Over the past few months, a number of clients have bought an external hard drive, plugged it into their computer, and then expected that it would automatically back up their computer with no further effort on their part.
By "automatically," they meant "perfectly, completely, and on an ongoing basis, i.e., forever."
In many cases they got this idea from the many poorly-explained bits and pieces of information out in the world relating to the idea of backing up a computer. In fact, they believed this so firmly, that they were genuinely surprised by what I told them. The short answer: No, no, no, no, no! The medium-length answer: No! That's a necessary step, but it's not sufficient!
See my related newsletters:The more-complete answer
An external hard drive is a great component of a backup system for your computer. When I explain the different "destinations" we might use to back up the computer, most of the time my clients choose an external hard drive (or USB flash drive) over an online service.
However, hard drives (and flash drives) don't actively (nor automatically) do anything
to back up your computer. They are passive receptacles
for computer data.
What makes a backup actually take place? Here are the typical ways it happens:
- Scheduled using backup software: You first set up a backup program so it will copy your important files and folders (or your entire internal drive) to your external hard drive, and you also pick a date and time for it to run, say every Wednesday evening at 8pm. Then, you simply ensure that your computer is on and your external drive is plugged in so the backup will be able to run at its scheduled time. (This is the method I recommend most often.)
- Manual using backup software: You first set up a backup program so it will copy your important files and folders (or your entire internal drive) to your external hard drive. Then, you manually click on that program whenever you want the backup to run. (I only recommend this method when it's difficult to have a schedule or to keep the backup drive plugged in.)
- Manual without using backup software: Each time you want to do a backup, you click-and-drag your important files and folders from your internal drive to your external hard drive. (I don't normally recommend this method since it's laborious and error-prone, but there are occasionally situations where it makes sense.)
In other words, it's either your own actions or the actions of backup software
(carefully set up in advance) that does the work to copy your important data from your internal drive to the backup drive. The external drive passively receives and stores the backup, but it doesn't "do" anything on its own.
Some manufacturers include backup software with their hard drives. In many cases this software is so limited, it simply does a terrible job. Really bad. Embarrassingly bad. Is it better than nothing? Sure. Would I ever choose to use such badly-designed software over the many other really good backup programs out there? Never. Conclusions
Where to go from here
- You wouldn't put a bucket on the ground under a dairy cow and expect that bucket to fill with milk automatically, would you? Similarly, don't expect an external hard drive to be magical, it's not.
- Please don't assume that simply plugging in an external drive will automatically back up your computer. If you do, you will be upset and dismayed to discover, when a disaster occurs and you really need your backup, that you have nothing on that external drive. It will be empty, still waiting for you to make use of it, from that first moment you unpacked it and plugged it in to your computer.
- If it's difficult for you to find good backup software or set it up properly, get someone to help you.
- Backup is important. You can get everything else wrong, not maintain your computer properly, not protect it from theft or damage or infections or overheating, etc., and having a good backup will save you every time. Make sure it's a functioning backup system.
If you're confused or frustrated by something on your computer, I like to say, "You can do it!" You might just need a little encouragement, or information, or change of perspective, and that's where I come in.