If you are taking photos, or videos, or writing blog posts or articles or novels, or doing remote website or computer work, or working as a fulltime digital nomad, you probably don’t want to ever encounter a situation where you lose a significant portion of the work you’ve done due to device failures, accidents, or theft. This post will talk about protecting your digital devices and data from disasters.
This needs to be your mindset. You must assume that your computer motherboard is going to be fried tomorrow, rendering it unusable. Or you hard drive is going to fail with all the files on it now inaccessible. Or you are going to lose internet access for a week, turning your chromebook into a desktop ornament. Or a thief is going to break into your hotel room and steals all your computers, tablets, phones, and backup drives.
Of course you can’t recover from every disaster, but you can do your best to turn these disasters into just inconveniences. Most people who store their work digitally acknowledge that losing hardware is bad, but losing work completed is worse. You can replace the hardware, but you can’t go back and reshoot a one-time event after it’s happened. Sure, if you are a writer and you just lost one magazine article you can always rewrite it, but what if you lost the entire first draft of your novel, or even several chapters?
I’ve been working with computers since the days when they were only available in large computer centers and since that time I’ve had pretty much every kind of hardware failure possible happen to me. Conservatively, I’ve had at least seven or eight hard drives fail…maybe more. I’ve had three motherboards fail, several power supplies die on me, RAM go bad, graphics cards fail, ethernet cards fail, and I’ve mangled more flash drives that I can count. That doesn’t even cover the countless times I’ve had power outages while I was working without battery backup and internet failures, including one two weeks ago when the battery backup on my FIOS panel failed, which took 2 days to get repaired. And hardware isn’t the only problem…I’ve wiped my hard drives and reinstalled operating systems and applications from scratch at least a dozen times on the computers used by myself, Ger and the girls, due to miscellaneous root kit viruses and software corruption. At work I had one of those nasty ransomware viruses that modify all your files with encrypted garbage and then send you a message to pay them $1000 to get the encryption key to get them all back. Luckily I was working on a virtual machine, so I just wiped it and reloaded, but I heard there were police stations and hospitals that ended up paying the extortion fees so they could get their booking and patient records back.
Most people are optimistic and don’t assume that bad things are going to happen to them. But you need to be a pessimist if you are going to protect yourself from data and hardware losses.
Backups and more backups
I divide my digital universe into four categories:
- Operating System
For each of those categories, I ask myself “what’s the worst that can happen and what can I do to plan for it so I can recover quickly if it happens?”. I can just about guarantee that most people working digitally abroad, don’t adequately cover all the bases, even though their livelihood may depend on it. So, let’s walk through each category and see what can be done?
If your computer fails while you are travelling abroad, do you know how to get it repaired or replaced and how long it will take? Can you afford to be without the computer for that long?
Before I bought my most recent laptop, which I intend to take with me on my next trip, and hopefully many more after that, one thing I looked at was serviceability and how I would get it repaired abroad. We are planning trips mainly to Latin America and SE Asia for the near future and I used those regions as part of my disaster scenario. I have to say up front that I was leaning towards switching from Windows laptops to a MacBook Pro 13 when I began this process. Because both our daughters use MBPs and we have been very impressed with AppleCare and the service they have gotten from Apple whenever they had hardware issues, simply carrying their computers into the store and leaving them there to get repaired, I was thinking Apple must have great International service as well. Turns out…not so much. The problem is that in Latin America and SE Asia Apple’s laptop market share is 1-2%. They just don’t sell very many of their expensive laptops into low income countries. But Lenovo, Dell, and HP all sell fairly well into those markets. Hence there are many more repair options.
In the long run, I bought a Dell. It weighs about the same as the MBP 13 and is about the same size, the build quality and display aren’t as nice, but with the extended support agreement it costs about half as much as the Mac. Also, I bought it at Costco which extends the warranty an extra year and they also offer a $100 SquareTrade protection plan (which I bought) that covers the computer for warranty-type repairs as well as accidental damage for three years. AppleCare is $250 to extend their warranty for three years, but it doesn’t cover accidental damage. I checked the terms and conditions and SquareTrade covers international repairs with a fairly straightforward process for getting reimbursed for local repairs as long as you get the repairs pre-approved through their Concierge hotline which has responsive access. Apple requires that you bring the computer to an authorized Apple repair center for repairs and there aren’t a whole lot of those in Latin America when I checked. If you can’t get the MBP repaired at an authorized repair center you have to send it away for repair.
