How do I backup my computer?

Backing up your computer is critical to avoiding data loss. I'll look at what it is, give a suggestion for average users, and I'll describe how I backup my computer.

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How do I “back up” my computer? I am sure my question is ridiculous to you, but I honestly have no clue what I should be doing.

Your question’s not ridiculous at all. In fact, I’m certain that this is why so many people don’t back up: they simply don’t know how.

For something that’s as important as backing up is, that’s a little scary.

Let’s look first at what it means to back up a computer and what your options are. Then, I’ll tell you what I recommend for average users.

Backing up

Backing up is nothing more making a copy of data and/or program files and then keeping that copy in a safe place.

Nothing more, nothing less.

The key word in that statement is “copy”, as in duplicating the information. After you back up you have that same information in at least two or more places. In fact that leads to one one of my most important rules of thumb:

If it’s in only one place, it’s not backed up.

I occasionally run across folks that misunderstand the concept. After copying their information to their backup drive, they delete the original, leaving only a single copy on that backup drive. Regardless of what you call the drive it’s on, if it’s in only one place, it’s not backed up.

The goal of a backup is also simple: if something happens to your computer so that you can’t retrieve your information from it (which happens more often than people realize) or you somehow otherwise lose access to your data, then you can get the information from the backup copies.

Where backing up starts to seem complicated is when you look at all of the options relating to how much to back up, how often, and what tools to make sure that it happens regularly.

Backup & RestoreTypes of backups

Backups typically take one of two forms:

  • Copying your data. This is conceptually very simple. For example, if you copy pictures off of your digital camera and then immediately burn those pictures to a CD for safe-keeping, you’ve backed them up. Similarly, if you regularly take the contents of your “My Documents” folder tree and copy it to another machine or burn it to CD, that’s one form of backing those files up. They’re safely stored in another location in addition to the original.
  • Imaging your system. This is also conceptually very simple. Rather than backing up only this-and-that, hoping that you actually remembered to include everything that you might need in case of a disaster, this approach makes a copy of absolutely everything; your data, your programs, your settings – even the operating system itself.

Both types of backups share a common characteristic. Whatever they backup, be it just certain files and folders or absolutely everything, they do so by a) making a copy, and then b) placing that copy somewhere else.

If your data is in only one place, meaning that there are no copies of that data, then you’re not backed up.

So what do you do, Leo?

My needs are rather extreme, but I’ll outline them here as an example to spur ideas:

  • I use Macrium Reflect to backup my PCs to a network drive: a monthly full backup with nightly incrementals.1
  • I save the monthly full snapshots (copied to a different machine) for at least three months, save every quarter’s for a year, and the January 1 backup of each year pretty much forever.
  • I use Dropbox (and a couple of similar programs) to not only replicate files across my multiple machines but also to back up those files to servers online.
  • I upload an encrypted collection of important files to my off-site server weekly.
  • Those encrypted collections are then also uploaded from my servers to the Amazon S3 data storage service weekly.

As I said, overkill for most folks, but perhaps it’ll help spur some ideas of what might be appropriate for you.

Backup locations

So where should this “somewhere else” be?

Well, the ideal answer is “as far away from your computer as practical.” The further away, the more you are protected from various types of disasters.

  • If the backup is on the same hard disk, then you could lose your data and your backup if that hard disk dies.
  • If the backup is on a different hard disk, but inside the same computer, then you could lose your data and your backup if something happens to the computer that causes both hard disks to be harmed.
  • If the backup is on an external hard disk but connected to the same computer, then you could lose your data and your backup if there’s a software glitch or malware on that computer that starts destroying files on all connected devices.
  • If the backup is on a different computer on the same network, then a network problem or malware on your local network could start deleting files and you could lose your data and your backup.
  • If the backup is burned to a CD or DVD, but kept in the same physical location or any of the solutions are all in the same place, then you could lose your data and your backup if that location suffers a physical catastrophe (such as a fire or flood).

That’s scary stuff, but you get the idea. The closer your backup is to the original data, the greater the possibility that you could lose both at once. It doesn’t happen often, but it can. So, make a copy of your data and store it in a safe place away from your computer.

Backing up

The question remains – how do I back up? The questions that drive that answer are:

  • How likely is it that the problems that I mentioned will happen to you?
  • How important is the data?

For the first question, the answer is always assume the worst.

