Subscription services like Netflix and Google Drive are convenient, but we can lose control of our content and data. Here's how to take it back.
Nowadays we don't really buy things. We just subscribe to online services.
And how can we resist? The streaming revolution has brought us vast amounts of video and music entertainment at the click of a button. In an era of cloud storage, where we store our data on remote computer servers, tech companies like Google and Apple take care of the headache of managing our information so that we no longer lose important files or progress on our work.
For many of us, giving up control and ownership to these services is the point. But for others, there is a downside to losing some flexibility and freedom. While Spotify may not have all the music we want to listen to, if we cancel our subscription, we lose access to its large catalogue of music. With cloud storage services, putting our documents and other files online is simple, but pulling them out can be a pain.
This can make some people feel trapped. We could always resort to the obvious old-school methods, like buying discs of music and carrying around thumb drives of our files and documents, but who wants to do that?
Fortunately, there are some approaches to taking control of our media while enjoying the benefits of subscription services. Those steps range from the obvious, like creating local copies of your data, to more advanced methods, like making a personal cloud using an internet-connected storage device that acts like a miniature server.
All it takes is some forethought and technological know-how. Here's what you need to know.
Maintain your own backups
Cloud storage services like Google Drive and Apple's iCloud — which let you store small amounts of data online for free and which charge a few dollars a month to hoard larger amounts — offer major benefits. Namely, we can get access to our data from any device with an internet connection, and because our files are copied onto a company's servers, we can't lose them.
But beware of becoming over-reliant on the cloud. What if one day you decide to cancel your subscription? For anything that is stored exclusively online, you would then have to download each piece of data to your own drive, which can be frustrating and time-consuming.
That's why, as a rule of thumb, people should continue creating local copies of their data for their computers and smartphones and store only important files on the cloud.
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Here are the tools you will need:
• An external hard drive. Portable hard drives can store vast amounts of data, and they are generally cheap. Seagate's Backup Plus Slim 2 holds 2 terabytes of data, which is probably enough to store backups of your computer, tablet and smartphone.
• A software program for creating computer backups. Mac computers include Apple's Time Machine backup tool. Microsoft's Windows 10 includes a free tool called File History. Both apps can be set up to automatically back up your computer data.
• An app for backing up your smartphone data. Apple users can back up their iPhones to their computers via the Finder or iTunes apps. Android users with Windows computers can access their data via "My Computer," and on a Mac, Android users can use the app Android File Transfer.
From there, the steps vary slightly depending on which device and apps you use, but the processes are generally the same. To back up your computer data, you plug your external hard drive into your computer and run the backup program. To back up your smartphone data to your computer, you plug the smartphone into the computer and run your backup app.
This way, if we become dissatisfied with a cloud service, we can cancel the subscription and have the ease and flexibility to take our files elsewhere.
Create a personal entertainment cloud
Streaming services like Netflix, Apple TV Plus and Hulu offer a buffet of TV shows and movies to binge on. Similarly, Spotify and Apple Music give you instant access to millions of songs. But streaming services don't have access to everything out there, like obscure art house films or live performances by music artists.
So here's how you can take control of the content you stream to your devices. There's a clever approach that involves creating your own media cloud, which acts like an online locker for your own content.
Michael Calore, an editor for Wired and a part-time DJ, said that when Spotify lacks his favorite music, he extracts the songs from a disc and uploads them to Google Play Music, Google's online music service. Then he plays the music on the Google Play Music app from his smartphone.
"It's basically like my own private streaming music service," he said. In general, people can apply this approach to any songs they can't get on streaming services.
For movies, I'll share my setup, which is not for the faint of heart.
As a film studies student, I owned a collection of hundreds of DVDs, many of them obscure indie titles that are nowhere to be found on any streaming service. So I converted the titles into digital video formats, which I stored on a network-attached storage device, essentially a miniature server.
From there, I installed the Plex video-streaming app on my Apple TV, and on my smartphone, I installed Infuse 6, another video-streaming app. I set up both apps to pull movies from my mini server. This way, I can still enjoy the ability to stream my special collection of art house movies via my own equipment.
Of course, for many of a certain (younger) age, physical discs are unheard-of, and newer obscure titles will more likely be released on a streaming service. Still, for those wanting to tailor the content they stream, physical media is worth exploring.
So here's what you will need to create personal clouds for your movies and music:
• Tech to extract content from discs. First, you will need an optical drive, which is still included with some desktop computers, to read discs. Second, you will need apps to "rip" the content and turn the movies into digital files. For videos, special computer programs like Handbrake can extract movies from discs and convert them into video files. For audio, programs like iTunes and Windows Media Player can rip digital music files from CDs.
• Tech to create a video server. Basically, you need an internet-connected device with some storage for movies, which essentially acts as a miniature server. There are plenty of options, like the Nvidia Shield TV or the Synology DiskStation DS218+.
• Tech to play media over the internet. For music, Google Play Music lets you upload your own songs to a cloud library and stream them through the app. For movies, streaming apps like Plex or Infuse 6 let you play movies from a TV app or smartphone.
If that all sounds complicated, that's because setting up your content to be easily accessible over the internet is no easy feat. But these options exist for people who want more freedom.
Calore said that despite having a nice setup for streaming media via a personal cloud, he still consumed the vast majority of music and movies from paid streaming services.
"We've lost the excitement and the specialness of a physical idea," he said. "But what we've gained in exchange is abundance at a scale that we could never have imagined. That is very much worth the trade-off."
Written by: Brian X. Chen
Photographs by: Glenn Harvey
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES