A look at Backup Options

I was reminded recently about the importance of keeping good backups of data due to someone not having backups and losing next to everything he ever owned digitally. It was a costly mistake and one that cost a few thousand dollars to recover some of the photos off of the hard drive.

Storing everything digitally can come with a risk that if your computer breaks, you might lose all of your data. Uploading to the cloud helps alleviate some of those problems although the best option to is to have a good backup system in place that you can fully restore from.

What documents do you store and where?

A good way to decide what kind of backup you need is to look through what you have now. Specifically you want to look at what information is stored on your computer, where it is stored, how it is stored and if there is any risk to not having a backup of that data. Lesser important files would include your operating system that could typically be reinstalled if you already have a licence key. Also, you might have online accounts where you can download your applications from again. Specifically relating to the Mac and OS X, there now is the Mac App Store that would allow you to re-download all your purchased apps assuming you remember your username and password. Remember that some software you have installed might not have come from the Mac App Store though.

Here is my backup solution

I use Gmail, Dropbox, Evernote and iCloud to store information on. I use a few other services which don’t hold any important data. Although I feel quite safe that Gmail, Dropbox, Evernote and iCloud will keep my data safe and I feel confident that they have good backup systems, it is also worth pointing out that I don’t pay for iCloud or Dropbox which means that those services could be technically pulled at any time.

For Gmail, I use Google Apps and pay a fee each year which gives me about 25GB of email storage. I have about 10 years worth of emails in there and have hit 13% looking now, so plenty of room for growth. However, Gmail might run in to problems so with that in mind, I occasionally open up my email client on my desktop computer and simply download a copy of all emails using IMAP set to keep a copy on the server but still physically download all email contents rather than just headers. By doing that, if my Gmail account gets suspended, hacked or simply a cluster of storage servers crash and all my emails are gone then at least I have the majority of emails that I can simply connect up with IMAP and re-upload them to the cloud.

For Evernote, these are also stored in the cloud. This is a paid for service although free is also available. Just the same as Gmail, I am confident that Evernote does a good job of keeping things safe, but to be on the safe side, I also use the desktop version of Evernote that has all my documents stored so that if the account does have problems I simply re-sync to the server. Again, this is unlikely but nevertheless, still a simple and easy task to do. I use Evernote daily on the desktop, so it is almost always in perfect sync.

For Dropbox I also use the dekstop version, on a couple of computers, so I do have copies of all data stored in there and likewise, if they go down and I lose my data I can simply re-upload it.

For iCloud, this is just a default for Apple. I tend not to back up much to iCloud as I only use the free 5GB service. I don’t backup emails, calendars, contacts but do leave the rest of the options in tact.

Photos are not backed up to the internet on to a cloud service other than a few that I might have clipped in to Evernote or a few that I uploaded to Dropbox to share with someone else. So, for these I need to have another backup system in place.

What backup system works best for me

A few years ago I decided to get an ioSafe Solo external drive. A link to a the current day product is here. It has 500GB of storage and has the benefit of being both fireproof and waterproof. If my house happend to be destroyed I’d hopefully manage to get a torched metal box back from the mess that was made, open it up, open the protective bag inside and find a fully working hard drive inside. This is my primary backup that I keep which backs up all what I listed in the section above. I formated it to work with TimeMachine on the Mac so that each hour of the day an incremental backup is kept. I leave this running 24/7 and secure it away so that I can recover contents if needed.

The problem I have now is deciding which secondary backup option to choose. Off-site backups are looking like a good option at the moment with the thought that I’d purchase a couple of TB of storage on two portable drives (1TB each) and then backup to one and store that at a family members home and then every few weeks I swap it out with the other drive and then create new backups on the other drive and alternate every few weeks.

Another option I have been looking at is an online backup service. The problem is that uploading a few hundred GB of files to an online service takes time when the up-stream is limited to less than 1MB. Also, my ISP imposes limits at the moment which means it might take even longer… I’m just not sure how realistic the option is of uploading everything online that I need to keep.

Is it overkill to have several backups?

At the moment it is overkill it seems as my iMac is still working and I have access to all my files. If my computer ever breaks or one of the online services above breaks then ask me the question again and I’m sure I’ll tell you that restoring my data was the way forwards and that my backups were essential.

I’d rather be cautious than hope for the best that all will be OK. All it takes is a failed drive on my primary machine and I lose a lot of information. With a backup in place, I feel a lot more inclined to think that all will be well. The reason for keeping more than a single backup is that backups can also be corrupt. Having a second or third is the better option as it keeps the backup you might rely on one day, backed up again to add more security.

Don’t be caught out by not storing your data in multiple places!

