Backup Tips: Keep Your Data Backups Safe, Simple, and Fast

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Someday, you will lose an important file that you haven't backed up. Many users continue to play Russian roulette with their valuable information and digital creations, but you don't have to. These simple instructions will help you develop a backup regimen that suits your needs.

Back Up a Little or a Lot

In Windows XP and 2000, you need to back up only your C:\Documents and Settings folder (or whichever folder you've set as your default). For Windows 98 or Me, Lincoln Spector's October 2003 Answer Line column lists the folders you need to back up (scroll down to the list). Forgo a grandiose backup routine in favor of a plan that you know you will perform regularly, or one that's easy to automate via the tips in that Answer Line column.

Make at least one extra copy of all your business, tax, and other financial records; important text documents and e-mail messages; and photos and video you've transferred from your digital cameras.

A complete system backup, such as a disk image, will help you recover quickly from a drive failure or other catastrophe, but it adds the expense of a second hard drive (or potentially extensive disc swapping if you use your optical drive). The best time to create a drive image is immediately after you reinstall Windows and get your applications running again. An image containing a patched copy of Windows and all your favorite programs configured the way you want them is a very useful thing to have at hand.

Nevertheless, you may get by just fine with backing up only your data files and folders. Though it takes time, you can reinstall operating systems and applications from their original discs, and Windows may even run better after you reload it; see last March's "Windows Rejuvenated" feature for more on reinstalling Windows.

Partition for Safety

By default, windows and most of your applications dump the files you create into your My Documents folder. My Documents separates photos, music, video, and other types of files and keeps them all in one spot for easy copying, but unfortunately it resides in the Windows boot partition--the most vulnerable and crowded place on your hard drive.

Creating a new partition for your data makes backup easier and safer because you avoid overwriting the files when you reinstall Windows. Here's one possible approach: Use your C: drive for your operating system; then create a new partition (named your D: drive) for your applications, another partition (your E: drive) for your business and/or financial data, and yet another partition (your F: drive) for image, sound, and video files.

Symantec's $70 Partition Magic 8 and Acronis's $50 Disk Director Suite make it simple to create new hard-drive partitions and resize existing ones.

If you want to continue using the My Documents folder as your primary file repository, you can relocate the folder outside your Windows partition: Open Windows Explorer, right-click My Documents, select Properties, and choose the Move button under the Target tab; then navigate to and select the folder outside your Windows partition where you want to relocate My Documents, and click OK as often as necessary (see FIGURE 1

FIGURE 1: Play it safe by relocating your My Documents folder outside your Windows partition.
). To change the folder where Outlook Express stores your e-mail, open the program, click Tools, Options, Maintenance, Store Folder, Change, navigate to the folder you want to keep your e-mail in, and click OK until all the dialog boxes are closed.

Find the Right Medium

The essential elements of backing up are multiple copies and multiple sites--the first because any media can go bad, and the second because you don't want to lose your backup along with your PC. So back up to several sets of CDs, DVDs, or other media, and let the size of the job determine which media you choose. For example, if your files total 2GB and you want three separate copies, you won't fit each copy on a single CD, and they would take forever to upload to a Web server; instead, use a DVD burner, an external hard drive, or both. But if you need to back up only 200MB of data and you can live with two copies, the CD/online route may be better.

For most people, DVD is the backup medium of choice. Prices of recordable DVD drives are coming down, and DVDs store several times more data than CDs do. Furthermore, writable DVD discs are cheap and readily removable for safe off-site storage. Using DVDs may entail swapping discs a few times, so you'll have to hang around while backing up (at least initially). But the price of DVD backups is only about 10 to 20 cents per gigabyte. For archiving unchanging data that you'll keep a long time, use DVD±R write-once media (they're more reliable than RW).

If you're looking for faster backups that don't require you to remain nearby to swap discs, try an external hard drive such as Western Digital's Media Center, which costs about $230 for the 250GB model (see FIGURE 2

FIGURE 2: Removable hard drives, such as Western Digital's Media Center, make backups safe and easy.
), or Maxtor's OneTouch, priced at about $270 for the 300GB model. Beware, however: A single hard drive is far too fragile and unreliable for you to count on it as your sole backup medium.

Online services such as XDrive and Ibackup are expensive--prices start at $10 a month, though free trials are available--and interminably slow without a broadband Internet connection. Still, they're suitable for backing up a modest amount of critical data, and online is by far the safest place to store your files within easy reach. Read "Online Backup Services Come of Age" for more about online storage.

A handy small-scale backup tool is a flash-based USB thumb drive such as Verbatim's Store 'n' Go, which costs about $70 for a 1GB model (see FIGURE 3

FIGURE 3: Bring your backups with you on a USB thumb drive such as the Verbatim 1GB Store 'n' Go.
). The drive fits in your pocket and can safeguard small amounts of vital data on the road. Just be sure to encrypt that data to keep it from prying eyes in case you lose the unit.

The chart on the next page provides a rundown of your various backup-media options.

Winning Backup Strategies

The first backup you make is arguably the most important because it serves as the baseline for all subsequent backups. (Be sure to see our collection of info on, and links to, backup utilities.)

Run your backup software, and select the partitions (for an image backup) or files and folders (for a file-level backup) that you want to safeguard. Don't overlook items such as your e-mail, address book, and calendar. If you aren't sure where these items--and other program data--are stored on your system, open the relevant application and look for file-storage settings among its options.

Password-protect and encrypt your data if you want it to remain private. Give each backup a descriptive name, such as 'Backup of Richelle's first birthday video 06 05 2005.bak'. Use the utility's comments feature to list the date and time of the backup, and anything else that will help you discern its contents in the future. Save space by compressing the backup, unless you plan to restore the files using only Windows Explorer.

Use the application's verify function to confirm that it copied all the data correctly--enough things can go wrong later without your starting off with a bad backup. Make at least two copies. (Copying the first DVD or CD onto a second disc may be faster than running the backup twice.)

Once you've made your full baseline backup, you can drastically reduce your time and space requirements by continuing with either differential backups, which include all data that has changed since the baseline backup, or incremental backups, which include only data that has changed since the last backup of any type (full, differential, or incremental). Incremental backups are quick and require relatively little storage space, but re-creating files from such backups involves restoring each of these backups in order. Finally, while you should never overwrite your original baseline, you can and should overwrite differential and incremental backups after making new full backups that contain the same data.

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