Smart TVs – Television buying guide part 2

Note: this is the second part of my TV buying guide. The first post discussed TV resolutions and connections.

If you’ve been shopping for TVs lately, you’ve come across the term “smart TV.” So what’s a smart TV? It’s a TV that connects to the Internet and allows you to watch content from online: movies from Netflix, TV shows from Hulu, or (my guilty pleasure) YouTube compilations of cats falling clumsily.

Skype on a smart TV
Your family can literally be larger than life with video calls on a smart TV

The fact that the TV is connected to the Internet also allows for more unusual uses, such as Skyping with an attached webcam or listening to music through your surround sound speakers with an online music service like Pandora.

These activities used to be relegated to your computer. Now you can enjoy them in your living room on the biggest screen in your house. It’s fantastic to have those abilities.

But I’m still not sure my next TV will be a smart TV. And here’s why.

A potential downside: longevity

Ever since televisions were invented, they served as passive screens simply displaying the video signal fed into them. The video signals came from devices such as antennas, then cable and satellite dishes, then VCRs and DVD players.

A smart TV is different; it’s essentially an all-in-one computer, like an iMac. There’s a small, streamlined computer housed behind the screen, connecting to the Internet and serving you content from various online sources. It works well, and frankly I’ve been pretty impressed by how it works on demo units I’ve seen in stores.

But how long will that computer, and the “smart TV” experience it provides, feel quick and modern?

My suspicion is that the TV’s computer “guts” will feel slow and the software will feel outdated long before the TV screen itself seems inadequate. (This is the same reason I’m skeptical of cars with a built-in screen and computer system.)

Now, it could be argued I’ve kept using my current TV longer than the average person…but I doubt it. I won’t embarrass my parents by publishing exactly how old their TVs are, but both are much older than their computer. I suspect the same is true for most people.

If you tend to get a new TV every few years, this may not be much of a problem for you. But for those of you who don’t, there are other options for accessing online content.

Another option: streaming boxes

Amazon Fire TV
Amazon’s new Fire TV streaming box

In fact, you may already own a device that can access online content. I’m thinking primarily of streaming boxes, such as a Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV, or Chromecast. Gaming consoles such as a Playstation or Xbox also have some streaming connectivity, and so do many Blu-ray players. And of course, your laptop might also able to connect to your TV when you want to watch something on it.

The benefit of a smart TV over these is simplicity (in theory). Instead of connecting another box and having another remote, it’s built into the TV itself. The ease of use may vary widely, depending on the TV manufacturer and the software it makes (more on that later). But in general, it means one less box to connect, one less cable to plug in, and one less remote to keep track of.

However, streaming media boxes such as a Roku or Apple TV cost $100 or less, and the Google Chromecast costs only about $35. I can live with having to replace one of those with the latest version every few years. I don’t see myself replacing my whole TV that often.

My worry is that when the computer components of your smart TV are out-of-date, you’ll be left with a screen that still works great. You’ll have three options: buy a new smart TV, use your smart TV with its slow or frustrating interface, or buy one of the aforementioned streaming boxes to do what your smart TV no longer can…which is exactly the thing you were avoiding by buying the smart TV in the first place.

That’s why I won’t be paying extra to get a smart TV. A dumb TV will still allow me to plug in my antenna, Blu-ray player (which streams Netflix, YouTube, etc.), and even my computer if I want.

If you don’t use or plan to use streaming video services, then a smart TV would probably be just adding an extra layer of complexity to your living room relaxation.

That being said, you rarely have the choice between a smart TV and a “dumb TV” these days. At the more expensive end of the TV market, almost every single TV is a smart TV. If you’re getting a TV above $1000, it will almost certainly be a smart TV, and even most TVs above $500 are smart TVs now.

Even if you don’t plan to use smart TV features, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with one, and you might be surprised how much you enjoy some of the features on it.

What to look for

So what separates one smart TV from another? The apps that are available and the televisions’ ease of use.

