A review of Google’s Backup and Sync

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Google launched this new service in the second half of 2017. I remember being prompted by the Google Drive app to install an upgrade, and after it completed, I noticed a new app called “Backup and Sync” had been installed, and the Google Drive app had become an alias.

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The new app sat there unused for some time, until I discovered its new capability, namely to back up and sync other folders on my computer, not just the Google Drive folder. This was and is good, new functionality for Google, because it ties in very nicely with its Photos service, which has already been offering the ability to back up all of the photos and videos taken with mobile devices to the cloud through the Google Photos mobile app. I’ve been using Google Photos for several years, going back to when it was called Picasa Web.

I set it to back up all of my photos and videos, allowing Google to compress them so I could back up the whole lot. (It’s the “High quality (free unlimited storage)” option selected in the screenshot posted below.)

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I already back up all of my data with Backblaze, which I love and recommend, but it doesn’t hurt to have a second online backup of my media, even if it gets compressed. Having lost some 30,000 images and videos a few years back, I know full well the sting of losing precious memories and when it comes down to it, I’d rather have a compressed backup of my stuff than none at all.

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The thing is, there are shortcomings and errors with this new service from Google, which I will detail below. The backup itself was fast. Even though I have several terabytes of personal media, they were uploaded within a week. So that’s not the issue. After all, Google has a ton of experience with uploads, given how much video is uploaded to YouTube every single day.

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As you can see from the screenshot posted above, it was unable to upload quite a few files. The app offers the option of uploading RAW files in addition to the typical JPG, PNG and videos, but it couldn’t upload RAW files from Olympus (ORF), Adobe (DNG) and Canon (CR2). They were listed among the over 2700 files that couldn’t be backed up.

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I ended up having to add the extensions of RAW, PSD, TIFF and other files to an “ignore” list located within the app preferences. This is the full list I’ve added there so far: DNG, TIFF, RAF, CRW, MOV, PSD, DB, GRAPHDB, PLIST, and LIJ. It seems there’s a file size limit on images and on videos, because most of my large images (stitched panoramas) and videos of several GB or more didn’t get uploaded. That’s a problem for an app that promises to back up all your media.

There were also quite a bit of crashes. The app crashed daily during the upload process and even now, it crashes every once in a while. I set up my computer to send crash reports to Apple and to the app developers, so I assume that Google got them and will at some point issue an upgrade that fixes those bugs.

I also kept running out of space on my Google account. Given that I’d set the app to compress my images so I’d get “free unlimited storage”, and I’d also set it to back up only my images and videos, this didn’t and doesn’t make sense. Add to this the fact that it’s trying to back up unsuccessfully all sorts of other non-image files (see the paragraph above where I had to add all sorts of extensions to the ignore list) and once again, this app seems like it’s not fully baked. I ended up having to upgrade my storage plan with Google to 1 TB, so it’s costing me $9.99/month to back up most (not all) of my images and videos, compressed, to a service that offers “free, unlimited storage”. The app says I’ve now used up 408 GB of my 1 TB plan. Before I started backing up my media, I was using about 64 GB or so, adding together Gmail and Google Drive. So about 340 GB are getting mysteriously used by some invisible files that I can’t see in Google Photos or Google Drive, but they’re obviously stored somewhere by the Backup and Sync app.

Remember, this is Google. They have a ton of experience with apps, with images and with videos, so why did they push this out when it still has all these issues?

A couple of suggestions for Waze

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I’ve been using Waze for over a month and I love it. If you haven’t tried it yet, you should. It’s surprisingly accurate, even in a country where you wouldn’t think there’d be a lot of users, like Romania.

The traffic updates can get a little overwhelming in large urban areas like Bucharest and sometimes it doesn’t find an address I need, but overall, it’s a wonderful app and the idea of a user-driven (and updated) map is awesome. Live traffic alerts and automatic calculation of the best route based on current traffic conditions are awesome options (these used to cost a pretty penny with GPS devices and weren’t very good nor up-to-date).

Here’s a way to make Waze better: use the accelerometer in our iPhones to automatically determine if the road is unsafe, based on braking, swerving, stopping and yes, even driving (or falling) through potholes. I love being able to report a road incident but when I’m swerving through potholes and recently dug up roads (like the one between Medias and Sighisoara), I don’t have the time nor the multitasking brain cycles to tap on my phone and report a hole in the road. So doing this automatically and reporting it to the users would be a wonderful new addition to Waze. I’d love to get an alert on my phone as I’m driving through fog or rain, when the visibility isn’t great, telling me there’s a pothole ahead. And by the way, Waze, have you thought about hooking up weather info to the traffic reports?

