Family data backup?
March 25, 2012 7:06 PM   Subscribe

Family data backup: what is the best external HD and how do I set it up?

I am looking for a big external hard drive to backup my and the wife's data. I'm Mac (Lion) and she is PC (XP Home Basic).

Can you recommend a drive? I was looking at this one WD 3TB

Also, how do I set it up so it works with my Time Machine and her PC? Most of these drives mention reformatting for mac, but I will want Mac and PC partitions working at the same time. I have also heard mention of formatting as Fat32, but XP has a file size limit for that?

Thanks for your help-
posted by cgs to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have any specific recommendations for hard drives - I usually just go to and choose the one that gets the best reviews. However, I came here to say that two seperate hard drives might be easier (no need to worry about partitions), safer (no worries about one piece of backup software messing with the other partition, plus lower capacity drives sometimes have lower failure rates), and cheaper (actually, I don't know if this is true).

If you really want to only use one drive, the Disk Utility under OSX is pretty good for that and will make you a nice FAT partition in addition to the Mac file system partition.
posted by Betelgeuse at 7:24 PM on March 25, 2012

I only use Western Digital drives, but I wouldn't recommend the My Book drives. The one I've had wouldn't shut off reliably along with the PC it was attached to (My Books have their own power supply) and experienced data loss as a result. The My Passport series of external drives, on the other hand, is fantastic; there's a 2 TB model that might work well for you.
posted by limeonaire at 7:43 PM on March 25, 2012

Also, if you look into the My Books, despite all that, know that you need to be careful which model you get; the kind I got was PC-only, which meant I had to get a new drive when I wanted to back up my MacBook. Honestly, you would probably do well to do what my husband and I do, and get a separate 500 GB or 1 TB My Passport for each computer in the house.
posted by limeonaire at 7:48 PM on March 25, 2012

Storage Reviews does the best reviews of storage devices. I usually go with whatever they recommend that month.

You should partition the PC-half of the drive as NTFS, since that's WinXP's native file system. NTFS can handle the drives the sizes you are considering without problem.

Then I would plug the drive into a Pogoplug, which is the closest you are going to get to a dual-platform Time Machine.
posted by gmarceau at 7:49 PM on March 25, 2012

Let me say gently that just having a copy on an external drive isn't really a back-up. It is just a copy. I would suggest instead that you use an online backup service and get the data out of your house. Personally, I use CrashPlan and it seems to be working just great. It looks like it is under $400 for four years, unlimited data from up to 10 computers. No affiliaition, just a happy customer. Plus you can use it to back up data between the two computers (if they have space) so you can have a local copy as well.
posted by procrastination at 7:54 PM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Okay, so Time Machine requires an HFS+ formatted drive. Whatever XP solution you choose (and there are many of them) will require NTFS. The two are not compatible, and to the very best of my abilities, each system will not be able to access the other's format (nerd warning: it appears that Mac-FUSE is dead or at least broken on Lion and NTFS-3G has moved to payware and is abandoned).

So okay, you're going to either need two separate drives, a single drive that's split into two partitions, or a server that speaks a common file serving protocol (i.e. SMB/CIFS).

Are you up for running a home server of some sort, and is your network reasonably fast (gigabit or 802.11n)? If so, the third option is best. You can either get a NAS (network attached storage) and flip a bit in OS X to make it work on with non-Mac servers, or you can get a Time Capsule/Airport Extreme plus a USB hard drive or a Mac Mini. Either one will work with whatever Windows backup solution you want, since you just point Windows at the shared drive and say "back up here", much as you would with Time Machine.

If you're up for a bit of finagling and remembering to plug in a USB hard drive, you should buy whatever is cheapest and has USB from somewhere like NewEgg, partition it, and format each respective partition in each operating system (NTFS and HFS+). Set up your backups appropriately (that means enabling Time Machine for the Mac partition). Yes, Lion will complain at you about wanting to initialize the NTFS partition every time you plug it in. I think Windows will do the same about the HFS+ partition. C'est la vie.

The third option is that you each get your own USB hard drives and set them up appropriately. That's easy.

Unfortunately, I can't recommend any Windows software to use for backups. I think Windows 7 has some stuff built in à la Time Machine, but that obviously doesn't help you.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 8:14 PM on March 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, another tidbit of advice: If you go with a Western Digital drive, don't install the backup software it comes with. The company makes amazing, robust, long-lasting hardware; software, not so much.
posted by limeonaire at 8:21 PM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are two common methods for partitioning hard disks: MBR and GPT. The Mac understands either (it uses GPT natively) but 32-bit editions of Windows XP only understand MBR, and MBR partition tables cannot correctly describe the partitioning of a disk bigger than 2TB.

So don't try to put your huge HFS partition and your huge NTFS partition on the same 3TB disk. Buy a separate 2TB USB drive for each computer and sign up for CrashPlan.

The good part about CrashPlan is that it will protect your data against your house catching fire. The bad part is that restoring from a CrashPlan backup involves downloading masses of data over the Internet, which is way slower than copying it from a local hard disk. Having CrashPlan and local backups gives you the best features of both without the limitations of either.
posted by flabdablet at 10:34 PM on March 25, 2012

There are about 10 bazillion directions to go here. You should know that right now, hard drive prices are inflated drastically over what they were a little over a year ago, as production is still slow from flooded Thailand and surrounding areas.

