3 easy steps anyone can take now to back up a PC

answer line backup reward just need data

Laptop stolen: Bad. Laptop stolen, data not backed up: Disastrous. Don't be the person who put up this poster. Back up your data regularly. 

Credit: Lincoln Spector

Wayne Watson asked for advice about backing up his PC.

First I'll give you six great reasons to back up your PC: Hardware failure (especially your hard drive or SSD). Ransomware. Theft. Fire. Flood. User error (probably the most common).

Next, I'll give you an easy, three-item checklist for backing up said PC.

They're steps well worth taking. I get emails every day from people desperate to recover lost files. The ones who backed up don’t bother to write.

[Have a tech question? Ask PCWorld Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector. Send your query to answer@pcworld.com.]

This advice assumes your first priority is to back up your data files. That includes documents, spreadsheets, photos, songs, videos, and email. In terms of locations on your hard drive, that means your library folders, appdata, and maybe your desktop. You can find more information in our detailed guides on setting up a solid backup protocol and even backing up for free.

1. Choose cloud backup vs. external backup

I recommend backing up these files to either an external hard drive or the cloud.

An external hard drive is cheap and fast. But because it resides in the same building as your PC—and likely the same room—a fire, flood, or burglar can deprive you of both your original (the files on your internal hard drive or SSD) and the backup.

That problem gets worse if you leave the external drive plugged into your PC 24/7. If it’s always connected, the same power surge or ransomware can also destroy both.

So if you go this route, you need to remember every day to plug in the drive, do the backup, and remove the drive.

That’s not a problem with cloud backup. As long as you’re connected to the Internet, the backup can happen automatically without your conscious effort. And because the backup is on a server far away, any event cataclysmic enough to destroy both your original and the cloud backup would make your backup data the least of your concerns.

On the other hand, cloud backup is much slower. It can take days, or even weeks, to do the first full backup. A hard drive could do it in hours. The cloud is also more expensive in the long run, because you have to make monthly or annual payments to keep the service.

2. Choose a backup program

Any decent backup program will let you set criteria that controls which files will be backed up—for instance, only files in certain folders or of certain file types. The default settings should be right for most users.

Once the rules for the backup are set, the program will create a full backup that copies every file matching the criteria. Subsequent backups will be incremental, copying only the files created or changed since the last backup.

The best programs offer some form of purging, removing older backups to make room for new ones. I’ve discussed this in detail.

You’ll need software. Both Windows 7 and 8 have acceptable programs for backing up to an external hard drive. But there are better options. My current favorites are EASEus Todo Backup and AOMEI Backupper. The free versions are more configurable and thus more powerful than Windows’ tools. The paid ones are even better. 

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AOMEI Backupper

With cloud backup, you pick a service, which then provides the software. I’ve used Mozy and Carbonite, and find both excellent. Other services are probably just as good.

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3. Make an image backup of Windows itself

Backing up your data is vital, and should be done daily. Backing up Windows itself is just a good idea, and need only be done three or four times a year.

For this chore, you need to create an image backup, which copies the entire drive into one compressed but still huge file. Windows 7, Windows 8, and EASEus Todo Backup can all image-backup your drive. There’s no cloud option here; you’ll need an external hard drive. You can check my previous article for details.

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