infoBacking up your computer or your data means to make a copy of part or all of what is on your computer in case something should happen to the files on your computer.  There are five basic questions on the subject of backups:

1. Why do I need to do backups?

2. What should I back up?

3. How often should I do backups?

4. To where should I backup?

5. How do I go about doing backups?

Let's start with the first one.  Your data is stored on a hard drive.  Hard drives have larger capacities today than ever before, yet the physical size of a hard drive hasn't changed from 2.5 and 3.5 inches.  That means that more and more data is being crammed into the drive.  We also believe that manufacturing standards have dropped, perhaps as prices have dropped.  What this all adds up to is that hard drives have become less and less dependable as a storage medium. 

We see hard drive failures way too often.  It is painful when one loses critical data such as all of one's email addresses, irreplaceable family photographs, or business documents.  Today you must expect that at some point your hard drive will fail and be prepared for that occasion when it arises.  And hard drive crashes are not the only way you can lose data, you can lose files to viruses or other file corruption.  The bottom line is you need to do backups.

Second question, what do you need to backup?  Think about what is on your computer that you can't live without; think about what it would be a great inconvenience to be without; and finally, think about the time it might take to fully recover your system and what that would mean to your various activities. 

For many home users it is sufficient to back up the My Documents folder and whatever program holds their email address lists and sometimes the email itself.  If it means that upon a hard drive failure they have no computer for a week or two, depending on their situation, that's an inconvenience but not a disaster.  For many home users there is cost involved in paying someone to recover their computers if they don't feel capable enough to do it themselves.  For some computers this can take many hours, like Dell computers.  That gets costly.  For those who run home-based or small businesses, it could mean a loss of revenue until their computers are back up and running again.  These folks should have their entire machines backed up in such a way that they can be easily and quickly restored to a brand new hard drive with minimal down time. 

The third point, how often you do backups, depends on what sort of user you are and what kind of data you have.  If the only valuable thing that you are storing on your machine is pictures of your grandchildren, and you get a batch twice a year, then you don't need to backup very often. 

If you run your bank accounts on your computer in a personal finance program and don't use a check register, or maybe even get electronic statements only, then you will want to backup your financial file every time you do a transaction.  And you'll probably want two or more kinds of backups of that file. 

If you have a business and business files are constantly in use and changing throughout the day, you may want a backup program that backs up those files at regular intervals, or you may only need to back it up once a day.  It depends on your situation. 

One thing to keep in mind is that backup media can go bad as well, and backup drives can also break or become out-moded(New machines today don't even come with a floppy drive - so much for all those files you backed up to floppy disks!) Critical data should be backed up in 3 different ways.  I have personally lost data, went to restore the data from a backup and found that 2 out of 3 backups were bad.  Thank goodness I had the third! 

Most newer computers today have DVD burners in them.  DVDs are great for data backups and archiving of data.  Some DVDs you can only write on once, these are DVD+-Rs, R for recordable.  Others you can fill up, erase and use again.  These are called DVD+-RWs, RW for rewriteable.  You archive data when you are keeping it for posterity or important records that shouldn't be messed with.  DVD+-Rs are perfect for archiving data.  They are long lasting and stand up to wear and tear much better than some other media.  You should still get in the habit of treating DVDs carefully though, as DVD+-Rs or DVD+-RWs that you make yourself (called burning a DVD) are not as tough as DVDs that are made professionally. 

DVD+-RWs work very well for backing up data files on a daily basis or whatever time interval you need.  DVDs hold about 4.7 gigabytes of data.  You can back up the same files many times on the same DVD+-RW before it gets full.  When it is full, you use a fresh DVD+-RW until that one becomes full, and perhaps a third.  Then when all 3 DVD+-RWs are full, you take the first one and erase it and reuse it.  And so on, rotating the DVDs.

But DVDs don't hold enough data to back up your entire computer.  It would often take 10 or more DVDs to do that.  That is such a painful process that it simply wouldn't get done. 

The fastest, easiest option for backing up a hard drive is to use an external hard drive.  We can hear it now though, "But I thought hard drives weren't reliable storage media!"  Yes, that is correct, and an external hard drive should never be the only backup media you have for that reason.  However, an external hard drive that is only used for doing backups, doesn't get as much wear and tear as the hard drive that runs your operating system and programs.  They are more vulnerable to being dropped however, and that can be deadly.  The other factor is that the chances of your external hard drive failing at the same time that your system hard drive fails is pretty slim.  But, if you get a virus on your hard drive and copy it to your external drive, you could lose both drives at once. 

Another media that can hold a great deal of information is a tape drive.  Tape drives are slow, but they are pretty reliable and are still the backup media of choice for most enterprises.  In fact, some tape drives are very fast, but those are generally very expensive as well. 

