Using Roam Mobility and T-Mobile While Travelling, an Update.

I recently got back from an extended trip into the US where I used my smartphones, testing the various carriers that I wrote about in  this blog post.

I was in the Hawaiian islands (Maui and Kauai) for 3 and a half weeks. I used 2 phones while travelling. I purchased a voice only travel pack from Rogers for my iPhone, 14.50 for 15 minutes of talk time to Canada or locally, with 1.00 per minute for any overage. This was done primarily for incoming calls to my existing Canadian cell phone number. For my unlocked Samsung Galaxy Nexus, I purchased a couple of plans from Roam Mobility and used T-Mobile on some days .

Before leaving, I purchased a 14 day plan with Roam Mobility via phone because I wanted it to start on a specific day and I had a small credit on my account. The plan regularly sells for 69.95 for unlimited Talk and Text, both to US numbers and to Canada and 1 GB of Data. When we arrived in Maui and I turned on my phone. I immediately got cell service for the phone but no data. After checking into our condo I was able to use Wi-Fi so everything was OK for that night. This is the only issue I ran into over my trip with Roam. The next morning I tried to contact Roam Mobility because despite several restarts of the phone I was still not getting a data connection. I tried calling 611 as per their support pages on their site and was getting a message that the number could not be dialled. I then tried the 1-800 number listed on their page and again I got the same cannot dial error message. I also got the same message when trying to dial the 1-800 number from the condo’s landline!

I got online with my laptop and used the chat feature on their website (www.roammobility.com). In my chat I explained the problem and the 611 and 1-800 number problem. I was directed to a support page that solved the problem. My phone was trying to connect to a T-Mobile APN not the Roam APN. I had to set up a new APN on my Nexus following the instructions. The procedure was actually very easy and the instructions are located here. Although the article says it is for the iPhone and iPad, it works with all phones. Setting up the APN on my phone, selecting it and restarting the phone worked perfectly. I was now getting full 4G data speeds.

To Roam Mobility’s credit they also called me several times (and had T-Mobile Tech support call me) to try and resolve the 611 and 1-800 number problems  I had in trying to contact them. Not sure if that ever was fixed as I didn’t need it again but I suspect it has something to do with Hawaii as I have seen other 1-800 numbers not work there.

For the week on Maui I had no issues with the Roam Plan and was able to use data at full speeds and even was able to tether my daughters iPod to my phone so she could do a quick Rdio music sync. After 6 days we flew over to Kauai. Now Kauai is a little technically behind and a lot of the island has poor cell phone reception. Further more there are no 3G or 4G carriers on Kauai so my phone reverted back to Edge or 2G speeds. While it was slower than service here, it was sufficient for things like email and looking things up on the web. I wouldn’t try to tether another machine or try downloading lots of things using 2G.

After my Roam Mobility plan expired I had planned on using my T-Mobile SIM for the last few days of our trip. Knowing there was no 3G on Kauai, I logged into my T-Mobile account online and changed my plan from the 3.00 per day plan to the 2.00 per day 2G only plan. I also learned a few things about T-Mobile and the way their pay by the day accounts work.

While in my T-Mobile online account page I noticed that my balance had gone down a little since the last time I checked it. I had also seen this happen before and knew I hadn’t used the phone so was confused as to what was happening.  I called T-Mobile customer support to find out  why this was happening. The rep put my on hold and looked up my account. This is one of the beefs I have about the T-Mobile online account site, you can’t see your own billing history at all! When the rep came back she informed me that my phone number had received a couple of text messages and that had activated the plan for the day, despite the fact that my SIM card was not even in my phone! If you decide to use T-Mobile pay by the day plans this is something that you should be aware of as even a SPAM text will cost you 2.00/3.00 depending on the plan you have set up!

While in Kauai my phone on T-Mobile worked fine but I did notice on some parts of the island that there was no T-Mobile service and I was roaming on AT&T. The problem with this is that while roaming there was no data service available! This was not something I noticed when I was using Roam so they may have additional roaming agreements from T-Mobile that allow roaming with AT&T. I could be wrong about this but I didn’t see it with the Roam card in my phone.

One thing I did have to call back to a client while away and on T-Mobile. Instead of using my Rogers phone (that still had about 8 minutes of time left), I used my T-Mobile phone. I then received a T-Mobile text saying my account balance was low. The 4 minute call back to Canada cost an additional 2.00 on my plan (.49 per minute).

Another thing that I used with both services was Text Plus. By signing up with Text Plus I was able to receive Text Messages from other TP users or to a Text Plus number (local Calgary phone number) so people could send me a text without incurring a charge for texting a US number if not included in their own plans.

When we decide to extend our stay for another week, I decided to purchase another weekly plan from Roam for 39.95 and again use T-Mobile for the day and a half that the Roam plan would not cover my stay. I simply logged into my Roam account, purchased the plan and away I went!

During our stay the rest of our family used our LG Tracfones that worked fine on both islands but these are not smart phones. They offer talk and text and very basic web browsing. As I stated in my previous post the phones cost 20.00 and we add 1 year service plans for 100.00 including 400 credits (which the phones also have double minutes on purchases for life) so 800 credits per year. Sending and reading text messages have .3 credits deducted from the bank and calls are 1 credit per minute deducted. Long distance is included at the same rate but you have to use a 1-800 number to dial internationally or they may cut off your phone for security reasons. This has happened to us once!

In summary here is what I spent on cell phone charges for being in the US for 3 and a half weeks and using my smart phones the same way that I would if I had been at home.

  • Rogers 14.50 CDN for 15 minutes of US to Canada Voice
  • Roam Mobility 100.00 + GST CDN for 1.5 GB of Data Service and unlimited talk and text to Canada and the US (I used about 650MB of Data)
  • T-Mobile 14.00 USD for US talk,text and data (includes 2.00 for my Long distance)

So a total of approximately 130.00 CDN for 3 and a half weeks of US travel. If I decided to do the same things with Rogers Travel Packs here is what I would have spent

  • 100 Minutes Roaming talk @ 50.00. Good for 30 days
  • 2 x 500MB 1 Month Data Passes @ 100.00. Good for 30 days
  • Unlimited sent text messages @ 50.00. Good for 30 days

The total would have been $300.00 for my trip. I may have been able to reduce this by 60.00 by purchasing the Rogers Text and Talk combo pack for 40.00 which includes only 100 roaming minutes and 100 sent text messages! But going over on the text messages could have been costly! However if you are a Rogers customer and have signed up for their free One Number Service and don’t need your Canadian phone, you could use that to check voice mails, read and reply to text messages and even make voice calls from an Internet connected laptop. I haven’t tried this from my Android tablets or phones yet so I am not sure if it would work but I am guessing that this feature may be blocked on those devices.

I did end up carrying 2 phones around with me for the entire trip but that is no big deal anyway as I would have had to do that as well if I had used one of our Tracfones.

So what will I be doing going forward? I have a conference in Las Vegas in October and will be spending 6 days there. My plan so far will be to get a 7 day Roam Mobility plan and once again the 15.00 rogers voice pack for incoming calls to my regular phone. I will also  either be unlocking my wife’s Galaxy SII phone or setting up my older Nexus S phone for her to use on T-Mobile while we are there. She can text using text + with our daughter that way. It will be interesting to see what T-Mobile’s service in Las Vegas (Roam’s Carrier) as from past experience I can say that AT&T ’s service there is awful especially if there are large conventions there! Where  I have used T-Mobile and their high speed data service available it has always been good. I may also purchase an additional Roam SIM card for the Mrs.