Samsung app store
Samsung’s smart TV app store

Almost every smart TV includes Netflix support, but if you want to use other streaming services or social media, make sure all those apps are either pre-installed or available through the manufacturer’s app store. If you want to use your new big screen for video calls, see if there’s an included camera or if you’ll need to connect a webcam on your own. Most smart TVs connect via Wi-Fi, but make sure yours does, because you probably won’t want to run an ethernet cable to it to provide Internet access.

The other big question: how easy-to-use are the smart services? A smart TV that’s frustrating to use defeats the whole purpose. If you stream content from multiple Internet services, see if the TV will show you results from all the services when you search for ‘Forrest Gump.’ Does the menu feel cluttered, or is it easy to find the app you’re wanting to use?

Samsung QWERTY remote
An example of a QWERTY remote

A key factor in ease-of-use is the remote. A full QWERTY keyboard on the remote will help you search much more quickly. Newer smart TVs come with remotes that let you move an on-screen pointer by aiming the remote at the screen (a la the Wii remote). Are there shortcut buttons on the remote for the streaming services you’ll use most often?


LG smart TV interface
LG smart TV interface

Differentiating between smart TVs is difficult to do unless you’re using them in person. If you’re looking at the latest and greatest sets, the manufacturers’ websites may give good demos of their smart TV features. For last year’s models or budget brands, you’ll probably need to try out the smart TV at a friend’s house or in a store.

Think of smart TVs as an all-in-one computer, one with an operating system you’ve never used before. You shouldn’t buy just based off the screen size and quality; you’ll want to see how it actually functions first.

In short, I don’t recommend you pay more for a smart TV, if a dumb TV model fits your budget and suits your needs. But if you do get a smart TV, make sure you’re getting one that’s easy to use and has the apps to meet your viewing habits. That will probably mean looking for a model from a top brand.

Speaking of brand names, next week’s post will cover which brands to look for, and how much brand name matters. Plus, what time of year is best to buy a TV, and more!


Got an idea for a future blog topic? Send it to me below. Thanks!

Which cloud storage service is best for you?

Note: this is a follow-up to last week’s explanation of cloud storage.

Cloud storage comparison
The logos of Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, and OneDrive (clockwise from top left)

There are lots of companies that offer cloud storage, and several of them are quite well known. This post is going to focus on the services that I (subjectively) view as the major players, and which service is best for you.

I feel certain that there is no one cloud storage service that is best for everyone. Instead, I think that each has certain advantages depending on how you use it and which devices you use.

As I mentioned last week, I actually do not pay for storage from any of the companies that I will describe below. I use the free storage amount from several different companies: Dropbox, Google Drive, and iCloud from Apple.

This isn’t a very practical long-term solution, because I’ve got many more files on my computer and other devices than can fit in the free storage allotments. And the more providers I sign up for, the harder it gets to keep track of what files I’ve stored on which service.

So I recommend using the free storage space each provider offers as more of a trial run. You get to see how the service works without plunking down your money first. Once you decide which one works best for you, then decide how much storage you need to pay for.

I’ve only recently begun to feel that paying for a cloud storage subscription might be worth the money for my family. By using those three services, I’ve started to get an idea of which one I’d prefer to pay for.

So without further ado, here’s a comparison of the four main cloud storage providers[1].


Dropbox logoDropbox is the platform that really first made cloud storage usable for the ordinary folks like us. It’s also unique on this list because the company was created around this cloud storage service; the others on the list are branches of much larger tech companies.

Pricing: 2GB free…1TB $10/month

Pros: Available on almost any device, simple pricing plan, very customizable

Cons: Smallest amount of free space, not automatically integrated with Google, Apple, or Microsoft

Best for: People who own a mixture of devices, such as an iPhone, Windows PC, and Kindle Fire.

Google Drive

Google DriveFormerly known as Google Docs, Google Drive is available with any Google or Gmail account. Included with Android phones, whose software is made by Google.

Pricing: 15GB free…100GB $2/mo…1TB $10/mo (Free space is shared with Gmail and Google+ storage)

Pros: Most free storage, familiar design to users of Gmail’s website/apps

Cons: Stores and shares files, but not many other features

Best for: Android phone users or people who use Google products heavily

OneDrive (Microsoft)

OneDriveFormerly SkyDrive, Microsoft has revamped their cloud storage service and OneDrive is a big part of their focus with the newer Windows operating systems.