Because Ger and I will be constantly generating photos and writing for our website, and updating the website while travelling, we need to have working computers and consistent access to the internet. For that reason we are each taking a laptop, so we have at least one working computer if one of them dies during the trip. And this brings up another important way to help minimize the effects of random hardware failures…redundancy. If you are travelling as a couple, try to have multiples of important items. If you depend on having a computer for your semi-retirement job, take two. Even better would be to bring two identical computers, so you can share chargers if one fails (we’ve had two of these fail in our household so far). If you are travelling on your own, you might consider bringing a full-size tablet as a backup. It’s not going to be as easy to use as a computer, but you might be able to limp along with it while your computer is getting repaired. Rather than bringing a single 4TB external hard drive which weighs 9 oz, consider bringing two 2TB drives which weigh 5.6 oz each. If one fails you still have 2TB. Also, in my experience, the largest size external HDs are the most unreliable. Redundancy goes for things besides computers. If you depend on taking photos for your work, it’s probably not a great idea to travel with a camera and a single lens. I’ll be taking a single zoom lens which covers a wide range of focal lengths, but I’ll also carry at least one small lightweight fast fixed lens for low light situations, but also as a backup lens in case the zoom fails or gets damaged.
Operating System Recovery
If your laptop’s operating system gets corrupted or virus infested you may need to re-install it back to a previous state or even back to the factory default state. With Windows 7.x and 8.x laptops there is usually a recovery partition on the hard drive which can be used to restore the operating system to its factory default state using the System Restore utility. With Windows 10, the partition has been eliminated in order to save space since many of the new laptops have smaller solid state disks in place of larger hard drives. On Windows 10 laptops you can create a recovery backup drive on a USB flash drive which can be used to restore the OS if it gets corrupted. On Macs you can restore the OS by holding down the Command + R keys when the laptop is powered up and selecting one of the system restore options.
You Need Backup
Typically you don’t really want to get into a situation where you are recovering the default OS that shipped with the laptop, because you have likely installed numerous OS updates and applications and many data files that you’d rather not have to reinstall to get back to the current state of the machine. For that reason you should be using backup software, either the software provided with the OS or a third party backup product, to make a backup of your original disk image and then take regular incremental or differential backups of the changes to the original image. Macs have a fairly decent backup program called Time Machine which can be used for the initial disk image backup and subsequent incremental or differential backups. On Windows the built-in backup utilities are not as refined, integrated, nor from many reports, as reliable. I’ve never trusted them with Windows 7 backups and I never had a Windows 8.x machine and apparently the backup tools were actually removed from windows 8.1 due to problems, so I can’t give a first-hand review of these. I only recently purchased a Windows 10 laptop and supposedly the backup utilities have been improved with this version, so I’ll be trying to use them and will report on that in a later post. Many people recommend using 3rd party backup programs for Windows backups, such as Acronis, Paragon, ShadowProtect, Genie, or even some of the free backup programs like Easeus Todo Backup Free, Comodo, or AOMEI Backupper Standard. Easeus and AOMEI also have paid versions of their programs which have more advanced features. Unfortunately none of these Windows backup programs have really received stellar reviews to the point where I’d recommend a particular product, so shop around and find one that suits your needs and price range.
Another option is to use a cloud backup service which provides backup software plus a cloud storage plan, usually for a yearly fee. This includes services like IDrive, CrashPlan, Zoolz, Amazon Cloud Drive, Acronis True Image Cloud, Carbonite, SpiderOakOne, Dropbox, SOS Online Backup, and Backblaze. Prices range from about $50-400 per year for the services mentioned with storage from 1TB to Unlimited, and between 1 to unlimited computers included in the plan. Ideally you’d want a plan that offers disk image backup as well as continuous backup. The only services on the list that offer this option are IDrive and Carbonite. Normally these services are only to be used for backup of your computer and not for general data storage. Be sure to make sure the number of computers and amount of storage available on the plan make sense for you. If the service offers unlimited storage for only one computer, such as Carbonite, and your computer only has a 256GB SSD drive then you are going to be paying for space you won’t be using, compared to IDrive which offers 1TB of storage with unlimited computers per subscription, which would allow you to backup four of these computers.
