You've got more choices than ever when it comes to backing up your data -- you are backing up your data, right? -- so how do you choose the best one for your needs? First, it's a good idea to pick up some kind of external hard drive. You can go the Network Attached Storage (NAS) route if you want to access the storage from your Wi-Fi (or build your own Netflix). You can also just get a regular external hard drive from someone like Seagate or Western Digital.
Once you have you've selected the kind of storage device you'll be backing your files up to its time to focus on a more complex decision -- choosing an back up service. From built-in Windows and macOS options, to third-party syncing and upload services, we take a look at how all these options fit into your daily workflow.
Windows built-in options: File History and OneDrive
Windows' integrated backing up options haven't exactly been what you would call consistent in recent years. The company is always trying something new, which can make it difficult to trust in it's back up solutions. Currently there's a rumour that the spring Creators Update will kill off the File History back up tool, but as it's still around at the moment let's start with it.
File History is a local backup option, accessible through Settings, that needs an external drive to work. Once you've got a disk attached, you can choose the folders that get backed up, and set how often files are copied, and decide how long they're kept for. It doesn't back up absolutely everything on your system, but it's a perfectly fine option for copying your most important files somewhere else.
There are a few annoyances (besides the fact that it might not exist come spring). The tool needs a bit of configuration and only works while your external drive is attached (not ideal if you're always moving). Modern-day cloud syncing services feel far more intuitive and discreet, which is probably the reason File History is (apparently) getting phased out.
Microsoft's online cloud syncing service is of course OneDrive, and it's now baked right into Windows for your convenience. Anything saved to the OneDrive folders gets synced to the cloud and any other computers you've got the OneDrive desktop client installed on. You get 5GB of backup room for free, but will need to pay if you want more.
Although cloud syncing services like OneDrive and Dropbox haven't traditionally been considered full backup solutions, in 2017 they feel like a much more intuitive option than plugging in an external hard drive. Save your files, photos and music to the OneDrive folder, it's uploaded instantly, and you can salvage your data if your laptop falls in the local lake.
OneDrive even offers features usually associated with local backups, like version history. It's not going to back up absolutely everything on your system -- the settings for you applications will be toast, but as long as you keep an eye on where your files are, and are prepared to pay Microsoft for some cloud server space, you can get by with OneDrive on its own.
macOS built-in options: Time Machine and iCloud
Time Machine is Apple's venerable local backup solution, requiring an external or networked drive connected to your Mac. Backups run automatically, as long as the drive is available (though you can switch to manual backups if you prefer), and after the initial file transfer is complete, backups are pretty speedy too.
The benefits of Time Machine are well-established: It's automatic, it's comprehensive (enabling a full system recovery if required), and it's easy to use. You don't get much in the way of configuration options, but most users barely bother to set up backups anyway, let alone dive into extra settings for them.
Relying on external drives is something of a pain if you move around a lot, and those backups won't be any use if both your laptop and your hard drives get lost in a fire or flood, but overall Time Machine does what every backup solution should be doing -- getting the job done and staying out of the way while it's doing it.
What Time Machine really needs is a cloud component, which is why Apple pushes iCloud too. iCloud used to operate mostly behind the scenes, on both macOS and iOS, but with the introduction of backups for the Desktop and Documents folders in macOS Sierra, it's become more of a front-facing backup solution like OneDrive or DropBox.
As well as caching away files in the background for particular apps, it's also copying your key folders to the web and any other Mac devices you happen to have up and running. As it syncs to the web rather than an external drive, it works everywhere you've got Wi-Fi too.
On top of iCloud basic you've also got iCloud Photo Library to take care of your photos, and iCloud Music Library, though that latter one is more of a syncing service rather than a genuine backup option. As with everything else iCloud, you need to pay for additional storage once you've got beyond your free 5GB.
Both these built-in macOS options are slick, stable, and simple, and it's difficult to make an argument for using anything else as long as you're only ever going to be using Apple hardware. Time Machine and iCloud really need to be used together for the best protection, though if you know where your important files are kept then you might feel you can get along with just iCloud on its own now, especially with the photo and music components added on top and its rapidly improving feature-set.
Third-party options: file syncing and storage
You've got plenty of other options to consider too -- buy an external hard drive and it will most likely come with a perfectly adequate backup program on it as well. Synology, Netgear, and Drobo all have backup programs built into the NAS. Ultimately, the more backups you have the better, though you need to make sure you're getting everything covered.
Dropbox has been excelling at file syncing since way back in 2007 and will take good care of your files in the cloud. Not only does it have a better-looking interface then either OneDrive or iCloud (especially on the web), it's equally happy running on Windows, macOS, Android or iOS. It even works on some NAS devices, including anything by Synology.
Google Drive isn't quite as polished as Dropbox but it has the same platform flexibility and with a powerful online office suite, as well as a ton of handy integrations with Google's other services. For both Dropbox and Google Drive, you need to fork over $US9.99 ($13) a month for 1TB of storage, though Google Drive offers tiers above and below that. On Dropbox you're stuck with either 1TB or a business account.
Dropbox and Google Drive really epitomise what backing up should be in 2017: As soon as files get dropped into the designated folders, they're sent to the cloud and your other devices, with changes updated seamlessly. External hard drives, USB sticks, backup schedules and folder selections feel almost antiquated by comparison.
The main worry would be if those cloud services failed, but that's a rare occurrence these days, and you still have your local files on one or more computers at the same time. While Dropbox and Google Drive do essentially the same job as OneDrive and iCloud, they do it with more polish and over a greater number of platforms.
Another alternative is to install one of the apps that suck up just about every file on your system to the cloud: The likes of Backblaze, Carbonite and CrashPlan. For a few dollars a month you get unlimited storage in the cloud for your files, without some of the web access extras or versatility of the file syncing services we've already mentioned. Some even cover external hard drives you've got hooked up to your main computer.
If you mostly stick to one computer then these comprehensive cloud services are worth a look to go alongside the options built into your OS of choice. Everything works in the background, and while the initial upload can take hours, or even days, it's usually plain sailing from there. It's the ultimate set-it-and-forget it solution.
The final verdict
Backing up is not the chore it once was. We've tested all of these options in recent times and found them all to be very good in what they do, easy to setup and maintain, and happy to whir away in the background with a minimal number of interruptions and annoyances. Which ones suit you best depends on the OSes you're running and just how much of a data trail you leave behind you, rather than any major differences between the quality of the services and their associated apps.
The rule of backups has always been three copies of each file in two separate locations, but we're getting to the stage where the cloud sync services are able to stand on their own without any help from local backup tools. That's down to a few factors: Improving internet speeds, better reliability in terms of cloud infrastructure, and the smoother installation processes Windows and macOS have introduced in the last few years.
Getting your computer up and running from scratch is no longer the arduous challenge it once was -- signing into cloud accounts is now an integrated part of the process as well -- so you can simply install Dropbox (for example) on top and watch all your files trickle back down. If you've got more than one computer with Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, or OneDrive installed then you've got a separate offline backup as well, just in case.
Nowadays, the full system image approach seems like overkill, but by all means set it up if you like -- I tend to spend a lot of time hopping between computers with just a few important files to my name, so something like Dropbox or Google Drive works fine for me. Just make sure you're doing something to keep your data backed up, as one day you're going to be grateful you did.