You’re Backing Up Your Data The Wrong Way

You’re Backing Up Your Data The Wrong Way

Time and time again, people tell me that they’ve bought an external hard drive to backup their pictures, music and documents. Great, right? Sadly, that’s not always the case.

There’s one simple rule about backups that everybody needs to fully understand: Your files should exist in at least two places, or it’s no longer a backup — and your data is at risk.

It’s time to educate people on proper backup strategy, so we’ll run through your options and talk about the pros and cons. These days, you’ve got plenty of choices on the Windows side of things, Mac users have Time Machine and there’s online backup for anybody.

Backing Up to a Local Source

When it comes to local backup applications, it’s really a matter of preference, since most of them do the job adequately without a lot of fuss. The Backup and Restore application built into Windows 7 or Vista is a perfectly acceptable choice, and will handle most backups with ease. My personal choice is a paid version of SyncBack SE, but there’s plenty of other choices for Windows and all of them do the job.

The most important thing to remember when backing up your data is that you can’t delete it from your main system once it’s been backed up to an external drive. By doing that, you’ve left yourself with only a single copy of your important files, on an external drive that has just as much chance of dying as your internal PC hard drive. Think it can’t happen to you? One of my external drives died last week.

Backing Up to an Online Source

There’s quite a few online backup services to choose from, and while the great thing about online backup is that you don’t have to deal with external drives, you’re leaving your data in somebody else’s hands, and restoring all of your files can take an extremely long time, since you’ll have to download all of the files again. If you don’t have a ton of personal files, online backup is a great choice, if you don’t mind putting your faith in somebody else to keep your data secure.

Backing Up a Total System Image

Without question, the easiest form of backup to restore from is a complete image of your system. We’ve already covered a list of the best free system restore tools, and Gina walked through how to hot image your PC hard drive with DriveImage XML, but if you really want an easy experience you might want to check out one of the paid tools like Acronis True Image.

These tools are the best way to recover from a total system failure, but they usually aren’t quite as easy to restore a single file from, which is a much more likely scenario. There’s been dozens of times that I’ve needed to restore an older version of a document, and was able to easily grab the previous version from Dropbox or my external drive.

What Should You Backup?

When you’re backing up your files, there’s no reason to make a backup of every single thing on your hard drive — in fact, it would be a huge waste of space to backup your Windows folder if you have to reinstall the whole system in order to restore the backups again. Here’s a couple of pointers to help you choose what you really need to backup, and what you don’t:

  • Your entire Users folder: either at C:UsersUsername for Windows 7 or Vista, or C:Documents and Settings for Windows XP. This folder should contain all of your documents, settings, etc.
  • Your Data Folders: If you’ve created other data on your hard drives, you should include those as well.

What you don’t need to backup?

  • Your Program Files Folder: There’s simply no reason to backup your installed applications when they all have to be re-installed if you had to restore your machine. It’s a waste of space to do so.
  • Your Windows Folder: The only real good reason to backup your Windows folder is just in case you can’t find the same drivers again. On the other hand, there are any number of tools to backup your drivers, and you should do that once in a while instead of backing up the entire Windows folder.

Best Backup Strategy: Combo

Your best bet is to combine a number of different methods into your backup strategy.

  • Create a System Image: Use one of the many system restore tools to create a complete image of your PC, which will protect you in case of a catastrophic system failure. You’ll want to backup this to your external drive.
  • Use a Backup Tool: Just pick one, any one and start using it. Backup your data to an external drive, another PC, or anywhere else. Just make sure you don’t delete the data from the primary PC.
  • Use an Online Backup for Important Files: Even though you are backing up to an external drive, you might want to start using something like Dropbox or Mozy to backup your most important files.

Just remember, all of your files need to be in at least two places at once. You don’t want to get Journalspaced. Do you always keep your data in more than one place? Share your backup strategy in the comments.


  • My backup strategies are fairly simple.

    For my Macs, Time Machine is easily the best option. It ships with the OS, self-cleans old data and Just Works.

    The only thing I’ve tweaked is to exclude my iTunes library (media content only – not metadata) from the backup scope. With 2 iPhones and 3 iPods syncing regularly, there’s little need, and plenty of third party tools to let me get my data back off them.

    For my wife’s Windows laptop and my Ubuntu HTPC, I’ve scheduled routine Perl rsync scripts (thank God for cygwin) to sync our important data to a Debian fileserver.

    I don’t bother with system images or anything else. Crashes requiring full rebuilds are so rare nowadays that I’d rather save disk space in lieu of rebuild effort when required.

  • I think there’s one important point sorta missing from the article – the *need* (not option) for an offsite backup. Backing up to an external drive is an excellent first step, but what about the situation where your house is burgled or burns to the ground?

    Unless you have an offsite backup (e.g. online, or better still, large drive offsite) then you are still leaving yourself open to losing all that valuable data.

    With a Media library of around 250GB and a photo library pushing 160GB, I use a combo of local and offsite – daily backup to local and monthly backup to a 2.5″ portable drive which stays offsite in between times.

    That way if a drive dies (like it did a few weeks ago), I have a local backup that’s a day old, and if the worst happens and I come home to a meteor crater where the house used to be, I have a guaranteed offsite backup which is at maximum 4 weeks old.

    My ultimate plan is to have a NAS in a concrete pit in the back garden with gigabit Ethernet in between to look after my offsite, but that’s a bit of overkill at the moment!

  • I’ve really only backed up my vital stuff, files, music, photos and a handful of other things. this might seem a little slack but its all the things that can’t be replaced.
    everything is on sugarsync which keeps my xp desktop and macbook up to date with each other. i’m always going between the two, so this is vital that they have the same data, and i’ve lost too many usb sticks to count! there is also an external hdd attached to the pc that backs up everything hourly and by delta changes, so unlikely to run out of space. (my sugarsync only has 15gb in it, i don’t have that much music, which is odd for a musician!)
    all this means that i have quadruplicate copies of all irreplaceable files and can lose any 3 of them and fully recover. i’d consider it the height of bad luck if i lost both computers and the external and sugarsync crashed losing all files at the same time. even then, as long as i’m alive, i can always make more stuff!

  • i have a weekly snapshot on a sun night / monday morning. that takes a whole backup of users / home / docs folder. this hdd then comes with me to work monday AM and gets swapped out and stored at work in our server room on my little bit of shelf space….(little chance of work burning down 😉

    i then do incrementals from monday to sunday on a 2nd hdd and its kept locally. the swapped hdd is used that sun night for the next weekly. on eack hdd i keep around 4-6 weekly total bups. i can then go back 2 or so months (4 weeks on each hdd) and find any lost docos or old versions.

    its all about planning what it is you need to recover –

    You are only as safe as your last restore 🙂

  • If you use CrashPlan you can do the local & offsite backups with the one program. Plus, if you back up to a friend, there are no monthly charges and your storage is limited by how generous your friend is!

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!