In Step One, we explored what to order and how to get the best deal for college students on the best laptop computer for must users, Apple’s MacBook and new MacBook Pro models. Step Two took us through recommended software options.  Step Three explored my recommendations for accessorizing.  Here in Step Four, we will detail the most important, yet most overlooked essential of computer life today.

In the early years of computing, there were no digital cameras and digital photos, no digital music and no videos on computer. Users had email, documents and other projects on their computer. While losing a hard drive in those days may have been traumatic, it was also easier to save copied of the data because the files were so small.

Fast forward to today.  Many of us have our lives on the computer, with irreplaceable music, photos, videos as well as documents and other data.  It is impossible and impractical to maintain copies on small media, and for many of us, we have way too much to save onto multiple optical media discs.  Let’s have a look at a more realistic approach designed for today’s computer user with essential information on the computer.

Back-up or be sorry, very sorry!

Whether your student and you are Mac or Windows users, you need to back up your stuff.  If your time is not valuable and it will not seriously impact your life to lose the entire contents of the computer hard drive, then go ahead and back up only essential documents, music, photos and other important files to CDs or DVDs if the computer can burn DVDs and if you do not have so much data that this kind of backup is impractical.  If the computer hard drive crashes, even under warranty, the user will still have to deal with the trauma of putting back all the data, which never goes smoothly.  In addition to the data, the hard drive has to be formatted and all the applications have to be installed, plus all the updates.  It’s a daunting task that is very labor intensive and one swift pain in the keister!

If you do not back up, your computer is a ticking time bomb. Eventually ALL hard drives fail and many fail way before the time such failure can be expected.  Even if a drive in a computer fails under the warranty, the company is responsible only to replace the hardware and not to recover the date thereon.  Believe me, please.  There is nothing even mildly amusing about an unprepared for hard drive failure.  Data can be recovered at a very high cost TO YOU. My very good friends at DriveSavers, the best in the business, would love to help retrieve the irreplaceable data on your failed hard drive, at a cost of from a little under $1,000 to well over $2,500, depending upon the job.  They are equally happy to verify to you what you will learn here, that their services are completely unnecessary IF you take the steps below and follow my advice.  I’ve had to get data recovered and it can be done, but my way to prevent this is so much easier, less expensive and much less crazy making.

I say avoid the trauma and do something smarter.  For Mac laptops, get an external pocketsize drive with at least the capacity of the computer’s internal drive.  These drives do not require an outside power source. They get what they need from plugging in to the Mac’s USB or FireWire connector.

 Western Digital My Passport Essential portable hard drive – now available in 11 colors!

I use and recommend Western Digital hard drives because they have proven to be reliable to me and to legions of others to whom I have made this recommendation.  What good is a hard drive if it is not reliable?  Other brands you may wish to choose include Fujitsu Seagate, and Hitachi.  These other brands should be fine, but I do not have a long and unbroken track record with them as I do with Western Digital.  I am testing these other brands, but not enough time has passed for me to have the same level of confidence as I do in WD. (Fujitsu has a long and uninterrupted tradition of excellence, however.)

I do not recommend brands that have any old drive inside.  The outside brand name may be familiar to you, but if they are not those named above, the actual maker of the hard drive inside, how can you know of the quality inside?  You cannot.  Stick with the major leagues as above.  The best cost no more and perform with characteristic excellence.  Do not risk your stuff to an unknown hard drive brand.  It’s not worth the risk.

I know the people at Western Digital and have visited their manufacturing facility in California’s Silicon Valley to see their processes and to learn from their experts.  I am quite confident in my recommendation to you about Western Digital hard drives.  I trust my life on computers to Western Digital hard drives and I know you can, too.  Macs and Windows laptops can use the Western Digital My Passport Essential drive (pictured above) very comfortably. Mac do not need the Mac-ready products, though I like them just fine, built with fast FireWire 400/800 connectivity that is built into all Macs in addition to USB on all Macs and Windows PCs.