I will likely keep both services for the foreseeable service but will more than likely use Roam Mobility far more than the T-Mobile service. Roam gives me the ability to call back to clients, family and friends in Canada. Although it costs a little more than T-Mobile but the fact that I can call or text back without worrying about long distance charges makes sense! I will continue to use T-Mobile when I am transiting in the US (for example one day) or if I am away for 8 or 9 days and one of the Roam plan’s just doesn’t fit my requirements. Again one of Roam’s advantages is that the SIM card is good for a year from each plan purchase. T-Mobile is only good for 90 days after each top up and a card that has gone inactive cannot be re-activated. You have to go to a T-Mobile store and purchase another SIM and top up.

I hope that this information helps a few of you in saving money if you are travelling to the US and want to use a Smart Phone while there. Please leave any questions in the comments!

If you found this review helpful, Roam Mobility now offers a referral program. Help us bring more stories like this to the web and use the link for a referral below. You save 2.95 on your SIM card purchase and help us a little too!

http://www.roammobility.com/referafriend/?bl=c3lzZ3V5QHN5c2d1eS5jb20=

Update for Canadians using Smartphones While Travelling in the US.

Way back in 2006, I wrote this post about getting Tracfones for travelling in the US to save big on the roaming charges that are charged by Canadian Cell phone carriers. A lot has changed since then (except the fact that you will still get gouged by your carrier for roaming) in the cell phone industry. Many of us are using Smartphones with email, maps, applications, surfing the web and posting to Facebook and social network sites while also using cell phones and texting. You don’t want to come back from a vacation or business trip where you spent enough money already to be surprised by a 200.00, 300.00 or even 500.00 bill for roaming with your smartphone. So what can you do to avoid these bills?

Well your first option is not to use the data feature on your phone. All smartphone operating systems have a way of turning off data while roaming. Your phone and texting function will work but email and other data will not. Then you can use Wi-Fi connectivity to get your email, post to Facebook etc. I would suggest keeping this feature turned on in your phone all the time to protect yourself. Phone calls and texting in the US without an appropriate plan however can still cost you a fortune!

Now there are more options than ever for you if you travel. We will try to go through what we consider some of the best ones while travelling in the US.

Your Existing Carrier

Most of the Canadian carriers offer add on travel packs for travelling in the US. I have used them from Rogers several times and I can’t speak to the specifics of the other carriers but I find the Rogers ones expensive and you usually have to buy several travel packs for your device especially if you will be gone for more than 7 days. For example for a trip to the US in the fall I had to buy a voice plan, a data plan and a text plan. It became very expensive and it was restrictive (60MB of Data good for 7 days only for 50.00, 50 text messages and 15 minutes of talk). While this could work for a short trip or if you are not planning on using your Smartphone much while you are away.

Basic Phone, Texting and Webmail

After 7 years we still use our Tracfones while travelling. I upgraded all of our phones the past February to a new LG version. This phone looks similar to a Blackberry and allows for calls, texting and some basic web surfing with a full qwerty keyboard.

To save time, I pre-purchased the new phones via WalMart.com and had them delivered to a store local to where I was staying (you can pay via PayPal so you don’t need a US credit card). I did it this way so I knew the phones would be there and I didn’t have to go store to store to find them (i needed 6). With the new phones we got double minutes for life and I bought some 1 year, 400 minute cards for 100.00. This gives each phone 800 minutes of talk time with the service good for a year. With Tracfone there is no long distance in the US and you can talk internationally as well but you still have to dial a 1-800 number first. You can text another US number with no issues as well but you can’t text Canadian  numbers even if those phones are in the US. There is web surfing but it is fairly basic using the web browsers on the device and you can get email via a web browser and more. This would be a fairly basic option compared to a smartphone but it is far cheaper if you need more than 1 phone in the US for example if you need 2 phones for a family.

Swapping your Sim Card

What  do you need?

Just an unlocked smartphone that uses a SIM Card. Smartphones that used to use Telus’ or Bell’s old CDMA networks will not work as they don’t use SIM cards unless they were “world phones”. You can also do this for travel to Europe and other parts of the world where buying a SIM card is very common.

All cell phones that get sold subsidized by the carriers (cheap with a contract) are carrier locked. This means that you can’t take out the SIM card and put a new one in for another carrier. This is how they protect from people buying a phone subsidized, using it for a year, then cancelling the contract and going somewhere else. You can buy unlocked phones but they usually cost big dollars (450 to 600) for the latest and greatest phones. However unlocking a cell phone is easy (except iphones but I’ll give options for that below). There are several sites across the web where you can send your IMEI number to them pay a small fee and they will send you an unlock code and instructions on how to do the unlock. Carrier unlocking your phone doesn’t do anything strange to your phone except allow you to use different carriers with the same device. iPhones have to be jailbroken to unlock and that is an issue whenever Apple issues an IOS update because you have to jailbreak your phone again after the hackers learn to do it again. www.cellunlock.net has unlock codes for 16.00 and up. You can find other sites and unlockers on Ebay. I don’t think I have paid more than 8.00 to unlock previous Blackberries I have owned. So shop around.

So after unlocking your phone what happens? If you put in another SIM card for another carrier typically you will get a new phone number. All of your apps and email will work but if people want to call or text  your regular number you won’t get them until you put the original SIM card back in or check your VM or they call your new number. So why use a different SIM? Well you have your phone that will work where you are and have full access to data, local calls in most cases long distance, your existing contacts and email. In short everything on your own device with your Canadian carrier. Here are a couple of options for different SIM cards. Texting to a US number will also cost extra for a Canadian unless they have that built into their plan (I know some Rogers Value packs have this).

T-Mobile USA

T-Mobile. www.t-mobile.com  After a lot of research I found that T-Mobile offered one of the best pre paid plans in the US. A sim card costs between 8 – 10 dollars and you can get prepaid cards for 10, 20, 30 or 50.00. I bought a card at a T-Mobile store in Miami with a 20.00 prepaid card when we were there in February. I was assigned a Miami number, had the pre paid applied to the account and walked out of the store in 15 minutes. With T-Mobile you have 2 choices of plans. 2.00 per day for unlimited voice (All US), texting and unlimited data (but it is 2g speeds, like Rogers Edge or Bell and Telus’ old CDMA services). For 3.00 per day you get unlimited voice, text and the first 200 MB a day of Data @ 4G speeds (HSPA+) like Rogers, Bell and Telus in your area. After you hit 200MB in one day you get throttled back to 2G speeds but still unlimited data. This way you can post and check Facebook, upload pictures, use maps etc.. Be sure to check their coverage maps before leaving to ensure that they are available where you are travelling. SIM cards are available at T-Mobile stores and some other locations (Radio Shack).

Here are a few little gotcha’s with T-Mobile

1) If your device is not on the same frequency as their network you only get 2G speeds regardless of the plan you choose. The Galaxy Nexus  is one of a few phones that offer a 5 band radio. T-Mobile uses the same frequency as Wind and Mobilicity here in Canada so if you have an unlocked phone from them it would work at the highest 4G speeds. As a result the 2.00 per day plan is what most would use.

2) Text’s to Canada and LD to Canada get deducted from your pre paid card in addition to the daily fee.

3) Daaily billing only happens when you turn on your phone. The billing cycle is 12:01AM to 11:59 PM. Turn your phone on at 10:00 PM and you are charged for the day then after midnight if the phone is on you get charged for another day.

4) You have to top up every 90 days or the SIM card will be deactivated. Minimum top up is 10.00 USD and can be done online, So it costs 40.00 per year for the number. If the SIM card is deactivated you have to get a new one as you can’t reactivate it.

5) You would have a US number and your Canadian number while the T-Mo card is in your phone wouldn’t work, people would have to call or text the US number.

6) Not sure if this works in Canada or Internationally (I haven’t tested this yet). Some reports say it will work in Canada.

7) No Blackberry BIS (or BES) Service is available, so you can’t use your Blackberry email service but you can browse via the browser to web based services.

8) Not sure if tethering other devices works (haven’t tested).

