Review: Apple iCloud Photo Library

On a recent vacation to visit family in Montreal, I decided to turn on Apple iCloud Photo Library so I could give it a proper test. With my system for storing photos, I wasn’t so sure that iCloud Photo Library was for me but I get asked about systems like it all the time so I decided a test was in order. Let’s take a step back. When iPhones first came out, all photos and videos were stored on the phone. When you wanted to do something with them off the phone, you plugged your iPhone into a computer and transferred the photos. As we move to a more phone-centric world and always connected, having the ability to automatically have pictures stored in the cloud is an option. With iCloud Photo Library, as you take pictures and videos, they are uploaded to your personal Apple iCloud online space. You can decide whether or not to do this through cellular or only on WiFi. Let’s walk through how this is set up and some important settings.

Enabling iCloud Photo Library

First, when I mention iPhone here, it also applies to iPads. If you have a cellular enabled iPad, then all the cellular considerations apply to. For WiFi only iPads, it’s only going to upload when it has a WiFi connection. On your phone, go to Settings-> Photos and tap on iCloud Photo Library. If you expect to take many photos and don’t want to have to manage space, choose Optimize iPhone Storage. This will reduce the size of photos on the phone but the full sizes remain online. enable iCloud Photo Library That’s all there is to enable iCloud Photo Library. Now when you take photos and videos, they will get uploaded to your iCloud account. If you have several Apple devices, you’ll be able to view and even share these photos and videos from anywhere. And even from any web browser you can log in to icloud.com to see and manage your pictures from there. As time goes on, you’ll have all your photos easily available. So in summary, these are the pros for enabling iCloud Photo library:
  • backs up automatically to the cloud
  • becomes available on all devices including any web browser
  • easy to share pictures with others

The Other Side of iCloud Photo Library

When the great features of systems like iCloud Photo Library are talked about, it’s always about the convenience and protection of your photos and videos. The questions I always ask about any system that stores my precious memories include:
  • How easy is it to get my photos and videos out in the future in case I want to change to a different cloud provider?
  • What happens if they go out of business?
  • What happens if the system is hacked and I lose everything?
  • If they do stick around, how can I ensure that I can give these photos and videos one day?
So let’s look at the “cons” to iCloud Photo Library. First, if you use Microsoft Windows, like I do, then it’s not as tightly integrated with your computer as it would be with a Mac (more on that analysis when I get my hands on a Mac)

Hard to sync photos between iCloud and your computer

It’s not easy to sync up pictures to a computer if you use “my” method of storing photos. You can install iCloud for Windows which gives you some tools for synchronizing things like web browser bookmarks, email with Outlook and photos. As you can see here, you can both upload and download photos from your computer. In this case, I have 80 photos and 13 videos from 2018 that I can download to my computer. There’s no way to say only download photos that I’ve added since last time or a specific range.

It would be very easy with this download method to lose track of what is in folders on your computer vs what is in iCloud. If you keep your photos in organized folders by year, month and event, a much better choice is something like Dropbox or OneDrive.

Managing photos in iCloud web site

If you log into icloud.com, you can browse through all your photos. There is no easy way to delete multiple photos – no ctrl-click, to select multiple, all you can do is select a “memory” which is photos on a certain date or album. Otherwise it’s one by one.

Long term existence of the service

At the time of writing this, 2018, Apple is in excellent financial shape and show no signs of going anywhere anytime soon. Having your photos in iCloud Photo Library works great as long as Apple keeps the service going, but what happens if in 20 years Apple discontinues the service or makes such a drastic change that you don’t want to keep using it? If you care about the long term ability to keep these photos, then suddenly having to move all of them can be very difficult. If you create “albums” or any other proprietary structures in iCloud Photo Library, all you’ll likely get in a download is every single photo.