Pricing: 15GB free…100GB $2/mo…200GB $4/mo

Pros: Works extremely well with Microsoft Office, generous free storage

Cons: File sharing not as simple as others

Best for: Microsoft Office users or those with newer Windows computers/tablets

iCloud Drive (Apple)

iCloud DriveFormerly called just iCloud, Apple’s revamped storage service was updated this fall. iCloud Drive is notable for features tied in with Apple devices, such as backing up the entire device and locating the device if you lose it.

Pricing: 5GB free…20GB $1/mo…200GB $4/mo…500GB $10/mo…1TB $20/mo

Pros: Coordinates data and settings between multiple Apple devices, new family sharing helpful for family accounts

Cons: Less free storage, no Android app

Best for: Those with multiple Apple devices


As you can see, pricing is very competitive between the providers. I expect storage allowances to continue to rise in the coming years, making it even more feasible to store almost everything on your computer in the cloud.

To me, the biggest difference among the services is the integration with other software/hardware made by the companies.

Dropbox only does cloud storage, and is a good option for those with a variety of device types. Outside of those rare cases, I think it’s at a disadvantage because it’s not tied in with one of the other major companies.

For those who use Google or Apple products heavily, I think Google Drive or iCloud Drive will work really well. I use Apple products heavily and love the features of iCloud, and I’m sure the same is true for Google/Android fans.

OneDrive (the only one of these I haven’t personally used) seems like a great fit for those who use Microsoft Office often, or have a newer Windows PC or tablet. If you use the newer versions of Windows or Microsoft Office, I’d recommend giving OneDrive a try. It’s not as well known, but I see it as a great option for many people.


Which of these do you use, and what’s been your experience? Do you have a favorite I haven’t mentioned? Join the conversation below! I’d love to hear from you. 


1 – Amazon also has a cloud storage service. Although I haven’t included it in this comparison, if you use Amazon frequently or own their devices (such as Kindles), consider checking out what they offer here.

Cloud storage explained

10 years ago, if you mentioned “the cloud” to me I would have looked up at the sky. If that’s your first reaction to the phrase, don’t worry! “The cloud” is one of the most-used and least-explained tech terms right now. Let’s put it in plain English.

What is cloud storage?

Since computers were invented, data has been stored on physical media (punch cards, floppy disks, thumb drives, etc.). When you want to transfer data from one computer to another, you physically carry your storage media from one computer to the other.

For example, I start writing a report on my work computer, save it to a thumb drive, and then plug the thumb drive into my computer at home to finish editing the report. That’s how most of us are used to doing things.

Cloud storage
This is what “the cloud” might look like — if it were an actual cloud. (But really, this is a pretty good illustration of how data is stored in a remote location and can be accessed by multiple devices.)

When people refer to “the cloud,” what they generally are talking about is data being stored in a server (i.e. a specialized computer) that’s connected to the Internet. This means any computer connected to the Internet can have access to that data, even at the same time.

So in practice, I would start my report at work, save it to the cloud, then log in and edit it from my home computer. When I’m finished, I can download a copy to store it on my computer if I want. Notice that in this situation I don’t have to physically carry anything home with me. The document is stored on a hard drive that’s connected to the Internet, and the hard drive is owned and maintained by the company providing the service (such as Dropbox).

Benefits of cloud storage

Cloud storage has been exploding in popularity. The services that are most well-known include Google Drive, Dropbox, Microsoft’s OneDrive, and Apple’s iCloud Drive. (I’ll compare these in detail next week to help you figure out which might work best for you.)

Google, in fact, makes a line of inexpensive computers (Chromebooks) with relatively tiny hard drives, specifically because they expect that users will store almost all their data on Google Drive.

As I mentioned, I can download or edit my document in the cloud from any computer with Internet access. I can give other people permission to access it, also from any computer with Internet access.

