Managing Computer File Clutter Pt. 2: External Storage

Computer ClutterA few weeks ago, I wrote about uncluttering your computer’s file system, and several of you left some great comments about how you have incorporated external storage into your setup.

External storage isn’t just for techies with massive drives full of music, movies, and software. It’s essential for backing up files, or for simply getting older files that you need to keep out of the way. For those of you who haven’t used external storage before today, I’ll offer a brief overview to get you started.

First, the cold hard truth. Computer hard drives fail. It’s not a matter of “if,” but “when.” Since they are guaranteed to fail, neglecting to back up your data is one of the quickest routes to an uncluttered computer — but the reality is that it makes about as much sense as uncluttering your home by burning it to the ground. If you’re maintaining an uncluttered file system, you’ve kept files for a reason. Just as we suggest honoring mementos, you should honor the digital files that you don’t delete by keeping them safe.

External storage is also a great way to keep older files from cluttering your search results. I like to archive projects that are over a year old and keep them off of my primary hard drive. This reduces the number of results that come up when I search for files, and also keeps my internal hard drive from becoming full. I also keep all photography and other media files on external storage.

Firewire/USB Drives

These are the simplest of the external storage options. A Firewire/USB drive consists of a normal computer hard drive enclosed in a case that includes Firewire and/or USB connectors. You just plug it in to your computer, and drag-and-drop files to it just like any other folder. Drives like Western Digital’s My Book include one-touch backup to make safeguarding files simple, and smaller USB-powered drives like the Passport let you take lots of files with you without the clutter of extra power cables.

There’s a trade-off for such simplicity, however. External drives, like internal drives, are subject to failure. You should still back up files that you store on an external drive, unless you use the external drive itself only for backup.

Network Attached Storage Devices

Where Firewire/USB drives connect directly to your computer, a network attached storage (NAS) device connects to your home network via a router. Though integrating a NAS into your storage setup adds the complexity of home networking, the additional flexibility can be worth the effort. NAS devices vary from single drives, to multiple drives that offer the benefit of data redundancy; if one drive fails, you can replace it without losing any data.

For my personal storage needs, I invested in a ReadyNAS NV+ loaded with four 750 GB Seagate drives configured in a RAID array. If that seems complicated, it’s much simpler than the half dozen USB drives I’d filled with files, photos and my CDs. If it weren’t for the NAS, I’d have power and USB cables everwhere — talk about clutter!

If you’re comfortable handling hard drives, and don’t need so much storage right away, you can buy your NAS without drives, then get your drives from someplace like NewEgg and install them as you need them. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to install at least two drives to take advantage of drive redundancy.

Online Storage

You’ve got to love the internet. The ubiquity of broadband internet, and declining data storage and bandwidth costs have finally made backing up files online a cost effective alternative to network attached storage. Pricing structures vary among online storage services, but generally a relatively small monthly fee gets you access to enterprise class data centers where your files are protected by the same hardware and geographic redundancy that businesses use to protect their valuable data. The services available are too numerous to list here, but some popular options for you to check out include Mozy, XDrive,, and Carbonite.

One of my favorite online storage tools is Jungle Disk. Jungle Disk isn’t an online storage service itself, but a program that lets you store and retrieve files on Amazon’s Simple Storage Service just like an external drive on your computer. Jungle Disk is a free download, and you pay Amazon for only the storage space and bandwidth that you use.

If you’ve got a favorite storage or backup solution, please share it with us in the comments!

We hope that everyone has enjoyed Brian’s three-part series on data organization. Brian is one of Unclutterer’s amazing programmers, and we are so happy that he agreed to write this series during our March month of sharing. Thank you, Brian!

31 Comments for “Managing Computer File Clutter Pt. 2: External Storage”

  1. posted by Sloppy Joe on

    On my Mac, I use SuperDuper! from So easy to use. Well worth the price of the software. Tech support is incredibly responsive. I received a response to an email at 11:30pm on a Sunday night. Can’t beat that!

  2. posted by Avlor on

    I use an external drive with SyncBack software. Then for stuff that’s essential (like my photos) I backup my completed photos to Zenfolio and am trying out Idrive for my raw format image files. (Yes I purge, and only keep the good photos.) But I’ve been looking into starting a “web page” that looks like a gallery and could be used as a photo file backup for me. Will need this eventually as I approach about 100 GB of stuff and image sizes are only getting bigger. I also put important things like my finances files to an encrypted flash drive. Perhaps I over do it – but I know my important stuff is backed up.

  3. posted by Brian on

    Sloppy Joe,

    I wanted this post to be as platform independent as possible, but since you bring it up, I’ll say that I think SuperDuper! is probably the best backup utility available for the Mac. I also think Time Machine combined with Time Capsule has a lot of potential, though I haven’t tried it yet.

  4. posted by Stephen on

    I am a big fan of JungleDisk. Simple, easy to use and gets the job done for cheap. Plus not having to worry about external storage drives is worth the cost.

  5. posted by Tom on

    Yes on the NAS! I’ve used a home file server for years. It’s a great use for an old PC that you can throw extra (new) drives into. OpenNAS is free software that will help.

    I’ve followed the ReadyNAS product for awhile and I think it’s a great idea for people that do not want to worry about being a “computer expert”. I’ve also seen the Buffalo Terastation and other things that do RAID 1 (mirroring).

    By all means have RAID 1 (mirroring) or RAID 5 that protects in the event of drive failure. RAID 1 gives you ~ 50% more reliability over a single drive.

    I’ve lost a number of drives over they years and the RAID has saved my data while I replaced it.

    Make sure you monitor for a failed drive too. Otherwise you’re just going a little longer until you lose all data.

    One other thing – get a UPS on the NAS. Even a tiny one that only lasts 10 minutes. That way you can weather the short power glitches. Software to monitor the UPS and do an auto shutdown is even better. A clean shutdown is always better then a crash!

  6. posted by Dan on

    I just checked out Jungle Disk — looks like a great option. BTW, it does cost $20 for the software.

    Too bad I just spent $120 or so for two years of Mozy, otherwise I’d use Jungle Disk. The main benefit I see from Jungle Disk is that the data is not stored/retrieved via a proprietary format. With Mozy, I can only Restore files to a directory using their software. I can’t check out what I have stored and selectively restore individual files.

    I use Mozy as well as a small WD Passport for backup. Given that the Mozy fees are sunk costs, I might consider using Jungle Disk!

  7. posted by Matt Cornell on

    One product I’ve been watching every once in a while is the drobo… it’s a usb external storage that seems to handle the raiding really easy. The only reason I haven’t jumped on it yet is that last time I looked it had some issues supporting EXT3 which would be my first choice.

    But if you’re a windows user it looks like a sweet option
    Or hook it up to a SLUG or some other usb enabled router for NAS.

  8. posted by Rene on

    Another idea. Flickr (and competitors like Zooomr) are great photo sharing sites. But their pro versions allow unlimited storage for $20 or $25 per year. This makes it an excellent backup option for photos (just only share the good ones!)

  9. posted by Zak on

    Interesting. I’m thinking of trying out JungleDisk, but I already use ElephantDrive. It also uses S3, but you pay them a fixed rate.

    Also, I use ElephantDrive for two computers – does JungleDisk have a limit you to one? Or is there any limitation?

  10. posted by Daniel on

    I’d like to chime in with yet another endorsement of JungleDisk.

    To those who found this article interesting and helpful (I did), I also highly recommend reading The guide to a (mostly) paperless life over at 43Folders. Ryan Norbauer lays out a complete workflow that contextualizes data backup generally, and JungleDisk specifically.

  11. posted by lana on

    Another vote for SuperDuper. I hate setting up RAID HDs and always had bad luck with them on Windows, so when I switched to OSX, I bought a MacPro and use SuperDuper to mirror my primary drive every day. This way, in the event of drive failure, I can be up and running on my secondary drive in a less than a minute.

  12. posted by Dustin on

    I know of lot of techies that read this blog will appreciate a mention to the Linksys NSLU2. It is one of the NAS devices where external hard drives are required. Its unique quality is that you can load custom firmware on it to make it function like almost any type of server you could want (web server, file server, fax server, music streaming server, etc.).

  13. posted by xgravity23 on

    I don’t have a serious amount of backing up to do, but I am careful with my pictures (I like to think of myself as an amateur photographer) and school documents (I’m a university instructor). We use a 300gb Trekstor external hard drive at home, and I back up my flash drive at home (on my laptop and the external) and at school.