Summary and Recommendation

As I have said before, never rely on only one service. Because of the way that Apple traps you into their ecosystem without the ability to sync to other services, I am unable to recommend iCloud Photo Library for anyone who is relying on it as their sole source to store their photos and videos. In future posts, I will talk about how to effectively use different methods to both have access now to your photos and videos and protect them for long term. Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

I deleted all of my vacations pictures by mistake

We recently returned from a fabulous week touring in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Along the way I took many pictures and videos of the beautiful sites to be found along the way. Without getting into a whole travel review, I will say that if you haven’t driven the Cabot  Trail, go and see it!

When I arrived home, I had a folder with numerous pictures and videos that were combined from mine and our friend’s camera. I was doing various manipulations and then at some point I somehow managed to delete the entire folder of pictures and videos!

Even though this happened, I took a deep breath and then copied back the files from my Network Attached Storage (NAS). I talked about NAS in a previous post. Backup and data protection isn’t only about protecting for loss in the future when something fails. It also applies, maybe even more frequently to protect us from our own mistakes!

When you are transferring photos from either your phone or digital camera, following these steps will ensure that you prevent a future loss of your data:

  1. Copy the pictures and/or videos to a folder in your computer
  2. Immediately make a backup copy to another location, preferably one that is not on your computer
  3. Do whatever editing or modifications you want, knowing that your original files are backed up to another location

When it comes to human errors in computers, it’s not a case of if it will happen but when. By taking preventative measures with your most important files, you can ensure that you don’t delete your vacation pictures before you’ve had a chance to properly protect them.

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Don’t believe the hacking scams

A relative of mine recently called me in a panic over an email he had received.  The first line of the email made him think that he was specifically targeted:

“I’m aware that <password previously used by recipient here> is your password,” 

The rest of the email looks something like this:

No wonder it seems so scary – someone knows your old password! But this isn’t as bad as it seems.

We hear about about hacks of websites all the time where lists of email addresses and passwords are compromised. What has happened is that hackers have obtained these lists and are sending mass emails to these people. If you haven’t changed passwords recently (or ever) then this email could actually have your current password. If you get an email like this, here’s what to do:

  • change your password on any sites that use the listed password
  • change your password on other sites that are of critical importance – like banking, email, other financial services

The experts will tell you that you should use different passwords on every site and to change them frequently. This is correct, but realistically, most of us aren’t going to do this so I say make sure the super critical ones are changed and are different. In future posts, I will talk about ways to track these passwords, in easy and secure ways.

Webcam Dangers

If you read this scammer email carefully, you can see that it references webcams. It’s true that there are sites that can hack your webcam (very rare) but there are ways to protect yourself.  I recently purchased a few of these laptop camera covers.  These stick onto your laptop over the camera and can easily be slide open and closed. This way, your camera can’t be used unless you specifically uncover it.

The best protection is your own common sense

I will have more to say in future posts about protecting yourself from online threats, but I can’t say enough about being observant about what you do on your computer and what you see.

  • If you aren’t sure about a website – don’t visit it.
  • If something looks wrong, ask someone who knows about online threats.
  • If you receive a strange email or attachment, don’t open it and delete it. You can always ask the send if they intended to send it to you, assuming it’s someone you know.

There’s lots of ways to protect yourself from online threats and we’ll keep this exploring this topic. Have you ever been hacked or lost data due to online scammers?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The things you forget to back up – web browser bookmarks

So you’re backing up your documents folder and all your music. You’ve got family videos backed up. Most computers are now set up so that all of your personal files are set up in specific ‘data’ folders so that it’s easy to add them to a back up program. Does that mean you’re all done? Not so fast.

Many programs have their own settings that may or may not be something you want to save. A word processor may have a setting to save files to a specific folder. If your computer crashes and you have to reinstall, you can easily set this up.

But what about other things that aren’t so easy to set again? I’ve been using the web for over 25 years. In that time, web browsers have changed and I’ve built up a list of bookmarks, also known as favourites. Web browers like Chrome and Firefox let you store these bookmarks in the cloud so that you can always recover them. While this is true, I recently discovered that it doesn’t always work so well.

I logged in one day and found that many of my bookmarks were gone. I checked another computer that I use and they were gone from there too. I did some searching online and found out where Chrome stores its bookmark file:

The above is an example from Windows 10.

