How to back up multiple computers

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It's very easy to back up just one computer — for the most part, you just plug in a portable hard drive and click a few buttons — but it's another thing entirely to back up an entire household or small office. In today's world, it's a rare house indeed that has just one PC, and all of them contain at least some data that needs to be backed up.

The same, but different
Of course, one option is simply to back up every computer to its own portable hard drive; it's costly, but it works. Better yet, if you use a cloud-based solution like SugarSync, you can do away with portable hard drives completely. Backing up multiple computers to the cloud is time-consuming, though — it would take weeks to upload the entire contents of a few computers — and cloud storage isn't cheap, either.

A cheaper, faster, and easier solution is to grab a big storage device for a couple of hundred dollars, and then back up every computer to it.

Mac, Windows, or both?
In essence, the process of backing up multiple computers to the same portable hard drive is the same as doing it with a single computer, but you need to make sure you have the right software to do it correctly. Unfortunately, if you have a mix of Windows and Apple computers in your household, the process is both more complex and costly.

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If you only have Windows computers
Grab a large portable hard drive — the bigger the better! You should be able to find a 2TB portable hard drive for around $100.

Download EASEUS Todo Backup and install it on every computer. It's free for home use, but business use will require a (reasonably priced) license.

Plug your external drive into the first Windows computer and open Todo Backup. Select Backup from the list, and press Next. Select "Disk and partition backup" from the next screen, and press Next. You'll then be asked to enter a "Task/plan name." Each computer must have a unique name in the application; give them obvious and logical designations like "Office" and "Home Theater" to keep things sorted out.

Once you've given the backup a name, click Next, and choose which of that computer's drive(s) to back up. Most computers only have one hard drive, so just check the box next to "Disk1" and click Next. If you want to back up multiple disks, put checks next to each of them.

On the final screen, select your portable drive as the backup location. Click Next, then Next again, and the backup will begin.

When it's finished (which might take a long time, especially if there is a lot of information to be backed up), simply plug your external hard drive into the next computer and repeat the process.

If you only have Mac computers
The easiest but by far most expensive way of backing up a bunch of Mac machines is to buy an Apple Time Capsule. Once your Time Capsule is plugged in, it should simply be a matter of opening the Time Machine application on each of your computers, flipping the switch to On, and selecting the Time Capsule as the backup location. Check the Apple support site for more information and troubleshooting.

Because a Time Capsule is wireless, your Mac computers can back up to it all the time. Once Time Machine is turned on, in fact, your data will be continuously backed up whenever your computers are turned on. Apple's penchant for seamless and invisible functionality certainly comes through here.

The other, cheaper option is to buy a large hard drive that's specially formatted to work with Mac OS X. Simply plug it into each Mac in turn, and run Time Machine to back up your data. It's not as convenient as the Time Capsule, but it's quite a bit less expensive. If you're comfortable with reformatting hard drives, it's even cheaper to buy an unformatted 2TB external drive and reformat it to HFS+.

If you have a mix of machines
Because Windows and Mac computers store data in different ways, backing up to the same external hard drive can be a little tricky.

One solution is to buy a regular 2TB external hard drive for around $100, and then use the Mac OS X Disk Utility to format half the drive for Mac and half for Windows. This isn't particularly hard, but make sure you only attempt it with a new hard drive because this process will delete everything on it. Once you have your dual-format drive, you can proceed to use both methods we've described here to back up your computers.

One other option is to use a network attached storage (NAS) device, which works a lot like an Apple Time Capsule but for every computer in your house or office via your network. The only problem is, setting up a NAS can be complex. Still, if you want to dive in, grab a NAS like the Netgear Home Media device. Be sure to read all of the documentation, and be aware that Time Machine doesn't play nicely with every NAS.

Post by Sebastian Anthony

[Image credit: Karin Dalziel]

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