How To Keep an External Hard Drive Useful and Healthy Longer

What are your external hard drive best practices?

External hard drives are a ubiquitous, simple way to provide additional storage or portability (or both) to an existing desktop or laptop computer.

These are the steps I take to ensure my external hard drives remain as useful as possible as long as possible. They break down into three categories: hardware, software, and something so important that it deserves a category of its own.

You can probably guess what that last one is.

Read moreHow To Keep an External Hard Drive Useful and Healthy Longer

What Backup Program Should I Use?

Backing up is kind of like eating healthier: everyone knows we should, and few of us actually do. Much like the heart attack victim who no longer binges on french fries, when it comes to backing up, the most religious are those who’ve been bitten hard by a failure in their past.

Asking what backup program to use is very much like asking, “What’s the best exercise program?”

The best program for exercise — or backup — is whichever one you’ll actually do. In order to choose what’s going to work best for you, there are several questions to ask.

Read moreWhat Backup Program Should I Use?

This Doesn’t Need to Happen

I lost a huge amount of research and work when my computer crashed this summer.

That’s a quote from an email I received from someone who, honestly, I expected better of. He’s a prominent figure in my industry, and someone who has a large team of people supporting him.

To have a simple computer crash cause “huge” data loss … well, as I said, this doesn’t need to happen. Ever. Not to him, and not to you or me.

Sadly, he’s not the only one running the risk.

Read moreThis Doesn’t Need to Happen

What External Drive Should I Get?

I frequently recommend you purchase an external hard drive for your backups. Backing up to an external drive is probably the most important first step in getting an overall backup strategy in place.

The inevitable question is, “What external drive should I buy?”

The problem, of course, is that the answer keeps changing. Technology evolves, and as a result, so does my recommendation.

Let me give you a few guidelines, and then a few current (as of this writing) examples.

Read moreWhat External Drive Should I Get?

How to Best Back Up Your Encrypted Data

I talk about encryption a lot. I talk about backing up even more.

Encryption is a critical component of keeping data safe and secure and out of the hands of those who shouldn’t see it.

Backing up, of course, is our safety net for when things go wrong. A recent backup can save you from almost anything.

Unfortunately, I’d wager that most people are backing up their encrypted data improperly. The result is that they’re not as protected by that backup as they might think they are.

Read moreHow to Best Back Up Your Encrypted Data

How Do I Create a New Machine Image?

I have a new machine, but I wasn’t able to get true installation media, only recovery disks. I’ve heard you say that instead, I should make a backup image of my new machine as soon as I possibly can, so that I always have that to fall back on if I need to start over. Great. But, how do I create a new machine image?

Installation media – true installation media – appears to be a thing of the past.

It used to be that you would get an actual CD or DVD of the operating system with each new machine. Then it became an extra-cost option. Then it became an on-request-only option.

Now it appears to no longer be an option at all – at least not when you purchase your machine.

The alternative, then, is to create a new machine image as soon as you get your machine.

I’ll show you how.

Read moreHow Do I Create a New Machine Image?

Let’s Get More People to Back Up

In an editorial post a few years ago, I bemoaned the state of backing up. The post, entitled “Why don’t people back up?” discussed the many varied (and somewhat reasonable) reasons individuals might not be backing up their precious data.

I also discussed many scenarios in which people lose that precious data completely and forever… scenarios in which a backup solution would have protected them in some way. In fact, almost any backup solution would have helped. As I say in What backup program should I use?, “Asking what backup program to use is very much like asking, ‘What’s the best exercise program?’ The best program for exercise or backup is whichever one you’ll actually do.”

Anything is better than nothing.

The good news is that more people are backing up – or at least attempting to.

The bad news is that we still have a long way to go to get more people to back up. I know this by the number of panic-stricken emails I receive.

Read moreLet’s Get More People to Back Up

How I Deal With Inexplicable Change

Something I’ve said for a long time is that your approach to change – particularly change that’s out of your control – is one of the biggest factors that will determine just how successful you are at using technology. The better you can handle change, the happier you’ll be. I’m absolutely convinced of it.

