Saturday, March 21, 2009

Managing files and personal information online

Summary: How to manage documents, photos, music, passwords, e-mails, contacts, personal information, and other files and data.

Can you relate to the following scenarios?
Scenario #1: You bought a new computer and now you need to migrate your bookmarks, e-mail messages, music, and other important files from your old PC to the new system.

Scenario #2: You are using several computer (like work PC and home PC) and would like to keep some files in sync between them.

Scenario #3: Your hard drive crashed and you haven't backed it up since Prohibition. Now all of your important files, including your doctoral dissertation, are gone (well, you have a backup of your dissertation on a floppy, but it's also corrupted).

Scenario #4: You backed up your photos to CDs, but you have so many of then that you cannot find your favorite photo of your cat.

Scenario #5: You're losing track of your Internet passwords, usernames, etc.
I can go on, but the point I'm trying to make is: managing personal information (files and data) on multiple computers and avoiding data loss from a hardware crash is not trivial. In this article, I'll explain how (with minimum effort) you can keep your data safe, up-to-date, and accessible. My recommendations are intended for PC users, but some of them can be applicable to Mac and Linux fans, too.

Before I get to the recommendations, let me emphasize the following: your personal computer -- whether it's running Windows, Mac OS, or Linux -- is not reliable: its hard drive can fail, the operating system can get corrupted (e.g. via a virus), it can get stolen. To avoid data loss with the loss of your computer (or its parts), you must keep copies of your data somewhere else.

A traditional approach is to back up files to an external drive. Although, it's a praiseworthy strategy, it has several limitations. First, it requires additional hardware. Second, it does not address the issue of accessibility (not a big deal, if you have only one computer, but can be a problem if you want to keep some data in sync between several machines). Third, have you actually tried to recover data from your backup? If you haven't, you may be up to an unpleasant surprise. Finally, most people don't perform regular backups because they consider them a hassle.

Whether you regularly back up your hard drive(s) or not, consider an alternative (or complementing) approach: keep important data online using what techies call cloud computing. Here is how you can use cloud computing services from reputable providers and software to keep your data safe, manageable, and accessible.

Internet bookmarks/favorites
First a suggestion: do not add every interesting page you find on the Internet to your browser's bookmarks/favorites; only bookmark the sites which you visit regularly (daily, weekly); for everything else use a social bookmarking service such as Delicious (or any of the alternatives). If you're not familiar with social bookmarking, watch this short (3:25 min) video:


For regular bookmarks/favorites, use the Xmarks browser add-on(s), which will keep your bookmarks (and optionally passwords and cookies) in sync between different machines and browsers.

E-mail/calendar/contacts
For e-mail needs, I have two words: use Gmail. Why? First, Gmail is the only service that lets you forward your e-mail to any other address for free. You can forward your messages to your work e-mail, your ISP's account, or anywhere else. This way, you will not lose any messages if you switch jobs or ISPs. Second, Gmail's generous storage capacity (currently, over 7 GB) lets you archive important messages without the risk of running out of space. Third, if you do not like the web-based interface, you can use Gmail with most mail clients (also see these), such as Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, and Mozilla Thunderbird.

Tip: If you are using a desktop e-mail client and keep the incoming e-mail in local/personal folders (.PST files in Outlook), you need to back these up.
Tip: If you are not using a desktop e-mail client, you can still set up Gmail as a default mail application (also see other options).
Google offers tools to automatically sync your Google calendar with Microsoft Outlook and mobile devices (BlackBerry, iPhone), but to sync Google contacts (with Outlook), either transfer them manually or get a commercial tool, such as kiGoo (Google released the Contacts Data API about a year ago, but I still cannot find a good and free contact syncing tool).

Passwords
For storing passwords (and other sensitive information, such as user IDs, bank accounts, etc), I can recommend any one of these two options. Option 1: Use the free web-based password manager LastPass (other alternatives include Clipperz and Passpack, but LastPass seems to be the most capable). LastPass can protect your browser passwords better than the browser. It can also auto-populate login forms. When using LastPass along with Foxmarks, you may need to disable the Foxmarks' password synchronization feature. Option 2: Use the free KeePass application and synchronize the KeePass' data file across multiple computers with the help of DropBox or Sincplicity mentioned below.

Photos
You can use online photo storage to back up your photos and to share them with friends and family. Many sites, including MySpace and Facebook support photo sharing, but most of them are too restrictive: they resize photos, limit the number of photos you can upload, and so on. Among the sites I tried, Flickr (now owned by Yahoo!) seems to be the most feature rich: it supports multiple sizes of photos (including original size), photo downloads, slide shows, videos, and more. A free Flickr account imposes a few limitations, but it's still better than most alternatives. After trying a Pro account, I decided to keep it for $24.95/year ($2/month is not that much for unlimited photo uploads and storage). Google's own Picasa Web Albums is another online photo storage alternative similar to Flickr (as Flickr, it also offers a free as well as a fee-based plan).

