Saturday, February 23, 2013

Protecting Digital Data - Part 1

I've enjoyed years of watching the digital camera grow from a VGA capable camera that was bulky and wrote to floppy disks to my current (and almost antique in terms of cameras now) Sony A700.  As an amateur photographer, I've appreciated the ability to take nearly unlimited photos to practice getting the perfect shot.  I'm sure I have many thousands of photos left to continue to hone my skills.  Along the way, I've been lucky to get many great photos, and collected many not as great photos of rare nature sightings and special family moments that you just don't want to give up.  Eventually, a collection can grow very large, especially after years of shooting.  Add to this collection digital video and you've got a very large media library.  Sure, my dad's old video camera taped directly to VCR tape.  My old SD camera taped to mini tapes.  But now my HD camera is adding digital footage to my hard drive at an alarming rate, and much of it I need to keep around for potential video clips in different works. Newer DSLR cameras also allow taking video or photos with the same device, making the switch between photo and video while 'catching the moment' easy and convenient.

All this can lead to a rather large pile of precious data.  As cameras take higher quality photos, file sizes increase and the problem becomes one that must be faced by even casual photographers.  In my computer repair hobby business, I've seen a lot of issues, from dying or dead hard drives, to one of the more common issues in our area - lightning strikes coming in through phone lines and causing damage to one or more components.  Viruses used to be a big issue, but now most computers ship with antivirus and users, of Windows systems at least, are used to using antivirus to protect themselves.  Remember to keep your antivirus up to date! Even with this protection, things can go wrong.  How can we protect against data loss due to unforeseen software or hardware issues?

Protect yourself from data loss and avoid this...
Our lifetime of photos and memories is too precious to lose to a random failure.  Can we make sure this doesn't happen to us?  This is the topic I want to focus on over the next blog entry or two.  Nobody wants to lose their special memories or important files.  I've seen portable hard drives die, and experienced one go myself.  Western Digital's MyBook motto was "Put your life on it!"  Yes, you can, but don't let it be your only copy.  I lost only a small amount of data when mine died thanks to safe computing practices.  What's the most important of those?

Redundant Backup
Hard drive prices are low these days compared to fifteen years ago.  There are lots of options for relatively cheap, large backups.  For a small home library, you might even be able to get away with a free option for a while.  Eventually as your collection grows, you'll probably have to start paying for some sort of backup option, or run the risk of losing data if your main drive data gets corrupted or lost.

The Options:

An Extra Hard Drive
As I said, hard drives are cheap, and when on sale, you can get a 2TB drive for as little as ~$100 or less.  That's a lot of space, more than you'll likely need for your media, unless you're a pro with lots of photo archives or video footage.  This will also allow you to backup your documents, email address book, emails, and other items that may be important to you.  Many computers have extra hard drive slots that could house a secondary hard drive that you can use for redundant backup.  This hard drive is always available and easy to copy new data to whenever you add to your collection.  Because it is directly connected to your motherboard via your SATA connector, transfer speeds are fast.  The big fault to this type of backup is that it is vulnerable to system issues like a massive power surge or virus.

  • Always available.
  • Easy - nothing to hook up.
  • Fast.
  • Relatively cheap.
  • Can be installed in minutes by a tech savvy owner or friend.
  • Vulnerable to main system faults like virus, power surge.
  • Locked into one system unless shared over network.
External Hard Drives
There are many external hard drive options on the market that allow you to hook up an external hard drive to your computer to perform backups of important data via a data port.  These come in a variety of flavors, from common USB 2 to the new USB 3 standard, eSATA, and Thunderbolt (first launched by Apple, and now coming to newer PC motherboards.)  An external drive can be isolated from power and your computer while you don't require its service, allowing it to be stored safely away until the next backup or restore. If you already have a spare hard drive sitting around, you can get an enclosure to use it as an external.  Many externals can be found for about $20 more than their internal counterpart, with the price geared to the size of the storage unit.  If you're buying a new external, do yourself a favor and at least make sure you get a USB 3 if your computer has a USB 3 port.  Older USB 2 external drives are horribly slow for large transfers.  Depending on your available ports, higher speed options are USB 3, eSATA, and at the top of the list, Thunderbolt.  If your system is older though, you'll likely be stuck with a USB 2 connection and slow speeds unless you buy an expansion card for your computer to add one type of the newer ports.  The benefit to externals is the portability.  You can take them anywhere, from computer to computer, to share or backup.

  • Easily move between computers.
  • Easily isolated from your system and power when not in use.
  • Price isn't much higher than a regular hard drive.
  • No installation required if you buy an external for your existing computer port.
  • Most externals come with a form of backup software to make the task easier.
  • Older connection types are slow.
  • Most models do not have a fan and some can run very hot.
More Options: Moving to the Cloud, a Home Network Solution and others...
In the next post I'll look at some more backup methods, including cloud storage and home based network sharing and storage solutions.

If you are in the market for backup devices in Canada, you can try Tiger Direct, who often have good prices on computer parts and accessories using this link:

TigerDirect (CA)

If you are in the US, you can use this link:


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