When your data is important, it’s likely that you’ll want to back up more frequently. When you have multiple copies of those backups, you’ll want to keep them in different locations. The importance of your data is something that only you can really judge.

By far, the three most common issues that I see people encountering that causes data loss are:

  • Malware
  • Hard drive failure
  • Accidental deletion

That means protecting yourself against at least those is a great place to start.

A suggested backup plan

There are many approaches to backing up, which I’ve discussed in an earlier article, What backup program should I use? Rather than revisit those approaches here, I’ll make a simple suggestion.

For most average home users, I suggest:

  • Get an external USB hard disk.
  • Use an automated backup program like Macrium Reflect or an equivalent and back up everything (an image backup, as discussed above) to the external drive automatically on a daily or weekly schedule.

This won’t protect you from everything (like your house burning down), but it will protect from what I see are the most common causes of data loss. If your hard disk dies, you can restore files and perhaps the entire system from your backup. If you happen to – oops! – delete a file by accident, then as long as it was there when the most recent backup was taken, you can restore it quickly and easily. If malware happens,you can restore your system from a backup taken prior to the infection.

Most programs come with relatively simple instructions to set up the most common types of backups for average users.

If you’re using Macrium Reflect specifically, then I’d like to also suggest Saved! – Backing Up with Macrium Reflect - my ebook that details how to back up your machine using Macrium Reflect. (Access to demonstration videos, as well as multiple digital formats is included.)

As your needs increase, as you determine that the importance of your data requires stronger measures, then you’ll have a good base to build on.

This is an update to an article originally posted : October 23, 2008
Footnotes and references

1: I also use Apple’s Time Machine backing up to an external hard drive on each of my Macs.

There are 98 comments:

  1. Rahul Mehta Reply

    One concern I have is the availability of the backup program for restoring the data when you need it. Personally I like a backup set that can be read normally by an OS – one that does not require the same program to restore. This takes up more disk space for the backup set but these days space comes cheap.

    Another space hog is the accumulation of data. No one takes a risk to really delete a backup set or files within. That means it grows… and grows….

    I have a backup set on an 5.25″ floppy. Does anyone have an 5.25″ drive?

    I agree proprietary formats can be a little off-putting. I’m comfortable because I’ve had good experience with what I use. However there are backup utilities that store in a more standard “zip” format that can be read by any zip-capable tool which would get you compression without a proprietary format.

    - Leo
    24-Oct-2008
  2. novice Reply

    5.25″ floppy? do they still make those? if you have data stored several years ago it could already be lost since floppies never lasted much when i used them

    • William Arnold Reply

      Novice, I can assure you that not all floppies are that bad. I can prove at this moment that I have some floppies at least 15 years old
      that I just got through installing word for windows, first edition from, that worked well. I also have Lotus 123 that I installed from the
      floppies. SO, Yes, floppies is not a good choice, nor safe choices. However, there are still some that have good retainability. I didn’t
      think they would work and wanted to JUST SEE if they would. The did. I have deleted the program already. Actually, CD and DVD isn’t
      all that much more reliable. :()

    • William Arnold Reply

      Rahul – I forgot to add the answer to your question. Yes I do have the 5 1/4 floppy drive. I have one of the combination drives,
      i.e, there is a 5 1/4 & a 3 1/2 Still works in the right computer.

    • bill Reply

      How long would it take you to back up a terrabyte of data on CDs and dvds?

      • Leo Reply

        A very long time, which is one reason I strongly recommend against CDs and DVDs as backup destinations these days.

  3. Rahul Mehta Reply

    My point is that don’t just focus on the backup. Keep “Restore” in mind too. An old program that doesn’t run anymore, an old technology for storage that is not accessible anymore and thousand other reasons can render a backup useless.

    In the professional world, restoring periodically is a very valuable exercise. But how many do it? Is it too much to ask for from a home user?

    It is like the airbags in my 8 year old car. The manual says they are there, the label on the car says there are there. The mechanics say they are functioning ok. But I have no idea where they are or whether they will work in that one extremely important situation. Never needing it is the best thing but they better work when needed. And I can’t even test them myself.

