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Backing Up Your Mac Part 2: Storage Media

written by: •edited by: Michael Dougherty•updated: 8/17/2008

This is the second article in the series on backing up your Macintosh. There are multiple ways to backup a Macintosh, and there are many devices that one can use to back it up. From CD's to portable drives, readers will get a host of options they can use for small backups and large.

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    CD's & DVD's

    The first article of this series introduced backup concepts, this part will examine storage media options. At this point I’m willing to bet everyone knows about CDs and DVDs. Our music and movies come on these little disks. New programs for our computers come on them, fun video games, and more. And all these disks really do is store data (files) for you to use on your computer. When you pop a CD or DVD into a computer the computer can read the files, replay them, or install new programs. They can also be used to store and backup your data if you buy the right types.

    Both CDs and DVDs are available as Writable or Re-Writable at this point in time. And if you have a newer computer chances are it has a CD and DVD Burner. That means if you get blank CDs and DVDs you can write files to the disks. And if you make copies from your hard drive (file cabinet), put the copies on the CD or DVD and then burn the disk, you now have a backup of those files.

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    About CD's

    CDs have been around for a while. They were great for making backups in the 90’s, but not super now. Why? Not much storage space to be honest. CDs run up to about 700 mega bytes now. Sure, you can store a ton of photos, songs, or documents on them, but not as much as you can on other media. If you have smaller files, few songs, or few files, CDs might be a good backup solution for you.

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    About DVD's

    DVDs, specifically writable DVDs, haven’t been around as long as CDs. They can store more data, even though they look just like a CD. How can they do that? Why can’t a CD store as much. Hey, let’s not get bogged down here and pretend we’re engineers…..DVD’s can store more than a CD. Accept it and be happy.

    Actually, DVDs can store about 4.5 Giga Bytes. One Giga Byte is the same as 1000 Mega Bytes. Remember, CDs can store about 700 Mega Bytes. So, you can see pretty quickly that a DVD can store about 6 times as much as a CD. If you’re looking to store a sizable amount of data, a DVD will beat a CD.

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    Burning Questions

    So, once you’ve selected the documents you want to copy, and decided between a CD or DVD, you simply copy the files to the disk. But you’re not done. See, if you pop the disk out immediately it won’t work. You must BURN the data to the disk. Burning a disk is the process where the data is committed to the disk, written to it, and forever imprinted on the disk (unless you use a re-writable, which does what the name implies).

    Mostly, when you use a CD or DVD you’re looking to make a permanent, unalterable copy of your data. Once a disk is burned it cannot be undone. You can’t add to it afterward, edit the file, delete the file, etc. It is there for all time (or until someone tosses the disk into one of those cool new shredders that eats credit cards and disks).

    So, if you want a permanent unchangeable copy of your data (files), a CD or DVD might be the way to go.

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    Other Media Options: Flash Drives and External Hard Drives

    Like CDs and DVDs, I’m willing to bet you’re familiar with flash drives too. Even if you think you’re not. External Hard Drives are another story, and I’ll bet about 50% of the readers have seen them, but probably not everyone knows all about them.

    Do you own a Digital Camera? If so you’re already familiar with Flash Drive technology. The memory cards that go into your camera are “flash memory”. There are many different types of cards, but they all do the same thing. Basically, they’re portable file cabinets that know how to talk to your camera. And when you take a picture your camera creates a document (photo) on the card. It has stored a file in the portable file cabinet!

    The fun thing with flash drives is that they’re not relegated to being for photos only. They can be used for any file type. So, when you hook that flash card to your computer you could in theory copy documents to it rather than just downloading your photos. When you copy documents to the card you’ve in essence created a backup once again.

    Unfortunately, flash cards, flash drives, etc., can’t store too much data. Right now on the market we’re seeing flash cards and USB flash drives going up to about 8Giga Bytes. So, almost twice the storage space of a DVD. Not bad if you’re backing up personal documents, but lousy if you’re backing up an ITunes Library or giant photo collection. So, let’s say you’ve got huge amounts of files you want to backup…..what’s the option?

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    The Holy Grail of Backup: External Hard Drives

    External Hard Drives are the holy grail of backup in my opinion. Why?

    * New external hard drives offer hundreds of Giga Bytes in storage. * External hard drives are portable. * They’re dirt cheap at this point in time. * You can treat them just like your computer’s hard drive. * You can use them between multiple computers, making it easy to copy large amounts of data between computers.

    Only a few years ago I paid $350 for an 80GB external drive. Recently I paid $149 for a 500 GB external drive (more than 6 times the capacity at half the cost). Currently my computer’s hard drive is only 80 GB (older model), and my portable drives are much larger than the computer’s internal file cabinet.

    Not only are external hard drives great for making backups, they’re also fantastic for expanding your computer’s storage capacity. As I noted above, my computer’s drive is 80GB. I take about 5 GB of photos per month. As you can see, it wouldn’t take long to fill my computer’s drive…..so I started getting external drives to store my data, as well as make backups.

    See, my computer’s original hard drive is only 80GB, and the external drive I use is 320GB. Totaled, that’s 400GB of storage over all. I also have a 500GB drive on hand as well.. More than enough room to copy everything on my original hard drive and my external that I use for new files!

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    So, What Do I Need?

    That really depends on what you’re doing. CDs and DVDs will work great if you’re only storing a little at a time, and you don’t want to alter the backed up files (once you burn it, it’s permanent). Flash drives will work well if you’re only storing a little, and if you want to change the files on the drive over and over again. And external drives are great if you want to keep writing to them, and altering the files as you go (just like your current hard drive).

    Don't miss the third article in this series: Backing Up Your Macinstosh Part 3: Bringing It All Together.