Western Digital My Passport Studio portable hard drive with USB and FireWire 400/800 interfaces, formatted for Macs (but not necessary for Macs – any hard drive can be formatted for Macs)

None of the other models of My Passport drives is required.  It’s the user’s choice.  Pick the capacity needed, currently up to a whopping 1TB, more than you are likely to have inside any consumer laptop today, copy the model number and search for the best price online through Google, Nextag and Pricegrabber. The other models of My Passport drives also come with backup software, but I prefer to go another route, which I will detail later.  All My Passport USB drives are small enough to fit in a shirt pocket and are powered by the computer’s USB or FireWire port through which they are connected.  In my plan, these drives will be used for regular backups and nothing else.  (These are also good choices for those who also want additional portable storage.  Just know that these drives are not going to provide the performance and speed of larger, AC powered hard drives or of the internal drive on a laptop.)

In addition to different prices and additional software that comes with the different models of My Passport drives, from Essential to Elite to Studio, there is one additional difference – the warranty.  My Passport Essential carries a three-year warranty, while the Studio model and Elite have a five-year warranty.  I believe the drives are the same, but still, the warranties are different.  Not an issue, I say.  Since these drives are for the express purpose of acting as your own personal insurance policy against losing all the data and/or having to labor for a day or more putting things back on a new drive, this drive is only going to see small bursts of use and should well withstand five years of occasional use for its stated purpose.  After five years, if not sooner, destroy or repurpose this drive and replace it with something new for use as your critical backup device.  With a low price in the vicinity of $100, depending upon capacity, that is only $20 per year, be a sport and renew after five years. It’s only your precious, irreplaceable memories at stake! 

Western Digital My Book Home Edition

If backing up a desktop computer wherein portability of the backup drive is not an issue, then I recommend using Western Digital’s My Book Essential or Home Edition.  Check prices for both in the capacity of interest and find that prices are not so far apart until you get to the highest capacity, currently an astounding 2TB!  Prices drop.  Capacities are on the rise.  It’s a wonderful series of events. As with the portable drives above, users may also wish to get the other products in the My Book line, including those specifically marketed as Mac-ready Storage, but these are not needed for this backup function on Macs.

Back-up software and methodSend in the Clones!

Macs are wonderful computers.  In additional to their generally known and appreciated characteristics, lesser known is the fact that the operating system affords a unique capability.  That is, to be able to easily and without any special internal settings boot from an external hard drive.  If the user has been diligent in backing up in the way I will describe, and if the internal hard drive fails or the computer is stolen, the external drive can be used to start up that otherwise dead Mac or to start another Mac. Either way, disaster is averted, all data and applications as well as all preferences are perfectly “cloned” on the other drive.  Down time consists of the time it takes to start up a Mac from the external drive.  It’s all there.  Nothing is lost other than what has changed between the last backup and that time when the failure or computer loss occurs.

Read all about it . . .

My favorite backup method on Macs is to use commercial software called Personal Backup X5 from Intego SoftwareThis $50 program is the savior.  Get it. Set it and forget it, except for regularly starting the computer from the backup drive just to be sure it is still healthy and will do the job.

You’ll need to format the external drive properly to be able to use it as a bootable drive. In my example, I’m formatting the drive so it can start up a modern Intel Mac.  To do this, first open the Apple Disk Utility Application (likely in the Utilities Folder inside the Applications Folder) to see a screen like this:

Select the external Passport HD at its highest level as above.  Then, click the “Partition” tab in the middle section to see this:

And give it a name that reflects it purpose, as I have done above.  Next, click the “Options” button in the middle near the bottom to get this:

Here is where you will need to click the appropriate selection. In the example above, I have made the GUID Partition Table selection to enable this drive to start an Intel Mac.  Then, click OK and that window disappears.  Next, click the Apply button at the lower right of the screen underneath the just-disappeared window (picture below) to see the warning from which there is no return.  Not a problem!  This drive is blank and will not be used for any other purpose, so go ahead.  If it is to start an older PowerPC-based Mac, select Apple Partition Map.