One thing that always annoyed me with GPS devices is the constant repetition of stuff like “take the 2nd exit” or “turn left”. The new version of Waze seems to be doing the same thing. I’d love an option in the settings where I could specify that I’d like to be reminded about such things a maximum of two times (not 3 or 4 times…)

A big thanks to the Waze team for the awesome work!

Where’s the Netflix Shelf?

The more movies and shows Ligia and I watch on Netflix, the more convinced we become that Netflix lacks a vital feature. We call it the Shelf. Where is it?

The Netflix Shelf would hold titles we’ve seen and loved. It would contain two collections: a smart collection, which would automatically bring together the titles we’ve rated 4 stars or higher), but more importantly a manual collection, where we could add titles we’d like to watch again in the feature — movies and shows we really love, perennial favorites if you will.

Within the Shelf, we could sort titles by genre, keywords, actor or director (using the metadata added by Netflix staff or metadata we could add ourselves).

There were so many occasions we saw a movie, loved it, wanted to store it somewhere so we could see it again in the future, but didn’t want to leave it in the queue, cluttering up the list of titles we still haven’t seen. There was and is no place for them yet, and that’s regrettable, because it’s a lost opportunity for Netflix to create customer goodwill at a time when they need it.

Where’s Google Photos in this drop-down menu?

If you use FeedBurner (which has been part of Google for a good number of years now), you probably know about the Photo Splicer feature, which allows you to merge your photo feed from services like Flickr, BuzzNet or Webshots into your site feed, providing extra content for your readers. It’s a great little option and I hope Google keeps it turned on for years to come.

My question for Googlers reading this is simple: where’s Google Photos (PicasaWeb) in that drop-down menu? Isn’t it about time for it to show up there?

How to watch Netflix from abroad

At the start of 2009, when I left the US to spend most of the year abroad, I was an avid Netflix subscriber, and I looked forward to being one even as I lived abroad. There was a loophole in the Netflix protocols which allowed my wife and I to watch movies from outside the US (see this post), but they plugged it very quickly — within three days after I wrote about it.

I was, needless to say, very disappointed. Here I was, a US citizen, with a US mailing address, a US bank account and a US credit card, wanting to watch movies legally instead of downloading them from torrent websites, not able to do it, just because my IP address happened to be from another country. This was not fair. I cancelled my subscription. In hindsight, my anger was unnecessary. The situation is probably a result of certain stipulations in their contracts with the movie studios.

Still, there’s obviously a need for a legal way to watch movies online, right? And until Netflix (or another company) decides to open up their servers to paying customers from all over the world (which I hear might happen), here’s how to watch Netflix from abroad, right now.

You’ll need:

  1. A US credit card and a US mailing address. If you’re from the US but you happen to be abroad, great, you’re in luck, because you probably still have both of these. If you’re not from the US, see if you can make some arrangements with friends in the US.
  2. A VPN connection that will give you a US IP address, or a DNS Proxy Service subscription which will make Netflix and other US streaming sites think you’re based in the US. 
  3. A computer that’s compatible with Netflix Streaming. At this time, I believe only Mac and Windows computers can do it. The last time I tried it, a Linux machine wasn’t compatible. You could get a Netflix-compatible device or media appliance but if you want to keep things simple, stick with a computer.

That’s all you’ll need.

The DNS Proxy Service is a fairly new offering and is, in my opinion, the easiest way to configure your device to watch Netflix from abroad, without installing any additional software or configuring a custom VPN connection. You simply change the DNS servers for your network card (see these instructions).

Now let me talk a bit about the VPN service. In the two years I’ve spent abroad, I’ve used two services: AceVPN and HideMyNet. I’m currently using HideMyNet for my VPN service, and I’ve been using them for the past four months. Both cost about the same, but from my experience, HideMyNet has faster, more reliable service.

I started out with AceVPN but after several months, I started getting a lot of buffering messages when watching Netflix (you know, where you wait for it to load up the movie). It would take minutes, sometimes 5-10 minutes to load up a movie, and toward the end of my subscription with them, the movie would stop playing multiple times as we watched it, and we had to wait for it to rebuffer. It was annoying, particularly when the movie stopped playing during a gripping scene. Who knows, perhaps they were experiencing growing pains or temporary issues with their servers…

Out of the blue, the folks from HideMyNet contacted me to see if I wanted to try their service and write about it. Disclaimer: they offered me a 1-year subscription to give an honest opinion about their service. I told them I would, but that I’d need to try out their service thoroughly before I spoke about it, and if I found anything negative, I was going to reveal that as well. That was back in April of this year. It’s now August, four months later, and after all this time, I can definitely recommend them.

