, and the easiest way to make that happen is through our friend, the cloud. I’ve used BackBlaze for almost two years, and I’m super happy with their service. For $5/month or $50/year, you get unlimited backup of one entire computer, every user of that computer included. Backup happens constantly and in the background, so once you set it up, it becomes invisible. If you ever need to have something restored, you can either go to their website and download whatever it is you need, or if you have a crazy situation where you need a lot of data and don’t have a way to download it, they will literally mail you a drive with your stuff on it for free (provided you send the drive back). And the best part for privacy weirdos like me is that you can set your own encryption key, meaning not even BackBlaze has access to your data. They have a two-week trial that you can use to see if it works for you before you commit to the $5 subscription.
So, that’s how Rachel and I back up our entire digital lives for about $11/month (two 200GB iCloud plans + BackBlaze). What do you use to back up your devices? Disclaimer: links in this article are affiliate links.