Everyone loses data at some point in their lives. Your computer’s hard drive could fail tomorrow, ransomware could hold your files hostage, or a software bug could delete your important files. If you’re not regularly backing up your computer, you could lose those files forever.
Backups don’t have to be hard or confusing, though. You’ve probably heard about countless different backup methods, but which one is right for you? And what files do you really need to back up?
It’s All About Your Personal Data
Let’s start with the obvious: what do you need back up? Well, first and foremost, you need to back up your personal files.
You can always reinstall your operating system and redownload your programs if your hard drive fails, but your own personal data is irreplaceable.
Any personal documents, photos, home videos, and any other data on your computer should be backed up regularly. Those can never be replaced.
If you’ve spent hours painstakingly ripping audio CDs or video DVDs, you may want to back those files up, so you don’t have to do all that work over again.
Your operating system, programs, and other settings can also be backed up. You don’t have to back them up, necessarily, but it can make your life easier if your entire hard drive fails. If you’re the type of person that likes to play around with system files, edit the registry, and regularly update your hardware, having a full system backup may save you time when things go wrong.
The Many Ways to Back Up Your Files
There are many ways to back up your data, from using an external drive to backing up those files on a remote server over the Internet. Here are the strengths and weaknesses of each:
While backup programs like BackBlaze and cloud storage services like Dropbox are both online backups, they work in fundamentally different ways. Dropbox is designed to sync your files between PCs, while BackBlaze and similar services are designed to backup large amounts of files. BackBlaze will keep multiple copies of different versions of your files, so you can restore the file exactly as it was from many points in its history. And, while services like Dropbox are free for small amounts of space, BackBlaze’s low price is for as big a backup as you want. Depending on how much data you have, one could be cheaper than the other.
BackBlaze and Carbonite do have one big limitation you should keep in mind. If you delete a file on your computer, it will be deleted from your online backups after 30 days. You can’t go back and recover a deleted file or the previous version of a file after this 30 day period. So be careful when deleting those files if you might want them back!
One Backup Isn’t Enough: Use Multiple Methods
So which should you use? Ideally, you’d use at least two of them. Why? Because you want both offsite and onsite backups.
“Onsite” literally means backups stored at the same physical location as you. So, if you back up to an external hard drive and store that at home with your home PC, that’s an onsite backup.
Offsite backups are stored at a different location. So, if you back up to an online server, like BackBlaze or Dropbox, that’s an offsite backup.
Onsite backups are faster and easier, and should be your first line of defense against data loss. If you lose files, you can quickly restore them from an external drive. But you shouldn’t rely on onsite backups alone. If your home burns down or all the hardware in it is stolen by thieves, you’d lose all your files.
Offsite backups don’t have to be a server on the Internet, either, and you don’t have to pay a monthly subscription for one. You could back up your files to a hard drive and store it at your office, at a friend’s house, or in a bank vault, for example. It’d be a bit more inconvenient, but that’s technically an offsite backup.
Similarly, you could also store your files in Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive and performing regular backups to an external drive. Or you could use BackBlaze to back up online and Windows File History to create a local backup. There are a lot of ways to use these services in tandem, and it’s up to you how to do it. Just make sure you have a solid backup strategy, with onsite and offsite backups, so you have a wide safety net against ever losing your files.
All that may sound complicated, but the more you automate your backup system, the more frequently you’ll be able to back up and the greater the odds you’ll stick with it. That’s why you should use an automated tool instead of copying files to an external drive by hand.
You can just set it up once, and forget it.
That’s one reason we really like online services like BackBlaze. If it’s backing up to the internet, it can automatically do that every single day. If you have to plug in an external drive, you have to put in more effort, which means you’ll back up less often and you may eventually stop doing it. Keeping everything automatic is well worth the price.
If you don’t want to pay anything and want to primarily rely on local backups, consider using a file-syncing service like Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft OneDrive to synchronize your important files online. That way, if you ever lose your local backup, you’ll at least have an online copy.
Ultimately, you just need to think about where your files are and ensure you have multiple copies at all times. Ideally, those copies should be in more than one physical location. As long as you’re actually thinking about what you’ll do if your computer dies, you should be way ahead of most people.
We may be living in the future, but sending large files over the web remains…complicated. Email is a terrible way to send files over 1GB, and using cloud-based services like Dropbox or Google Drive means filling limited space on a service, and you’ve got to manage permissions or accept that your link might be handed off to third parties.