Google Drive collaboration
Joe, Min Lee, and Mario editing a document at the same time, from different locations (in Google Drive)

This allows for another major benefit of cloud storage: multiple people can edit a document at the same time, collaborating in real time and seeing each other’s changes as they happen.

Until now, I’ve been discussing cloud storage in relation to computers. Perhaps you’re thinking, Why shouldn’t I just use a thumb drive? Every computer has a USB port.

That’s true, but more and more people are creating and using data on devices like smartphones (taking photos, for example). Many of these portable devices don’t have USB ports, so cloud storage allows people to access and share data much more easily than they would otherwise.

For example, if I kept all my photos on my phone, it would quickly run out of storage space. But if I upload the photos to a cloud storage service, I can access all of them anytime my phone has Internet access. Plus, I can also view them from any other device I use.

Are you starting to see the benefits?

Disadvantages of cloud storage

Of course, there are downsides to cloud storage compared to saving your stuff on your hard drive. Let’s touch on the main ones.

First, and this is the one that keeps me from using cloud storage more, most companies that offer cloud storage charge a monthly or yearly subscription. The cost depends on how much storage space you choose. Typically a small amount of storage is free, such as 5GB on iCloud Drive. This is enough space for a lot of text documents. But if you add in music or photos, that space will be eaten up quickly. And then you’ll pay for the higher storage amounts. (Again, I’ll give more details next week.)

Thumb drives and external hard drives aren’t free either, and you’ll have to weigh the upfront cost of buying that type of storage compared to the subscription cost of cloud storage. I’ve become very used to having my files stored in a drive I physically own, and it’s hard to get used to the idea of paying regularly for the storage.

Second, data you store in the cloud is physically stored in some remote location, not on your desk. This means you’re trusting that your data will be available when you want and won’t just disappear. Also, it means that someone can potentially hack into your account and steal your files.

For the record, I bet every cloud storage company backs up their customers’ data better than you back up your own computer. As for hackers, it seems that hacking situations are caused more often by people using easy-to-guess passwords or reusing passwords from other accounts, than by companies using poor security on their end.

Either way, I wouldn’t  keep personal/confidential files in cloud storage, and I would make sure that my most important files are also stored on a hard drive I own.

Third, data stored in the cloud is only accessible to you when you have Internet access. Internet access is growing, and some devices like smartphones are connected even when you travel. But keep in mind that what you put in the cloud can only be accessed when your device is Internet-connected.

You should use cloud storage, but which provider?

I think cloud storage will continue to be used even more often in the future. It will be especially helpful for those who own multiple devices and want to share files between them.

I’ll help break down the differences between the major cloud storage providers in next week’s post, so stay tuned! Until then, I hope this overview helped you understand what exactly cloud storage is. If you have any questions about it, please ask them below. I’d love to hear from you!

Self-driving cars and why we shouldn’t be afraid of technology

Google self-driving car
One of Google’s self-driving cars in action (Photo courtesy of

Google is working on creating self-driving cars. They’ve already been testing these cars on roads in California. Think about that for a moment.

I think it’s a safe bet that within 10 years (probably less) we will start seeing self-driving cars on the road. You’ll look over at the car next to you, and the person in the “driver’s seat” will be fast asleep. How does that make you feel?

If it makes you nervous, you’re not alone. I’m no historian, but I think back to the books I read in high school English classes and I can remember several that painted worlds where technology had led to a terrible future (1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World come to mind). This fear of technology isn’t new.

Every technology can be abused, but each can be helpful in certain ways as well. I don’t think that should scare us. After all, isn’t that true of everything in this world around us, technology-related or not?

On an individual level, the reasons we fear technology are many. I’ve tried to boil this down to several primary reasons, but I’m sure there are more I haven’t thought of. I’ll try to unpack each of them, and then tell you why we needn’t fear technology for that reason.

Technology changes too quickly! 

For some people, this is an annoyance[1], but for others it’s really scary because we feel out of control. If I buy this, will it be out of date in two years? Why do I even need this thing? What are my kids doing on their phones these days?

It can be tough to keep up with the crazy pace of changing technology. The good news: most of the time we don’t have to. Do I really need a new TV with a bunch of features, or will a simpler one do the job? Do I need to upgrade at all? And if I buy a well-made gadget and take care of it well, then I probably won’t need to replace it as often as the advertisements tell me I should.