The files that are specific to bookmarks in this folder are the following:

Great, so now I knew what file stored the bookmarks but the bookmarks were gone. I then remembered I had another computer that I hadn’t turned on for a few days. Maybe the files were there?

I turned on the computer without being connected to the Internet. I made a copy of the file and then connected online. Sure enough, as soon as it connected, the bookmarks were lost on this computer too. But then I copied back the file that I had saved. I opened Chrome and there were all my bookmarks! After a few minutes, the lost bookmarks synced to all of my computers.

The lesson here is to back up these lesser known tiny files. They may be  tiny in size but big in impact to how you work.

I added these bookmark files to my backup software, called Zoolz. Shown below is how I selected these files.

Note that I don’t need to back up the entire folder structure where Chrome stores information about the program. By backing up this file when it changes, I ensure that I can recover from a future data loss.

What software do you rely on? Do you know how to back up the settings in that software?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Hard drive preventative maintenance means less data loss

A device with many mechanical parts like a computer is a failure waiting to happen. That shiny new computer you just bought is edging its way to the day that parts start to break one day. Hard drives are rated for MTBF which means mean time between failures – how long until it fails. It’s not just a matter if it will fail but when. We can’t prevent failures from happening but with effective preventative maintenance, we can better handle the outcome of the failure.

All parts of a computer will eventually fail, but some matter more than others. The CPU / main processor or power supply failing means that the computer will stop running but if the hard drive is intact, it can easily be moved to another computer to recover the data. Memory chips failing can cause strange issues where programs crash all the time, but when the memory is replaced then the computer runs as good as new.  The problem is when the hard drive fails you may or may not be able to recover data. Some data recovery companies can get back your data but this could cost thousands of dollars.

Hard Drive Failure Warning

The first step in preventative maintenance when it comes to hard drives is running some type of diagnostic tool. A free one that I have used for several years is Crystal Disk Info. All modern hard drives have built in sensors that are able to report to software if the hard drive is showing signs of failure. A program like Crystal Disk Info will show you visually about your hard drive health. It looks like this:

A few notes about how to read the above information:

  • Health Status is the most important – if it says good then the hard drive is in fine health. An orange warning mean start considering getting a new hard drive and copy over your data. A red warning means it’s close to failure.
  • Power on Hours tells you how long it’s been in use. The above is from a very new hard drive so it has few hours powered on
  • The long list of attributes is likely more technical detail than you need to be concerned with. Just remember if any are orange or red (as opposed to blue) then start being concerned with the health of the hard drive

Crystal Disk Info can be configured to pop up an alert when it senses a problem. This is a very good option to have enabled so that you can take action when this occurs.

If you do one thing today to prevent future data loss, install Crystal Disk Info! If you have a Mac, look for S.M.A.R.T hard drive diagnostics for Mac.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Make your smart phone disposable

We’ve talked about data protection as it relates to your computer, but so many of us now spend more time on our phones than on the computer. You create and send emails, take pictures and videos, maybe compose documents and reports for work, all on your smart phone. Regardless of whether it is an iPhone or Android, there are ways you can set up your phone to effectively protect the data that is on it. In that way, you can think of it as a “disposable phone” meaning that if you lose or break it, a new phone can quickly be set up with all of your critical data.

Contacts and Calendar

Previously before the advent of computers and smart phones, we used paper based address books and calendars to run our lives. Early personal digital assistants allowed us to digitize this information. With this information being so critical, losing it can be very costly to our lives. By default, most phones can store calendar and contacts but with this default it means that the data is only on the phone. The first step to protecting this data is to store your calendar, contacts, and also notes and tasks in the cloud. This can be with Apple iCloud, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and several others. Most of these services can be added to popular smartphones and allow real time syncing of this data. As you add a calendar entry on either your computer or phone, the data is saved to the cloud and made available on your various devices.