Connecting a Second Screen to an iMac Mid 2010 Model

I first used a dual screen computer back in about 2002. I managed to get hold of a large 21 inch CRT as well as a 15 inch CRT. I connected it up to my home built PC by buying an updated graphics card that had two outputs. If I remember correctly I had to use a DVI port for one of the screens although I had to attach a DVI to VGA convertor on to that as both monitors were just VGA. The larger screen ran at 1600 x 1200 and the smaller screen, probably 1280 x 1024 or more likely 1024 x 768.

Being able to work on a spreadsheet and Word document at the same time without having to minimise one to see the other helped speed things up making me get jobs done far quicker. That machine died after a while, perhaps a dodgy bit of thermal grease caused it. Either way, I switched to a laptop in 2006.

After a few years of using a widescreen laptop as my primary machine, I decided to get a 2010 iMac with a 27 inch screen. Thanks to the size of the screen and the crazy resolution (not as crazy as a Retina Mac Pro mind you) of 2560 x 1440, I can now have two windows open side by side with plenty of room to work on. But, I found myself wanting a bit more screen space. I stumbled across a decent ViewSonic 19 inch LCD (the VA1916w model) and decided to see if I could use that as a secondary display. As the display was going spare, the only expense I had was to convert from a display port to VGA which required an adapter from Apple. Not too cheap, but I justified it with there being no cost of the second screen.

Attaching it up was simple. Just plug it in and moments later it gets detected. All you do next is look at the preferences, check the resolution is set right (which it was automatically) and then drag the screen layout in to how you have it on your desk.

Why does a 27 inch iMac user want a second display

Although I do a lot of blogging, some here and lots elsewhere, I also use Xcode a lot to create iPad and iPhone apps… ok, I’ll be honest, my first hasn’t been released yet but will be doing soon although I have created plenty of test apps and some of my own apps for my own use. While using features such as the interface builder as well as viewing header and implementation code side-by-side, I quickly found that to look through Apple documentation meant shrinking the Xcode window down so I could fit the browser next to it. Xcode likes a lot of screen estate, so I opted for the second screen mainly so I could browse documents on the left screen while working on my primary 27 inch screen.

Performance problems to look out for with dual screens

When purchasing this iMac, I got the cheapest 27 inch model available… lowest spec that is. I maxed out the RAM at a later date (a few months back now) after finding a good deal on 16GB. However, running OS X Lion there were a few graphical performance issues. Often the iMac would freeze when trying to swipe between desktops or when sliding 3 fingers up on the Magic Trackpad (expose) and it would hang there for maybe 20 – 30 seconds and then come back to life. This was an “ok-ish” problem due to the extra screen providing extra value. Good news though is that after upgrading to the lates OS X version a few weeks back, OS X Mountain Lion, these performance issues are completely gone. So, if you see performance issues on your iMac with dual-screens, perhaps it might be worth an update to Mountain Lion as Apple seems to have done something that makes graphics perform far more efficiently.

Could I go back to a single screen

Of course. Although adding a second screen is a nice convenience, a 27 inch iMac with a 2560 x 1440 resolution still provides plenty of screen space to work with. While I have the option and desk space for a second screen I’ll keep it, but should that change at a later date, it wont be too painful to lose.

The only thing to watch out for is 1. performance… Mountain Lion fixed that completely for me though. 2. Cost of a convertor should your secondary display not be compatible with the output on the iMac. My late 2010 iMac has a display port but newer ones I believe use Thunderbolt.

How I use my iPad and What Apps I use Regularly

I mentioned yesterday how I use Evernote to help keep all my paperwork, emails and ideas organised. I use it on the desktop as well as on my iPad and iPhone as well as the web based version from time to time. It got me thinking that I should create a list of apps that I use from day to day on my iPad and how I managed to achieve what I do thanks to a decent tablet device.

Some people use their iPad to consume data. That is read websites, read emails, read RSS feeds and browse the news. The iPad is extremely good for this as the light weight (ish) tablet form factor works well when being lazy in front of the TV. I tend to use my iPad for that as well as for content creation as well as keeping myself organised. To summarise it in a sentence or so, I guess I could say that it gives me access to all the information I need while out and about as well as the ability to get things done.

Which iPad model is best?

There are a few different variants of the iPad with the most distinguishing feature being that of connectivity. In this category there are two models. These are WiFi or WiFi+4G. Each of these comes in either black or white and also comes in either 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of storage. All have a battery life of 9 – 11 hours depending on you using 4G (3G where 4G not available) and what you are doing with the tablet. General web browsing easily lets you reach the 9 – 11 hours between charges.

