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.