I’m completely serious when I say that every device that writes to non-simple* storage should have a battery backup.

All of them.

Since I posted a quick five minute vlog about this, I couldn’t quite get in to too many details, so I thought I’d post them here.

Why do I need a battery backup?

As alluded to in the vlog, you need a battery backup because the world isn’t a perfect place. All it takes is one power outage, one cat-based incident, or one klutz of a human to eliminate the power to your computing device**. Losing power obviously would mean that you’d lose anything unsaved, but you also run the risk of losing saved data as well due to something called ‘caching’.

What is caching?

The idea behind caching is simple – you probably use the same concept on a day-to-day basis without realizing it. We’ll use an example. Say you and a partner are washing dishes by hand because some klutz killed the power to your computer and your house. You’re responsible for rinsing the suds off of the soapy dishes and your partner is drying them. However, you’re far better than your partner at everything in the world and are much faster at rinsing than they are at drying. You can do one of two things about this.

  1. Slow down. Match your partner’s speed in handling the dishes.
  2. Keep going at your current rate, but stack up a set of dishes for your partner to dry. Once you’re done with your part, walk away and do something more interesting than the dishes, like buy a battery backup.

Option #2 is exactly what a computer does when it caches data. In the case of a PC, your computer’s memory is far faster than your hard drive or SSD***. So, rather than just having your computer sit around for a while waiting for it to finish writing to the hard drive, it caches the data and writes to your hard drive over time while you’re doing other things with it.

Caching sounds pretty nifty, but what does that have to do with battery backups?

Well, let’s go back to that example above. Say the reason why your power is out is because your partner is the klutz. While you have that set of dishes cached up behind them, he trips over an invisible cat and knocks all of those plates to the ground, shattering them. If you weren’t caching, your partner would have only broken one plate at most (the one they were drying).

Mostly same with computers. If you were to suffer an unexpected halt of your computer, you would lose everything currently being saved – including things you may have hit save on a few seconds before the crash. Now, where computers differ is how computer file systems work. You can actually lose a lot more than just the plates cached – if you happen to time it just right, your computer is capable of crashing its file system, potentially losing all of your data. This is a bit more common in older file systems – FAT-based ones are notorious for this.

What uses a FAT-based file system?

Lots of things, actually. Memory cards (both SD and console), USB flash drives, older computers, your 360…

Okay, okay, you’ve convinced me… but what do I get?

Ah, now THAT is a much more complicated question. Here’s the short version:

Buy a backup solution that lasts long enough. ‘Long enough’ is defined as the longer of either the amount of time it takes you to shut down everything plugged in to it or the expected length of your average power outage, whichever is longer.

How do I do that?

Uninterruptable Power Supplies typically have a “VA” rating (Volts*Amps) that they’ll have in big numbers. Ignore it.

I’m serious, just ignore it. Yes, there is a reason for it and if you know enough about UPSes you’d probably use that instead of watts, but chances are you would be better off just looking at what it says for Watts. If it doesn’t give that number somewhere, it should give a PF (Power Factor), which should be a percentage (or expressed as a decimal). Take the VA and multiply by the PF and you’ll get the wattage rating.

In general, the higher the wattage, the longer it lasts. Most UPSes have specs as to how long they last at what wattages – just look at the box and see how long a particular wattage rating lasts. If you don’t know how much power you’re drawing from your devices, buy a device that lets you measure power draw, like a kill-a-watt.

Wait, did you say ‘look on the box’? As in… offline?

Yep. UPSes are the one piece of computer equipment (well, more like ‘power equipment’) that is cheaper to buy offline in the US than online (and likely that way in other nations as well). It typically isn’t by much without a sale, but with a sale I’ve seen UPSes up to 50% off of the best online price I’ve seen them, mostly due to how ridiculously expensive shipping is. Office supply stores frequently carry them.

Any other features I should look for?

A few, depending on what you’re protecting.

  • If you’re protecting PCs, you’ll want one that can plug in to your PC over USB. This lets your PC know how much power it has left and automatically sleep and/or hibernate when your UPS runs low on battery power, ensuring that you don’t lose any data.
  • You’ll obviously want one with enough battery-backed electrical outlets for your devices. Typically, this means you’ll want to protect the computing devices plus a monitor/TV of some sort. Don’t put your stereo or other high-draw devices on a UPS, you’ll just kill it faster. If you are using it for a PC with an automatic sleep bit, you might be able to get away with not having a monitor on it at all.
  • Most UPSes offer data protection (Coaxial cable, Phone, and/or Ethernet). Make sure you use it if needed, as the guarantee on them typically stipulates that it is only valid if every external access point (objects connecting to the device) is protected)
  • Some higher end ones give you a graphical display. Only needed if you’re a geek like me that likes to know what exactly is going on.

Personally, I buy cheap ones for my router/modem (so I can remain online during an outage, plus protecting external access points) and expensive ones with the LCD display for my computers / consoles. In my current place, that means the modem gets a cheap 40 USD UPS and my two active desktops get their own highish end (110 USD) UPS for their respective areas (file server + router, gaming PC + consoles).

Wait, what about that USB power thingy?

That’s mostly me being silly, but an interesting device to have anyway for other reasons. A portable USB charger is typically used for charging portable devices from an external battery. I primarily use mine to keep my devices charged while I’m traveling, but I also use it when I’m recording vlog things due to the amount of power draw I have recording 1080p video.

If you have other questions, let me know in the comments below or on the video.


* – By non-simple, I actually mean devices that do any form of caching to write to them. This is pretty much every modern device with storage outside of things like basic digital recorders and apparently 14k USD fridges. Basically, if it has a filesystem that you can read on a computer somewhere, it is probably non-simple.

** – laptops, desktops, phones, tablets, complex watches, 14k USD fridges, and so on.

*** – As a quick rule of thumb, RAM is a full order of magnitude faster than hard drives. Processor cache is a full order of magnitude faster than RAM. SSDs are somewhere between HDs and RAM on speeds (typically).

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