Backup or Sync? What’s the difference?

I’ve been teaching computers since 1983 – yes, I’m old, err, I mean, experienced. For most of my teaching career, the number one thing to teach people was to Backup! Backup! Backup! There’s nothing worse than working on a project for hours, days, or weeks, then one day finding out your computer crashed along with all the files on it, and you had to start over from scratch.

Backup is a static copy

If you learned to backup, you would have a daily or weekly process to make a copy of all important files on your computer and send that copy to an external device like a USB hard drive, or a DVD. Let’s say you made that backup on Monday evening, then you worked on your project all day Tuesday until the computer crashed in the afternoon. You wouldn’t have to start from scratch, but you would still lose all the work you did on Tuesday.

Syncing is happening all the time

Backup used to be the only way to protect yourself from catastrophe, but now we have cloud storage services like Google, Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox etc. If you were working on your project and storing it in your Dropbox folder, every time you updated/saved your project, the update would be synced, aka saved, to the cloud. If your computer crashes now, you have your up-to-date copy in your Dropbox account. Just fix the computer or get a new one, install the Dropbox app and sign in to your account. Voila! You have your project back right where you left off.

Syncing is now the norm when you use your phone

As smartphones got more and more powerful, they needed more and more storage space. Much of what you see on your phone is actually stored in the cloud. As long as your phone is connected to the Internet, either with Wi-Fi or cellular data, then your apps take care of letting you see what you need to see. Anything new that you create using your phone gets automatically synced to the appropriate cloud account. If you lose your phone, no problem. Get another phone, install the appropriate apps and sign in with your account. Voila! You will see all your content.

Deletions sync as well

You need to be aware that syncing is 2 way, and it syncs deletions as well as creations and updates. Let’s use Google Contacts as an example. Your contacts are stored in the cloud, in your Google account. Using the Google contacts app on your phone, you will see the contacts and the app will also show them to you even if you are disconnected, but they’re actually stored in the cloud. You can see them in the cloud by using a browser and going to If you delete Karen’s contact while using your computer and, that will be synchronized to your phone and you will no longer see Karen’s contact.

So far, so good, this is wonderful that you can use the big screen of the computer to clean up your contacts. But, what if next month you change your mind? You need Karen’s contact information? There may be a way to recover deleted content, but don’t count on it. If you emptied your trash, or 60 days have passed, that data is GONE.

You may still want a backup

If you want protection against losing important contacts, the way to do it is with the Export command. Now you have a spreadsheet file of all your contacts which you can store on your computer’s hard drive, or an external drive.

Cloud storage services like Google, OneDrive, Dropbox, and others are super dependable. But, as we all know, stuff happens. Usually it is the user not properly setting up the sync, or mistakenly deleting content, or changing their mind after deleting. Whether or not you need a backup is a risk/benefit analysis. It’s extra work, and often extra money to have a backup of cloud data. If your data is very important to you then it’s worth it. For example, photos. After the recent hurricane in Florida, I watched interviews of survivors lamenting that they lost everything. What was the first thing they mentioned? Pictures.

Learn to identify the important data in your life. Understand where it is stored. Think about what you would do if that storage location failed.

Google Photos is not a backup

I love Google Photos, but this is one of my pet peeves. The language they use about “Backup” gives a false impression. Users think, since they have installed Google Photos, they can now delete at will and they’re safe because their photos have been “Backed up.” They think that, no matter how messed up their photos get, they can “restore” from their Google Photos backup. Not true.

If you read the documentation, Google Photos says to use the app on your phone and turn on Backup and Sync. Now, whenever you take a picture with that phone, it will be copied to the cloud – uploaded. So far, so good, you have the phone copy and you have the cloud copy. If you lose the phone, you don’t lose the photos. But then there’s the ‘sync’ part. If you delete photos from either side, it will delete from the other (unless you use the special ‘delete from device only’ procedure.) If those photos were trash, that’s what you want. But what if you change your mind? If you’ve emptied your trash, or it’s been more than 60 days, your photos are gone.

A backup should be an extra copy that you don’t use. It just sits there in case you need it. I want this to happen automatically, so I set up a second cloud storage service like OneDrive. Just install the OneDrive app on your phone and turn on the setting called Camera upload. This means that every photo you take with that device, gets uploaded to Microsoft OneDrive in addition to Google Photos. If I delete photos from Google, they’re still there in OneDrive. I’ve never had to use my OneDrive copy, but I sure sleep better knowing it’s there.

The rules have changed

If you learned technology when the #1 lesson was Backup, Backup, Backup, it’s time to take another look at your processes. Things have changed. Sync is the new backup, but the devil’s in the details. Be sure you will have what you need if disaster strikes.