Friends & Family Computer Recommendations (Updated 10/09)

After hanging up on the 50th phone call where I recommend personal computer stuff to friends and family, I figured I’d do the same for my backupcentral friends. This blog entry will highlight what I think you should do at home to ensure a nice smooth computing experience — and yes — to make sure it’s all backed up. I’ll also mention a few things I don’t think you should do.

A lot of my recommendations have to do with protecting you from what will inevitably happen — a hard drive failure or an accidental deletion of a really important file. Trust me: the more you use technology, the more you’re likely to get bit. The more computers you have, the more disks you have, the more chance you have that one of them will fail. That counts all of your ipods, your smart phones, etc. (I put all my contacts in there and now they’re gone!) Everyone I know has suffered some kind of data loss, which is why I started sticking my nose into their business and giving them backup advice — I can’t stand to see someone lose data!

Things I think you must do

  • Get automated, off-site backup
    • Windows and MacOS users can get a completely automated off-site backup system by paying around $50/year for,,, and and have automated, scheduled off-site backup of an unlimited amount of data. That’s right, less than $5/month and you have all the backup you could ever need. The only thing that limits your backup is your upload speed. Your first backup will take forever (mine took two weeks), but after that it runs every day and backs up just the new stuff. This is not an offsite storage service. (Read below why I don’t like those.) This is automated backup of the last 30 days of the data you store on your PC at home. Most support Windows and MacOS today. (Linux and Solaris are supported by Crashplan.)
    • If you’re a Linux user, jungledisk is also an option. I haven’t used it, and I’m not sure how it handles previous versions of files, but it’s automated and relatively inexpensive until you start getting into the 100 GB+ category. Jungledisk is a $20 piece of software that synchronizes folders of your choice to Amazon’s S3 service, which costs $.15/mth per GB plus bandwidth charges.
    • If you’re really cheap, you can use for free by backing agreeing with a friend to back up each other’s computers.  (I’d do that instead of just backing up to another computer in your house, as that won’t help you in a fire.)
  • Sync your phone to your computer
    • Ask your mobile phone company how to do this, so you you don’t lose all that work you did to create all those contacts when you drop it in the water or leave it in a cab. You can sync it to your computer so that all that data gets backed up too!
  • Skip Vista and go to Windows 7

    • From what I can see, Windows 7 is much nicer than Vista and 8 years newer than XP.  If you’re happy with XP and it does what you want, though, I don’t see any reason to upgrade yet.  (Some have told me that Win7 is faster than XP on the same hardware.  I’ll believe that when I see it.)
  • Pay for the software, music, books and movies you use
    • Don’t ask me to borrow my copy of Windows or Office or the latest album from Pink. Go pay for it yourself.
    • I do not support the illegal downloading of software, music, books, or movies. Copying your own CDs & DVDs to make a backup copy of them, or to make them playable on your iPod (or whatever) is not stealing. When your friend takes that copy and plays it on their player, it is stealing. Copying your friends’ MP3s or movies is stealing. Renting a DVD and ripping it so you can play it any time is stealing. (The content provider was paid a rental royalty, not a purchase royalty. They are very different amounts of money. I should know, I receive both types of royalties.) Downloading bootleg copies of software is stealing. Given the small amount of money I make off of each backup book, it kills me to know that there are thousands of people who have bootlegged copies of it out there. You don’t shoplift, right? Then why are you doing this? It’s nothing more than virtual shoplifting.
    • A friend read an earlier version of this post and said that it was incorrect to call this stealing, because to steal something from someone, they had to be in possession of it first. Since I never received the royalties on those books, the people who have bootlegged copies of my book didn’t steal from me. Here’s what I told him.

      First, I believe that my use of the word “stealing” fits right into the first definition of it as a transitive verb at Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary (notice especially c & d): a: to take or appropriate without right or leave and with intent to keep or make use of wrongfully b: to take away by force or unjust means

  • Stamp out Digital Rights Management (DRM)
    • This isn’t on the same level as “get a backup system,” but I feel almost as strongly about it.
    • I believe in paying for the software, music, and books that I use, but DRM is just wrong. It doesn’t stop a single Buy only DRM-free songs. Itunes and are now DRM-free. (iTunes went DRM-free due to market pressure from Amazon that was DRM-free first! Yay free market!)
    • You can legally get rid of songs that you purchased that have DRM by burning them to an audio CD and re-ripping that CD.  There are even software products that will automate the whole process for you.  Just search google for “remove DRM from itunes songs.”

Things to think about doing

The next three recommendations are about better ways to add storage to your system. They are in order by cost, where the first is the least expensive. The last is the “if you really want to do it right” option, but it may not palatable for your budget.