And finally . . .

Now, it’s done and ready to go.  Get Personal Backup X5 from the link above and follow along.

With the external drive connected, launch the Personal Backup X5 application and follow the directions to make a clone, a BOOTABLE BACKUP.  Click through the settings to create a script, with the source drive being the internal hard drive and the destination drive the external drive you just created.  Just drag and drop!

Click the Schedule button and set it to prompt you to back up at least weekly, if not every two days.

I use the Bootable Backup Options selection to run while repairing Permissions and Repairing the bootable backup drive, the last two options only.

Finally, I use the Finishing option to unmount the destination and then to quit Personal Backup X5.  When finished, I want the cloned drive to disappear without prompting and then for the program itself to quit.  Done.

That’s it, except to do it. Get the software and try it.  You cannot easily screw up.   Follow the steps above and also look at the company’s directions.  I’ve set up loads of these with complete success.

The first time, the creation of the clone will take a very long time depending upon the amount of data on your main hard drive.  If you’ve got about 55GB on an already-established Mac, expect the first cloning to take as much as three hours.  Just let it happen and when it is in the midst of creating the clone, don’t do anything else.  Trust me on this.  Just let it happen and keep all the other applications closed.

Subsequent “clones” will take very little time, since the only thing added to or deleted from the clone will be the differential data from the last time.  In other words, figure about 10 minutes unless you are quite the prolific creator of stuff.

Once completed, assuming all goes well, test the clone to see if it will start your Mac.  Shut down the computer. Connect the external drive that is the clone.  Restart with the external drive, the clone, connected. During that restart, hold down the Option key until you see a couple of different icons on the Mac’s screen.  You should see one on the left that says Macintosh HD, your main drive.  Next to it to the right you should see a different looking icon with the name of the connected backup drive.  Click it and then press the Enter key on the Mac’s keyboard.  Sit back and if all goes well, as it should, you will be starting your computer from that external drive. Congratulations!

The computer will NOT start or run as speedily as when using the internal drive.  Be patient. Once started, you may notice the backup drive at the top right on your desktop with the internal drive underneath it.  That’s right!  Also, note the little LED or other indicator light on the clone drive. As the computer starts from it, you should see that indicator blinking quickly as a sign that it is at work, being accessed by the computer.

Once started, you should see all your settings as you left them, with all your icons on the desktop as you remember them, and all your applications in the Dock and in the Applications folder just as you left them.  And all you music, photos, videos and documents are also there, with the same accessibility as before.  Go ahead and explore, opening applications and documents, launching iTunes and iPhoto to check for your stuff to still be there and to be available.

On each subsequent backup, the two drives, internal and external will be compared and only those things that have changed since the last backup will be changed at that time.  As a reminder, future backups, which are called incremental, will take only a short time for most users, perhaps as little as 10 minutes.

Now you have proven that it works. Now, you can be confident that when you need it, if you do this backup with regularity, you will be protected.

When running from the external drive, your backup drive, in its “test” mode as described above, be sure to NOT create anything new.  Reserve this action for the regular drive inside the computer. The only exception to this rule is if you are using the external drive in disaster mode, that is, if your internal drive has failed.  Then, do as you must.  No worries, as that external drive is what will be used to restore a newly installed internal drive to the way it needs to be so that it can be your main drive.Why bother?  In the event of a hard drive failure for any reason, you know you can shut off the computer, plug in the external drive, restart with the Option key pressed, and start from that external drive.  If there has been an internal hard drive failure, you may not see that drive as a choice, but the computer will start from your backup.

Now what?  Get the bad drive replaced or do it yourself, start from the external and set it to clone FROM the external to the new Internal, including formatting it using this software that is already on the external drive.

I’ve done this many times and it just flat works.  This is magical!