The main problem with cloud backup services when you are travelling is that they are dependent on you having a fast, cheap, and available internet connection. If you are mainly connecting sporadically through wifi hotspots while travelling, this may not be a good backup strategy. An alternative is to use a combination of general cloud storage and external hard drive. Make a backup of your hard drive image before you leave on your trip to your external HD and also move a copy of that backup to your cloud storage. Then make incremental or differential backups to your external HD while you travel and whenever you have decent bandwidth and time available, copy your smaller incremental or differential backup files to your cloud storage as well. This way, should something happen to your files, you have your external HD backup to rely on, and if the external HD gets stolen you have hopefully most of your changes stored on cloud storage.
Occasionally an application will get corrupted and stop working correctly and needs to be reinstalled. If you are using a backup solution that allows you to keep a variety of incremental backups over a decent period of time (like a month) then you may be able to just restore your system back to a point before the application became corrupted. If not, you would need to carry a copy of the installation media which you used to install the program in order to reinstall it. If the installation was done from CD or DVD you wouldn’t really want to carry that around with you when you are travelling, but you may be able to use a program like ISOBuster or another similar program which can convert the ISO image on a CD or DVD into a set of folders and files which you can install the application from. Copy these files to a flash drive and you may be able to reinstall the program from those files. You will need to do a trial run to see if the extracted installation program at least launches and appears to be running correctly to verify that you can install from the files. This technique can also be used to install software on a laptop which has no DVD drive. If you are using certain applications that are mission critical to your work you may want to consider bringing install files on flash drive with you.
If you are shooting a lot of photos or video on your trip the data files take up a lot of space. Over a long trip this can add up to many time the amount of storage you have on your laptop’s SSD or hard drive. You need to have a data storage strategy which allows you to process all those files and keep them safe. Most professional photographers use cloud storage directly, or use external hard drives plus cloud storage. After a day’s shooting (or during shooting) they transfer their camera images to their laptop SSD or HD, or directly to an external HD. After they eliminate all the bad shots they may keep a certain group of shots to edit immediately on the laptop and save the rest to storage. If they have good internet access they will upload the files they want to keep safe to cloud storage. If not they may wait for a good connection to do this later. They generally want to get the photos to the cloud as soon as possible to guard against external HD failure or theft. Many modern cameras offer wifi capabilities and can transfer photos directly to a smartphone and from there directly to cloud storage, if the phone is configured to automatically upload photos. This works great if your phone is on wifi which is accessible as you are shooting, but most of the time when travelling this won’t be the case and you’ll have to rely on the periodic-dump method.
Because photo and video data can be quite large, you should probably not include folders where you store your photos and video as part of your daily incremental or differential backups. The reason is that you will most likely be moving them to your computer only temporarily and not keeping them there long term and the backup software will faithfully backup these huge files as they come and go, making your backup images huge. You should move these files to separate folders on your external hard drive manually.
To summarize, they things you should do to protect yourself against hardware, software, and data loss are as follows:
- Carry redundant devices (extra laptop, tablet, external HD, etc.) if these are mission critical to your activities.
- Have good repair coverage on your laptop, tablet, phone, etc.
- Know how to get your laptop repaired when you are abroad.
Software & Data
- Carry at least one external HD with you for computer and data backups.
- Have backup software on your laptop and use it to backup your disk image and make regular (at least daily) incremental or differential backups to external HD. This protects you against data or application loss due to laptop SSD or HD failure or theft.
- Have a cloud storage account with enough storage space to hold your computers image backup and incremental\differential backup copies of your computer system files and applications as well as backups of your data while travelling.
- Copy your backup files to your cloud storage as often as it is feasibly possible given internet access limitations. The more frequent the better. This protects you against data or application loss due to a failed or stolen laptop and external HD.