Photos and Videos

It’s so easy to take pictures and we take more now than in any other time in human history! As these pictures pile up on your phone you are at risk of losing them if something happens to the phone. There are different ways to handle photos and videos:

  • Use a cloud based service such as iCloud, Microsoft OneDrive or Dropbox to back up pictures as you take them
  • Regularly copy pictures from your phone to your computer where they are then backed up to a cloud based service. This can also be an effective way to handle pictures and videos on phones that don’t have a lot of storage space

Documents

With mobile versions of Word and other word processors now available, you can create lengthy documents such as reports for work or school assignments right on your phone. Imagine how you would feel if you spend weeks or months working on something that was then lost when your phone broke. If you store documents in Dropbox or OneDrive or a similar cloud based service, you can open and edit these files on your phone or your computer and know that the file is safe. If you store your copies of bills and statements online in the same Dropbox or OneDrive, then you can access these from anywhere.

Other App based Data

We all have lots of apps on our phones in every category imaginable. For each type of smart phone there is an online, cloud based method of storing all types of app data. Apple uses iCloud and Android uses your Google/Gmail account. As long as your phone is set up with these cloud services, most modern apps will store their little bits of data within the cloud. This could be as simple as your weather app that remembers the 10 cities whose weather you want to track. Or more importantly, a time tracking app that you use for billing clients can store its data in the cloud. It’s important as you start using new apps, make sure that they store their data in the cloud to ensure that you are protected.

Handling the loss of your smart phone

If you’ve followed the guidelines listed here and you either lose or break your phone, don’t fear for your data. Yes, you will have to buy a new phone, but often the cost of your critical data can be far greater than the cost of your phone. When you set up your phone, it will restore all the data from the cloud and you are back up and running very quickly.

Have you ever lost of broken your phone? Did you  get back all your data or if not, what did you lose?

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Don’t Forget about Maintenance

I listened to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Freakonomics, recently. This one was entitled In Praise of Maintenance. The idea here is that as a society, we always want to build and create new things but we neglect the maintenance of the structures and creations that we already have. Governments talk about building new highways and public transit, but it’s not so exciting to provide funding to fix existing roads or subway tracks. The same can be said be said for our own digital life.

plumber holding wrench

Computer and smartphone manufacturers market to us constantly to upgrade to the latest and greatest devices. High resolution screens, fast processors and huge hard drives are very enticing as compared to our ‘old’ two year old computers! If we aren’t taking proper care of our data, then buying new doesn’t solve the existing problems that effective maintenance would alleviate.

In previous posts, I’ve talked a lot about being mindful of where your data resides and ensuring that it’s backed up. With regular maintenance of our data, we can have our cake and eat it too:

  • we ensure that all of our data is safe and protected
  • we can get that exciting new computer or smartphone and be confident that all of our data will seamlessly move over to it

So what kind of maintenance should we regularly be doing? Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Check that backups are actually running on schedule
  • Do test restores to ensure that we can actually get back our data
  • Check how much free space is on our hard drives and online storage to ensure there is enough room for future growth
  • Evaluate if our existing backup needs are still appropriate, such as health of external hard drives and is our online backup service still the most cost effective
  • Do we have new types of data that we haven’t been backing up? This could be files related to a new project or old family videos that were recently converted to digital format

There’s many more that could apply. What types of maintenance do you need to do with your digital data?

Leave your comments here or fill out our survey / backup assessment.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Instant Recovery from a Hard Drive Crash

Imagine this nightmare… you’re working on a large business report and with just a few more finishing touches to go, and you suffer a hard drive crash. Everything is gone and you have to explain to your client why you won’t have the report ready. Wouldn’t it be great to have near instantaneous recovery from this sort of disaster?

explosion over beach

With sufficient preparation you can recover and get back to work with either minimal or no loss of data. We need to change our view of our computers as a single point of failure / critical device to that of a simple appliance. If your coffee maker breaks, you might not be happy to have to replace it, but you can go out and buy a cup of coffee, get a new coffee maker and be back up and running very soon. By treating your computer as a replaceable and disposable device, it changes the way that you are able to work.

