07 September 2012

How to back up your computer

What is backing up?

Backing up means taking a copy of the files on your computer so that if something happens to the original files your data is safe, and can be restored to your computer.

Why should you backup?

What do you have stored on your computer?  Your family’s photos, videos, documents for your business, the book you’ve been writing for the last year?  What would happen if your computer crashed; it was affected by a virus or other malicious attack?  What if you had a fire and your computer was destroyed, or it was stolen?   

If you have a backup copy of what’s on your computer you can easily restore it to your existing computer, or to a new computer.  If you don’t have a backup copy – everything may be lost.

What should you backup?

The obvious is your photos, videos and documents, but you can also backup your internet bookmarks (favourites), emails, music, and saved games. 

What you don’t need to backup

You don’t need to backup your operating system.   You also don’t need to backup any program files.  If your computer has failed you’re going to have to reinstall your programs, so there’s no need to back them up.  If you have downloaded programs over the internet you are usually able to download them again as long as you have the original product key (you would probably have received it on an email – so make sure you’ve got a copy of that email).

What should you store your backup on?

Second internal hard drive

This is a separate hard drive to the main drive all your computer data is stored on.  If something happens to your main hard drive the second one is not affected and can be removed and installed in another computer.  The problem with this option is that you need to install the second drive on your computer if it doesn't already have one, and you need to know how to remove it and install it on a new computer if you need to.  The other problem is that you don’t have the option of storing your backup in a separate secure location away from your computer.  So, a second internal hard drive would be fine if you needed to restore your files because of a computer failure, but no good if your computer was stolen or damaged by fire.

External hard drive

External hard drives are easily attached to your computer via a USB cable, and have a large capacity – I’d recommend you buy one with at least the same capacity as your computer’s hard drive – double if you can afford it (you can store more copies of your files).

Officeworks has a large range, from $99 for a 750GB Seagate hard drive, to $289 for a 2TB Western Digital hard drive.

An external hard drive can be stored away from your computer to protect your backup.

The only downside is that the external hard drive needs to be connected to your computer when the backup is scheduled to occur.  If you store it elsewhere to protect your backup you need to remember to connect it to your computer before the backup starts (something to remember when you choose how frequently you backup and the time at which you backup).

Some external hard drives have their own in-built backup software, which will automatically backup as you make any changes to your files.  With this type of backup you wouldn’t be able to store your external drive away from your computer because it is continuously in use while you are working on your computer.

CDs and DVDs

They’re cheap and easy to buy, and you can store them securely away from your computer.  But, you can’t use CDs or DVDs for scheduled backups or continuous backups.  Depending on how much data you need to backup, you may need several CDs or DVDs and you’d need to keep track of their order, and need to change them while backing up.  Also, CDs and DVDs can become corrupted over time.  CDs and DVDs are better if you want to copy some important files and store them separately.

USB Flash Drive

Cheap and available just about everywhere; you can store a USB drive in a secure place away from your computer (you can even keep it with you).  You’ll need a high capacity USB drive (from $8 for 16GB to $192 for 64GB). 

Which option would I choose?  An external hard drive or a USB.  It depending on how much you have on your computer.  I use both.  I don’t find it a hassle to connect the external hard drive to my computer each night.  I also copy and paste my important documents to a USB drive and keep it in my handbag.   This USB drive doesn't need to be updated until I make a change to one of the documents on the drive.

There’s one more option – backing up online….to the cloud.  The benefit of this method is that the backup is stored away from your computer, no matter what happens to your computer, your backup is safe and can be restored to your existing computer or another computer. 

Today I’ll go through the steps of backing up your computer to an attached device.  My next post will be on online backup services and Cloud backup.

How often should you backup?

If you are editing and creating documents every day you’ll need to backup every day.  If you only use your computer occasionally you may only need to backup once a week.  When choosing how often you backup - think about how often you are making changes or adding to your computer – what could get lost between backups?

How to backup - what are your options:

1    USB Drive – Copy and paste

The most basic form of backup is to copy and paste your important files to a USB drive as often as you need.  As long as the file names stay the same, any changed documents would overwrite the previously copied files on the USB drive.  There’s no automation to this backup process – it’s up to you to remember to do it.

2    Use your Operating System to manage the backup process 

Free - you only have to pay for the device you're going to use to store your backup

Windows Vista & Windows 7 - Use Windows Backup and Restore

To set up a new backup

Connect the device you’re going to use for backing up - an external hard drive or USB drive.