For the Windows users among readers and viewers, I can only repeat what appears above.  This is only possible and this easy to do on a Mac.  Believe me, I’ve looked for a similar solution for Windows, but the operating system and hardware does not permit this kind of slam dunk simplicity.  The best they have to offer are programs designed for users who are not in catastrophe avoidance mode.  By this I mean there are “ghost” programs for Windows that allow an existing, working hard drive to be “ghosted” to an external for the purpose of replacing the working drive with another or moving to a new desktop computer, typically.

It’s not possible to do these incremental backups and then to test the drive externally.  To me, this is yet another reason to love Macs.

Windows users could choose backup programs such as Acronis True Image and back up to an external drive and hope that it works.  There are other programs of similar ilk, including those that are featured ON the very hard drives that are purchased for use in this backup exercise.  Here’s the scenario – back up files, folders, and whatever is desired and continue to do so.  In the event of an internal hard drive failure hope that everything has been done correctly.  Instead of booting to that external and being up and running in five minutes, the affected hard drive must be replaced first, and then, IF the backups have worked, there may be some way to restore from it, but it’s not a certainty.  There are too many variables.  Yes, you can back up any data, but in the event of a failure, what will be required and how much time, effort and expense will be involved?  It’s not pretty in the Windows world and there are few others that will tell you as I have. Windows users, most of you are just out of luck on this.  It’s not simple and so long as Windows is as Windows is now, that’s the way it’s going to be.  Sorry ‘bout that. I use Macs for any of my own mission-critical work.  If something blows up on my Windows computers, I just don’t care because there’s nothing of any import on them that is not already on my Macs, and I know I’m only minutes away from being up and running on a Mac that has this plan in place.

I have to modulate my tone just a bit in light of recent events.  While all I wrote above is true, so, too, is there another way to go, though not a perfect solution for all Windows users.  For total backup of Windows drives up to 500GB, I’ve tested and recommend Seagate Replica products.  In two capacities, 250GB and 500GB, they can backup everything and they can be your savior in a way similar to what I have outlined above for Macs only.  Where the Mac solution is pretty much a universal Mac solution, the same cannot be said for Replica or for ANY Windows would-be solution.  Read my review of Replica to lean how and why.

For those more paranoid than I, even more data security can be implemented, but none will allow this simple, bootable backup for Macs as described above.

More backup ideas

Above, we have covered external bootable backup for the Mac users and the limited backup potential for Windows users.  This should suffice for most of you, but it is not the end of the story for some of you.  IF your Mac should experience a hard drive failure, you’re covered, but it is critical to remember to perform the backup on a regular, weekly basis.  If the user has just completed a big project, it’s also a good idea to do a backup then and not wait to be prompted at the weekly scheduled time.

Another easy-to-do idea is this.  When a project is completed and to the extent it is not so huge a project, email it to yourself or someone else or to you AND another party.  If your email is Gmail, Yahoo, or another one that stores it in cyberspace, do it and leave it there until you can be sure it is safely on your backup.

Off-site backup – As part of a balanced back-up plan, store essential data elsewhere.  If the computer is lost or stolen and along with it went your backup drive, you’re almost covered.  Almost?  You can save precious docs, financial records and accounts, photos and all the rest in an automatically encrypted file using an off-site backup service.  These services connect using your broadband service and automatically, continuously back up or they do it on a scheduled basis, or manually.  In any case, your data is safe.  However, these services are not convenient as a bootable backup option.

After a hardware loss or failure, the user will still need to get that computer or dead hard drive replaced, with all the applications replaced and installed anew, plus updates, along with all the operating system updates.  And then, after all that, the backed-up data can be retrieved and put in its rightful places.  It is not simple, and it will likely be quite time consuming to recover your many, many gigabytes, or tens of gigabytes of data, but it is yet another secure way to protect against data loss.

There is a problem with all of this, this off-site backup scheme, for many users today and more surely to follow.  The problem is that we have too much data to reliably back up off site given the limitations of our Internet speed versus the heap of data we want to stuff up that pipe.  Let me illustrate.

In days past, before digital music, digital photos and digital video, there were mostly only files, personal data files in need of backup. The amount of data was often in the tens or megabytes, maybe a gigabyte, maybe even five to ten gigabytes.  Those were simpler times.

Today, have a look at how much space is occupied by your accumulated email files or your accumulated document folder.  Now, for those who have years of experience with digital imaging and music, tap those files to see how large they are, if you know how to do that!  If you have a robust audio, video and photo collection, the amount of data can be staggering. Look at your hard drive and see if you can determine how much space is used and how much free space you have.  Modern computers even a couple of years old may have 250GB or 500GB hard drives. If you keep adding all those media files, year after year, you may find your drive is nearly full.  By the way, NEVER get within 10% of completely full on your drive. This is the danger zone. If you are there or close to it, you must act soon or risk disaster.  In a nutshell, you need a bigger hard drive and have to transfer from the old to the new.  I will not, cannot go into this here, now, but seek the help you need to remedy this.

Now, as for those of you with staggering amounts of data to be backed up, my clone plan for local backup is not the issue.  All you need is a like-size or larger drive than the one you are backing up.  It is the off-site plan that is the problem. Simply put, if you are backing up off-site to a service more than about 50GB, hopefully lots less, I recommend NOT going that route!  Oh, I can hear the moans and groans now.  What can you do?  The best bet is something you will not like nor find easy to do.  The best bet may be to tap into your network of friends, family and solid colleagues to locate a hard drive on their network and to use software to back up onto that drive.  I will look into this myself as did the author of this article.

Off-site backups are part of a total strategy and should not be the only plan.  Why? This is because there is so much more to do than to simply retrieve the data. Then what?  Where does it go when it is retrieved?  Do you know?  I thought not!  Therein lies the problem and why I favor my bootable backup plan that is a total recovery, though one needs to be redundantly safe and the off-site plans are as redundant as one can be expected to be.

Some services cap the amount of data that can be stored, while other services allow an all-you-can-eat way of doing business.  Mac users would be wise to investigate Apple’s new $99 annually MobileMe service, one component of which is this slick backup capability. MobileMe includes many other advantages to Apple users (I’m a happy MobileMe subscriber along with my entire family) including synchronizing contacts, calendars and email across all my devices, including my Windows PCs and, if I had one, an iPhone.  This is a great place to start and maybe even land as THE way to get the off-site backup job done.

PC users may like Carbonite best of all; $55 annually and no limit to how much is backed up securely and automatically.  OR, for greater savings, get a two- or three year plan for $100 and $130, respectively.  Carbonite is now available for the Mac, as well.

Mac users should also check out and compare off-site backup services from DollyDrive.

So, you see all is not as easy in off-site backup as we would like. The variables of the amount of data as well as the speed of our own in-home Internet service plus the overall reliability of the services upon which we rely are all affecting success and failure.  There is just no simple plan when it comes to reliable off-site backup for consumers.

If there is little to back up, under 2GB, Windows and Mac users can find free solutions, such as and   iDrive also offers a fee-based service for consumers with a 150GB limit for $5 per month.  For only $5 per month, Mozy allows unlimited Mac and Windows backup, but I think the newest version of Carbonite may be easier for Windows users.

Burning data to CDs and DVDs – Standard CDs and DVDs are cheap and pretty reliable, at least in the near term.  However, they are not as easy to use as USB flash drives which also are reusable over and over again.  On the other hand, they should last a good long while.  The discs need to be marked and a standard permanent marker is not advised.  These are acid-based.  You’ll need to get an acid-free marker online or from an art supply retailer.  Another disadvantage to optical media is that they are easily scratched and once you are finished with it, do you know how to destroy it?  Shredding is best, in a paper shredder equipped to shred paper and CDs along with DVDs.  This has added steps to backing up. That is why I am sticking to the other, easier to implement recommendations.

Step Five is next; Final Tech Ideas for A Student Dorm Room 2008 – Step Five

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