First off, local vs. cloud. Local is faster, you have it RIGHT NOW, and you have the option later to turn it into something like a media center or file server. More up-front cost, plus as said above, it's just a copy. If your house is burgled, burns down, has a power spike, etc---it's dead just like the original copy.

Cloud options are many. I rely on 2 with a bits hither and thither for other "stuff." I pay $5 a year for an extra 20Gb of space on my google account. Lots of stuff goes there, and you can even map a google account as a drive on your system. I also use dropbox because it just simply works. With either of these options, you've got no revision tracking, no "un-delete", etc. They are free-to-cheap.

For real backup, I use Amazon S3. When I resell online backup, I resell JungleDisk (using rackspace servers, normally.) My monthly S3 bill is about a quarter. 25 cents. I don't have but a couple gigs backed up. Depending on the system and what I'm hoping to do, I use AllwaySync (free for the first 2000 files, I think), GoodSync (not free, but very robust), and recently I've been experimenting with DragonDisk which is very awesome and has clients for both mac and pc. There is also an S3 Firefox extension for when you just have to have something.

S3's also sexy because you can make any file "publicly" available, even if just for a short while. Great way to get a file to a friend or between work and home, etc.

That's cloud.

For local hardware, everyone worth their salt used to recommend that you buy a standard size drive and stick it in an enclosure and use that. There isn't really an advantage to that any more---from my perspective pre-built units have come up in quality while enclosures have gone down. Do NOT BUY ANY Western Digital external drives, ESPECIALLY not a MyBook. If you want to cause yourself undue harm, go hammer a nail into your hand, it will hurt less. I'm personally using a seagate 1.5Tb external (and go powered, you do NOT want power-over-usb). I can't speak to the running separate partitions, I would think this would complicate making it readily available over a network. Pogoplug is a good option.

I personally have my 1.5 attached to a dell mini running Linux Mint. I use it to run Sabnzbd+, Sickbeard, and Couchpotato, and Deluge. It also runs a secure FTP client. I could run something like FreeNAS if I was so inclined, but so far I'm not. I send stuff to it from work and vice versa, it downloads all my tv and torrents, and it's always on on my network.

I have Ghost and Acronis, I should be doing rolling-weekly backups and dropping them into one of those shared folders...but...nah.
posted by TomMelee at 5:43 AM on March 26, 2012

Response by poster: Wow... thanks for all the help. some followup questions:

Cloud: I have around ~200gb of data. With my current cable package's upload speed, I think that will take more than a month to upload. Isn't that prohibitive?

Powered vs USB powered external drives: Why is the USB powered no good? They are so much easier to setup (no crawling under the desk).

Western Digital: why not (TomMelee)? They have great ratings on Amazon...
posted by cgs at 7:45 AM on March 26, 2012

That's a decent amount of data. You may consider clouding only what is mission critical. (Taxes, mortgage docs, etc.) Once it's up though, it's up, and if you're syncing you're only changing files that change. I don't use TimeMachine though, and I'm told it dumps everything into a single file, so I can't speak to how that would affect cloud services.

USB powered drives are fine, but they are very, very, very slow. You think 200Gb would take a long time to upload? Wait till the first time you try to move a 50Gb folder of pictures or movies to a non-powered usb drive. Also, depending on what you do, self-powered can be on when the computer is off so you still have access to your data. They also tend to stay cooler (they have fans inside, usually) and don't get as hot, meaning they live longer.

WD makes fantastic hard drives. I was loathe to buy a Seagate, actually, after they had a known defect in the firmware for an entire generation of drives that just makes it so that one day they don't work any more. BUT--WD MyBooks are notoriously unreliable, and not just "oh it wore out." No "it started clicking". Just "Hey there, I don't work anymore." They're also large, and ugly.
posted by TomMelee at 8:36 AM on March 26, 2012

how much data does your wife have? or maybe you mean the -200gb is both of you, total? how much data could either of you *potentially* have with you current computer set up? how often do you need to back up (daily/weekly)? does it need to be automated?

how much of different "classes" of data do you have? by "classes" i mean different needs in terms of how necessary it is to back up, how fast you'll need it if you lose it.

here's what i suggest:

1. dropbox/email yourself for critical files you'll always need. there isn't much space, about 2gb, but perfect for some family photos, your will, phone number, etc.

2. audit your data and delete as much junk as you can part with. i'm thinking old installation files, working files to long-finished projects, duplicate video/pictures, that youtube video that was hilarious but you'll probably never watch it again (and if you really want to, it's probably still on youtube).

3. for each computer buy two hard drives that can at least copy the whole capacity of your computer storage.

2 each because: it's probably cheaper to buy two smaller ones than one big one, if one fails you have the other, you don't have to worry about partitioning, and the big one: KEEP ONE OFF SITE, and rotate them however often you like, so that if there is ever a tornado/flood/act of god, you still have a backup.

buy powered because they are cheaper, and even though they are bigger it's not a problem for you because you're not carrying them everywhere.

brand: get whatever is highly rated and fits what you want, on

i don't know about windows software, but i personally suggest Carbon Copy Cloner. You can automate it, it has lots of options, and what i really like, you can copy a bootable version of your whole system. so, if your computer hard drive dies, just boot from your back up and you're ready to go.

here's a lifehacker article about backing stuff up.
posted by cupcake1337 at 5:20 PM on March 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

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