Most Canadian Smartphones would only get EDGE or 2G data speeds. You do get an online account that you can manage your plan with, purchase additional time cards. I recently had to top up to my account to keep from deactivating my sim card. I used a prepaid US Visa card (registered to A US relatives home address) . I buy one of these cards (50.00) almost every time I go to the US for services like this. Haven’t tried a Canadian credit card yet so I don’t know if they work online for purchases. You can always pick up T-Mobile pre paid cards almost anywhere (grocery stores, Wal-Mart,, convenience stores, etc.) in the US.

Roam Mobility –  www.roammobility.com

Roam Mobility has been very active in their advertising lately. They are a company out of Vancouver that is reselling T-Mobile’s services to Canadians with a couple of  additional benefits for Canadians at slightly higher cost than T-Mobile’s.

First you purchase a SIM card from Roam either online or at Pipestone travel stores here in Calgary  The SIM card costs 19.95.

You activate the card online and pick and purchase a plan. Your US number is only assigned once you turn on your phone in the US. They do have several options for text, talk and data

1 day for 7.95 + 100mb data

3 days 18.95 + 200MB of Data

7 days 39.95 + 500 MB of Data

14 Days 69.95 + 1 GB of Data

30 Days 99.95 + 2 GB of Data

All plans include unlimited texting and calling back to Canada, this is one of the advantages they have over T-Mobile.

Because they are reselling T-Mobile’s services they have some of  the same gotchas as above in regards to phones and data speeds. In a chat with them while I was writing this they say if your phone supports tethering you will be able to do it, but it could use up your data quickly. Once you activate a SIM though it is good for 1 year and you only have to activate 1 top up per year. Plans expire 30 days after purchase. Once you use up your data you have to buy another combination plan. I have a 6GB data plan here in Canada and I rarely use more than 1 GB of Data per month but I do use Wi-Fi most of the time..

They do offer voice and text only services though at 2.95, 8.95, 20.95, 34.95 and 59.95 for the same periods as above.

There is a solution for iPhone owners and data only services that don’t want to Jailbreak their phones! This solution is also ideal for connectivity for Wi-Fi enabled devices like Tablets, Portable games and laptops.

You can purchase a Mobile Hotspot device from Roam (Liberty Mobile Hotspot) for 129.95 with a SIM card. This is a small device with a rechargeable battery that connects data only to the T-Mobile Network. You then buy a Data Only package from Roam and activate the device. The device gives you a portable (pocket able) Wi-Fi hotspot that you can connect iPhones, Laptops, Tablets and Game machines to. Data only pricing is not priced too badly compared to Canadian Carriers roaming prices. You can also purchase data only with a Sim Card for a Jailbroken iPad or Unlocked Android Tablet.

500MB – 29.95

1000MB – 39.95

2 GB – 59.95

5 GB – 99.95

Data plans are good for 30 days from date of purchase.

The only disadvantage to this service is everyone has to be reasonably close to the Wi-fi hotspot to get a signal (30 feet) and you have to carry the device around. The advantage is multiple devices, fastest speeds and multiple people can share the same data. Note text won’t work with this option nor would voice unless you used SKYPE and texting services like text+

You can do the same with Virgin Mobile in the US but their Hot Spot Modem is 150.00 and 1 month of unlimited Data is 50.00

Update January 2013
Here is an update for Roam Mobility as of January 11th 2013. Most of Roam’s products are available in Calgary at Pipestone Travel Stores. You can pick up a Sim Card or if you don’t have an unlocked phone they are selling their Breeze model with a Roam Sim for 49.95. This is not a smart phone but it does feature a qwerty keyboard for texting..
Some of their plan pricing has also gone up a few dollars but for the Talk Text and Data plans that comes with a corresponding jump in data caps.
In addition T-Mobile has been updating their networks in the US and so some phones that support the 1900Mhz band (iPhone, Nexus S) will no longer be dropped down to edge speeds in certain areas. Most major US Cities have or are in the process of being upgraded with the new HPSA+ service.

Conclusion

I have a family vacation planned this summer in the US. I will be using a combination of Roam Mobility and T-Mobile while I am there to compare the two options. I will be carrying 2 phones with me. I will have my Galaxy Nexus that will be connected to T-Mobile for part of the trip and my iPhone with my Rogers sim in it and a 15.00 Voice Roaming plan. Data while roaming will be turned off (although I will use it with Wi-Fi). I plan on using it just to be able to accept calls on my  regular cell phone number.

If you need access to your Canadian number you can do a couple of things. Use an old cell phone that is locked to your existing Canadian Carrier, or pick up a used phone on your carrier or an unlocked one form Craigslist or Kijiji. All you may need this for is Voice and receiving texts.

I will report back after my trip on how my experiment worked. I sent an email to the rest of my family earlier this week so that they also knew the options and I will update how we coped.

If you liked this review or found it helpful. Roam Mobility offers a referral program where you save 2.95 on the purchase of your SIM card. Please use the following link and support this blog so we can bring you more stories like this!

http://www.roammobility.com/referafriend/?bl=c3lzZ3V5QHN5c2d1eS5jb20=

 

Revisiting my Backup Strategy

I just got back from picking up the results of an expensive data recovery job from a client’s failed hard drive. It reminded me that I hadn’t updated my own backup strategy in a while. I recently changed it after learning a few valuable lessons and being very lucky after a device failure.

Below is a comment I left on a photography podcast that I listened to recently. It describes the work flow I am currently using. While it deals with my image back ups, I do cover off other files.

After a few months of using this workflow, I can’t say enough about the Bestsync Software mentioned. It is available at www.risefly.com. I have also added another tool recently. I am using Sugar Sync to do some offline folder backups as well. This seems to work very well and I can choose what ever folders that I want to backup. You can download and get 5 Free Gigabytes of online storage. In addition using this link https://www.sugarsync.com/referral?rf=907xn2ham8fg&utm_source=website&utm_medium=web&utm_campaign=referral you will get an additional 500 MB of free space as well as giving me an additional 500 MB!

I am still using Dropbox as well and they have also just boosted the free amount of online storage you can get. Again sign up and install using this link and we both get bonus space free. http://db.tt/Rz3VAiH.

Use both links above and you will get 8GB of free online storage!