I do have a few pieces of advice for you:

  • If you’re not sure how to set up a VPN connection as L2TP or PPTP on your Mac, go with OpenVPN and Tunnelblick. Check out their setup instructions for the details. If you’re on Windows, setting up an L2TP connection is super easy and takes only a few minutes.
  • Make sure to ask their Tech Support which of their servers would be faster for you. Here’s some general advice I got from them on this issue: “Generally you want to connect to whichever server is closest to you [geographically]. If you’re in the EU you should try our DC and NYC servers. If you’re in Asia you should try the Seattle or LA servers. If you’re in South America you should try the Dallas and LA servers.” 
  • They currently have a limit of two simultaneously connected devices, so keep that in mind. I believe Netflix has the same limit, but if you were, for example, watching Netflix on one computer and browsing the internet on another, both through their VPN service, you wouldn’t be able to, for example, connect a third device (computer or phone) through the VPN service until you disconnected one of other two.

So there you have it. That’s how you can watch Netflix from abroad. It’s simple, it’s easy and it’s legal.

On a side note, I can’t understand why movie studios prefer to hang on to costly and outdated ways of distributing content, and thus encourage piracy, instead of promoting lower-cost, easily available methods of renting or purchasing their content, for any customer, anywhere. There are many people who would rather pay than use torrents, but the cost is either too high, or there’s no way to pay even if they wanted to. Thank goodness for VPN technology, otherwise I’d start thinking about using the torrents as well.

WordPress.com gets more expensive

Ever since I learned about WordPress, I thought it was the coolest blogging platform, and the more I found out about the WordPress.com network, the more I liked the options they offered their users. To this day, I regret not having started to publish directly on WordPress.com instead of doing it on my own with a self-install of WordPress, but each path has its pros and cons. Incidentally, I discussed them (the pros and cons) at length with WordPress staff recently, and may put together a guide to switching from WP.com to WP.org and vice-versa, at some point.

One of the things I really liked about WordPress.com was the 5GB space upgrade, which, among other things allowed me to upload videos that would be transcoded and played directly inside the blog. For $20/year, it was a great deal. I never got to use it on my own blogs, which were and still are self-hosted, but I recommended it to clients and friends. I liked it because the video player was and still is integrated into the blogging platform. This saves the user the hassle of uploading it to a different video sharing site, then putting the right embed code into the blog post.

Now, sadly, that option is gone. I received an email from WordPress today which announced the arrival of a formal video upgrade option, called VideoPress, at a cost of $60/year. Like other video upgrades on the market (such as Vimeo’s own Plus program), VideoPress allows the upload and streaming of SD and HD video. The price is also the same.

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I can understand this change though. According to WordPress, allowing people to upload videos under the regular 5GB space upgrade was a testing ground which allowed them to figure out what they needed to charge long-term. After all, HD video eats up a lot of space and requires a lot of processing power to compress, not to mention the bandwidth needed to stream it. Here’s what Matt Mullenweg, WP’s founder, says in a response to a question about the price tag:

“We try to run every part of our business in a way that’s sustainable and supportable for the long-term. By charging a fair amount for a superior service we can continue to invest in expanding the feature to be a great option for high-end video, just like WordPress is a fantastic option for high-end blogging. (And you wouldn’t believe how expensive it is to host and stream video, which is part of the reason we’ve waited to launch this until now, we’ve been working at getting the costs down.” [source]

Now when you realize that both WordPress and Vimeo charge $60/year for HD video uploads, think about YouTube, and the astronomical expenses it has to eat up every year because it doesn’t charge its users anything to upload gobs and gobs of video.

I looked at the specs for the video sizes of the new WordPress Video Player, and there are three of them: 400px (SD), 640px (DVD) and 1280px (HD). That’s plenty for live streaming. I do wish there was an option that would let the video authors allow downloads of the original video files, like Vimeo does it.

The upper limit on a single video file is 1GB, although it’s not hard-capped like at Vimeo. WordPress will let you upload 1.5-2GB files, although they say results may vary and uploads may die out if your connection is slow.

One thing I’m not clear on is the space allowed for the uploaded videos. Is there a weekly cap, like Vimeo’s 5GB/week limit, or can we upload as many videos as we want? And if so, what’s the total space limit allotted to us when we purchase the upgrade? Is there a special cap, separate from the standard space of 3 GB per blog? Or does each video count against the total space allotted to the blog? Because if that’s the case, that would mean VideoPress is going to be more expensive than Vimeo Plus, since users will need to purchase space upgrades for their videos in addition to VideoPress.

For example, a user would shell out $60 for VideoPress, then soon find out they’ve filled up their 3GB quota, and need to purchase a space upgrade. It’s not hard to imagine one would need about 15GB or more per year with HD video, and that would mean an additional $50 on top of the initial $60, bringing the price tag to $110. This point definitely needs clarification, because it just wouldn’t be fun to get taxed twice for it.

