Joe Kissell is a Senior Editor of TidBITS, a Senior Contributor to Macworld, and the author of numerous books about technology, including Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac and Take Control of CrashPlan Backups. He lives in San Diego with his wife, their son and their cat.
I participated in a webinar a few weeks ago titled “Backup Myths and Misconceptions” in which viewers were asked about their main reason for not backing up their computer files. The best response we received was “absolute unbelievable shameful procrastination.”
About a decade ago, when I started writing about backups, “automation” typically meant scheduling backups to run once every 24 hours—most likely in the middle of the night. Back then, a fair number of people still considered hard drives too pricey to use for backups. Instead, consumers often went with cheap removable media such as CDs, DVDs, and Zip or Jaz disks. The problem with this media is that it requires babysitting. Even if your backup software runs automatically, you must be present to swap the media when necessary.
So users on a tight budget had a dilemma. If they ran backups during the day when they could be present to swap media, the backups could bog down their computer due to heavy disk and CPU usage. But if backups were scheduled for the wee hours of the morning and a disc or cartridge ran out of space, they’d be unable to proceed until they returned to feed the drive. Faced with this decision, far too many people gave up on backups entirely.
No excuses. Remarkably, even today, when a 2 TB USB 3.0 hard drive is about $100—and unlimited online backups are available for less than $5 per month—there’s still a certain perception that backing up is a big, intrusive task that you wouldn’t want to perform too often.
But most backup software today is automated. It can be set up with a few clicks of your mouse. Then, there is nothing to remember (or forget).
One of the reasons I like CrashPlan is I can set it so that backups not only run continuously, but also have no perceptible impact on my computer’s performance. You can tell the app how much CPU power to use when you’re present and when you’re away, you can set how often a full scan occurs, and you can even tweak network settings to avoid hogging bandwidth that other devices might want to use. (Although the default settings were more resource-heavy than I prefer, it took just a few clicks to fine-tune it to my liking.) And all this is true whether I back up to a local hard drive, to the cloud or both.
Smarter software. Further, CrashPlan is smart about watching for file changes in real time. It knows what portions of files have changed since its last run and backs up only the bits that are new. There are also controls in place to minimize system resource usage; backing up more frequently means there’s less work to be done each time. And that, in turn, means backups can be so fast and lightweight that you may not even notice they’re happening.
High gain, low impact. To be sure, there is still backup software that can slow your computer to a crawl as they scan every single file, every time it runs (and then maxes out the CPU and memory compressing and copying all those files), meaning even using a fast hard drive as a destination won’t result in painless backups. I also know of several backup apps that allow scheduled backups to occur—at most—once per day, and a few that require the user to click a button to run backups manually, every single time. So, I suggest avoiding those apps. In my experience, any barrier to completely transparent, hands-off operation—whether it’s swapping discs, clicking a button, or waiting for a backup app to return control of your computer—makes it that much less likely that backups will happen at all.