Posted on photography.ca

Marko,
I feel your pain. As a small business IT Consultant I deal with the Data Recovery companies and failed hard drives every couple of months. As a photographer I have also been burned either by not being ready or the “I’ll do it later” syndrome.
A couple of things to note. RAID is not the only answer. Yes they are redundant but they can fail too. I have experienced failures with Drobo’s and other RAID devices as well.
I have developed my own back up system that works pretty well keeping in mind that if the system is not automated, it will not get done.
In our home I have all of the PC’s connected to a first Gen Windows Home Sever so my kids and wife’s system all get automatically backed up nightly to that box (not an answer for catastrophe though).
For myself I use the following.
When I bring images in I use Lightroom to import and copy all of my images to a folder on my E-Sata connected Drobo S (5 x 1TB hard drives). My Lightroom catalog files also reside in one folder on the Drobo including the Lightroom backup files. All files are Canon CR2 Raw.
Nightly I have a program running on my system called Bestsync 2012 that synchronizes the Lightroom catalogs and the image files from the Drobo folders to a Mediasonic Raid 1 enclosure connected via USB 3 with 2 x 2TB Drives. I also have Best Sync set up to synchronize the Mediasonic backups to one of 2 USB External USB drives when the are plugged in to the system as well as on a nightly schedule. Every couple of weeks I swap these drives and take them to my parents house where I connect to them to a Pogoplug so I can access them across the net in case there is any need.
The stuff I show off and want to share with family and friends I put up in galleries at Smugmug (power user account). I have unlimited Storage there and they take large high quality jpg files plus I like their galleries.
I chose Best Sync because it wasn’t that expensive, Pro License was 38.00 USD and it offered VSS (Volume Shadow Service) so that open files are synced in case I am still working on them or left Lightroom open accidentally. You can set up tasks to do almost anything you need and have multiple different tasks and different destinations going at different schedules. For example I sync Music files to my home server as well as Outlook PST files and Quicken files. In addition BestSync offers compression, encryption and a backup vault for files that get deleted on the source folder. These are backed up from the target folder before being deleted there in case the deletion was accidental.
I also use Windows Live Mesh to sync some business documents to the cloud and some smaller stuff I use Dropbox and box.com.
Best Sync was the way I decided to go in October after coming down one morning to find my Drobo reporting as a RAW drive (talk about heart failure). I used Zero Assumption Recovery to get all the data off that drive (it took about 60 hours) reformatted the Drobo and it has been solid since and even correctly reported (and protected data) from 2 failed hard drives in a 2 week span (all from the same batch at Seagate). Although I am not completely sold on the Drobo any more and may look for another Raid 5 solution.
Another free program you can use is Microsoft’s Sync toy. It can be scheduled to run as a scheduled task as well but doesn’t support VSS. But it can mirror or sync from one drive to another.
One additional thing I was going to start doing at the cost of some additional storage space was to save Lightroom adjustments as XMP sidecar files. Doing this would allow them to be reimported into a fresh copy of Lightroom with all of the adjustments made available.
For travel I store images on a laptop hard drive, then to 2 external hard drives and then to a hyperdrive UDMA color drive. I also try to avoid deleting images off of CF cards until I return home and transfer all of my images from my laptop into my backup system via a Lightroom Catalog export from the laptop.
There are some great new appliances coming out in the next little while as well built on Windows Storage Server Essentials that will allow for NAS and client backup. I saw one from Western Digital back in October that looked very promising.
While my backup system may sound confusing it is all accomplished by the Best Sync Software. I have found it very flexible and I can tailor it for all of my own uses.
Stephen Kennedy
Calgary, Ab, Canada

Shoot the Skies!

A little photography tip here to start the year. Sometimes we get some really great shots, the only problem with some of these shots is that the sky in the background can be very dull. A blue sky with no clouds or a dull grey overcast sky can change the look of the photo. If you are not shooting editorial or historical images why not consider replacing that dull sky.

When carrying your camera around look for interesting skies you can shoot. These are the images that you can use to replace the skies in your dull or boring photos.

Here in Calgary we live in big sky country! With very little humidity in the summer, we often get blue skies that stretch across the sky from horizon to horizon with no clouds at all. Really kind of dull. When I see a nice interesting sky with big fluffy clouds I will, often shoot shots of the skies and clouds with all of my camera bodies with different lenses and focal lengths. I also look to shoot dark and stormy skies. I shoot anything that I think I might use later in another image. These are then collected in a folder called skies. If I end up taking a photo with a boring sky I can replace those skies with something more interesting in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. This can greatly improve the look of the final image.

Some people will say that this is cheating, but as I said earlier unless you are shooting editorial or historical photos, why not create the image that you like.

I am really looking for spending a few days in Florida in February and shooting some skies there.

So go out and shoot some skies for your collection!

Tools for People with Multiple Machines – Dropbox

Most people today are now starting to use multiple systems. It is not uncommon for most folks to have a desktop PC and a laptop at the same time. But is there an easy way of ensuring that data that you need is available on all of your machines? You can easily do this with a USB key, but you really don’t have to.

As a user of a couple of MacBook Pro laptops, a windows Asus net book and a primary windows desktop PC, I have found a couple of tools that I use on a regular basis that help keep my information up to date on all machines. Most of these programs work on both Macs and PCs as well. This is the first post regarding a couple of these tools.

The first tool I want to write about is a little service called Dropbox available at www.getdropbox.com.

Dropbox is a free (they also offer a paid Pro accounts) service and software combination that gives you 2 GB of space, on a free account, to store and sync data between machines and to the web. Once you sign up for an account at the site, you then install the client software on your PC or Mac. There is even an application for the iPhone or iPod Touch. The software creates a folder in your My Documents folder called My Dropbox. Any files that are saved or moved into these folders are then synchronized to your Dropbox account on the web.

Once you install the software on multiple machines, when each computer connects to the Internet, the files in the My Dropbox folder get synchronized to and from the website.

Right now this is one of the most important pieces of software that I am using. I store documents that I may need in my dropbox folders (I have created a hierarchy of folders under that one folder) and I have access to these files from every one of my laptops and or desktop. In addition by going to the Dropbox site I can also access my files from any Internet connected machine.  You can also store photos, software programs virtually any type of files in your Dropbox account.

Another feature of Dropbox is that you can share files with family, friends and business associates. All you have to do is set up sharing via the web site (for a particular folder) and send the URL to whoever you want to share the file with. If they update the file or add files these can also be synced with your machines.

If you need more space a Dropbox Pro account costs 9.99 USD per month and you get 50GB of storage. If that is not enough, you can sign up for 100GB plan for 19.99 USD.

Right now running my own business in addition to being a soccer coach and member of our club’s board of directors, Dropbox allows me to move around and always have the information that I need wherever I go. For my uses the 2GB is just fine right now.

If you want to sign up for a free account please use the following link to do so. By using my link you will get an additional 250 MB of monthly storage as well as giving me an additional 250 MB of storage. https://www.dropbox.com/referrals/NTEyMTkwNTk.

Watch for more posts in the coming weeks for more of the tools that I use to ensure that all of my data is synced up between multiple machines.

Upgrading your Shaw HD PVR

I was searching the web recently trying to figure out how to move recorded content from my Shaw HD PVR to my DVD recorder via firewire. While searching I saw that many Shaw users were indicating that their Motorola HD PVRs had received the firmware that enabled the eSata port on the back of their boxes. More searching indicated that the while the firmware could activate the port it was not yet active. Forum posts indicated that Shaw had told several people that the ports would be activated soon.

Last week while checking out the Shaw site, I saw that the Shaw was now selling a PVR expander for 200.00 CAD. This PVR expander is a Western Digital external 1TB eSata drive. I called Shaw to find out if you needed the Shaw PVR expander or could you use any external eSata drive.

Update November 13, 2009 – I just found out that Shaw has dropped the price of their PVR Expander to 150.00 CAD. TIt looks like they now have the Western Digital drive and a Seagate Drive Available.
I was told that you could use any drive, and that the eSata ports on the Motorola boxes were globally enabled at the end of October.

I ran down to Memory Express (http://www.memoryexpress.com) where I picked up a Velocity external USB/eSata enclosure and a Seagate 1 Terabyte drive for 119.00.
Once I got home it took me about 15 minutes to install the drive in the enclosure and then another 5 minutes to plug it into my Shaw box’s eSata port and get it powered up. When I fired up the Shaw box it indicated that I was not authorized to have an external drive. I 10 minute call to Shaw Technical support and the enabled the port on my box and rebooted it.

When the box came back on it indicated that the drive was not formatted for the PVR and did I want to format it? I indicated yes and within a couple of minutes I flipped to the PVR menu. Sure enough all of our old recordings were there however there was a nice number 0% of space used. we have since recorded several shows and space is no longer an issue.

So I upgraded the box in less than half an hour with a new external drive and now we don’t have to worry about space. I haven’t tried this yet but I should be able to plug in yet a different eSata drive if I ever need more space. I should be able to swap between a couple of drives over time.

Shaw indicated that they wouldn’t support a drive other than the one they are selling however it is a very easy procedure. One problem with the Velocity enclosure is that it is a little noisy compared to the Western Digital firewire enclosure I have but it is not too bad. If you are looking at a little quieter solution Costco in Calgary is selling a 1 TB external drive with USB, Firewire and eSata for 159.99. So it is still 40.00 cheaper than the Shaw drive. See below for updates. There is not really much to performing this upgrade. If your port is not activated it is a simple call to Shaw support asking them to activate it which requires a box reboot and you lose your programming guide and menus for a short period of time, but it truly is a plug and play install.

