Backing Up With BackBlaze

computer-on-fireDisclaimer: BackBlaze gave me a year of free backups for this review.  However, all opinions below are my own.

Backing up is probably the most important step anybody can take with their computers. It’s also likely the least performed step anybody does.

Over the years, my backup routine has changed. I used to backup everything to CDs, then to DVDs when I had too much data for a group of CDs. Eventually, I had too much for DVDs and I moved to external hard drives.  I copied my important files to an external hard drive and copied that to a backup drive (in case the first one failed).

There were just two problems with my backup routine. First of all, it wasn’t automatic. I had to remember to connect the drives and run the backups for each of our computers. Frequently, I’d forget for months on end leaving important data vulnerable. Secondly, while I would theoretically take the second drive to an off-site location (i.e. somewhere other than my house), practically I’d never get around to it. This meant that one burglar or house fire could mean the loss off everything.

I’ll admit, for the longest time I scoffed at cloud backup services. Why would you pay so much for a tiny amount of backup space? For the amount I would need to pay to backup all of my important data (photos, videos, documents, etc.), I could get a new hard drive every year.  Recently, though, I started to realize how vulnerable my backups were. External hard drives were good for a local backup but without the off-site component, we could lose everything in a matter of minutes.

I researched online backup services and many of them suffered from the same flaw: I had over 1TB to back up and they were all offering plans starting much smaller and quickly riding in price. It looked like my scoffing days might continue and my data might continue to not be as safe as to could be.

Enter BackBlaze.

For only $5 a month, BackBlaze gives you unlimited space to back up your files. Unlimited means that you don’t have to worry about extra files pushing you over a limit and costing you extra.  If you have 3TB of files to backup, it will cost you the same as if you have 100GB.

When you sign up for BackBlaze, you download the BackBlaze Control Center.  This application will let you decide which files are backed up and which are skipped.  It can also manage how fast the backup runs, since you might not want to flood your Internet connection with backups and have nothing left to stream Netflix.  You can also get an estimate on how long your backup will take.

At this point is where I hit my first roadblock.  You see, where I live my available high speed Internet isn’t that fast.  Right now, we get 15Mbps down and 1Mbps up.  I had about 880GB to download.  Even if I flooded my entire 1Mbps with the backups and ran them 24/7, it would take 82 days to complete my initial backup.  At a more reasonable half-of-my-available bandwidth, it would take me 163 days.  If you have a faster Internet connection or less to download, you will complete your backup much quicker.  After that, subsequent backups will run quickly since BackBlaze won’t need to upload ALL of the files that you want to backup – just the new and changed ones.

So what happens if your files are lost?  After all, a backup service without a decent recovery option isn’t worth anything.  To this end, BackBlaze gives multiple options.  First of all, BackBlaze’s software can download your data just like it uploaded it.  Of course, while this option might not cost extra, it could involve extra time depending on your Internet speeds and how much data you are backing up.  In my case, if I used my entire bandwidth every hour of every day, I could get everything back in five and a half days.  At half of my bandwidth, it would take about eleven days.

The second option involves BackBlaze sending you a flash drive containing up to 128GB of data.  This costs $99.  BackBlaze can also send you a 4TB USB hard drive with your data for $189.  The drives are yours to keep or you can return them within 30 days and get refunded the entire cost.  Yes, this does mean that the flash drive and USB hard drive options would wind up being free after the refund goes through.

So would I recommend BackBlaze?

I have two main reservations about the service – one that is in BackBlaze’s control and one that is completely out of their control.  Their software operates on a "backup everything except for exceptions that you list" basis.  This means that, by default, it is trying to back up way too many files.  Sure, they exclude your Windows system folder by default, but still your hard drive is filled with files that you don’t really care about.  It would be better if their software allowed you to choose whether you want to backup everything except for exceptions or only back up folders of your choosing.

The factor that BackBlaze can’t change is ISP upload speeds.  As mentioned earlier, this can turn any online backup service from useful to "too slow to do any good."  After backup up constantly for a few weeks, BackBlaze is still estimating another 120 or so days until my initial backup is done.  I understand that there’s nothing that BackBlaze can do to fix this on the ISP end, but it would be nice if that USB hard drive option worked the other way as well.  BackBlaze could send a hard drive (with a refundable $189 deposit to make sure people didn’t just keep the drives), have you copy your files to the drive, and then mail it back.  Once the drive arrived back at BackBlaze, they could upload the data much quicker and issue a refund for the drive.  This could turn six month long initial backup sessions into one week long initial backups.

Still, even with these limitations, I would still recommend BackBlaze.  The service seems very fast and stable and the price is definitely right.  For the same price as a year of unlimited space at BackBlaze ($60), I would need to pay $120 for 1TB on Google Drive or Dropbox or $84 for 1TB on Microsoft OneDrive.  All three of these require me to pay more for less space.