  • Get a second hard drive (single PC household)
    • Now that you have your data backed up, buy a big honking disk drive and put your data there. Don’t store it on the same drive as your OS. Keep your current OS on your current drive, then buy a huge second disk drive. (I recommend this for one big reason. It’s common to have to reinstall your OS. Wouldn’t it be nice to let the computer guy do that for you and KNOW that no matter what he/she does, it won’t hurt your actual data? It’s a beautiful thing.) If you want cheaper and faster, buy a second internal drive. If you’re not into high performance and want to spend extra money for portability, then buy a USB drive. That way, you can grab just it in case of fire. The easiest thing to move to this is your “my documents” folder. After you get the new drive up and running, just right click on “my documents” in “my computer,” and tell it you want to move it. Click the button that says to move all your files there and Voila! Now anything you store in “my documents” will automatically be on your new hard drive.
  • Get a server (multi-PC household)
    • Even better than a separate hard drive is having a separate server for your data. This is a little more advanced. Dedicate one of the PCs/Macs in your house as the server, then create shares to all the PCs/Macs in the house. Then go to each PC/Mac and map a drive to that share. If you’re running Windows, change the location of “my documents” to that mapped drive. Now whenever you save anything to “my documents” on any PC, it will be stored on the server. (I’m sure there’s a way to do this in MacOS, but I’m not a Mac guy.) In case of fire, all you have to grab is that. (Also, you only need to buy the $50/year backup service for this one PC.) I would prefer this PC be Linux-based, but since I’m now addicted to mozy, mine is currently Windows. If you want a ready-built unit that all you have to put disk in, try the Netgear’s ReadyNas product. They also offer versions with disks already installed as well.
  • Get a redundant disk system
    • If you want to make sure you should never need your backup system, get a redundant disk system. It will cost more than just buying disks, but the ones I’d recommend for home users are really easy to use and allow you to add storage as you need it, thus allowing you to buy only the disk you need for today. They’re also redundant — if one of your hard drives fails (and it will fail), the only thing you’ll get is a warning to replace it — your data will be fine. If you want USB-accessible drives, then I’d recommend looking at Drobo. (Disclosure: I did receive a free Drobo to test and play with, but I love it.)  If you want a file server, then I’d recommend the Netgear ReadyNas NV+. The drobo is the cheaper of the two, costing $499 without hard drives; the ReadyNas NV+ without hard drives is $1049. (The difference in price is because the ReadyNas box is a server, where the Drobo is just a USB hard drive system.)

As long as you followed my first recommendation and got a good offsite backup system, the redundant system is just extra insurance. It will also increase the speed with which you can recover from a hard drive failure. If you went the Internet backup route, restoring dozens of GBs may take quite a while, and you may have to do without your data for several days when you lose a disk drive. If you had a redundant system, then you wouldn’t have to do without it at all.

  • Consider business-class firewall and site protection
    • After seeing too many popups for sites I just don’t want my kids to see, and thinking about what they might find if they actually went looking, I wanted something to protect them from all of that. But since I switched to Linux (Kubuntu) for my desktops, the usual software options weren’t available. I searched and found the SonicWall TZ150 TotalSecure wireless. It’s got everthing. Network-wide content filtering (block those porn sites from any PC), spam filtering, spyware filtering, virus filtering — everything I want. Yes, it’s more expensive than a typical SOHO router, but buying net-nanny type software for every PC (if they had been windows) is actually more expensive in a multi-PC household. Search a lot for pricing. The pricing I eventually paid was almost $200 less than what the list price was.
  • Why not just switch off of Windows completely?
    • I run Windows on my work computer, because that’s what my company uses, but I’m moving off it everywhere else I can. I’m tired of the stability issues, viruses & spyware and the software I have to pay for so I don’t get them (and I still get them anyway), and new versions of the operating system that don’t support old hardware.
    • Consider MacOS. MacOS is easily the best computing experience today. The ads are not only funny, they’re mostly true. (There’s a bit of hyperbole in there, of course.) So if you want a computer that just works, won’t get infected with viruses, and can do all the cool multimedia stuff out of the box (video camera, digital camera, ipod, etc), then buy a Mac. Yes, you’ll have to replace your PC with a Mac, it will cost more, and it will initially seem weird to you, but their hardware and software support is great. Unless you’ve got a particular application that will only run on Windows, I think you’ll be a lot happier with a Mac. (You can run Windows software on a Mac with Parallels or VMware Fusion, so look into that, too.)
    • If you are a computer geek or are living with a computer geek, then consider migrating to Linux. Linux is still for the somewhat dedicated, and is not for non-computer-savvy folks, but it has come a long way in just the last year or so.
    • The Good: based on my experience, Linux has come a long way in the last few years, and even within the past year. Almost everything I wanted was already in Kubuntu 7.10, and most everything else could be installed relatively easily. I’ve now used firewire to suck in all my home videos (even the old 8mm/VHS/DVDs I had). I’m syncing my iPod, and my wife is pretty happy now that she figured out where everything is. It didn’t cost me a dime other than my time, and I don’t have to worry about viruses.
    • The Bad: Not everything works in Linux. The recent trend of TV stations making their shows available via the web is often only possible when you use the Windows-only video plugin to IE. My daughter’s not too happy about that one. I also bought a new scanner and it comes with cool software to make the scanner experience smoother (such as turning a strip of negatives into five different photos automatically). That software, of course, doesn’t run on my Linux box. Same with my digital camera, video camera, etc. I’m not saying I can’t store photos, videos, etc. I’m just saying it’s not as seamless as the Windows software would be. And the cheap digital writing tablet I bought isn’t supported at all in Linux. I need to buy the more expensive version if I want to use it in Linux. So depending on what you have, and how much new stuff you like to buy, you may find a really cool gadget that only runs on Windows. Linux is also not hack-proof, but it is more hack-proof than Windows. I’d also say that a default installation of Kubuntu is pretty secure, as it turns off things like httpd/sshd, etc. Turning on sshd or serving up web pages with php can open up security holes, but the same would be true if I installed ssh on a Windows or MacOS system. It’s just that it’s safe from the all those Windows viruses running around.
    • I do think you have to be “converted” first. You might want to vote with your money and show Microsoft that you aren’t a slave to their software, but you don’t want to spend the money you’d need to spend to buy Macs. You want to leverage all those not-so-new equipment PCs lying around the house that would be worthless to Vista or MacOS. You want to support free software, etc. There needs to be something more than just the computing experience. If you want a truly better computing experience, just go buy a Mac.
    • Here’s what I did: I bought a Macbook Pro for me and two iMacs for the house and I’ve never looked back.  For me, I do run Windows in a VM using VMware Fusion, because I had to have Visio and MS Office running on Windows.  (I put movies in my presos and they use ActiveX and Windows Media Player.)  But 99% of the time, the VM is powered off and I am happy as can be. I have a Linux file server where I store all my family’s data.
    • My “backup”: I now use CrashPlan to back up my Mac and the Linux server to another older computer for free. Awesome.
  • Get a digital camera
    • Film sucks. Move on.
  • Use a photo digitization service
    • Take all those old photos and/or negatives and give them to a service that will digitize them for you. I like 500 photos is only $100 if you send them negatives. Compare that to mother that spent four months doing the same thing with a scanner. Yuck. Their photos have a higher resolution (3000 dpi!) and are automatically and manually corrected (scratches, red-eye, colors, etc). You can send them all your photos and they put them up on a website for you to view and you select the ones you want — and you only pay for those! (You have to pay for at least half of what you sent them)
  • Get a digital video camera
    • It can still be tape (minidv), but get a digital camera that stores things digitally and can output to fiirewire. Trust me — it’s better.
  • Import all your old videos
    • Get an analog-to-digital conversion box and import all those old videos on your computer. Now you can edit them and make them into DVDs for you and your friends. For me, what worked better than the conversion box (for my old 8mm tapes) was an Hi-8 camera with firewire out. (I”m also using Kubuntu 7.10 with Kino to do the work.)