I have read that the largest drive supported is 1 TB but I haven’t confirmed that as of yet but better to stay with the 1 TB size. It will give you significantly more recording space than the default 160 GB drive that comes with the box.

Important Update November 19th, 2009

I have been reading the forums and have discovered a few things about upgrading your Shaw PVR with an external hard drive enclosure.
1) There is a problem with external enclosures that feature a sleep or low power setting (most of the desktop style drives from Western Digital and Seagate). These drives will go to sleep and not work with the PVR. The lower costs enclosures don’t do this nor do the dedicated PVR Expanders. I would suggest staying away from the Costco WD drive mentioned above.

2) There is a known problem where your Motorola Box will not be able to track space on the external drive and will always register at 0% full. Some people have had Shaw fix this by resetting their boxes several times however another reset (even a firmware upgrade or a power failure will reset this down to 0 again). When the box starts tracking again it will ignore what content is on the drive and start counting at 0 again not indicating how much space there is. To check you use the diagnostics. Power off your box and power it on hitting select immediately, go to PVR diagnostics and use option 13. The first two numbers on each drive will tell you space available on the drive in GB. Motorola will have to release new firmware to connect this and it looks like it might be spring of 2010 before seeing it. This happens with all drives attached.

3) If your PVR box is connected to your TV via an HDMI cable, some people have reported that they do not see the format option. Connect your PVR via component or composite cabling to the TV  to set up the drive

4) Once a drive is connected to the PVR it cannot be swapped. Contents are encrypted and tied to the box they are connected to. Swapping drives will not work as you will not be able to get your old content back after changing external drives.

5) The enclosures that Shaw sells contain special drives designed to record video. These are non error correcting drives (unlike desktop drives). I have had no issues with my EC drive but some people have reported video and audio dropouts in recorded shows and this can be caused by built in error correcting on the drives. With the lower price being offered by Shaw on their expanders (in addition to a 3 year swap warranty) I would suggest that these drives are the best way to go. I may soon be switching my drive to one of the Shaw Expanders.

Download the Pictures from your Camera!

I recently saw a tweet on Twitter that reminded me of a very important thing. Just because you have a large memory card in your camera, make sure you get into the habit of taking your pictures off your digital camera every time you use it!

I’ll get back to the tweet later as it reminded me of a situation I found myself in a few years ago.

One thing I tell people when they are buying a new camera is don’t just buy the largest digital memory card you can find (or your camera supports)! My feelings are that you would be better off with 2 smaller cards than one large one! There are a couple schools of thought on this out there with some people saying that you risk dropping a card when you are trying to change them, while others say don’t put all of your eggs in one basket (or your pictures on one card). If you do use multiple cards make sure you flip the used card over in its case or the wallet. This way you won’t accidentally erase the cards.

I myself use 4, 4 GB  SanDisk Extreme III cards for my Canon 40D body and 2 Lexar Professional 8 GB cards for my Canon 5DMKII. There is usually one card in each camera and the rest are in their plastic cases in a Memory Card Wallet. I also keep my older 1 GB and 2 GB cards for additional storage.

Regardless of what size card you use, make sure you are taking the photos off on a regular basis. If I am using my cameras over a weekend, either Sunday night or Monday all of the cards are ejected, backed up and removed from the card.

One thing to note is that while if you are buying decent brand name cards, while it doesn’t happen often, these cards can go bad too. When and if they do you might not be able to access some of the data so if your pictures for the last two years are on there they will be gone too. What about if you accidentally format the card by pushing a wrong button on your camera?

How many times have you run into this scenario (I see it all of the time); you are out at an event taking pictures and suddenly there is no more room in your card. Now you have to make a decision of what pictures of Aunt Sally or other relatives that you can delete without feeling the wrath of your spouse in order to make room to take pictures at the event you are at. Sure you can go to the local convenience store and buy another card (although you will pay a little more) or it may not be that convenient! In the meantime how many shots are you missing because you are editing your pictures on the LCD screen on your camera!

Another tip is to edit your pictures as you go and if you have some bad shots, delete them right away.

Like I said I was encouraged to write this post after seeing a tweet from someone I am following on Twitter. Apparently after a day of a family event at the Dinosaur Museum the digital camera was lost (or stolen) and not only were the pictures from that day gone but a friends Mexican Family vacation photos were also gone. You never think it could happen to you but this is the story that it reminded me of!

My wife and I were on our first cruise in September 2006 for our 15th anniversary. When we got on board the ship and got our cabin, I pulled my camera out before leaving port and as we were exploring I started taking pictures. Then I noticed that my batteries were running low. Because I was using a battery grip with I went to charge one of the batteries right away. It was at that point that I noticed that although I had pulled out my battery charger, I guess I didn’t pack it! So I decided that I would use my wife’s point and shoot until we hit our first port (Key West, FL) and I could buy a battery charger. I also thought I would be able to borrow a charger from someone on the ship but most of the passengers were Nikon shooters and the Canon camera owners I found had different models and batteries.

So I used my wife’s Canon A540 point and shoot camera for the first two days of the cruise and got pictures of people we met on board, dolphins that were beside the ship as we were pulling out of port and a few Water Spouts we saw in the Gulf of Mexico!

When we got to Key West, I found a Radio Shack and got a universal battery charger and went on my way. I downloaded the pictures from my DSLR to my laptop every night  while we were on the cruise. I didn’t think of doing it with the Mrs’ point and shoot camera during the week because there was plenty of space on the card.,

One the Friday night of the cruise my wife went back to our cabin because of a migraine and I took her camera with me to meet some friends. I attended the on board show and grabbed a coffee then went back to check on my wife. At that point I realized that the camera was no longer in my pocket! I immediate went back to the lost and found at the purser’s desk and the theatre were I was sitting. No one had turned in the camera and it was not in the theatre. I checked continuously at the lost and found for the next two days and the camera was never turned in!

We weren’t upset by the loss of the camera but I was more upset that I lost a number of really good pictures that were on there. Those can’t be replaced but the camera can!

Ok you may say that you are careful with your camera and you won’t lose it, but what if you fall into water (or drop the camera). What if your bag get’s stolen? If all of your pictures are on the card inside the camera those could all be gone.

So what can you do. First of all get into the habit of downloading and saving your pictures to your card after most uses of it. That way when you go away your card is empty. Alternatively buy a couple of smaller cards and switch them daily or every two days. If you own a laptop you could always take your laptop with you on your vacation and download the cards there (don’t forget a card reader or USB cable).

Some people may want to take a laptop with them on vacation and there still are a few solutions out there. You can get a Netbook Laptop. These are typically sub 400.00 10” or smaller laptops running Windows XP or Linux (and soon Windows 7). Be careful to ensure that there is ample storage space on these machines as some of them come with 8 or 16 GB Solid State drives and may not be large enough to hold a couple of your cards. I used an Asus 1000H on my cruise last year and it comes with a 160GB drive so I was able to store photos on there (I also copied all photos to an external Seagate 160GB USB hard drive, but that is my paranoia). In addition you can use these little machines to do email, web surf, Skype and virtually everything you can do on a full sized machine.

Understandably some people would not want to take a laptop with them on holidays (I need one for my own business purposes) so what can they do?

Well there are several things.. Some MP3 Players will allow you to download from a digital camera to the spare storage space on the device (I had a 60 GB Creative Zen Vision that could) and there are a few other devices that could.

The lowest price device I have is a small 40.00 box that allows you to hook a card reader (or digital camera) up to one side and a USB key to the other and hit the transfer button. This will move all photos from one device to the other. It operates on 4 AAA batteries and while it is a little slow does it jobs.