Access Backup and Restore by clicking the Start button, click Control Panel, then
  • If you use category view – select System and Security, then Backup and Restore.
  • If you use icon view – select Backup and Restore

Click Set up backup, and then follow the steps in the wizard.   You’ll be guided through choosing the device you want your backup stored on, which files to backup (you can let Windows choose, or you can select them individually), and then set a backup schedule.  Once all those settings are done the first backup will be created.

After you create your first backup, Windows Backup will add new or changed information to your subsequent backups.

Windows users have another option:  use your computer manufacturer’s backup utility

Most computer manufacturers include a backup utility with their computers.  You’ll find it in your All Programs list.  If you are setting up a new computer you'll probably be asked if you want to set up this backup during the sestup process.

The setup is usually very similar to the Windows set up.  Personally I prefer to use Windows backup.  If something happens to your computer and your new computer is a different brand, it’s going to be a lot easier to restore your data if you have used Windows backup than one that is designed to work with a different brand of computer.

Apple Mac - use Time Machine

Apple’s backup utility is Time Machine.  Time Machine automatically backs up your system files, applications, accounts, music, photos, videos and documents. Once set up, it backs up your data every hour.  Time Machine is a bit different to most other backup utilities – Time Machine keeps multiple copies of your data, which allows you to go back to view a file as it looked at a previous backup.  

Setup Time Machine

Connect an external hard drive.  The first time you connect a new external hard drive Time Machine asks if you want to use it as a Backup Disk.  Click Use as Backup Disk and your preferences will open and your external hard drive will be selected for your backup.

Mac users have another backup option to consider – instead of an external hard drive you can buy Time Capsule.  Time Capsule is a wireless 2TB or 3TB hard drive that works with Time Machine to automatically back up everything.   It costs a bit more - $319, but its real benefit is where you have more than one Mac – Time Capsule can backup all your Mac computers.  Because it's wireless there's no hard drive attached to your computer, which means it can be hidden in a safe place and still backup your iMac and MacBook.

3   Buy an external hard drive with its own backup software

These external hard drives have one extra feature – built in backup software.  The setup is similar to Windows Backup, except that you have a choice of scheduled backup or continuous backup.  Continuous backup means that as long as the hard drive is connected to your computer, it works automatically and continuously backing up your data.  If you add or change a file it’s instantly backed up.  You can install all the features or just the components you need – some allow you to download and save photos you’ve posted on Facebook and Flickr.  Of course, the more extra features the more they cost. 
Seagate Backup Plus 500GB $109, 1TB $189

Western Digital 500GB My Passport Essential $119 

To set up:  Connect the hard drive via USB cable to your Windows PC, if automatic setup doesn’t start, double click the icon on your desktop. 

As an example - on the Seagate dashboard you just click on Protect Now to start your initial backup and set it to continuously backup your PC.  To schedule backups you click on New Backup Plan.   

If your computer is used for playing games it’s best to choose scheduled backup, rather than continuous, otherwise your computer is going to slow down quite a bit trying to monitor for changes to what it’s meant to backup.

4   External hard drive and separate backup software

The last option is a combination of buying an external hard drive and also buying specialised backup software.  There are too many backup software products for me to review here.  All have many more features than just backing up your data.  Prices range from $20 to $80, plus the cost of the external hard drive.  I may post about this software in the future, but from my experience an external hard drive with its own backup software (option 3 above) is much easier to set up and use.


No matter what method you use for backing up your computer, the first backup will take a while.  To minimise disruption set your first backup when you’ve finished working on your computer for the day and leave it to run overnight.  Future backups will only take a few minutes as they are only adding what has changed or been added to your computer.

Don't worry if  your computer is turned off when a backup is scheduled - it will start when you switch your computer on (you'll be prompted so you don't have to remember).  The same will happen if your external hard drive is not connected when the backup is due to start.

Now that you’ve backed up your files what are you going to do with the USB, CD/DVDs, or harddrive?  Ideally you’ll be storing them somewhere safe, away from your computer.  The best would be a fireproof box at a separate location.  

I’d love to hear about what you’re using and any tips you’ve got about backing up.  So please leave me a comment.

1 comment:

  1. If one is worried about accidentally losing his computer files, there are, apparently, many techniques accessible to back up and keep all the important data safe. Everything mentioned above are reasonably priced and capable of protecting documents for a long amount of time.

    Ruby Badcoe