I do like the nice gesture on WordPress’ part, where they gave existing users of the space upgrade and the video player a free VideoPress upgrade for a year. Had they not done that, the transition would have been too jarring for them, so kudos to WordPress for putting money aside and thinking about the user experience.

Mozy advertising versus user experience

A few months ago, I was interested in offsite backup, and thought I’d give Mozy a try. Their Home Backup plan intrigued me. It was only $4.95, and was billed as unlimited. Could it actually work as advertised?

Short answer is no, not by a long shot. Sure, it only costs $4.95/month. That much is accurate. The unlimited part is where Mozy starts to stretch the truth. The problem lies with bandwidth, and I’ll give them this much: uplink speeds on US broadband connections, particularly on DSL lines, are horribly inadequate in order to perform any sort of decent backups.

But Mozy also does something I dislike, something that isn’t readily advertised on their site when users sign up: they cap the bandwidth for Home users at 1 Mbps. Even if you should be blessed with faster uplink speeds (like a fiber connection), you won’t be able to take advantage of it with Mozy. You’ll still only upload to the Mozy servers at 1 Mbps or less (usually around 600-800 kbps from my experience).

I had around 150GB of data I wanted to back up on my laptop at the time. It would have taken me several weeks (I think up to 13 weeks) to back up that data from my home DSL connection (860 kbps uplink). I had to reduce that amount to about 96GB, took my laptop into work, where the uplink pipe was much fatter, and still, it would have taken over 12 days to get that data backed up, because they were capping the uplink speed.

I then reduced my backup set even more, down to 59 GB (see below), hoping this would speed things up. It would have still taken a ridiculous amount of time to back up my data, and I only ended up getting frustrated with Mozy’s software in general, because of its poor design. Every time I wanted to configure the backup set, I needed to wait for the software to finish calculating the aggregate size for all file types, and that could take half an hour or more every time I opened that panel. Couldn’t they have cached this data when the operation was performed the first time?

Isn’t it ironic how they say the “Account storage limit” is “None”, yet you can never really quite test that None unless you leave your computer on and connected to the Internet for a month or more, which is clearly not feasible in the case of a laptop? Let’s not even consider the possibility that your Internet connection might go down, in which case the backup job would fail, and you’d need to start over…

In the end, in order to get any sort of progress with the Mozy backups, I reduced my backup set to 1GB. That’s right, 1GB, which allowed me to back up my Address Book, iCal, and Application Preferences, plus some documents. Then, and only then, did Mozy manage to complete the backup jobs in time.

I’m sorry, but I’m not going to pay $5/month so I can back up my contacts, calendar, and a few docs. That’s not acceptable to me. I canceled the service.

I did write to them to complain about this, and that’s how I found out about the 1 Mbps cap on uplink bandwidth. They also offered to give me a free month, but what good would that have been? I’d have only ended up more frustrated.

Some might say I should have tried the Mozy Business plan, which doesn’t cap uplink speeds and offers more options. For one thing, I don’t care for those extra options. For another, it would have cost me roughly $80/month ($3.95 for the license and $75 for the storage at $0.50 per 150GB). That’s not counting what it’d have cost me to back up my photos offline, which is what I really wanted to do. I have roughly 500 GB of photos, and according to Mozy’s pricing, that would be $250/month in addition to the $80/month I’d already be paying to back up my laptop.

Clearly, at those prices, Mozy is no longer the cheap, easy to use $4.95/month service that they advertise so widely, and instead of paying $330/month to them, I’d rather pay it to buy hard drives, copy my data, and ship them to my parents once every few months. It’d cost me a lot less.

I suppose they’re not entirely to blame. For some reason, $4.95 has become the price point for online home backup plans. Carbonite offers a similar plan for the same amount and other competitors are crowding around the same amount, although with different offerings. The thing is, you can’t really give people unlimited backup for $4.95 a month. Your costs as a business are higher. So what do you do? You fudge. You get truthy. Well, I don’t like it. I’d much rather see them offer a $15/month Home plan where they don’t cap the bandwidth but cap the amount I can back up — say, up to 75GB or something like that. I’ll let them work out the numbers, but the point is, I appreciate honesty a lot more than some cheesy pricing gimmick.

Updated 7/2/09: A reader (M.J. from Denmark) wrote to say the upload bandwidth cap at Mozy has been raised from 1 Mbps to 5 Mbps. It’s an interesting move on Mozy’s part, but I still have questions about their customer service and the ability to properly restore customers’ data, as other people have indicated in the comments below.