SpiderOak Step by Step

At ProfHacker, we write a lot about backing up your files, because it’s one of the simplest things you can do to make some future day easier (and possibly prevent months or years of work from being lost). With cloud-based backup solutions, backups are easy to set up and automate. Six or seven years ago, whenever I heard a story about someone experiencing a hard drive crash, it was a tale of stress and woe. It seems telling to me that within the last month, I’ve spoken to two people who had hard drives fail but who were completely untroubled (except for the expense or time lost in replacing the drive), because they had automated cloud backups in place and knew that all of their files were safe.

I’ve been using SpiderOak as my primary cloud based backup solution for over a year and am very pleased with the level of security that they offer, as well as the many options built into their service. SpiderOak not only gives me automated, nearly-instantaneous backups of my files, but also lets me synchronize files and folders across multiple computers.  I routinely work on three different computers, with some general differences as to the type of work I do on each. For instance, I write teaching notes almost exclusively at my desktop computer at the university. But I might work on some projects on multiple machines. With SpiderOak’s file synchronization, for example, when I’m writing a conference paper, I know that I’ll be looking at same set of notes on both my laptop and my desktop computers.  No matter where I am, even on someone else’s computer, I can access any of my files that have been backed up and download them from the SpiderOak service.

In explaining SpiderOak to friends and colleagues over the past year, I’ve realized that
if you’re new to online backup, some of the terms and options available can be a bit confusing. So the following guide is meant to help you get started using SpiderOak, should you be interested in giving it a try. Of course, SpiderOak’s website also offers video tutorials and answers to frequently asked questions.

Getting Started

First, you create an account at SpiderOak’s website. The most important thing to realize here is that: you and only you will have knowledge of the account password you create.  SpiderOak does not keep a record of it, which is known as a zero-knowledge policy. A basic free account will store 2 GB of data. Users who sign up with an email address in an .edu domain can receive a discount on paid plans.

Download the SpiderOak software for your operating system (Windows, Mac, or Linux). Once installed, it will ask you to log in with your account credentials.

Select What to Backup

From the Back Up tab in the software, you can select which folders you want to have SpiderOak back up. You can either select specific folders from the directory tree in the right-hand pane, or just choose types of files (documents, photographs, etc) from the left-hand pane.

I really like the ability to select particular directories. Keep in mind that some of the data you probably want to save may be stored in subdirectories for particular programs, like bibliographic managers, personal finance programs, or image-editing tools.

After you’ve made your selections, click the Save button to start the initial backup. Depending on how many files you wish to back up, this process may take a while. (I usually recommend backing up your document and data directories first, which upload quickly. Then you can add photo and video files.) You can view the progress of your backup from the Status tab. After the initial backup is performed, SpiderOak will automatically backup any changes to the contents of the selected directories or categories. This screenshot shows it backing up the draft of this blog post when I clicked Save in my text editor:

Set it to Automatic

The best backup system is one that you don’t have to think about. To make SpiderOak work automatically behind the scenes, you need to make sure of two settings from the Preferences menu.  The default behavior on closing the program is to ask you whether you want to minimize or quit. If you quit, then SpiderOak can’t back up your files. It needs to run in the background. As shown in this screenshot, I recommend setting the “When closing SpiderOak always” option to minimize. This will prevent you from accidentally exiting the program.


Secondly, make sure the “launch SpiderOak on OS startup” box is checked. This will make sure that if when you reboot your computer, SpiderOak will automatically restart.

By default, SpiderOak will automatically backup changes to your files as you save them to your machine. But if you want to define a less frequent backup schedule you can do this from the Backup tab of the Preferences dialogue box.

Set up a Second Computer

Once you’ve backed up your files on one computer, you can set up SpiderOak on a second one. (Your backups will be more efficient if you wait until the initial backup is completed on the first computer before starting the second.) Then follow the same basic setup:

  • Download and install the software and login with your credentials
  • Follow the option to add a device to your account
  • Choose which files you want to backup and start your backup
  • Check that the same Settings options are applied as described above.

Set up a Sync

After you have backed up files on two (or more) computers, you can optionally set up a synchronization. You probably don’t need or want all of your files to be synchronized across all of your devices. SpiderOak lets you pick and choose. For instance, I keep my current CV synchronized across all three of my computers, so that I know I am always viewing the updated version.

From the Sync tab, click New, and follow the steps. You will be asked to create a name for the sync and then choose folders across two or more devices. You can choose to exclude certain file types from synchronizing if you wish.

Personally Speaking

I love knowing that my files are always backed up and secure. If a hard drive goes out on me, I won’t lose any important data. I also appreciate being able to access files from any of my devices, since I work at home, at the university, and while traveling.

Of course, redundancy is key to a full backup plan, so some users may also wish to incorporate local backups of certain data (on an external drive, for instance) as well as cloud-based backups. And if you work in remote locations without internet access, then cloud-based backups won’t serve you well.  But for many users, secure cloud-based backups through SpiderOak or another service can improve efficiency and add peace of mind.

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