I personally opted for the WiFi+4G option. I call it 4G because that is what it is called although here in the UK 3G networks are what we have at the moment although 4G is coming any month now. The reason I opted for a 4G iPad was that I run a business and while on the road I like access to the web even if I am away from wireless. I could technically tether through my iPhone but I don’t do that for a couple of reasons. First, T-Mobile in the UK charge for tethering (quite a lot) and second, I quite like the seamless access to 3G or WiFi without having to enable tethering. I guess I could throw in a third in that I use my iPad on the Three network which means that between T-Mobile(and Orange) as well as Three, I get decent coverage in case I need to log in and fix a problem without having a WiFi connection nearby. I also like to avoid free public WiFi hotspots for security reasons.

As for other hardware, I use a standard red leather smart cover for the iPad and also have a Zagg Folio keyboard case (primarily for blogging and note taking if I plan to write lots). I actually use the iPad 2 version of the Zagg Folio on an iPad 3. It fits… barely but if I purchased it after my iPad 3 purchase, I would have gone for the iPad 3 Folio to let the iPad slide in and out of the case easier. Other than that, it’s essentially the same keyboard case.

With that in mind, let me tell you what apps I use regularly to read and get things done.

What iPad apps I use the most

I’ve never really counted before so decided to do a quick count now. I aim to keep all apps and folders on to a single screen and for that reason, I use 16 folders with various amounts of apps in each. Direct icons (not stored in folders), I have 8 + newsstand which cannot be put in to a folder unless you try trick it. I tend not to use Newsstand, so it sits in the bottom corner. Across the dock at the bottom of the screen I have my calendar which syncs up to my Gmail account. Following that I have Safari, Messages, Mail, Evernote and OmniFocus. I have toyed with the idea of switching out Safari for Chrome but not got around to that yet. Evernote is used a lot, as I mentioned yesterday, so I like having access to it down on the dock.

OmniFocus is used daily (not always on the iPad as I have it synced to my desktop and iPhone as well). I use it to track things that I need to do. My current responsibilities have me travel to 10 – 12 locations regularly, so for that reason I always have location based reminders enabled within OmniFocus. As I arrive at a destination both my phone and iPad remind me what I need to do while I’m there.

I mentioned my calendar is linked in with Gmail, as is my email which I use the general Mail app for. I do have the Gmail app installed but tend to only use that for when I need to search for some old obscure email as the search in Mail isn’t as good. I also have Gmail connected up to the iPad using the Exchange connector rather than the Gmail settings. The benefits of doing it this way means that all my contacts are synced over. I often see friends on Facebook that complain that they have lost everones numbers. As I sync, I can easily make a change to a contact on my iPad, iPhone or on the browser in Gmail and each device is immediately updated. Should I lose a device or upgrade, I simply log in under Exchange and the numbers almost instantly appear. Very handy!

I am a regular user of SimpleNote for taking basic minutes in meetings. I like it because it’s simple and easily syncs to my desktop (thanks Notational Velocity). When I finish editing the minutes, I can email them out and BCC my Evernote email address on it so that they get stored in my more permanent storage area (Evernote).

Instapaper is an app I use daily. I tend to quickly browse through various news websites and when I come across something and I don’t have time to read it there and then, I add it to Instapaper and read it at a later time or date. Instapaper formats text very clearly and is simply amazing to use.

Blogsy gets used regularly for writing blog content whilst on the move. As I can connect to many blogs, work with a visual editor and publish from the same interface I find it a very valuable tool. I also like the built in overlaid browser so that I can look up stuff I need while blogging and not have to close the app out.

I regularly use Easy Books for accounting purposes. Each day or every few days when checking bank accounts, I can quickly add in new business transactions and have them seamlessly sync to phone and desktop. Very handy for keeping the accounts in order!

Facebook gets regular use and even more so now that the iOS version is actually good. I hated the app until last week when they switched from HTML5 to native Objective-C code to power the app. It runs far smoother and is simple enough to use.

RightMove gets used weekly to look for houses. I quite like being able to zoom in on an area on a map and then click to search the area for properties.

iPlayer is used more by my children than by myself. They tend to watch cartoons on it although I have been known to catch up with some shows if I miss them.

TactioHealth is used weekly to track my weight progress. There isn’t much else to say about that. It’s just a convenience to be able to track where I’m at and see some fancy graphs going in the right direction.

Debt Free is used a few times a month to track where mortgage payments are at. I quite like the built in calculator functions that let me see how much interest I can save should I add another £100 to my monthly payments. Seeing 5 digit number savings and having a number of years knocked off the term is quite a motivation to pay off more. Note that we are on a variable rate and can therefore pay off extra without gaining a penalty.