I don’t know how to use new technology! 

We’re all gifted in different areas, and for many people learning new technology is not where they’re gifted. Troubleshooting the gadgets you do own can also be really intimidating.

When it’s time to venture into unknown territory with some technology you’ve never used before, get someone to help you understand it. Look for a product that’s simple and durable. Sometimes that’s the newest model, but often it’s not. And don’t be afraid to ask for help when you’re learning how to use it. We’ve all run into problems we don’t know how to fix, so there’s no shame in asking for help.

I don’t want to become dependent on technology! 

Technology promises to make life easier, but what if it works too well? If Google went down, how would we learn anything? If my computer crashed, would I lose all the photos I’ve ever taken? 

The reality is we depend on technology every day. Refrigerator, car, medicine…they make our lives easier and we so often take that for granted. We place a lot of trust in things we have no control over every day, whether we realize it or not. I think we can choose to enjoy and be thankful for these blessings and still be mindful of the fact that we may not always have them.

Technology is make me (or my kids) dumber! 

Harry S Truman
The Google search took 0.25 seconds (Photo courtesy of

Technology makes some things so much easier than they used to be. Parents often hand their young children their iPhone as a pacifier. Kids don’t memorize all the presidents, because they can just go to Google and see that the 33rd president was Harry S. Truman. (His middle name was actually the letter “S” by the way.) Children don’t even learn cursive in school anymore!

Things are certainly very different for this generation than previous ones. But hasn’t that always been the case? At some point in time, kids no longer had to go chop firewood because the family home was heated with oil. Did that make that generation lazier than their parents’ generation, who chopped wood as kids? No, and in fact it probably gave the children a bit more time to study or go to baseball practice or whatever else they were involved in.

I freely admit that many kids miss out on life experiences because they spend so much time staring at a screen. But that’s not the fault of technology; allowing that is a choice their parents make. I sometimes fall into the same problem those kids do. But it’s not my phone’s fault; it’s mine, because I choose how I interact with the technology around me.

Technology in the hands of the government/terrorists/hackers/corporations/public/robots will destroy society and the world as we know it! 

This is the fear in our hearts that is touched by so many dystopian novels, most recently and notably The Hunger Games. We fear that those with power will abuse technology for their own purposes. The fear is even greater when it’s a technology we’ve heard of but don’t understand.

To a certain degree this has been happening for centuries and I’d argue even millennia, whether the technology be related to farming, communications, weapons, or computing. And I have no doubt it will continue to happen; we can expect no less from imperfect, fallen people. But we need not fear it!

In Matthew chapter 6, Jesus says “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

Worrying won’t help us.

In day-to-day life, let’s focus on using technology in ways that makes our lives simpler and more enjoyable. To the degree we can, let’s look for ways technology helps instead of hurts, and make sure those in power don’t abuse it. But instead of worrying about what we can’t control, let’s trust the One who does control everything and has promised to make all things new.

A vision of busy streets full of cars driven by computers can be scary. I can immediately think of many problems that might arise. But with human drivers, car crashes are already one the leading causes of death in the United States. Maybe self-driving cars will get us around more safely. And I also think of people who can’t physically drive a car (elderly, disabled, etc.) who would be able to maintain more independence with a car that can take them to the grocery store and back.

Like every technology, self-driving cars will be used in bad ways by some, but I’m equally sure they will also bring big and small benefits to many people. Let’s be thankful for the cars we have now, and if we ride in driverless cars one day, we can be thankful for that, too.

Did I miss anything? I’d love for you to be part of the conversation by commenting below and sending me a message.

1 – For example, I owned every Star Wars movie on VHS…and then last one was released only on DVD. Annoying!

Can a Tablet Replace Your Computer?

This blog’s been on hiatus for a few weeks. While I was away from the blog, my wife started another semester of grad school. I’d been getting used to using our computer while she was on break, but now she takes our laptop to campus with her every day.