What we generally recommend for home users is a combination of external hard drive and CDs or DVDs.  I've been asked about using a USB flash drive for backups, those little stick things that look like cigarette lighters and can hold up to 256 gigabytes (or more) of data.  Backing up isn't their purpose, and they may not be rugged enough for backups.  They are really ideal for transferring data from one machine to another.  If you have a second computer, you could certainly use a USB drive to copy data to a second machine for safe keeping.  They are better than no backup at all, if you don't have a lot of files to backup, but their small size makes them particularly vulnerable to getting lost.

And that brings us to the last question, and the toughest one to answer, how do I do backups?  There are different types of programs for doing backups, and many programs within each type, each with their own procedures.  We'll cover several different types of backup programs next.

The least complex type of backup would be to simply use My Computer or File Manager to drag files to another drive, or to copy files and paste them to another drive, or to Send a file to another drive.  But you wouldn't really want to do that every day if, say, you had 15 files to backup each day, all in different folders.  That is where backup programs come in. 

With a backup program, you can define many backup jobs and schedule them to be run at certain times or intervals.  Defining a backup job means that you choose which files you want backed up, where you want them to go, and various options such as whether you want to password protect the backup, or whether you want the program to verify that the data you backed up is exactly the same as is on your hard drive.  Then you tell it to run the job once a week, or daily, or (with some programs) every time the file changes.

You can have, for instance, one file that you want backed up every time it changes, another file or files that you want backed up once a day, and finally perhaps a whole lot of files that only need to be backed up once every two weeks or once a month.  Setting it all up takes a bit of time, but once that is done, you simply pop a rewriteable CD or DVD into your burner and the backup program takes over from there and lets you know when the disk is full.  A good backup program is well worth its cost. 

But what if you want your entire system backed up once a week or every two weeks?  And you want that backup to be in a format that can be restored to a blank hard drive in case of hard drive failure?  This is what is known as disaster recovery.  The answer to this is hard drive images.  Drive images are exact copies of your entire drive, not just of your files, but copies of the physical hard drive sectors where those files exist.  Drive imaging programs either come with, or allow you to create, a CD that contains the program on it and that you can boot to if you have no operating system on a hard drive.  You put the CD in the drive, the machine will boot to the recovery program, then you point the program to the image you want to restore.  (Either on another hard drive, external drive, or DVD.)  In less than an hour you have the image copied onto the new hard drive and you are back in business as if nothing had happened. 

There is another way to get a full copy of your hard drive, which is another type of backup program that is something of a hybrid.  It copies your entire hard drive onto an external hard drive (or a second internal hard drive) which gives you an image (of sorts) of your drive, and each time you run the backup program, it looks to see what files have changed or been added and copies those to your hard drive.  This may or may not be a bootable drive, depending on drive type.  We think of this as a synchronizing backup.  It keeps the external and internal hard drives synchronized.  These are wonderful programs.  I use a program of this type in addition to a backup program, and also an imaging program!

Backups - Tips, Programs and Devices

Let's start with a couple of tips.  For easy backups, store all data in the My Documents folder, or to sub-folders of it.  You can make as many sub-folders as you like and organize them any way you want.  When it comes time to backup, you just backup the My Documents folder. 

You may have noticed that My Pictures, My Music and several other folders that Microsoft creates for specific things are already sub-folders of My Documents.  Sometimes programs automatically keep their data files in their own program folders rather than My Documents, but often you can change the default location to be in the My Documents folder. 

To check on specific programs and where they keep their data, or to find out how to move that program's data file to My Documents, go to our Forum and post a question either in the Applications forum, or the "How Do I?" forum.  Someone will be able to help you out. 

Note:  See sidebar for data on these special folders in Windows 10.

It is not a good idea to store data files on your desktop.  It is true that this makes things easy to find, but it is also true that people generally forget to backup data that sits on their desktops.  It is simple to move a file or folder to the My Documents folder, or wherever is most appropriate, and then put a shortcut to it on the desktop.  You can drag your file or folder over to the My Documents folder on your desktop and drop it there.  Open My Documents, find the file or folder, right-click it and choose Send To, then Desktop (create shortcut), and it puts a shortcut to the file or folder on the desktop. You just click on it to open it, just as you would had the actual file or folder been sitting there.

Now onto a couple of our favorite programs and drives.

The number of good choices for backup programs seem to be actually expanding.  We've used Acronis True Image, Macrium and Windows built in backup as a drive imaging program in both Windows 7 and 10. These also allow for straight data backups along with doing images.   We've found another imaging program that I like very well, it is much simpler than Acronis; but to my mind, simpler is better.  This program is called Casper, from Future Systems Solutions, Inc. 

You can find Casper here:

If you have need of the more complex features provided by Acronis True Image, you can check that out here:

Here is a link to Macrium:

These are all excellent programs.

If you have any questions about any of these programs, come on over to the forum and ask.  We've got lots of friendly folk willing to help. 

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