Firefox Send, the latest experiment from Mozilla, attempts to solve this problem with one-time transfers of large files. Just click and drag any file up to 2GB using the web-based interface, in Firefox or Chrome. The file is encrypted, uploaded, and you’ll get a one-time link for sharing. Send the link to the person you want to share the file with. After the file is downloaded it will be deleted from Mozilla’s servers, meaning no one else can download it. It’s Snapchat, but for file sharing.
Firefox calls this an experiment, and it shows. In our tests this was occasionally a little flaky: some files took an unreasonably long time, and even ultimately failed. Others were speedy and worked just fine. Still, it’s an interesting idea and worth checking out.
Uploading and Sharing a File With Firefox Send
Getting started is simple: just open up Firefox or Chrome, ensuring your browser is up to date. Then head to send.firefox.com.
You can click the blue box to select a file, or you can drag a file to your browser window from your computer’s file manager.
Once you do this the site will locally verify and encrypt your file before uploading it to the Firefox Send servers.
Verifying and encrypting may take a while depending on your processor, and uploading might take a while depending on your internet connection and the file’s size. However long it takes, you’ll eventually get a link.
Share this with your friend. Remember: the file can only be downloaded once, so don’t bother sending the link to multiple people.
We had better luck with downloads working using Firefox, but Chrome should work as well.
Once the file has been downloaded once it cannot be downloaded again, freeing up space on Mozilla’s servers while also ensuring you data stays secure.
It’s not a perfect experiment, but it is an interesting one. Check out howtogeek list of file sharing services if you’d like to try out something else.
Decay and decomposition are part of nature. Weather, bugs, fungus, and microorganisms take their toll, chemical bonds break apart, and physical damage (drops, falls, cave-ins) can occur. Let's just call it entropy. As living things, we are always fighting against a state of disorder in the universe, and that goes for everything we create as well.
If you follow these tips, you'll already be a step ahead of entropy as it tries to break down and destroy your prized electronic devices. We may never be able to halt the decay process entirely, but we can at least slow it down so that future generations can have a better understanding of the gadgets that shaped the world we live in.
Remove Batteries of Every Kind
Alkaline batteries (upper-right photo) are the bane of every gadget collector. That's because they almost always leak a caustic substance, potassium hydroxide, when they completely discharge. It can happen even if a device is turned off, so if you're not using a toy or gadget for longer than a week, make sure you remove the batteries. Otherwise, the potassium hydroxide will cause corrosion and serious damage to their surrounding circuitry. It can also eat its way up a wire and into a completely different area of a circuit board.
Many devices with battery-backed RAM (to save settings, etc.) or internal clocks use small internal batteries (usually lithium), and sometimes they come soldered to the PC board. While lithium batteries do not leak as often as alkalines, they still represent a ticking chemical time bomb. Remove, clip off, or desolder those embedded batteries before they leak and destroy the surrounding circuitry.
The same thing goes for vintage laptops and portable computers, which typically used rechargable NiCd cells. Remove battery packs and isolate them in plastic bags before they inevitably leak. If necessary, safe the plastic battery pack casing so you can rebuild it with fresh cells in the future.
Mind the Plastics and Avoid UV Light
Plastics are physically durable in the short term, which has given them a reputation of being nearly indestructible. But the enemy of plastic durability lies within—most plastics are actually volatile compounds in a state of slow chemical breakdown. Different ratios of fire retardants, colorants, or hardeners added during the manufacturing process can accelerate or hinder this process.
As with the case of the Super NES seen here, a sure sign of plastic breakdown is discoloration. Plastics often discolor when exposed to UV light—or merely oxidation—over time. Both UV and oxygen drastically accelerate the chemical breakdown process.
Strong sources of UV include fluorescent light bulbs and the sun, so keep your prized gadgets in the dark and away from windows. Meanwhile, older discolored plastics can become brittle and pose a breaking hazard, so handle them gingerly. Early 1990's Macintosh computer cases in particular like to both discolor and break apart.
One potential remedy for discoloration is called Retrobright (see inset photo with solution applied), but prevention is just as important.
In the long term, our reliance on plastic goods represents a preservation nightmare that will surely haunt archivists for generations to come.
