How To Back Up All Your Devices (Part 2)

12/14/2012 2:55:27 PM

So far we’ve focused on keeping local backups for a single PC. If you have more than one PC to protect, it probably doesn’t make sense to invest in a separate external drive for each of your computers; it’s more efficient to set up a central backup location.

Windows 8’s File History feature keeps a running record of changes to your files, so you can revert to earlier versions with only a few clicks

Windows 8’s File History feature keeps a running record of changes to your files, so you can revert to earlier versions with only a few clicks

The simplest way to set this up is by sharing a drive across your network. Home editions of Windows 7 don’t allow you back up to a network location, but there are plenty of third-party packages that will. If you’re moving up to Windows 8, its File History feature makes it easy to set a shared drive as a backup location for your entire HomeGroup.

The downside to this is that the computer hosting the shared drive must be kept switched on all the time, or backups won’t be made. This isn’t exactly energy-efficient, and it creates a central point of failure should something go wrong with the host computer. A safer approach is to invest in a dedicated low-power network storage device. Until recently we might have recommended an appliance based on the Windows Home Server operating system, but Microsoft confirmed in July that its home-oriented server OS is no longer under development, so we’d be hesitant to invest in it at this point.

Instead, we recommend taking a look at some of the simpler network-attached storage (NAS) devices that are out there. For example, the Synology DS2112j offers a friendly Windows-like interface, with nice extras such as the ability to mount ISOs as network volumes and to stream audio over your local network. It also supports RAID mirroring, so you can be confident a hardware failure won’t mean losing any data – which is, after all, what it’s all about.

Missing PCS and MACs

If you own a Mac as well as a PC, you may be using Apple’s Time Machine system to handle backups. Most people do this via an external drive connected to the Mac, but can use a shared network drive if you prefer. The easiest way to do this is with one of Apple’s dedicated Time Capsule boxes. This works automatically with Time Machine, and can be mounted on Windows clients for use as a backup destination.

integrate into a mixed-platform environment

Apple’s Time Machine backup system is deliciously simple to use, but it can be awkward to integrate into a mixed-platform environment

The potential downside of this is that Time Capsules are quite sophisticated by NAS standards, featuring 802.11n Wi-Fi and a USB port for sharing printers and secondary drives. They are also sealed units, unlike most NAS devices, which are designed to be user-upgradeable with desktop hard drives. This makes them fairly expensive, with prices starting at $320 for a 2TB unit. Annoyingly, Apple doesn’t officially support saving Time Machine backups to generic NAS devices, or shared Windows volumes. However, there are workarounds if you don’t mind a bit of technical hackery. Note that the process involves changing system settings and isn’t guaranteed to work with all devices, nor with Mountain Lion Proceed at your own risk.

iPhones and iPads

When it comes to mobile devices, backing up needn’t be hard. However, the process varies depending on what sort of hardware you have. If you’re using an iOS device – that is, an Apple iPhone, iPad or iPod touch – backup is built in. by default iTunes automatically backs up all of the data on these devices, including purchased music and TV shows, messages, application data and device setting, each time you sync your device with your computer.

Apple’s ICloud service provides automatic backups for iOS devices

Apple’s ICloud service provides automatic backups for iOS devices

There are caveats. First, only the most recent state of your device is stored. If you want to back up your backups, as it were, you’ll have to copy them out of the default location manually. In Windows 7 this is C:/Users/[your username]/ AppData/ Roaming/ Apple Computer/ MobileSync/ Backup. What’s more, the information is stored in a proprietary format, so you can’t just go trawling through the files on your PC. Restoring it to your iPhone or iPad is simplicity itself, however: simply right-click on the device in iTunes and select Restore from the context menu.

If you’re using iCoud, iTunes backups are disabled, and your data is instead backed up automatically once a day to your iCoud accound, so long as your device is powered and connected to the internet via Wi-Fi. You’ll find options to turn on iCoud, and force manual backups, by opening the Settings app and tapping iCloud / Storage & Backup. Free cloud storage is limited to 5GB, so you may want to exclude some applications from backing up their data; you’ll find the options for this in the Settings menu under iCloud / Storage & Backup / Manage storage.

If you need to restore from iCloud, you can do so by completely erasing your device (go to Settings / General / Reset / Erase All Content and Settings). The next time you restart, you’ll be prompted to restore from an iCloud backup.


“Android user can restore data simply by logging in to a Google account”

If you’re an Android user, you can allow Google to keep a central copy of your contacts, book marks, dictionaries and some other settings automatically. This information can then be restored to a new phone or tablet simply by logging in to your Google account for the first time, taking much of the pain out of replacing or upgrading hardware. You can control what’s synchronized by going to Settings / Accounts & Sync on your Android device, then clicking on your Google account (the lower-case “g” in a blue square).

While this works well, there are plenty of things Google doesn’t back up, such as downloaded files, application settings and SMS messages. If you want to safeguard these, you’ll need a third-party application. One of the most popular choices is MyBackup Pro, available via Google Play. The app costs a princely $4.77, but it lets you back up more or less every file and setting on your phone, either to local storage or to the company’s own online servers. Backups can be run manually or to a schedule, and a new experimental feature lets you trigger a backup remotely, so if your phone is lost or stolen you may still be able to grab a copy of its contents.

Of course, MyBackup Pro isn’t the only backup software for Android. If you’ve “rooted” you device – that is, broken the operating system’s built-in protections – you may want to check out the free Titanium Backup app, again available from Google Play. This is a comprehensive backup tool, with support for advanced features such as encrypted backups, multi-user support and automatic uploading to online services including Dropbox and Google Drive. If you don’t have a rooted phone or tablet, however, it won’t work at all.

Windows phone

The Zune software backs up Windows Phone settings and media when you sync with your PC or Mac, just like Apple’s automatic iTunes backups. However, there’s no officially supported way to perform a full backup of a Windows Phone handset that includes your message history and app data.

There are, however, third-party tools that can potentially help. The unauthorized Windows Phone 7 Backup application lets you make a complete copy of your phone’s data and OS, ready to restore at a later date. There’s no guarantee it will work, though – and even if it does, it’s an all-or-nothing operation, with no way of selectively restoring some types of data while skipping others. In other words, you’re protected against disaster or loss (as long as you replace your lost phone with an identical model, as backups aren’t guaranteed to work across different hardware), but not if you recklessly overwrite a data file and later wish you hadn’t.


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