Music
Most sites that let you upload and listen to music, such as Deezer and Imeem, do not allow downloading MP3 files (including the ones you uploaded). There are two exceptions: mp3Tunes and tunesBag (currently in beta). Mp3Tunes gives you 2 GB of online storage for music and video files; tunesBag offers at least 5 GB. I have been using tunesBag for a few months and so far I have few reasons to complain: it lets me back up my music and listen to it from anywhere. I was a bit disappointed with the mp3Tunes' and tunesBag's upload tools intended to automatically keep the local and online audio libraries in sync: neither of them worked for me (well, they worked, but both had bugs that made them useless). Nevertheless, these two sites are worth considering if you are looking for an online storage option for your music files that also allow playback and other listening and sharing features.

UPDATE: I take back my comment about tunesBag's uploader. It works fine, BUT it does not sync files automatically; you need to run the tool manually to upload the files.
UPDATE: For storing and playing music online, you can try Amazon Cloud Dive (5 GB free; allows you to store any files including audio; you can listen to your music from any web-connected computer with Amazon Cloud Player; works with portable devices) or Google Music (20,000 songs max; can listen online or portable devices). Also see other options (and more).
Software keys
Use Keyfiler to store your software license and registration info (serial keys, activation keys, etc).

Documents
For Microsoft Office users, Office Live Workspace allows storing and sharing documents (Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, Excel spreadsheets, etc) online. If you do not use Microsoft Office, you can try switching completely to a web-based office suite, such as Google Docs, Zoho, or ThinkFree. If you prefer a free desktop alternative to Microsoft Office, such as SoftMaker Office or OpenOffice.org, you can back up your documents and synchronize them across multiple computers with the help of file synchronization and backup tools.

Sync tools
File synchronization tools allow you to duplicate files across multiple computers. Manual file synchronization tools, such as Microsoft SyncToy that must be launched by the user, are okay for occasional use, but they are not well suited for continuous synchronization. Out of automatic file synchronization services I tried, I liked DropBox and Syncplicity most. Both services offer 2 GB of free online storage and they just work: they work on my home laptop as well as my work PC, they work over firewalls and corporate proxy servers, they work on Windows and Mac OS. The only limitations I can think of include relatively high memory footprint (the running process takes about 50 MB of RAM for DropBox and 70 MB for Symplicity). Also DropBox can synchronize only one root folder (which can contain multiple subfolders), while Syncplicity can synchronizes Desktop, Documents, Favorites, Music, and Pictures. I highly recommend DropBox and Symplicity to anyone who wants to synchronize files across multiple machines. There are other file synchronization services, such as Microsoft Live Mesh (currently in beta), Windows Live FolderShare (currently transforming into Windows Live Sync), but I did not have much luck with these (for one, Mesh and Live Sync do not seem to work across corporate firewalls (also here), and I could not use FolderShare, because our corporate proxy server settings block access to the site); however, they work for some some users, so depending on your settings, they may work for you. [Update: See list of cloud hosting services at Cloud Drive Price Comparison: Amazon, Apple, Google, Box, Dropbox, Skydrive and SugarSync or Compare SkyDrive, Google Drive and Dropbox.]

Backup tools
You can (and should) use scheduled backup to save important files online with the help of such services as: Online storage
Finally, for occasions when you just want to save a files or two online once in a while, you can use the following online file storage services:
  • ADrive (50 GB free)
  • Box.net (1 GB free, 10 MB max file size)
  • Mediafire (unlimited free file storage, 100 MB max file size)
  • SkyDrive (25 GB free, 50 MB max file size)
Here are some references for other free online file hosting services:Initially, it may take you a bit of effort to follow these recommendations, but once you adopt them, you will make your digital life easier and data safer.

See also:
Prepare your new PC for a long run

4 comments:

Hansjoerg @ tunesBag said...

This is Hansjoerg from tunesBag.com

Which bugs did occur when uploading tracks? Did the program create a crash report (in case it crashed)? Please contact me at office( a t ) tunesBag.com

Of course the current uploader is far from perfect but we're constantly improving the software ;-) A full sync with iTunes etc is on our todo-list.

Alek Davis said...

I just retried the desktop uploader and it worked fine. Although, it does not seem to have an option to continuously sync local folders with online library.

Arise said...

Just noticed you skipped whohasfiles. :) And I'm pretty sure you know them pretty well. :)

Alek Davis said...

Arise: Although I like the who.hasfiles service, it has a couple of limitations. First, when accessing it from behind a firewall, it was really slow (took several minutes to map the drive). Second, if for some reason you cannot connect to your share on who.hasfiles, you cannot get to your files (this happened to me a couple of times), so you would need to keep copies of the files locally, which is a hassle. Since free services that do not have these limitations exist, who.hasfiles would not be my first recommendation. It's a great service otherwise; really helpful if you can live within the 100 MB of space (available for free).