    In addition to backing up picture on the external, I have started uploading the most precious–our wedding pictures, whose rights we purchased from our photographer–to, which offers 50gb of FREE storage. There are two downsides, though, but I guess you get what you pay for. 1) The upload interface is not the best and 2) the navigation is also not the best. Since I am just using it to back those memories up.

    So, I would like to recommend ADrive to anyone looking for loads of free storage. I haven’t come across any other service offering so much space for free, and that’s what I like about ADrive.

  14. posted by Amie on

    Another big fan of Flickr for photo storage here, and a plug for a different way to think about file storage: Gmail.

    I’m in law school, and documents (reading notes, class notes, and projects) are absolutely essential to my success. My laptop’s hard drive crashed the first week of my first year, and that was bad enough. But external drives get lost, and learning new software is a bit beyond me right now. So at the end of each week of class, I email myself with the class notes as an attachment. I currently have 6.5GB of storage on gmail, it grows every day, and it’s free. Plus, I can tag every email with class names, and it’s so easy to find files when I’m looking for them.

  15. posted by Todd on

    As far as remote backups go i use jungledisk and gmail. Jungledisk I have installed on a few of my computers–windows, mac, and linux–and it’s worked great so far. The jungledisk program itself is $20 after the 30 day trial although I ended up buying on day 2. Plus the licensing is pretty loose. Basically as long as you own the computers, you can install it on as many as you want. I like the option of encryting the data before sending it to s3 so even if amazon was forced to hand over your data for whatever reason, it would still be encrypted. And this is transparent to you. There are completely free interfaces for s3, but none as simple as jungledisk. I mainly use jungledisk for data that is completely irreplaceable, mainly my photos and purchased music. I have around 7gb of storage on there and my bill is around $1/mo from amazon. Not bad at all…

    I use gmail to do weekly offsite backups of my mysql database files. I compress the files, encrypt it with my pgp key, and just email it off to my gmail address. Now I have an archive of database backups.

    All other important stuff I just have a second computer at home I copy everything too. Only problem for that is if my house catches on fire or someone steals all my computers that are spread throughout the house.

  16. posted by N. & J. on

    I have three external hard drives. I realize this may sound a bit excessive but two of them are what I call palm drives because they are the size of my hand and are 60GB. One we use as an everyday backup for our computer. The other ones is a backup to the backup and kept in a locked box in case of fire, theft, external drive failure. We have scans of all our important documents and of course all our digital photos so we want to keep it all safe. The third drive is 300GB and houses my 150GB+ music collection so that those files don’t slow down anything else.


  17. posted by Jenny on

    For all online backup, file sharing and storage related info, I recommend this website:

  18. posted by Melissa on

    our hard drive “bit the dust” on easter sunday. you are right- it is not an if but a when!

    how happy was i when i knew that my husband had been backing up our data all along using two external hard drives. our digital pictures, tax returns and music were not lost forever!

  19. posted by amy on

    another shoult out for Jungle, lovely stuff…

    Although the port it uses is the same as my (EasyPHP) Apache web server so I I cna’t have both running at once.. must sort that out

  20. posted by Ellie on

    Funny story – we bought a WD MyBook in the last few weeks to attach to our Airport Extreme Base Station to store our music for our iTunes libraries, some shared documents, and our back ups (we have a desktop computer each plus a laptop each). We set up our back ups from our desktops and laptops to the WD MyBook, transferred the music and the shared docs to the MyBook and gleefully erased music and documents from our computers to free up space.

    One week later the WD MyBook went off the air – I don’t think it was a physical failure, it seemed to be related to an Airport firmware update but who knows. Of course, we hadn’t even considered backing up what was on it!

    Luckily some recovery software got back what we’d lost, we reformatted the WD MyBook, have set up back ups for it and we are tentatively waiting to see if the WD MyBook is going to do it again…

    I’m going to check out some of the online back up solutions mentioned here.

  21. posted by Amber on

    I have an external hard drive, but i don’t trust it any more than my computer hard drive. My last external drive blew up for no apparent reason & lost everything. I did buy another one, but now, in addition, i store all my documents online as well.

    GOOGLE DOCS is free and i LOVE it! And it has a search box so that finding them takes seconds. I’ve copied all my documents from Word on my drive into Google Docs now. I don’t even think about my hard drives any more because i now do all document writing & storing on Google Docs online.