No matter what you do – be it cloud backup, saving to external hard drives, or burning to disc – backups are a vital part of keeping your digital data safe.  Make sure that you come up with a plan that protects your files from as many different threats as possible. 

NOTE: The image above is a combination of "Cartoon Computer and Desktop" by DTRave and "Fire" by matheod.  Both are available from

Putting Too Much Trust In Google Maps

google_mapsI’ll admit it: I have an awful sense of direction. While my father seems to instinctively wind his way through strange streets to discover previously unknown shortcuts, I can take wrong turns going to destinations that I’ve been to a dozen times.  Thanks to the age of smartphones, I’ve come to rely on Google Maps to get me to my destination.  While it can be reliable most of the time, when it fails me, it fails spectacularly.

A few months ago, we were trying to get to a local trampoline park for a birthday party. We plugged the address into Google Maps and let it be our guide.  After a series of twists and turns, it declared that we reached our destination.  We could even see the trampoline park on our right.  There was only one problem: We were on a major highway with no method of going into our destination. Apparently, Google wanted us to park in the middle of the highway and walk over to the trampoline park.  After passing it, Google recalculated and we eventually arrived.

A couple of nights ago, though, NHL and I  topped this tale.  A classmate of NHL’s was celebrating his Bar Mitzvah.  We had printed directions and B implored me not to use Google Maps.  Of course, this meant that I insisted on using Google Maps.  Google didn’t fail me right away.  We wound through some dark main roads that I’ve never been on before but Google insisted we were closing in on our destination.  Then Google said we arrived.  Except there was nothing there but residential driveways.  I figured that the entrance was likely a dark path that we passed so I went straight until we reached a street to turn on.  I noted that the street has a sign that said "Henry Hudson Park." (This will be important later.)

We slowly drove back along the road but couldn’t find an entrance.  I pulled into a closed down store to figure out our next step. Looking at the printed directions, I noted the road just before our destination and put that into Google. Bingo! Google said it was close by.  Google had us turn onto an even darker road.  From the start, I got the feeling that this was a bad idea.  The road was a dark, unpaved, single lane with no room for turning around and bare trees growing all around.  I felt like we had stumbled onto a horror movie set.  I half expected the car to die and a man with a chainsaw to run out at us.

After winding our way up the road, we passed by a house.  By this, I mean we drove along their driveway, around the rear of their house, and back to the front.  We likely spooked them in the process.  Eventually, I conceded that we were lost.  We stopped at another house, I rang the doorbell, and asked for directions.  The man who answered was very nice and agreed that Google often mistakes their private road for a public access way.  He knew exactly where I was trying to go to and gave me directions.

Of course, my sense of direction being what it is, this isn’t the end of the tale.  I took another wrong turn, had to turn around twice, and ask one more couple for directions.  By this point, we had closed in on our destination and were only a minute or two away.

We arrived (with many cars coming from the opposite way on the street) and NHL had fun at the party.  When it was time to leave, I decided to try the path that I saw the cars coming from.  As we reached the end of the street, there was a sign: Henry Hudson Park.  Yes, this was the street we turned around on.  Had we gone up 400 feet more, we would have seen the entrance.  Instead, we went on a three mile scary detour.

Thank you, Google Maps!

When Batteries Die… Keeping Your Data Safe

TabletRecently, NHL suffered a technological tragedy. His beloved Galaxy Tab 2 tablet died. NHL plays many games on his tablet and, over time, had accumulated quite a bit of progress. The idea that all of this could be lost was quite upsetting to him. After much troubleshooting, including contacting the company and exploring sending it in for repairs, we got it working again.

Though we found a solution, let’s be honest. No device is going to last forever. At some point, something will happen that will mean the device can no longer be used. With that in mind, how can you protect your child’s data/game progress?

Let’s deal with the data first, since that’s the easy one. Some tablets and phones support microSD cards. If your tablet does, you can host photos, videos, and other important data there.

If your device doesn’t have a microSD card slot, or if you want to protect against a failure (like theft) that includes the microSD card, there is the cloud storage option. You can back files up to Google Drive, Dropbox, or other online services. There are also apps you can use to automate this process.  (I’ve tried a few but haven’t found one I really like just yet.  They exist, though, and when I find a really nice one, I’ll post about it at length.)

What about the games, though? If your device dies and you get a new one, you’ll reinstall your apps only to find yourself staying from square one. What we need is a way to back up the app’s data to be restored on a new device.

Unfortunately, there is no single solution to this problem. Each app is different. Some connect to your Facebook account (or another online account). For these, you merely need to log in on your new device and your game progress will transfer to the new device. Of course, this does present problems if the game to be backed up us for a child. Facebook limits accounts to people 13 and older. Even if they allowed younger people to join, I’d hesitate to put my young children in social media without any preparation merely to save a game.