Note that I’m not saying you need to like all change. Not all change is good.

I’m currently working on my next book, Saved! Backing Up with Windows 8 Backup, and I’m running into some changes that are so incomprehensible it’s making me think “WTH Microsoft?!”

Let me explain how I avoid ulcers in this ever-changing world of technology.

Read moreHow I Deal With Inexplicable Change

How do I protect the files on a portable hard drive?


Leo, I’m running Windows 7 with Microsoft Security Essentials. Five months ago I bought a Samsung portable external hard drive. It’s come to my notice that these removable media drives can become very vulnerable to virus and bugs affecting them. I’m extremely worried about this. My portable drive is about 1/3 full of video movies and flv and mp4 file types. I have hundreds of movies stored. I want to guarantee that they will remain safe and preserved for hopefully many decades to come. If a virus attacks these portable hard drives then they can shut down. I think one starts getting messages like this drive is not formatted. I want to be ahead of such problems and do all that I can to be sure that no harm comes to my files in the long-term. What can be done to insure longevity and safety to the drive and its contents?

I have some very specific ideas for you, but I also want to clear up a couple of very important misconceptions.

Read moreHow do I protect the files on a portable hard drive?

Can I backup one computer to another?

I checked your information on backing up, but I didn’t see anything with regards to how you physically connect one machine to another. Do you use a cable or is it done over a network? I tried using a cable for one desktop to my laptop, but I couldn’t see the other machine’s drives on my laptop. Both machines use Windows 7. I have EaseUs ToDo for the software that I’m using. I’m willing to try whatever you suggest.

There are a couple of ways to do what you’re suggesting. I’ll recommend something to you that I do, but for most folks, I suggest something else first.

Read moreCan I backup one computer to another?

Why did my pictures disappear?

About six months ago, I converted to Windows 8. I had approximately 2000 photos in Picasa and I now have about 50. I opened my library and found all the folders that were there were now empty. It appears that I’ve permanently lost a lifetime’s worth of photos.

I’m very sorry to hear this.

From your description, I’m not exactly sure what happened. I don’t necessarily have a specific solution to help you recover what you’ve lost, but I have a variety of thoughts on this kind of situation.

Read moreWhy did my pictures disappear?

Archiving – What it is and why you need to start

As we use digital technology, we’re continually accumulating digital “stuff”: we take pictures, write documents, record videos, purchase music, acquire software, and much much more.

All of this digital data is either accumulating on our systems, or worse: getting lost.

In the past, we’ve had a very clear concept of how we could store the physical counterparts to today’s data. They were visible and we could move them about as our needs dictated: place them on a shelf next to the TV or store them in a box in the attic.

Digital data requires that we think a little differently about storage.

I want to introduce you to archiving.

To begin with, it’s important to realize that archiving is not the same as backing up. Not at all.

Read moreArchiving – What it is and why you need to start

Is it better to use incremental or differential backups?

Hi Leo. In January, I made a full image backup of my computer using Macrium Standard and scheduled a nightly differential backup. I chose differential over incremental as it’s easier to restore using the full image plus the most recent differential rather than restoring the full image and every subsequent incremental. To make sure I retain enough disk space for backups on my external drive,  I delete all the differentials every 10 days except for the last two. Based on this scenario: 1) Would there be any advantage to making monthly full image backups as you suggest rather than just sticking with my January image? 2) Would there be any advantage in using incrementals instead of differentials? 3) It’s now June and I am a happy camper! Is there any reason I shouldn’t be?

Well, first let me start with the last question first. Nope, you’re in great shape!

I’m thrilled that you’re backing up. You’ve clearly put some thought into this, and I don’t have any serious issues with the approach that you’re taking. If you’re comfortable with what you’re doing, I probably wouldn’t have you change anything.

But if there were something that I’d recommend that you change, it’d be taking a new full backup probably once a month or so. Why? That gets a little harder for me to explain.

Read moreIs it better to use incremental or differential backups?

Is It Safe to Leave My External Backup Drive Connected?

I’ve read your many articles about backing up. The only additional question I have is this: once the Macrium backup is done to my external drive, do I unplug it? Or is it safe to leave it connected?