  22. posted by Alderete on

    I’m a fan of CrashPlan, which lets you back up to your friends’ computers, in encrypted form, and also to a central service. It’s a bit more expensive than Mozy, but the user interface and functionality of the application are better. Works on Windows and Mac systems, and should actually work for any system that can run Java.

    The best thing about CrashPlan is that it is install, configure, and forget. All backups happen in the background, automatically; in that sense it’s a lot like Time Machine, but your backups are remote, protected off-site.

    If you’ve ever had your house burglarized, or had a house fire, you understand why that’s important…

  23. posted by lachlan on

    i’ve almost completed a 366project of my daughter’s first year, so back up is VERY important to me (can’t replace those photos).

    so i back up to an external HDD, then onto my flash drive (which goes onto my work PC) then i upload the photos to flickr.

    has anyone noticed though how if you upload a 5mb photo to flickr and then download it it’s only 3-4mb? i’m not sure flickr is THAT good for photo backup 🙂

    plus i back up anything else i don’t want to lose to the external HDD.

  24. posted by Leah on

    My favorite Online Storage is GSpace from Google. 2GB FREE online Storage with EACH FREE Mail account you sign up for.

    You can play your music from GSpace too. It is an add-on through Mozilla Firefox which is MUCH better than IE everyone seems to use. The add-ons Firefox has are great!

    An old-time favorite for file organization without the hassle of “MOVING” the files is: Where-Is-It (

    and last but not least for REAL, no-catch, FREE stuff check out “My Place-Where everything is FREE!” It’s NOT mine, it’s someone named “Dave” in Australia.

    He’s got lots of FREE website graphics, JavaScript, Animated Gifs, Flash, Fonts, Jokes, Trivia, Quotes and things like Polls and Counters to put on your website that update every so often…there’s a name for that. (dynamic??)

  25. posted by Jose Rivera on

    I have been using Mozy for a couple of months and it is very reliable. It is not a backup if it doesn’t include an off site component.

  26. posted by tru on

    I like the suggestions. One thing im against is online storage. I had over 500 songs online. Long story short, all the data and music is gone. That is what prompted me 2 buy my maxtor one touch. I am making sure it does not happen again.

  27. posted by Erica on

    What do you think about backing up a mobile phone database? There is an option of periodically going through and manually typing everything up into a word document. Which works well but as it is so time consuming, it’s generally not going to be kept up to date. Then you also lose any special text messages you may be keeping, etc. Any ideas? After losing (then thankfully finding) my mobile this weekend the fear is now in me.

  28. posted by dj on

    Not sure when my Maxtor One Touch is “full”….as there is no indicator with it. Does anyone have experience with Maxtor?

  29. posted by radio controlled aeroplanes on

    I manage several websites my computer which also harbours my personal files and folders and I agree that the only way forward is to be rigours and sometimes callous and destroy unnecessary files/data – it’s hard to set time aside but once a month I find for me it is essential to ‘spring clean’ as it were! I like suggestions about dating folders – I think this approach would suit my way of working and I reckon that is what it is all about! Find a way to work that suits you and fits into you way of working – no complicated systems or duplications – keep it simple and regularly do your filing/organising/housekeeping – because it becomes an absolute nightmare if you leave it 6 months. Excellent advice and thanks to everyone who has commented also – we all can find more efficient ways of working even when we think we have got our systems running efficiently.

  30. posted by Helicopter Toys on

    Thanks for your recommendations for offsite backup and storage of files. I have looked all that have been suggested but can’t work out which one is the best servie!?! I need upto 400gb. I could do with regular access to these files also? Has anyone used Mozy, XDrive, or Carbonite. I would like to go with a company that has been recommended! Any help would be much appreciated!

  31. posted by Tasha on

    I’m currently using DropBox because I don’t need that much space. It’s free for 2G, makes backups of everything, and the biggest advantage is that it will synch between all three computers I use. The files are saved locally as well to Dropbox, so I have four copies of everything (one on each computer and one on Dropbox), so if any or all computers fail, there’s still a copy or copies out there. If I accidentally save over something, it’s easily undone at I can buy more space as I need it, and backing up is as easy as saving to another directory. You can use it for free. The disadvantage I see is that you can’t backup entire programs/computers to it, only your document/graphics files. But all I want to do is backup the documents, so it’s ideal for me as a writer.

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