Remove or Replace Capacitors
Along with batteries, electrolytic capacitors represent the primary source of electronic circuit damage from failing components. Over time, almost all electrolytic capacitors fail, and that can manifest itself in a loud smoky pop with the capacitor literally bursting when powered up. Or the plague may be silent as they leak their electrolytes all over a PC board, damaging circuitry (or making shorts across traces) without making a peep. A sure sign of a failing capacitor is a canister bugled out top, as seen in the photo. Another sign is a tiny dried puddle of clear fluid sitting at its base on the circuit board.
If you have a prized electronic device over 20 years old and you want to use it again some day, consider preemptively removing its capacitors—or replacing them with fresh ones as soon as you can—before they leak and irreversibly damage surrounding circuitry.
Avoid Water, Humidity, and Heat
As a computer collector in the southern United States, humidity is my No. 1 enemy. It allows two terrible destructive forces to take hold: corrosion and mold. Mold is especially problematic, as it can ruin cloth, paper, label adhesives, leather, vinyl, leatherette, plastic, or rubber surfaces, including those seen on the plastic wire insulation of the NES AC adapter above.
Once mold gets established, it is very hard to control, because its rugged roots can lay dormant until the conditions are right—usually when the humidity is over 60 percent and the temperature is also over 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Then fruiting bodies grow (see tiny inset), and the mold ejects spores into the air that land on exposed surfaces, and the cycle starts again. The growth effect can be exponential if left unchecked, creating a human breathing hazard, and mold's digestive byproducts can potentially decay whatever they colonize.
Avoid this by keeping your prized electronics clean and dust-free in a cool, dry place. Keep them covered with archival paper products if possible. To control humidity, I use electric dehumidifiers that run 365 days a year, and I pair that with a HEPA air filter to reduce spores in the air and the dust that they can feed on (more on that in a minute).
While you're at it, avoid extremes of heat and cold in general. Expansion and contraction can cause materials such as plastic and metal to crack and warp or become brittle over time.
Seal Gaps Against Pests
Tiny critters love small, dark holes. This includes insects like crickets and roaches, web-weaving spiders, pungent millipedes, and small rodents such as mice. Once they're in there, things get nasty: they could create potentially dangerous electric shorts, chew on wires, or impede airflow with excrement, nests, or webs.
So as you store your electronics in a cool, dark, dry place, try to cover all potential points of pest entry with archival tape (if the surface is suitable and cleanable, such as polished stainless steel) or enclose the entire gadget in an archival safe paperboard box or paper bag so pests don't get inside. The paperboard box needs to stay dry or it will become a breeding ground for mold. Also, low humidity discourages the incursion of termites seeking cardboard boxes, which I have also had trouble with in the past.
I recommend against using plastic bags for sealing because they will eventually degrade and outgas chemicals that can react with your equipment (especially other plastics), and will do so much more quickly if kept in a hot environment. Plastic bags, created for temporary use, are horribly unstable.
Remove and Isolate Rubber Components
Plastics are unstable, as we've already learned, but rubber even more so. Generally, the softer the rubber, the quicker it will break down and decay. Some rubber components like the feet on the bottom of a metal case (seen above) will eventually get oozy and chemically melt even in a room temperature environment, but heat definitely accelerates the process. This ooze can then get on other nearby devices if stacked, and it is very hard to remove.
Another source of potential breakdown are rubber belts used in older cassette tape players, record players, VCRs, and disk drives. They eventually get brittle and break as well. It's best to remove them for long-term storage, and then replace with freshly made rubber belts when you want to use them again.
Minimize and Control Dust
We've already talked about mold, and another problem that goes hand-in-hand with invasive fungus is dust. Dust, which is usually an organic byproduct from human skin or fabrics, provides nutrients for mold, fungi, and bacteria that, once established, may excrete waste byproducts that could damage circuitry or plastics. Dust also increases the raw surface area for mold spores to settle onto and take hold.
Beyond problems with mold, dust can also soak up moisture from the air like a sponge and concentrate it on a specific area, increasing the likelihood of rust or corrosion. So disassemble your gadgets and give them a good cleaning regularly, and try to control free-floating dust in the air with an ambient HEPA air filter (seen here), which can also reduce the concentration of mold spores. Also, dust regularly to keep exposed surfaces as clean as possible.
All these steps may seem drastic, but everything breaks down eventually. If you follow these rules, you'll be sure to give your prized vintage electronics a much longer lifespan.