That leaves me with our iPad as my primary “computer.” I feel very blessed to have a second option to use when our laptop isn’t available. I know many people don’t have access to one computer, much less two.

Microsoft Office on an iPad
Microsoft Office on an iPad (Photo courtesy of

But it reminded me of a question that I’d been thinking about earlier this summer: could I use a tablet as my primary computer? I’ve grown up using computers, first Windows, then Mac, and only within the last couple years have I been using a touchscreen interface on a tablet or smartphone.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, recently said he does 80% of his work on his iPad. A tablet is considerably cheaper than a laptop with similar power. But to have only an iPad in the house, no laptop, wouldn’t I need to be able to do 100% of my work on the iPad? 80% wouldn’t cut it.

Now, I’d be shocked if the CEO of Apple doesn’t own a laptop (along with every other device the company makes). But he hints at a trend that’s been happening for decades: computing devices have become more powerful while also becoming smaller.

Tasks that used to require a desktop computer can now be done on a tablet, such as writing a report or recording a song. But not every task is doable on a tablet, and some that are doable just aren’t as efficient.

For example, I’m a video editor by trade. While I can do a certain level of editing on my iPad through apps like iMovie, it’s still not comparable to editing on a full-fledged computer. The iPad doesn’t have the storage space for all the video files I use, and the touch interface makes precise edits more difficult than with a mouse.

That’s why, for me, a tablet won’t be able to replace my computer…not yet at least.

So what do you use your computer to do? Watching videos, reading books, writing papers, and sending emails are all tasks that can be done just as well on a tablet as on a computer.

If you use a computer and only do those types of activities, you probably could go with a tablet as your primary computer.

You may find that particular workflows that are familiar on a laptop are not possible or not as easy on a tablet. But I think tablets have caught up to computers on most basic tasks.

One last thought: if a tablet is going to be your primary computer, don’t make a hurried choice. Make sure you try different ones and find the right size, operating system, and power to meet your needs.

Do you use an iPad or another tablet? What activities do you find more comfortable on a tablet than a computer? What about vice versa? I’d love to hear from you below!

What’s wrong with Windows XP?

Living dangerously can be exciting! That’s why some people love skydiving or rock-climbing. On the other hand, using Windows XP is dangerous, but not exciting. If you use a computer with Windows XP (or have a friend who does), this quick post is really important for you! (If you’re not sure, Microsoft’s website will tell you right away.)

Microsoft has ended support for Windows XP[1]. It’s a 12-year-old operating system, and this is a normal thing Microsoft does as it continues to introduce new versions of Windows. But it’s a big, big, BIG deal for people still using XP.

OS market share
Operating system market share as of June 2014 (Photo courtesy of

Why is this a big deal? First of all, check out the chart to the right. 1 out of 4 computers still runs Windows XP (the green wedge of the pie). That’s a lot of people affected by this end-of-support date! So if you’re still a Windows XP user, you’re not alone.

So what makes Windows XP dangerous? Well, Microsoft (and Apple) regularly offer free updates for their operating systems that users can download or install. These updates are primarily help protect your computer from newly-discovered hacks, viruses, and other bad stuff out there. Microsoft will no longer be providing these security updates for Windows XP!

In other words, Windows XP computers will become prime targets for hackers, because there are so many computers still running it and the hackers know Microsoft will no longer fix vulnerabilities that are found. Microsoft patched about 100 XP vulnerabilities last year alone[2]. This year they will patch ZERO (again, this isn’t a mistake by Microsoft; it’s normal procedure).

So what should you do? Well you have two options:

Option 1: Install Windows 8 on your current computer. I DON’T RECOMMEND THIS, mainly because if you have Windows XP, your computer likely doesn’t have the power to handle the new operating system well, if at all. (It will also cost $119 or $199, depending on the version.)

Option 2: Buy a new computer. Look, I hate telling you to go spend money. But Windows XP isn’t safe to use anymore! My recommendation is to buy a new computer with a newer operating system included. Feel free to check out this great laptop buying guide from Walt Mossberg or my post last week on Macs vs. PCs.

Bottom line: you’ve got to move on from Windows XP for security reasons, but a newer computer and software will serve you well. 