Ideas I don’t like

  • Offsite storage services as your primary storage device
    • I don’t like the ONLY copy of my data being on someone else’s servers. I’m ok with services that help you share your photos, for example, but I don’t think the only copy of your photos should be there. I think it should be on that big hard drive (or server) I mentioned earlier, and then backed up to an offsite company.
  • CDs/DVDs as your only backup
    • I’m ok with them a a long time archive medium. Once you’ve digitized all your old photos & videos, copying them to a few DVDs/CDs makes a lot of sense. But due to the manual nature of using them for ongoing backup, I don’t think they should be your only copy. It would be really great if you got those things offsite somewhere, like your desk at work, so they don’t die in a fire.
  • Second hard drive as your only backup
    • Automating backups to that hard drive will be a challenge more most people. And in a fire, it’s just as dead. Besides, you could get several years of backup services for what some of these hard drives cost.

I feel better now.

----- Signature and Disclaimer -----

Written by W. Curtis Preston (@wcpreston). For those of you unfamiliar with my work, I've specialized in backup & recovery since 1993. I've written the O'Reilly books on backup and have worked with a number of native and commercial tools. I am now Chief Technical Evangelist at Druva, the leading provider of cloud-based data protection and data management tools for endpoints, infrastructure, and cloud applications. These posts reflect my own opinion and are not necessarily the opinion of my employer.

4 thoughts on “Friends & Family Computer Recommendations (Updated 10/09)

  1. prwood says:

    I noticed that in October of last year, Mozy was acquired by EMC. Do you have any thoughts as to how this will affect the long-term viability of Mozy as an offsite backup option, specifically with regards to pricing, capacity, and availability? I’d love to have a great offsite backup solution, and Mozy seems pretty cheap; I just wouldn’t want to sign up with them if it seemed like EMC would be significantly changing the service.

  2. cpjlboss says:

    They bought Mozy to go after the home and really-SMB market. Since there’s a competitor hot on their heels with the same pricing (carbonite), I doubt they would be so dumb as to change it. They’d lose most of their customers in a heartbeat. If you’re concerned about that happening, give them $100 for two years service and fugetaboutit. 😉

  3. bgmonroe says:

    Your information on iTunes is a bit out of date. As of earlier this year (March or May I think) all music on iTunes is DRM free.

  4. cpjlboss says:

    How did I not know this? I pull my boycott of iTunes immediately!

    They are continuing to enforce the DRM-full songs that you already purchased, though, as I just found one lurking in my library and had to rip and replace it yesterday.

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