There are also several other devices that Pro and Amateur Photographers use for infield backup. Epson makes a couple of devices that while are expensive (480.00 CAN +) have LCD screens and built in slots for downloading and viewing images. There is a product called the SmartDisk Photobank that is the same idea but does not have an LCD screen for viewing images on. This device is limited to 40GB of space and sells for about 160.00 CAN. There is also the Digital Foci that is almost the same except with a larger internal drive (250GB) as well as a larger price 230.00 CAN. B and H Photo sells some devices starting at around 100.00 USD.

I recently picked up a new Hyperdrive  Colorspace UDMA  enclosure from a company called Sensuz Media in Toronto. This company had one unit left in stock and I also found that they were the lowest priced in Canada. I purchased the empty enclosure as I had 3 160 GB Notebook hard drives kicking around the house here and this is one of the few products that allow for Hard Drive upgrades (in fact you can get it with up to a 500GB Hard Drive). The price was 289.00  + Shipping and Taxes, and I had it in a week. I took an old 160 GB Sata Drive off the shelf, opened the enclosure, slid the drive in, closed the enclosure and turned the device on. It formatted the drive and was ready to go!

I haven’t had much of a chance to test the device as my wife took it with her for her annual trip to Winnipeg, but in my first test I downloaded a 4GB Sandisk card (about 3.5 GB used) in 2.5 minutes. In addition the device has a colour LCD screen that photos can be viewed  on. There are slots for SD (6 in 1) and CF cards on the device, a replaceable rechargeable battery (claimed to be good for 250GB of data transfer), an AC adaptor, USB cable and soft case in the box. I had it working in 5 minutes after opening the box (drive installation included). All you do is pop a card in, hit backup and wait for it to be done. The data is even checked after copying!

When I get the device back next week I hope to do some further testing on it with different cards etc, but I can see this as a device that almost everyone in my family will be asking to borrow when they go away! Watch here for a more detailed review soon.

I hope that I have explained just how easy it is to lose your pictures just by not removing them from your digital camera’s memory card. While removing them helps you should also be sure to make sure you have a backup plan in place for these photos while they are on your computer at home! I have already written several posts here on backing up your home PC and even how I, a computer guy, recently lost a folder of pictures on a fairly new hard drive because I hadn’t started backing up that folder yet! Just do a search here on the Blog for backups.

Use Your Blackberry GPS as a Golf Aid!

When GPS devices started showing up for golfers, I seriously considered getting one to help improve my game. Then I looked at the cost of most (300.00 +) and decided that I had been a member of my own course long enough and I could do a decent job of figuring out my own yardage.

Then last August I got my new Blackberry Bold that has a built in GPS receiver and started looking at software that I could maybe use on the golf course. I did find and try two excellent packages; IntelliGolf and GreenFinder. Both are programs that you can purchase with IntelliGolf coming in at 59.95 USD for the non GPS version and 69.95 USD for the GPS enabled (Eagle Edition) IntelliGolf also sells versions for other mobile devices. GreenFinder sells a yearly subscription for 35.00 USD and is available for Blackberries and the iPhone. Rogers Wireless in Canada also sells this as a service that you can add to your wireless plan for 3.00 CDN per month.

I downloaded GreenFinder to my Blackberry Bold and used the 5 course trial download last fall. It worked very well on my phone and I found that it was quite accurate for the yardage. You can see the distances to the front, middle and back of the green, see distances to hazards and even mark and get a distance for your shot. Currently there is a database of approximately 10000 courses online. I was quite impressed with the software when I used it and was seriously considering purchasing it.

I also tried IntelliGolf which can do a little more than just give you distances of the course. It can track your scores, keep track of side games, as well as keeping your stats. The price of the software is a onetime fee and you can download from their library of 25000 + golf courses. When I tried it my course wasn’t GPS enabled in the database and I never got around to doing it on the course itself using the software.

Recently I happened upon a free application called BB GPS Golf. I downloaded the software over the air to my Blackberry Bold and tried to find my home course (we actually have 27 holes). They did not exist in the database so I visited the web site to see how to map the courses myself and found that I could do it via their website using satellite images and Google maps. I mapped each of the nine hole course at my club simply by dragging pins on the maps from the tee to the green and using very simple instructions (although I have to say it was probably a little easier on my dual monitor system). In less than 2 hours I had all 3 nine’s mapped out and saved to the database. The next time I went to the club, I downloaded the 3 nines to my Bold selected the first 9 I was playing and off I went.

The first time i used the software I didn’t take advantage of any of the extra features found in the program (like keeping score, marking club distances etc), I didn’t even download my club distances from the site. I concentrated on checking the data for the courses I created using markers on the course. I did find that I was in most cases very accurate with the distances I think the largest discrepancy was 3 yards. I also found, just like with other GPS devices, that you had to stop and wait for the device to settle before taking a reading.

The software interface is pretty simplistic. It gives you text data to the front, middle and back of the green as well as the calculated depth. If you have input your club data on the website and download them to your Blackberry, the software will also suggest a club. When I mapped our courses I took advantage of the 5 extra fields for every hole and marked the start and end of fairway hazards as well. If you want to see a detailed image of the hole, the program has the option to view the hole on Google maps.

This weekend I played a round and actually marked some of my shots and used the score keeping feature. I had to figure out how to mark each shot but after the first mistake I made I figured it out.

To mark a shot, you press a menu button, indicate to mark location at which point the software will ask for what club you are using, hit your ball and move towards it. Once you get to your ball, wait for the unit to settle a bit, press the menu button and press end mark. The software will ask you if you hit a good, ok or bad shot. Once you answer the software will upload the data to the website under your account (or new with version 1.17 released May 18, 2009) allow you to store the information to a memory card or device memory for later uploading. This could be a worthwhile feature if you are travelling and don’t want to pay roaming charges on your data.

I checked the results of my shot marking today from my last round this weekend on the website and I was quite impressed (not with my shot making but with the software)! I was able to see the data of my good, ok and bad shots, as well I had the ability to see the shots on a map. I did notice that a few of the shots were a little off but I believe I can attribute that too two things; marking the end point of the shot before the GPS had settled and/or inaccuracy of a consumer grade GPS unit (usually +or – 3 Meters). For the most part however the information was pretty good. Another factor that was difficult to account for was wind. Out here in the west we often get high winds and the day I played it was a 1 to 2 club wind (I know because I hit my Sand Wedge 130 yards, normally it is 105 yards). I think I solved this by marking almost all my shots as OK (except for the really bad ones). Shots marked as Good and OK show up in your club stats, shots marked as bad do not.

While out of the three BB Golf GPS software packages I have tried BB GPS Golf has the fewest courses in it’s online databases, one of it’s big strengths is that is very easy to create a course yourself at the website. Currently there are just over 4200 courses in the database online and just over 2400 of them are fully mapped. As users add courses though they immediately become available to all users. Usually before I travel (and if I am planning on golfing) , I often make my decisions on where I will be playing before I leave. I will search the database before leaving and if the courses I am planning on playing don’t exist I will quickly map them. I have noticed that three of the courses that I usually play when visiting Maui are not listed so I will probably try to map those this summer in case we head out there this winter again.

While there is no formal documentation for the program, the website has some tips and tricks and there is a fairly active community with 3100 + members and a forum. The author of the software has been very good about finding bugs and adding features that are being requested. He does give away the software for free, but does ask for a small donation. I agree that if you try the software and like it, you should donate a little bit of money to the author so that he continues to develop it.

In fact I was playing a few weeks ago with someone at our club. On the second hole he asked what software I was using and within a few minutes he had downloaded and installed the software as well as downloading the courses I created and was using it himself on his Blackberry Storm!

