You’ve got a lot of valuable things stashed on your computer. Some of them—like your music library—are deeply personal. Others—tax returns and business documents—are more mundane, but still important to keep around. And then there are things like photos that are simply irreplaceable should your computer’s hard drive suddenly give up the ghost.
If putting together a backup plan for your PC or Mac is on your list of New Year’s resolutions, maybe a backup device should be on your holiday wishlist. But what device is appropriate for your needs?
You can narrow down the search just by answering a few quick questions. Do you need to backup just one computer or an entire household of machines? If it’s just you, an external desktop drive may be the best choice. Look for a drive with a capacity higher than that of the computer you’re backing up. I recommend at least twice the capacity of your internal drive, if possible. Multi-computer households or offices should look into network attached storage options. We’ll examine both choices below.
Desktop backup drives
Most desktop backup devices use rotational hard drives, generally 7,200-RPM drives that require an external power supply. These hard drives aren’t as fast as solid state drives, but they offer much higher capacities and lower prices. Speed isn’t as important as capacity, especially when performing incremental backups. Most connect to your PC via USB 3.0, though eSATA and Thunderbolt drives are available.
Look for a drive with storage capacity higher than what you’re backing up. Some backup software, like Apple’s Time Machine, will keep multiple versions of documents that you’ve changed between backups, so the more available space, the more protected you are. If you can swing it, look for a drive with twice the capacity of the data you want to back up. You’ll find desktop hard drives with 2TB of capacity starting at around $100.
For greater data protection, look for a multi-drive device that supports RAID 1, also known as mirroring. RAID 1 maintains an exact duplicate of your backups, so that if one drive fails, your data is not lost. For the utmost in security, look for a backup device that offers easily removable drives. That way you can rotate drives in and out, keeping one of the backups offsite to protect your data in case of a fire or flood.
The Buffalo DriveStation DDR is a good single-drive deskop hard drive that offers fast write performance thanks to novel use of 1GB of onboard DDR3 memory.
Network attached storage
If you need to back up multiple computers, you’ll want to look into network attached storage, or NAS. NAS devices range in size from single drive units meant mainly for media storage, all the way up to multiple drive devices that offer huge capacity and fault-tolerant RAID arrays. Most NAS devices have USB ports on them, but they’re meant for adding additional storage, not a direct connection to your PC.
Many NAS boxes, like the QNAP TS-469 Pro, let you access files saved on the device from anywhere via the Internet and offer ways to store and share movies and songs with TVs on your network.
There can be a downside to NAS storage, though. While almost all devices are administered through a standard web browser, some seem to expect you to have a degree in computer science to manage them properly. If that doesn’t describe you, I recommend Western Digital’s MyCloud drive. It offers an easy to use web interface that can be accessed from Macs, PCs, as well as Android and iOS devices.
For more backup drive recommendations, see our list of the best backup drives you can buy right now.