Zite, BBC News, TechCrunch, Engadget and a few other news sites are also used from time to time. Zite tends to be the most popular of the bunch and is usually accessed daily.

I use iBooks but prefer to try buy a PDF version of a book where possible as I like the layout to be kept as it is in a book. The funky page turning of an iBook isn’t enough to get me to switch from a PDF with all the images and text layout in tact. I use iTunes U regularly as I enjoy watching lectures related to computer science to be more educated. I use the Kindle app as some books I have purchased have been from the Amazon site.

I use a number of image editing tools such as iPhoto, Snapseed although I generally do not take photos with my iPad as I think it’s just silly to do that. I tend to capture with my iPhone, sync with photostream and edit on the iPad.

I have many other apps installed with a number of them hardly used while others are used as and when I need them such as the VNC Client which might get used once a month to connect up remotely to a computer.

I have stacks of games on my iPad although generally don’t play games that much, maybe a couple of times a week and those sessions are generally short, perhaps 30 minutes. I just don’t get time but do enjoy relaxing from time to time.

iPad 2010 compared to iPad now

When the iPad first launched it was running iOS 3… no multi-tasking and I don’t even think it had folders at that point. When I first got an iPad it was a novelty although with apps like Evernote and being able to sync a calendar and being a great way of reading and sending email, it gradually knocked a laptop out of my life. Although I still prefer a fully fledged computer to do some things, the iPad lets me conveniently work whilst on the move. Blogging is simple (other than image editing which can be done but is far slower), keeping organised, being able to access information and all that being mixed with a long battery life of around 10 hours in a very slim form factor, very quick power on time (instant) it makes for a great device to sling in my bag and use while on the road. I no longer need to carry a power lead if out for the day as the iPad just goes and goes for a good 10 hours. It’s actually hard work draining the battery and I often go a few days between charges.

For some of you it simply wont work. If you do complex spreadsheet editing and want to sync up with Excel, there are options such as CloudOn, but it isn’t the same as having a decent Excel compatible spreadsheet editor built in to an app running natively. If you want to be organised it will work well for you though.

How I use Evernote to Keep More Organised

Since I stumbled across Evernote a couple of years ago it has literally transformed the way I deal with my notes and paperwork. To put it bluntly, my organisation sucked and often I would have to spend hours digging through bags of paperwork to look for a passcode I filed somewhere or for a P45 ready for my tax return. These days, I have it all stored online and can quickly search through everything to find what I need, usually within seconds.

I first came across Evernote when I got an iPhone 3GS. I don’t exactly remember how I found the app, but I suspect it was either sitting at the top of the productivity charts while I was browsing through various apps in the App Store, or perhaps I saw another blogger write about it. After installing it, I quickly found that a desktop version was available and perhaps a couple of months later, an iPad version launched the day the original iPad launched. I was hooked because things I noted on my iPhone or iPad were made instantly available on my desktop and laptop and vice-versa.

In the first year or so of using Evernote, I stored notes, ideas and perhaps some emails that I forwarded to my Evernote account. The system I used to get information in to Evernote worked well. Yes, my organisational skills still suck and I have plenty of unorganised folders and tags, but as search works well in Evernote, that doesn’t really matter to me as I always quickly find anything I need. Everything is always found in there.

A few months later (mid to early 2011) I started finding blog posts about various Fujitsu ScanSnap scanners as well as other models such as the Doxie (amongst others), and noticed that people were using document scanners to scan direct in to Evernote. At this point I realised that my usage was going to really go through the roof as I had a lot of messy documents stored in various bags all unorganised around the house. At that point in my life, I had spent the last 10 or so years supporting scanning equipment such as large Kodak document scanners and various scanners from Canon. I hadn’t put two and two together until I saw a video on how a document scanner can scan in to Evernote.

How I get scanned documents in to Evernote

The scanners I have used are large Kodak 3500 models which scan duplex (both sides of the page) at about 60 pages per minute. Overkill at about $15,000 each when launched 10 – 12 years ago, but as there were several in the office at work I took my paperwork in there and began scanning in bulk stacks of paperwork, perhaps over 2000 pages if I remember correctly. The software I used was supplied by Kodak and deskewed the pages, removed blank pages and converted to PDF format easily. I seperated multi-page and single page documents and scanned single pages in large batches which were split in to individual PDF files. I then scanned multi page documents in single batches and stored multiple pages in a single PDF for each document. When scanned, I simply set up an import folder on the Windows version of Evernote and all of them were sucked in to the service and then uploaded.

