Computers like to break down when it’s least convenient. And, when that happens, you may lose all of your precious family photos, personal documents, or legally downloaded movies. That is, unless you back up your files first.
In the past, backing up your files meant buying an an expensive hard drive or a mess of overpriced USB sticks. But now, there are a ton of cheap and easy ways to keep your files safe, even if you’ve built up terabytes worth of data. Here are five of our favorite affordable backup methods.
One Backup Isn’t Enough: Follow the 3-2-1 Method
Your backups aren’t guaranteed to last forever. Hard drives can fall victim to theft, natural disaster, or hardware failure, and even cloud storage solutions can face the destructive malice of hackers or incompetence.
So, before we look at any cheap storage solutions, we should take a minute to review the 3-2-1 strategy:
- Keep 3 Copies of Your Data: You should maintain three backups at all times. One of these backups can be on your main machine—just keep in mind that a hard drive in a working computer breaks down faster than a hard drive in a drawer.
- Use 2 Different Formats: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. A theft, flood, or fire can destroy a group of hard drives in one go. Try to spread your backups across different media or cloud services.
- Keep 1 Backup Offsite: Again, a random disaster can destroy the hard drives that you have at home. Keep at least one backup away from all the others. You can do this through cloud storage, or by keeping a hard drive at a friend’s house or in a bank vault (which may be cheaper than cloud storage, depending on how much data you’re hoarding).
A bit of wiggle room does exist between these rules. Services like Dropbox, for example, can automatically sync your backups across a handful of devices. But you get the idea; squirrel away your data in a few different spaces. That way, your efforts (and money) won’t go to waste.
Now that we’ve reviewed the 3-2-1 method, it’s time to get into the weeds. Here are the five best ways to back up your data on the cheap.
Cheap and Fast: HDDs or SSDs
People talk about cloud storage like its the be-all-end-all backup system. But if you want to get things done without spending too much of your time or money, then it’s best to focus your backup efforts on hard drives or solid-state drives. They’re cheap, they last a long time, and they transfer files a lot faster than any cloud storage solution.
Because you’re just backing up your files, an HDD is probably a smarter investment than an SSD. Sure, SSDs are a lot faster than typical hard drives, but they also cost about three times as much money. That extra speed isn’t worth the extra cost unless you plan on doing massive routine backups.
If you plan to go down the HDD route, then we suggest buying an inexpensive Western Digital or Toshiba product. But if you need the extra speed of an SSD, then we suggest using the fantastic Samsung T5, which offers a great mix of power, quality, and affordability.
WD 2TB WD Elements Portable External Hard Drive, USB 3.0 - WDBU6Y0020BBK-WESN
WD's high capacity, affordable HDDs are perfect for local backups. They're cheaper and faster than cloud storage services.
For Small Backups: Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, or OneDrive
If you’re trying to stow away a small (less than 2 TB) collection of files, then it may be best to stick with Google Drive, OneDrive, iCloud, or Dropbox. These cloud storage solutions are fairly inexpensive, and they’re easy to sync across a mess of different apps and devices. And remember, syncing across devices can help you secure your data without spending a fortune on hard drives.
Thing is, each of these services has its own price and perks. While iCloud may be perfect for Apple fans, Dropbox may be a better option for people who work across a variety of different operating systems.
To make things easy, let’s take a quick look at what these cloud storage solutions have to offer:
- Dropbox (iOS/Android): Dropbox offers 2 TB of storage for $10 a month, making it one of the cheapest cloud storage solutions on the market. It plays nice with nearly every operating system, and it integrates perfectly with Microsoft Office products and some work-oriented iOS and Android apps.
- iCloud (iOS/Android): Apple offers 2 TB of iCloud storage for $10 a month. It’s an obvious alternative to Dropbox, especially if you use an iPhone, iPad, or Mac. (Of course, it works on Windows and somewhat on Android systems, too).
- Google Drive (iOS/Android): Google offers 1 TB of storage for $12 a month. It isn’t the cheapest option on the planet, but it’s good for people who do most of their work through Google’s productivity suite (Docs, Sheets, Sites, etc). It also works across every major computer OS out there with Google’s Backup and Sync app.
- OneDrive (iOS/Android): Microsoft’s offers 1 TB of OneDrive storage for $70 a year (or $7 a month). This 1-TB plan comes with Office 365 Personal, so it’s a no brainer for many students and professionals.
These cloud storage solutions fit most people’s needs. But if you need to back up more than one or two terabytes of data, then an unlimited storage solution like Backblaze may be a smarter option.
For Large File Collections: Backblaze
Backblaze offers the most affordable unlimited storage platform on the planet. For just $6 a month (or $60 a year), you can cram all of your files into Backblaze and avoid the weird data caps of typical cloud storage solutions.
Like Dropbox or OneDrive, Backblaze allows for automatic backups, file sharing, and access from mobile devices. The only serious issue with Backblaze is that its backup system is restricted to one computer at a time. Additional computers require additional licenses. In other words, backing up from two computers runs you $120 a year, and three computers costs $180 a year.
That’s still a great deal—assuming that you have more than 2 TBs of data to back up. But if your backups are relatively small, then it may be smarter to just stick with a service Dropbox or Google Drive. That way, you can back up files from any device at any time.
For Data Hoarders and Media-Fiends: Build a NAS
For its unlimited storage capacity, Backblaze is a definite steal. But it is limited in some ways. If you want to mix the high capacity of Backblaze with the convenience of Dropbox and the speed of a local hard drive, then a NAS (network-attached storage) device may be your best bet.
In short, a NAS device is a cloud server that you keep in your living room. It’s a little costly to set up, but in time it’ll pay for itself and provide a faster more customizable storage platform than Backblaze or Dropbox. You and your family can access the NAS server from anywhere—and you can even use it to stream movies or music to any device. Really, it’s the ultimate storage option for anyone who’s spent their time hoarding documents, photos, or movies.
You can build a NAS device in a million different ways, many of which we’ve covered over at How-To Geek. You can buy a fancy NAS enclosure, connect hard drives directly to your router, repurpose an old PC, or even build a NAS from a cheap Raspberry Pi. Either way, you’ll need to buy a few HDDs or SSDs to act as the server’s storage, and you’ll need to follow a quick guide to get things off the ground. It isn’t as easy as Dropbox, but it’s not that complicated either.
Synology 2 bay NAS DiskStation DS218+ (Diskless)
The Synology Diskstation has quick read and write speeds and is one of the most convenient, easy-to-use NAS enclosures on the market.
Check What You Already Have!
There’s a good chance that you already have free access to cloud storage through your Amazon Prime, Google, Microsoft, or Apple account. So, before you start paying for a monthly plan, check what you already have!
Here are some services that you can probably access for free right now:
- Google Drive: You can upload 15 GBs of files to Google Drive for free.
- OneDrive: You can upload 5 GBs of files to OneDrive for free. And if you already pay for Office 365, then you can access 1 TB of cloud storage through OneDrive right now.
- iCloud: Apple users get 5 GBs of iCloud storage for free.
- Google Photos: Google Photos allows you to store an unlimited number of pictures and videos for free.
- Amazon Drive: Amazon Prime members get unlimited photo storage and 5 GBs of video storage through Amazon Drive.
These free services are very limited, but they’re a great option for anyone who only needs to back up photos or small documents. They’re also good in an emergency. If you think that your computer or phone is starting to die, you can quickly dump some files into Google Drive for free.