Overall I have really enjoyed using the software and will continue to use over the foreseeable future! I like all of the features in the software the way they are now and it has been very stable running on my Blackberry Bold. True there aren’t as many courses listed but that will change as people discover the software and start mapping their own courses. You really can’t go wrong if you want to use GPS with your Blackberry  on the golf course. Even if you don’t have a GPS enabled Blackberry there are small Bluetooth GPS receivers that you can use with your Blackberry and still enjoy using this software!

You can get more information, create a free account and download the software from http://www.bbsgpsgolf.com.

Backup Primer for Home Users – Part 2 – Software

Like I said at the end of Part 1 of this post here http://sysguy.com/wordpress/?p=253, my original intention was to put everything in a single post. Then I got on about the hardware and the post would have run too long if I added the software portion on to it.

So as promised here is Part 2 of my Backup Primer – The Software!

So you have picked up a hardware device and want to backup to it. There are a couple of programs you can get that will allow you to do different types of backups. Many of these are free and can be downloaded. To make things simple I will discuss the software that should work with the hardware that you are using. I am not including the backup software here that may have come included with your external drive as these vary across manufacturers and products. These programs will probably work very well and you should take them for a test run as well.

Vista Users have a freebie!

While not officially supported in Windows Vista Basic or Vista Home Premium, there is a feature called Volume Shadow Services that are turned on and enabled by default in all versions of Windows Vista.

Shadow copy is basically a service that runs in the background on your PC and a couple of times a day takes a snapshot of your data files. In theory of you delete or change a file you can revert back to a previous version of the file later.

However the menu to see previous versions is only available in Windows Vista Business or higher. There is a way that Vista Home Premium Users can take advantage of  using a freeware program called Shadow Explorer. Here is a link to a blog post that describes the functionality in more detail as well as a link to the software download.

Be warned however that Shadow Copy is not a replacement for a good backup of your files and will not protect you against a system or OS failure only against user error.

Vista also comes with a built in backup program although only Business and higher get the full PC Image backup portion. On a Vista based PC do a search in the search bar for backup.

Windows XP home does not come with NTbackup installed by default however if you have your Windows installation disk you can install it from the CD. It is located in the valueadd\msft\ntbackup folder. Click on the ntbackup.msi file to install it. Windows XP Pro users should have ntbackup by default and is usually found under the system tools program group.

Backing up CD or DVD

This is one of the basic methods of backing up and is best suited for specifically backing up your data only. If you are using Windows XP or better you have all the software that you need built in to create CDs or DVDs of your data. Simply select the files you want to add to the disk. Right click and select Burn to CD. Once you have all the files you want selected, go to the files waiting to be burned, insert the appropriate disk in your burner then go ahead and burn your files to disk. On a Mac create a Burn folder somewhere (I usually do it on the desktop) then drag and drop the files you want to burn to the disk to that folder. When completed you can delete the files in the Burn Folder.

I suggest always making at least two or more copies of your CD or DVD backups.

In most cases on a PC, you may also have received some sort of OEM CD/DVD Burning software with your system. This software could be Nero, Roxio or some other brand. Personally I find that this software is much better than the built in Windows Disk Burning module. Usually you have better control of the burning process, the selection of files etc. But if you didn’t get software with your PC don’t worry as there is free software you can download that works very well. My suggestion for CD Burning freeware is CDBurnerXP which is available here. It works with virtually all CD and DVD burners that are recognized by the PC.

Most of the free software that comes with systems is a feature reduced version of the manufacturers full software. Nero for example offers their Ultimate Edition upgrade that does more than just burn CDs and DVDs. It can do Video editing and DVD authoring, audio editing and more. These full packages also usually include a system backup utility that will allow you to create recovery or backup disks of your system. These can work very well, however be warned even with a DVD disks, you could end up with 20 – 30 disks and a backup that takes a very long time to burn to disk. Having said that, this is better than doing nothing at all!

Backing up to Other Storage Devices

The software I will include here will work with a variety of different storage devices. Most will work with just about any storage device from a USB Key to external devices and networked attached storage devices.

One of the simplest is the Microsoft Sync Toy Powertoy. This free software utility from Microsoft is a very handy little tool. The application works by syncing a set of folder pairs so that they are identical. You simply download it and install it on your PC. After installation open the application. The first thing you want to do is use the wizard to set up a folder pair.

For example let’s say you want to back up your documents folders. In the wizard make the source folder your my documents (Documents folder in Vista) then create a folder on your external device using the software. Click on next. You will then be prompted for what type of a sync you want to do. A Synchronize (make both folders identical copies), Echo (new and updated are synced left to right deletes and renames happen on the right folder) or contribute (sync left to right, renames are kept but no deletions on left folders). To be safe you may want to use either sync or contribute to backup your files.

This is one of the utilities that I use constantly. I sync things like my accounting software data, my pictures and Lightroom Databases, my documents folders all to either my LAN attached storage devices (DNS-323 or Drobo Share) as well as external Hard drives or a folder locates on my PCs second drive. The first sync could take a little bit of time depending on the amount of data you have to sync. I try to remember to do mine about once a week as there is no way of scheduling from within the software itself. However you can use the built in Windows task scheduler to perform this feat. Here is a link to a blog that explains the instructions on how to accomplish this.

Another application that you can use is Allway sync. It works similar to the MS Sync Toy and has the added benefit that it can run directly from a USB key and automatically sync folders as soon as the drive is connected. Allway Sync is free for non commercial users with some limitations (and I had a client hit the limitation). If you exceed syncing 40,000 files in a 30 day period you are considered a Pro user and have to purchase the software for further use.

Unfortunately Mac users cannot use the MS sync toy however there are options for Mac users as well. You can use Carbon Copy Cloner that can do file backups or whole image backups, however you will need some form of attached storage device (USB or Firewire) to accomplish this. If you are using OSX Leopard and have an external drive you can use Time Machine program that is included with the OS. Time Machine is very similar to the previous versions and Shadow Copy functions of Windows Vista. On my Mac have also found some automator actions that  allow me to sync folders between external devices, folders and network storage devices. I am sure there are more programs that you can search for and find for both Macs and or PCs.

There are plenty of other back up programs that you can find that are free or very low cost. Looking at the freeware backup page of Snapfiles.com shows a fair number of applications (backup or sync programs) that can do a variety of different backup types, from creating zip files as well as other file syncing programs.

Something to note here is that most of these files won’t do backups of your email messages unless you specify them to. Backing up email is a little more difficult as you have to know where your data (messages are kept) and you usually have to be out of your email program when doing the backups. I will soon write another post about how to do email backups for the home user. For now if you want to get started right away do a Google search for instructions on how to do email backups.

All of the above software however only backs up your selected files (with the exception of Carbon Copy Cloner for Mac). Another type of backup you may want to do is an image based backup.

Image Based Backups

You may want to consider doing an image based backup of your system. What an image based backup does it basically take a snapshot of your system at a certain point in time and allow you to restore your whole system in the case of problems. There are both advantages and disadvantages about using image based backup software. These are typically the types of backups I do to external drives of client machines before I do any important work to them.

The advantage of using an image based backup is that you end up backing up all of the files on your system including some files that may be stored in folders that are different from where you normally store your files. In addition if you do run into a major problem with your system, you can restore it to your hardware without having to reinstall the OS, all of your programs and then restoring data. Another advantage of using an image based backup is that your email is also backed up at the same time (you are backing up the whole drive after all).

Some of the disadvantages are they they are typically slower and take up more storage space than a file backups. You may not be able to use your system while the backup is happening and you may have to boot via a CD or DVD to start the backup. Another problem is that you may backup problems and viruses that you may have on your system and then end up restoring it back to your system or you may run into problems if you change certain components of your hardware.