If you want some danger in your life, I’d recommend skydiving or rock climbing instead of Windows XP.


What topics do you want to hear about? Submit your question or comment below!

1 – Windows XP support ended April 8, 2014.
2 – According to

How to back up your computer (Just get started!)

Note: This is the second half of a two-part introduction to backing up your computer. Last week’s post explained why this is so important and what you should look for in buying a backup hard drive.

Socrates bust
Socrates would’ve been wise enough to back up his computer (Photo courtesy of

As Socrates once said, getting started is the hardest part of a big project. Well, maybe that was my dad who said that when I procrastinated on the gigantic research paper in 12th grade English.

Well the same thing is true in computer backups! And it’s actually a lot better than a gigantic research paper: once you set up your backups, all you have to do is plug in your hard drive every so often. Everything else is automatic! How easy is that?

You need an external hard drive (we covered that last week). You need backup software (it came with your computer, ready to go!) And you need to know how to set it up the first time (we’ll cover that here).

We’re going to start with Windows 8 computers. If you have Windows 7, click here to skip ahead to that section. If you’re on a Mac, click here. (If your computer has Windows XP, you’ve got bigger problems, but you can click here to read about XP’s backup software.)

Windows 8

Windows 8 calls its backup software File History, and it’s the best backup software yet for Windows. Here’s how to use it:

File History setup
File History page in Windows 8 (Photo courtesy of

Click “Control Panel” on the start screen, then scroll to the bottom of the list and select “More settings.” In the Control Panel window that appears, click “System and Security,” then look for “File History” at the bottom of the list. (Come on Microsoft, this is harder to find than it should be!)

Now you’re in File History, and you’re almost done. Once you plug in your external hard drive, you’ll see a button labeled “Turn on.” Click it, and you’ve set up your backups!

Windows 7 Tools tab
The Tools tab in Windows 7 (Photo courtesy of

Windows 7

Windows 7 uses a program called Backup and Restore. It’s a big improvement over what came with previous versions of Windows. Here’s how to get started:

Open “Computer” from the Start menu, right-click on your Local Disk, and select “Properties.” Click the “Tools” tab, and then the “Back up now…” button. Click “Set up backup.”

You’ll see your external drive in the list, and it should be labelled Recommended. Select it and click Next. In the next window, have Windows choose what to back up (again, it’s the Recommended setting.)

Windows 7 review page
Review your backup settings in Windows 7 (Photo courtesy of

You’ll notice in the next window that Windows has set a schedule for when to back up your hard drive. Change it if you want (I’d change it to at least once a week), then click “Save settings and run backup.” Ta-da! You’ve started your first backup. Congratulations!


Macs use Time Machine. Very easy to set up, and makes it almost fun to go recover an accidentally deleted file. Here’s how to set up Time Machine:

Time Machine Preferences
Time Machine Preferences page (Photo courtesy of

Click the Time Machine icon in the top menu bar (looks like an analog clock face), and click “Open Time Machine Preferences…)

First, hit the big switch on the left side of the window to turn Time Machine from OFF to ON. Once you plug in your external drive, you’ll click “Select Disk.” You’ll see a drop-down menu of available disks. Choose yours, click “Use disk,” and Time Machine will run your first backup in a couple minutes!

Wrapping up:

One important thing to keep in mind after you finish setting things up: Windows 8 and Mac computers will run a backup every hour when the external drive is plugged in. Windows 7 runs a backup once a month by default, and if you don’t have your drive plugged in, then you miss that month’s backup.

The easiest thing to do is just leave the hard drive plugged into your computer all the time. That’s better than having no backup! But keep in mind what I said last week about the importance of offsite backups.

I promise getting started is the hardest part! Hopefully these steps will make that process easier for you. If you felt this was helpful to you, please pass it along to someone else who might need help!

As always, if you have any questions or a topic you want help with, send it to me with the form below. I can’t wait to hear from you!

Backing up your computer

I’d known my computer longer than I’d known my wife. That MacBook and I had typed school papers and edited videos together. It stored everything from the invitation for my 14th birthday party to my wedding photos. And one day last July, it just wouldn’t turn on.