Separate your data from your computer

Right now you may have a bunch of documents and spreadsheets in a folder. Another folder has pictures and videos while your email has been downloading and getting stored on your computer for years. In previous posts I talked about moving your email to the cloud and I talked about the topic of cloud based files too.

Using Dropbox, OneDrive or Google Drive allows all of your critical files to be kept both on your computer and in the cloud. Going back to the earlier example, if your report is stored in Dropbox then every time you save the file it gets uploaded to Dropbox. With Google Docs, it is automatically saved every few minutes. If you are on a plane or somewhere that you don’t have internet access, sync services like Dropbox let you keep working normally and then will sync up once it has an internet connection.

Email if kept in Gmail or Outlook.com means that you don’t have a dependency on your computer. You can still have it download a copy that stays in sync with the online version.

With prices for online storage coming down, you can pay about $100 a year for 1 TB or more of storage. This can store most picture and document collections so that all of your precious memories are securely backed up online.

Making an Instant Recovery from a Crash

So now that you’ve got everything protected, what do you do when disaster strikes and your computer crash makes working impossible? The price of computers has come down substantially. Even a very basic laptop can be had for under $300. I have discovered an excellent source of high quality and powerful computers is the refurbished market. One example is Dell. Numerous companies lease computers for 3 or 4 years at a time. Once the lease is over, the computers go back to the manufacturer. In the case of Dell, they have an online store to sell these. Check with your country, in Canada it is dellrefurbished.ca. I have bought several laptops and desktops from Dell Refurbished and have been very pleased with the results. As an added bonus, they have sales several times a year so be sure to do an online search for “Dell Refurbished coupon code” to save up to 50%.

So where am I going with this? If you buy a refurbished computer, then you have a standby ready to go at a moment’s notice. If it’s a laptop, you can order it, set it up with what you need, such as Dropbox and your favourite software. Put it away and then you have it ready to go. As far as insurance goes, this is a good option, especially if your livelihood relies on having a working computer.

life insurance

With computers, it’s not a case of if it will fail but when. Having a strategy where you don’t have to think about protecting your files from a crash is the way to a fast recovery. We buy insurance for our lives, cars and our health, so with the same way of thinking, we can insure our data.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

How will you view your smartphone photos in the future?

In the ‘olden days’, my grandparents went on vacation with a camera and several rolls of film. When they got back, there was the excitement of waiting for the film to be developed so they they could see how well (or badly) the pictures came out. The best shots went into an album and then the album went on a shelf where it could be viewed at any time. As the keeper of family memorabilia, I now have many of my grandparents albums that even 50 or 60 years later are still able to be easily viewed.

Let’s compare this with what happens today. You go on vacation and take 500 pictures with your smart phone. Maybe you subscribe to an online cloud service like Apple iCloud so the pictures get safely and securely stored. You can view them on your phone at any time and send pictures to family and friends and post them to social media.

From the description of how things happen today, you might say that we have come so far and progressed so much. I say that it’s half correct. With these easy to use tools for capturing, storing and sharing, we have the ability to have quick access to our memories. But what happens in 50 years from now, will your children and grandchildren be able to view these pictures or even know how to access them? If I take care of photo albums, they could last for several generations.

Now, let’s not forget that paper based prints don’t last forever. In time, there are acids and other chemicals at work that slowly disintegrate these precious memories. The real question to ask is this – how can we take the benefits of both ‘old fashioned’ printed photo albums with the convenience and ready access of modern digital assets? There are several things to consider:

  • If my digital files are organized then I have a better chance of finding what I’m looking for – be it now or in 20 years
  • If I determine what is important to me then I can revisit how I’m protecting it over time, not when something goes wrong

The reality is there isn’t a one size fits all approach to protecting your digital files for the future. From my experience, working with clients to determine what approach to take is the best way to determine a solution.

A solution that combines multiple safe secure storage methods plus easy access to digital files is one that will be useful for a period of time – but then it must be re-evaluated. Just as early photos used a process called Daguerrotype that eventually changed to modern photo development, so does a digital process change over time.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail