Hard drives are more fragile than Santa’s elves’ fingers; lots of small parts constantly working overtime. All it takes is one piece of dust or one sudden jolt to destroy your entire digital library, especially if you’ve got info on an external hard drive. For day 2 of the 12 HackCollege Days of Christmas, we’re going to cover how to back up your stuff on all platforms.

Assess Your Need

For most people, a simple thumbdrive will do. If you’re only backing up Word documents and pdf’s, then a gig or two will do you good (and we know it’s easy to delete a word document). They’re the cheapest and most reliable; they’ve got zero moving parts. And a buyer can’t go wrong with his purchase: all thumbdrives work about the same.

If you’re planning on backing up larger media files (you photographer/videographer, you), we’ll need to bring out the big guns. Get a reliable external hard drive with a decent warranty. If you can afford it, look at something like G-TECH drives. They have a 2-year warranty; compared to all other drives’ 1-year. If you can’t pony up the cash for a G-TECH drive, look at Seagate, Western Digital, or any other hard drive manufacturer that manufactures both the casing and the drive inside. Not trying to brag, I’ve got a 320 GB G-TECH G-RAID drive (for video editing) and a 320 GB Western Digital My Book Premium Edition. I’m satisfied with both.

So get yourself an external drive and let’s get started.

Choose Files for the Lifeboat

Unless you’re using Apple’s new Time Machine (we’ll get to that later), you shouldn’t try to back up your entire system. Your operating system and programs can always be reinstalled in the case of a catastrophe.

Move all of your files into a few folders that will be your backup folders. DSLReports.com recommends the following folders/files/information:

  • Address books

  • E-Mail

  • Calendars and schedules

  • Documents

  • Projects

  • Databases

  • Programs that are no longer available

  • Web favorites

  • Photos

  • Settings

  • Saved games

If you’re using Google’s suite, you can check off e-mail, calendars, documents, address books, and projects.

Make sure your put everything under the same folder separate from everything else. You’ll need to work out of here from now on to avoid headaches. Once you’ve gotten yourself organized, it’s time to get some backup software and put it to work.

Your Lifeboat Captains

With any backup scheme. You can always just copy the files into a safe location manually. If this suits your purpose, then skip this section. If you’re looking to save some time and make sure you don’t miss anything, read on…


Gina Trapani of Lifehacker does this topic more justice than I ever could. Read her post about backups on Windows.


If you’ve got a Mac with Leopard (10.5), just run Time Machine. It will give you the best performance for the least amount of work. Just make sure you keep that drive safe and immobile.

If you’re not spoiled by your parents, welcome to the command-line jungle of Panthers (10.3) and Tigers (10.4). Us at HackCollege like to keep stuff free for you. The only reliable solution with incremental backups is command-line driven. It’s name is rsync. It’s pronounced like a forgotten step-brother of N*SYNC and is already on your Mac.

First, you’ll need to get your hands dirty. Open up Terminal.app (Applications -> Utilities).

Now you’re in the Matrix, or just the old-school way of running a computer. You will need the filepath for your source and destination folders. An example source could be: /Users/MIKE/Documents/IMPORTANTSTUFFTOBACKUP/. An example destination could be: /Volumes/MYHARDRDRIVE/MYBACKUPFOLDER/. Anything in caps you will need to change depending on how you’ve set things up.

So let’s get to it. Type on all one line:

rsync -avz --exclude '.DS_Store' /Users/MIKE/Documents/IMPORTANTSTUFFTOBACKUP/ /Volumes/MYHARDRDRIVE/MYBACKUPFOLDER/

(This example was modeled after an old Lifehacker article example.)

Voila. Write this command down, memorize it, alias it (if you’re smart), or write a shell script to run all of your backup commands (if you’re really smart). This command will quickly copy your files that you have chosen to back up where they need to go. Just run the command how often you would like to back everything up. If you’re super-duper smart (and probably are already backing your stuff up on the command-line), then set up a cron event to do this regularly.

Linux (Ubuntu)

My personal favorite backup tool is Simple Backup. Install it either by searching for it in the Synaptic Package Manager or by typing:

sudo apt-get install simplebackup

on the command-line.

Once installed, find it in System -> Administration -> Simle Backup Config. Select “Custom Backup Settings,” add your folder to the list of included files, change the destination to something safe, then click Save. Your backups will run often and smartly.

Put the Backup Files in Good Hands

Simply putting your files on a hard drive is sometimes not enough. What if your dorm room catches on fire? What if your apartment floods? What if someone triggers an EMP device near your residence? So what do you do? Co-locate.

The most cost-effective solution for most people savvy enough to upload their backups will be the Amazon Simple Storate Service (S3). S3 is similar to using an FTP. We use it to serve up our podcast. The service allows you to securely store and download files up to 5 GB in size. Amazon charges you by the gigabyte, so you’ll never be paying more than you need to. Check it out and google around to get yourself set up. (We’d talk about it here, but it’s just way too much information for one post. Maybe we’ll write a post about it in the future.)

Rescuing Files from the Lifeboat

Hopefully your drives will never crash and your ship will never sink. If your drive does crash, you’ll usually need the same program you used to backup your files as you will to recover them. Good luck.

This post is part of the 12 HackCollege Days of Christmas feature.