It turned out the issue was in either the power supply or the motherboard. Bad news because it meant we needed a new computer. Good news because the hard drive was unaffected. We were able to transfer everything on the hard drive to our new computer.

That’s when I realized first-hand the importance of backing up my computer. I hope you haven’t learned that lesson the hard way. If you haven’t, now’s the time.

According to one study, 1 in 20 hard drives fails within the first year-and-a-half of use. After three years, more than 1 in 10 have already failed.[1] What would you miss if you lost all the files on your computer? Don’t risk it!

computer on fire
If your computer is destroyed in a fire, you probably won’t be home. Offsite backups!

Offsite backups

Now that you know the importance of backing up your computer’s hard drive, here’s one more factor that’s extremely important: offsite backups. If your backups are stored on an external hard drive sitting on the same desk as your computer, it’s protecting you against hard drive failure. But if your computer is destroyed by something like a flood, fire, or tornado, that external hard drive is gone, too.

So always keep a copy of your backups in a separate location from your computer! In my case, I have one backup hard drive at home and one in my office. Every week or so I rotate them, so my offsite backup is never more than a week old. You may have another place that makes sense to store a copy (safe deposit box, relative’s house).

Today I’ll help you decide what type of backups work best for you and what hard drive and/or software you’ll need. Next week we’ll talk about how to actually put your backup plan into action!

Buying an external hard drive

The main way to backup your computer is to buy an external hard drive and plug it into your computer when you want to create a backup copy.[2] You have a copy of your files right there in your hands, but you have to remember to plug in the backup regularly and find an offsite location for it.

How much space do you need on your external hard drive? Short answer: at least as much space as your computer’s hard drive has, and preferably double it (more space never hurts).

hard drive capacity in Windows
Hard drive capacity in Windows (Photo courtesy of wikiHow)

For Windows: To find your hard drive capacity in Windows 8, open File Explorer[3], right-click on “This PC” on the left side, and click “Properties.” In Windows 7, click the Start button on your desktop and click “Computer.” Right-click on “Local Disk” near the top, and click “Properties.” The Properties window will show your total capacity in gigabytes (GB), as well as how much is used.


Hard drive capacity on a Mac
Hard drive capacity on a Mac

On a Mac: click the Apple logo in the top-left corner of your screen, and click “About This Mac” in the drop-down menu. In the little window that pops up, click “More Info,” then click the “Storage” tab along the top of the window.

Where to buy

You can find an external hard drive at a local place like Best Buy or at an online store like Amazon. It will connect to your computer with an included USB cable. Again, you’re looking for at least double the capacity of your computer’s drive. Here’s a conversion you will probably need: 1 terabyte (TB) equals about 1,000 GB. A 1TB external drive is around $70 right now. WD, Seagate, or Toshiba are popular and comparable brands.[4]

I hope you’ve realized the importance of backing up all the valuable information you have stored on your computer. Come back next week as I show you how to actually set up your backup software (which is included with your computer). You’ll see that the backups are very easy to do once you’ve initially set up the software.

In the meantime: homework! Go get a hard drive so we can set it up next week.

As always, send me any questions you have or topics you’d like me to talk about. And click the buttons at the very bottom to share this post with someone who might need it. Thanks for reading! See you next week.

1 – Full disclosure: Backblaze, the company that authored this study, offers cloud backup plans.
2 – Another option is “cloud” backups. Two of the more popular options in cloud backups are CrashPlan and Backblaze. This site has a more detailed explanation.
3 – Open File Explorer by swiping in from the right edge of the screen, tapping Search (or if you’re using a mouse, pointing to the upper-right corner of the screen, moving the mouse pointer down, and then clicking Search), entering File Explorer in the search box, and then tapping or clicking File Explorer.
4 – If you have a Mac, you don’t necessary need a drive labelled “For Mac.” They’re typically more expensive, but are ready for your computer out-of-the-box. A non-“For Mac” drive can be quickly formatted to work on a Mac, so decide whether you want pay a little more for a drive pre-formatted for your Mac.

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