For other games, there might be a support code in the app. Write this down somewhere safe and should you need to restore the game to the new device, you’d just send them this code in a support request. Of course, this process’ effectiveness will vary depending on the game company’s responsiveness and how old the game is. Some will respond quickly while others might not reply at all.

Diving Into Inexpensive Virtual Reality With Google Cardboard

TechyDad-With-CardboardWith the name TechyDad, you might guess that I love all things tech.  You’d be right, but often monetary realities mean I can’t get every cool new piece of tech.  Instead, I need to sit on the sidelines and watch as others enjoy fantastic products on the cutting edge.  Recently, Verizon Wireless gave away Star Wars branded Google Cardboards for free.  As one might expect, they were swamped by Star Wars fans.  B and I managed to get a free Google Cardboard each.  What I wasn’t prepared for, was how cool Google Cardboard was.

Google Cardboard is a very simple virtual reality viewer.  The specs were released by Google and consists of pieces of cardboard, two lenses, and some Velcro.  If you repurpose a pizza box, you can build your own Google Cardboard for under $10 in parts.  Alternatively, you can buy models online.  I’ve seen everything from simple cardboard-based Cardboard viewers for $5 to high-end-looking molded plastic models (complete with head straps and foam padding for a comfortable fit) for $30.  Compared with other VR viewers that cost $200 or more each, Google Cardboard is definitely cost-effective.  Your phone gets placed into a holder and the screen is split and distorted (by the Google Cardboard app – free for Android or iOS) so that looking through the lenses results in a 3D experience.

Google-CardboardNOTE: Some Google Cardboard viewers include magnets that are used to interact with the virtual environments.  The magnets temporarily mess with the device’s compass which Google Cardboard interprets as a click.  My viewers didn’t include this magnet so I can’t speak to how well this works.

Of course, an inexpensive VR viewer is nothing without content.  Luckily, there are a lot of very different apps to choose from.  So far, I’ve tried eight, all of them free on the Google Play store:

Cardboard Camera: This is a VR viewer as well as a VR creator.  The camera lets you create 360° panoramas as that you can then view using Google Cardboard.  I’ve created VR panoramas of JSL in the yard (where he ran into different positions during the panorama creation – making it look like there were three of him), NHL’s school auditorium before a concert (when it was almost totally empty), and panoramas of JSL in his blanket fort.  I’ll definitely be using this on my next vacation so we can drop back in at any time.

Cosmic Roller Coaster: Like the title says, this app takes you on a ride through a solar system not too unlike our own.  You rocket from the outer reaches, past planets and moons (with many close calls along the way), until you circle into the sun.  I found this to be mildly impressive, but not as good as Titans of Space or VR Roller Coaster (both of which I’ll cover in a bit).

Fish Schooling: This app lets you scuba dive without any equipment rental or training.  As you look all around you, fish of many different types swim by.  This app was impressive at first, but quickly got boring. Here’s hoping a future update adds some variety like sharks swimming past.

Star Wars: This was the obvious draw of the Star Wars-branded Google Cardboard viewers.  Along with the non-Cardboard content (such as GIFs and emojis), the Star Wars app included a Jakko Spy feature which transports you into the world of Star Wars for brief segments.  You get to look all around a desert planet, ducking as spaceships fly overhead, and greeting BB-8 as he rolls up to you.  Needless to say, my boys and I geeked out over this.  Even B had a mini-geek-out moment when she said “Oh, hi there!” as BB-8 approached her.

fish-schoolingStreet View: This is Google’s normal Street View app.  It contains not only views from every street that Google has mapped worldwide, but images that others have contributed.  Viewing Street View images is impressive on a desktop/laptop screen, but Google Cardboard takes it up a notch.  With a quick search I can be on top of the Empire State Building, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, looking at a castle in England, or even scuba diving with fish nearby.  Possibly the most surreal moment was when I looked up my own house on Street View one night.  My brain said that I was inside the house, but my eyes reported that I was outside and the house was right in front of me.  The conflict was almost dizzying.  I’ve decided that I need to use this app to take quick five minute vacations.  When life gets me down, I’ll just pop on over to some scenic local and pretend that I’m somewhere else for a few minutes.

Google-Street-ViewTitans of Space: After Cosmic Roller Coaster, I wondered if there were more scientifically accurate solar system models.  I’m not sure how accurate Titans of Space is – clearly they “compress” space so that traveling between planets doesn’t take months or years which also means that planets appear bigger from the orbit of other planets than they should.  Still, this app makes up for this with the sheer amount of information it gives on the planets and moons in our solar system.  And when your solar system tour is done, be prepared to have your mind blown when it shows you how big other stars are compared to our Sun!