Like many questions that I deal with, this is one of those scenarios where the answer is rarely a clear yes or no. I have a preference, but ultimately, the answer is… it depends.

Let’s look at the issue.

Read moreIs It Safe to Leave My External Backup Drive Connected?

How do I automatically clean out my accumulation of backups?

Is there a way to automate the process of taking full backups and then incremental backups using Macrium Reflect and automatically thinning the backups out over time? I’m seeking something that works like Time Machine does on OSX (but with incrementals less frequently than hours.) If there’s a way to set this up with Reflect, it certainly isn’t evident looking at the software.

I agree, disk management settings are not evident when  looking at the software. But it absolutely is possible to manage the number of backups kept to disk – and to manage it automatically. That’s the way I have it set up on my machine.

Macrium Reflect can be scheduled to do full backups, followed by incremental backups every night. Combine that with what I would call “auto clean,” and you have your setting.

To sort it all out we need to first think about how incremental backups work, and then find the settings.

Read moreHow do I automatically clean out my accumulation of backups?

Can I Simply Copy Everything on My Drive in Case Something Bad Happens?

Leo, I’m running Windows 7 with two 80 GB hard drives: one is for backing up information. Now I consider that to be too small for me, but for every 4.5 GB of information, I burn all of my documents, favorites, and downloads to a DVD so that if anything happens, my only loss will be my Windows 7. My question is can I clone, copy, or image my C drive to this second hard drive that I have installed and then remove the copied drive in case something else happens to my operating system which I cannot fix? And then can I use that copied drive as if nothing had happened? I ask because I have three 80 GB hard drives: two installed and one in waiting. If the answer is yes, what should I do? Clone, copy, or image?

There are utilities that can do exactly what you’re requesting. It’s called cloning and what it does is a sector-by-sector copy of one hard drive to another. The two hard drives need to be identical or very close to it for a clone to work.

You then have a fully cloned copy of the original hard drive that you can swap into the internal hard drive’s place if something happens.

What you’re asking about is cloning software. Many backup programs (like Macrium Reflect) have the option to clone a drive. But I don’t really like the idea of cloning drives. Here’s why.

Read moreCan I Simply Copy Everything on My Drive in Case Something Bad Happens?

Is My Data Safe in an Online Backup Program?

Are online backup programs (such as Carbonite) and the procedures associated with them safe and secure? Specifically, if I use a backup program like this, can somebody at the service actually access everything that I’ve actually backed up with them? Are the procedures to get the data to and from the service safe and secure? I’m using Windows XP.

Trusting online services is an interesting conundrum. Whenever we use an online service, even something as common as Gmail, we believe that the company offering the service is going to do what they say they do – keep our information private. So, we regularly transfer sensitive information over channels that are somewhat insecure, yet fundamentally trusted.

The same is very true for backups. In general, you are safe when you trust a company like Carbonite or any of the other major online backup services.

Can the people at that service access your data? Theoretically, yes.

Read moreIs My Data Safe in an Online Backup Program?

Why Don’t People Back Up?

I recently posted a recommendation for a specific backup program, but it got me to thinking about backing up in general.

It’s a common topic here on Ask Leo! for a good reason. Not a day goes by that I don’t see somebody suffering for lack of a backup. Not a day goes by that I don’t see somebody who could have avoided a serious problem simply by having taken a backup.

So why don’t more people back up?

Read moreWhy Don’t People Back Up?

If There’s Only One Copy, It’s Not Backed Up

If there’s only one copy, it’s not backed up.

It’s something that I say and say and say because every day, I see the disasters that result from not understanding that simple concept. It hurts me every time I have to tell someone “Sure, here’s how to resolve the problem you’re having. But your data? That’s gone forever.”

I say it more frequently than I want to and what’s frustrating is that I know deep down that I say it more frequently than I should have to.

I’m not saying backups are trivial, although even just backing up the basics can be a lot easier than most people think. And I do recognize that there are obstacles, not the least of which is that people often think they’re backing up when they’re not.

Read moreIf There’s Only One Copy, It’s Not Backed Up