By default, the free Evernote accounts come with 40MB (might be 60MB) of uploads per month which I quickly exhausted. For a reasonable $45 I upgraded to an Evernote Premium account which allows for 1GB of uploads per month and the rest were transferred. As the Premium service gets a priority OCR (optical character recognition) service, within a short period of time (perhaps 30 minutes), all of my documents were searchable. All my messy bags of paper that had been untouched for years were suddenly searchable. It’s incredible to see all the mess suddenly become organised and even crinkly pages were transformed in to amazing looking and clean documents thanks to the Kodak scanning software processing the images as they are scanned.

But, as most people do not have access to a $15,000 scanner, what I do recommend is that you look at scanners such as the Fujitsu ScanSnap and Doxie scanners. The ideal type of scanner is a duplex colour. Duplex means it scans both sides of the paper as it feeds through. The alternative is simplex which is a pain to use when you want to scan both sides of the paper.

At the moment I am using a Kodak i30 as I use it to test with at home for support purposes but I don’t recommend it for Evernote as it only scans the front side which is a pain when having to run multiple pages that are printed front and back. The i40 is an option although it’s a large scanner when compared to the ScanSnap models from Fujitsu (tiny compared to the $15k Kodak 3500s which are not made anymore). Also, if you configure Evernote correctly and the scanner settings, you can simply drop your post in the scanner as it comes through the door, let it scan and have it immediately and automatically imported in to Evernote.

Here is a quick video demonstration on how a document scanner can be used to get paperwork in to Evernote.

By default, I now put all scans in to my Inbox folder which includes all items I forward through email, or clip from the web. I then spend time each week going through the folder and moving in to other folders as needed. I can then also make sure I action my post that needs to be actioned.

Should you use Evernote in your daily life?

I personally use Evernote to store all items that get delivered through my door (except for junk mail of course). I also use it for storing notes from meetings as well as ideas and various other things. I can highly recommend it although some might feel uncomfortable storing such items within an online service. Looking over the technical specs of Evernote and how they encrypt data, I feel safe with it. For highly sensitive data I also encrypt the text within the individual notes and provide a strong password. It might be possible for someone to access if they get my password and get my second password for the sensitive data, but they might also get something out of my trash if I forget to shred a document. So, I’ll let you make your own decision for that.

For me, the Evernote service and everything in the cloud has made me far more effective and efficient at what I do and I highly recommend you check it out now… considering it’s free to use then you only waste a bit of time should you not like or trust it.

Full disk encryption and why its a good idea

Having a computer stolen sucks to put it simply. Other than the annoyance of someone breaking in, you also have the worry of data being stolen and potentially being looked at by the thief. This is where full disk encryption comes in to play.

Full disk encryption is a means by where the data on your disk gets scrambled and can only be deciphered by using the correct password, hopefully a strong password at that.

More of our digital lives are stored on computers these days. Data we store includes music, video, photos, paperwork as well as all our emails amongst other things. Although a lot of data is moving to the cloud, we still keep a lot of personal information on our laptops, desktops and smartphones which is why full encryption is recommended.

Should your computer be stolen and you have full disk encryption enabled, it makes it extremely difficult for the thief to access your data. Yes, they might get a full computer out of it but they wont have access to your personal photos, emails and anything else you store online.

How do you encrypt your hard drive?

Encrypting your drive differs between operating systems. Mac OS X Lion and Mountain Lion has encryption built in by way of software called File Vault. To activate File Vault you need to load up the preferences, select security and simply activate it with a password. Encryption takes a number of hours to complete as all data stored on your drive needs to be run through the algorithm to encrypt it. Just as a guide, mine took almost all day and in to the early hours of the morning to complete based on about 450GB of data stored on a 1TB drive. I was using the computer for a number of hours during the process.

For Windows, it also depends on which version of the operating system you have installed. If you run Vista, Windows 7 or the upcoming Windows 8 then depending on which version of those you have, you might get access to BitLocker which allows full drive encryption (although to a point as it is actually logical drive encryption).

How to enable drive encryption on Windows or Mac hardware is beyond the scope of this article, but don’t worry as full instructions for Windows can be found online, while full instructions for the Mac can be found over here.

Should you encrypt your drive?

My personal preference says that you should if you use modern hardware and modern operating systems. Drive encryption in that past used to slow down computers due to having to decipher every bit of information stored. On running full drive encryption on my computer recently, a late 2010 iMac lower end spec with a 16GB upgrade of RAM I was surprised at how well the machine performed. The only slow down was through the initial encryption phase as well as it taking a bit longer to boot. Other than that, I can’t complain now that the drive is secure and all information backed up and kept safe.