There are several commercial packages that are available including Norton Ghost or Acronis True Image or Image for Windows. All of these packages do a good job of imaging your system and several SMB Consultants use True Image Pro and server versions for imaging backups of their clients servers.  Image for Windows and True Image also include tools that allow you to restore to different or upgraded hardware as well. These programs start at about $39.00 USD (Image for Windows) and go up to $69.99 USD (Norton Ghost). Look for a feature in the program as well that can recover individual files and folders from your backups as this can come in very handy at times.

A free alternative that I have been using for sometime however (for client PCs and for my own hard drive upgrades) is DriveImage XML available from www.runtime.org. However they have recently changed their licensing agreement to make the program free for non commercial use only (commercial use requires a license purchase). I use Drive Image XML on my favourite recovery CD (Ultimate Boot CD for Windows) that I use religiously on client PCs. With Drive Image I can backup a system, restore just the files that I want or the whole system or use it for drive to drive imaging (I recently used it for my EEEPC 1000H hard drive upgrade).

How all of these software programs work is that they start and you indicate that you want to image your drive and where you want to image it too. For backing up your system you will usually save the backup to image files on another media source. Some of the above packages allow you to make just incremental changes (only changed files) which allows for faster backups.

For Mac users you can use Carbon Copy Cloner listed above to do the same thing and I have heard very good things about SuperDuper. Carbon Copy Cloner is donation ware and Super Duper sells for $27.95 USD.

I recommend that you do a combination of both types of backup if you have the external storage space available. Typically I only back up my own data, but for me rebuilding and reinstalling an OS on my PC is usually a better option (and fun) for me.

Offsite Online Backup

With more and more people moving to high speed broadband internet connections, offsite backup software and services are becoming more and more popular. These services typically backup your data to various datacenters around the world and store your valuable documents off site or in the cloud.

Three of the most popular of these services are www.carbonite.com, www.mozy.com and www.jungledisk.com. Carbonite and Mozy work in similar ways, you pay a fee, $54.95 USD for Carbonite or $4.95 per month or 54.95 per year for Mozy. You install the software on your PC or Mac, Select what you want to back up and the software runs copying files up to their datacenters. If a file changes, it get’s queued for backup. If your PC ever crashes you can download the files after reinstalling the software and get your files back. The prices however are per PC so if there is more than one computer in your home you have to buy additional accounts for each PC. These software programs can also be used to transfer data from an old PC to a new one.

The software that comes with Mozy and Carbonite can be set up to back up your email messages as well. Both also allow web access to your backed up files.

Jungle Disk works a little differently. You purchase the software for 20.00 USD however you can use the software on as many PCs or Macs (including a Windows Home Server Plugin) as you want. The software is basically an interface to the Amazon S3 service. Once the software is set up, you can set you an Amazon S3 account from within the software and start backing up. The S3 service (which is widely used by a large number of large websites) charges on a volume and bandwidth model. With S3 you pay $.15 per month per Gigabyte for the storage, $.10 per gigabyte uploaded and $.17 per Gigabyte downloaded. In addition you can purchase for $2.00 per month the ability to access and change your files via the web. As this model supports multiple computers (they all back up to the same S3 account) it can be cheaper than using one of the other services, but of course this depends on how much you are backing up. In addition the Jungle Disk software adds a network share to your PC do you can drag and drop files to your share any time. With Jungle Disk however you have to know where your email messages are stored in order to get them backed up.

Personally I have been using Jungle Disk for almost a year. With close to 24 GB of stuff backed up I pay on average about 7.00 per month to Amazon and my Desktop Fee to Jungle Disk. This is currently set up on 4 laptops though. I am looking forward to adding the WHS plugin soon.

All of the companies above encrypt your data so it is safe and both Mozy and Jungle Disk have business offerings. Mozy also offers a 2GB free account to home users and Carbonite offers a 15 day free trial. I did try Mozy before I went to Jungle Disk but I had issues with the software slowing down my system and I had to remove it. I can’t say that I have tried it since but have heard good things about it in the past.

Don’t rely as these services however as a sole backup solution. For one it is still slow (even with broadband) to do some backups. My largest upload to Amazon via Jungle Disk (of about 20 GB) took just over a week to do and it is slower than a USB backup to restore from. These services are ideally to protect you against catastrophic events, such as fire, theft of a laptop or complete hardware failure.

A very specialized way of backing up your photos offsite can be something as simple as a photo sharing site. For almost a year now I have been using Smugmug.com as my primary photo sharing site. My best digital photos as well as those I want to share with family and friends have been posted there. While these are not the Raw images that I keep and that have come out of my camera, they are the highest quality jpegs I can post. Should any thing happen to my storage or backups I know that I can at least recover some of my pictures from there.  In addition Smugmug is a great way of sharing your photos. If you are looking at an account please use my coupon code ( XUgaKIvXVMo0Y ) in the referred by field when signing up to save $5.00 off of your first year.

Windows Home Server

While I mentioned the WHS in the backup hardware post, I do want to mention it again here. Windows Home Server can do automated backups of all your Windows Machines to the server daily (Image backups). Once your WHS is installed, run the software CD on each PC you want connected and they will be backed up to the Home Server. If a machine crashes, boot it from the WHS CDE and you can restore from the last backup on the WHS box. If you have one of the newer HP WHS units you can also backup Mac machines, this functionality will also be added to the older HP MediaSmart servers like the EX475 soon (according to HP). Alternatively you can use Time Machine with your home server and another software application called iTime Machine installed on your Mac. Full instructions are available here.

Conclusion

While this is list is by no means everything that you can do for backing up it should at least serve as a starting point. Do you have to do all of the types of backup mentioned above? I would say no (although I do). You should though consider at the very least backing up important documents and pictures that you deem important and that you would be heartbroken to lose. Then at the very least create two copies of your backups (on a hard drive and maybe DVDs) and keep one somewhere offsite and secure.

Almost every time I work on a client PC, I ask the client whether or not they have created a backup recently and almost every time I get the same answer, no. Don’t be that person that loses all of their precious family memories and their important documents thinking it could never happen to you!  It does, hard drives fail, OS’ get corrupted and PCs and Laptops get stolen. This happens to both PCs and Macs.  Spend a little time (and if necessary money)and do a proper backup at least once every couple of weeks!

If you need assistance with setting up some sort of a backup system. Please feel free to contact us!

Great Deal for Mac Users, Macheist 3! Limited time!

Something a little different today. This is for any Mac users that read my blog. The guys and gals over at Macheist are at it again. I was introduced to the Macheist Bundle last year with version 2.0. They offer a bundle of Mac software applications for a limited time at a very low price with 25% of the proceeds going to charity. These are all full applications (usually the most current version) with full support and the ability to upgrade to new versions. This years bundle includes 12 applications some of which I am really exceited to try! This years bundle is selling for $39.95 USD.

A few of the packages applications that come in this years bundle look very interesting. In particular I am anxious to try Picturesque (a simple and fast photo editor), Kinemac (a 3D animation program), Acorn (another Mac Photo editor) , and Wiretap studio (an audio editing program). Wiretap Studio has already been unlocked for all users as the Macheist gang has already raised over $100,000.00 for charity (and at the time of this post have raised $236,625.00 for charity)!

When the bundle raises $400,00.00 another application will become unlocked called Boinx TV wich is a video broadcasting piece of sofware that I am also interested in trying out!

The bundle is only availalble for a limited time though so you have to act quickly! There are only 11 days left to purchase the bundle (by my calcualtion the bundle ends April 6th, 2009).

If you are interested in purchasing this bundle of goodies please use the following link:
http://www.macheist.com/bundle/u/197198/

If you want to make sure that you get the deal make sure that you purchase ASAP. In addition you will be signed up to recieve emails about the next Macheist. What I learned this year is that there is a pre bundle game where you have to figure out clues and you can get additional software and discounts n the bundle. This year I was able to get about $515.00 worth of software in the pre bundle games as well as $8.00 in discounts off of the bundle.

If you are a Mac user, be sure not to miss this!