TurnMe Panorama: During my recent cruise, I took quite a few panoramic shots.  I wondered if there was a way to turn these normal panoramas into VR panoramas.  Obviously, they wouldn’t be 360° shots, but perhaps Cardboard could display them as if I were looking at giant prints of the panoramas floating in front of me.  This is exactly what TurnMe Panorama does.  It’s not perfect, but it definitely beats looking at a squished down version on my monitor or having to look through it with keyboard/mouse clicks.

VR Roller Coaster: One of my first downloads after I got Google Cardboard was a rollercoaster app.  I’m not sure why this was as I’m not a huge rollercoaster fan, but I quickly found and downloaded VR Roller Coaster.  I put on the viewer and found myself rocketing around turns and going into loop-de-loops high in the air.  Though I wasn’t really moving, I could feel my stomach begin to react to the virtual coaster.  This is definitely my favorite roller coaster of all – if only because you can “jump off” at any time by removing the Google Cardboard.  I don’t recommend trying this on a real life roller coaster.

Whenever my boys see the Google Cardboard being taken out, they begin fighting over who gets to use it first.  (Answer: Me.  I get to use it first!)  I feel like the apps are impressive but have only scratched the surface as to what is possible.  I can definitely see more companies creating content and even giving away branded Cardboard viewers for promotional purposes.  Personally, I’d love to see Disney make Google Cardboard versions of their rides.  You could ride Splash Mountain, Test Track, or Expedition Everest without leaving your living room.  Of course, this wouldn’t replace an actual trip to Disney World or Disney Land.  However, it could spark a Disney World/Disney Land interest or help keep an existing one alive until your next Disney vacation.  (If Disney is reading this, they can take my idea and just give me copies of the VR rides.)

If you’re looking for a cool VR experience without draining your bank account, I’d definitely recommend Google Cardboard.

Star Wars Excitement Building To Critical Mass

VR-TechyDadIt’s no secret that our family loves Star Wars. I’ve been a Star Wars geek for as long as I can remember. Some of my first actions, upon discovering the Internet, was to join a Star Wars Usenet group.

NHL is a fan also, but JSL is a super-fan. He will often break into Yoda speak and demanded to see the film immediately after seeing the trailer back in February. (Sadly, I doubted I’d have been able to contact JJ Abrams, much less convince him to show us the movie early.

Still, our wait is almost over. We’ve been whetting our appetites with the trailers, but in two weeks the main course will arrive.

Some might fear that the new movies will repeat the mistakes that the prequels made. If Yoda taught us anything, though, it’s that fear is the Dark Side and should be avoided. Still, I’ve been secretly praying that the movie will be more Empire Strikes Back and less A Phantom Menace.

Besides the trailers, I’ve indulged my Star Wars appetite by reading some fan theories about the movies. My favorite involves the much despised character, Jar-Jar Binks.

According to the theory, Jar-Jar was originally supposed to be an evil figure hiding in plain sight. He would have been a mirror image to Yoda’s first appearance as a crazy hermit. All of his "dumb luck" moments would really have been subtle uses of the Force. The theory actually is week thought out and I could see this having been the original plan before Lucas chickened out and kept Jar-Jar as pure comic relief.

Our latest Star Wars indulgence involves a piece of cardboard. Google Cardboard, to be exact. Google Cardboard is a virtual reality headset that is made of (you guessed it) cardboard as well as lenses and Velcro.  You can ride virtual rollercoasters, travel to distant lands, and dive under the water to swim with virtual fish.

I picked up a Star Wars/Verizon Wireless branded Google Cardboard viewer on Wednesday.  After downloading the Google Cardboard app, I launched the Star Wars app.  I’ve previously used the app to take selfies of myself with Vader and Yoda.  I even got frozen in Carbonite and tried on Leia’s locks.  With Google Cardboard, however, I was able to launch the Jakko Spy feature which transported me to a desert world.  The Millennium Falcon flew right overhead pursued by two TIE fighters.  After I stopped ducking, BB-8 rolled up to deliver a message.  Needless to say, I enjoyed this immensely.  Being able to be immersed into a Star Wars planet was amazing.  The boys fought over who went next and thoroughly enjoyed their off world trips.  Even B got into the act, cheerfully saying "Oh, hello there!" as BB-8 approached her.

More Star Wars Google Cardboard features are due to be released leading up to the movie itself.  If you didn’t get a Google Cardboard from Verizon Wireless, you could always buy one from Amazon or build your own.  Either way, one thing is for sure: Star Wars excitement is just going to build more and more here until we see the new movie.  A Jedi might not crave adventure and excitement, but we’re sure looking forward to those two things on the big screen when we see The Force Awakens.

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