    Not so with the backups. I can test them. And I do, occasionally.

    the 5.25″ floppy was only a metaphor I used to say an outdated technology can render your important backups useless. And if you have important backups, you either migrate them to newer technology or have older active equipment on the standby. That includes CDs and DVDs too. May be not as fragile as the floppies (hey – am I coining a saying or what?), they have life too and that technology is evolving too.

    Rahul raises a good point: every so often “test” your backups. It’s something that’s often done in professional situations, and it applies to home as well.

    Media lifespan can be an issue; technologies fade away (floppies), and media deteriorates. I’ve taken to copying my oldest CD-ROM backups from 15 years ago to new media.

    - Leo
    25-Oct-2008
  4. Jim Reply

    I also send a copy of any important file to myself as an e-mail attachment. The e-mail address is accessible from just about anywhere.

  5. MistyEyes Reply

    I have a question about backing up the registry. What happens to it? Do you need to do a separate registry backup or is it done automatically?
    If using a program like Acronis TrueImage, or Ghost does that image the registry?
    If the registry does need to be backed up also,
    what is a good program to do that?
    I would love to see an answer to this as I
    have never seen it being addressed.

    Thank you!

    Then you apparently missed this article: How do I backup and restore the registry?

    - Leo
    29-Oct-2008
  6. HandyMan Reply

    Also don’t overlook the use of USB flash drives. If you can’t afford one big enough to contain all of your data, at least back up your ‘can’t live without’ files to it and store it in a locked drawer in your workplace, for example.

  7. John E Reply

    Now that hard disk drives are cheap, it’s worth considering setting up 2 drives as a RAID mirrored pair. You’ll need a motherboard that supports this sort of drive configuration, but then you have a system with built-in redundancy against failure. Of course, this doesn’t prevent the need for regular backups, but if you do get a disk failure it shouldn’t mean any computer downtime – just pull out the bad drive and replace it with a good one, and the RAID array should rebuild itself.

    I plan to get more in depth on RAID at some point, but I do not consider it part of a backup strategy. Raid has some other, incredibly important, things that it can bring to the party, but I do not suggest implementing raid for most consumers “in case one drive dies”.

    - Leo
    29-Oct-2008
    • Roy Reply

      I used a mirrored raid to protect my data. Both drives failed.
      Haven’t used raid since.
      Best backup is to image your drive. When the drive failes pop in the copy and you have all your data, programs and OS and don’t have to restore anything. Just keep the image copy is a safe place preferably out of the house.

  8. whs Reply

    There are a few principles to which I adhere for backup:
    1. Backup to an external device (typically a disk, but for small amounts of just data a USB stick may do) that can be disconnected. This is important because malware can attack anything that is running (e.g. Raid)
    2. Do it on a regular schedule – I do it once every week with Norton Ghost (Acronis would be another alternative). I backup all my data on Wednesdays and my whole system on Sundays.
    3. Keep as many backups as you can fit because problems sometimes manifest themselves late in the game and you may have to go back quite a bit.

  9. Frank Walker Reply

    Raid for Backup? If your data becomes corrupted and unusable it does so on both drives at the same time. Then what?
    Acronis True Image has worked well for me to restore data to the same hard drive in the same computer after the data has become corrupted.
    I keep a backup on my secondary hard drive and a backup on an external hard drive off site.
    I also back up important files to a USB flash drive (and the off site hard disk) as I have never been able to restore a full image archive made with Acronis True Image 10 or 11 to a new hard drive or a new computer. (This occurred at least three times). Acronis customer
    service told me to use the Microsoft system preparation tool before migrating my data to a new system. What they didn’t do was explain to me how I was to determine when my hard drive would fail so I could follow their procedure.
    Perhaps Leo has more information on the difficulties of restoring data to a new hard drive or a new system using Acronis software.

    • Louis Damelin Reply

      You have that right. I have had the same experience with Acronis and Macrium. When you need a new hard drive these backups don’t work. Fortunately you can copy data files from the backup cd dvd disks to restore them individually; after you install your operating system and programs.

  10. WordsMyth Reply

    Is it better to “clone” a (bootable) backup copy of my hard drive to my new external HD, or to just do “backup image,” which allows compression but is NOT bootable?

    Bit of background/context: I recently got an Apricorn 500 GB external HD (USB and/or eSATA), which comes with Apricorn’s “EZ Gig II” backup program. Apricorn has gotten very good reviews across a broad spectrum of sources and EZ Gig II can run from “one-button” simple back-ups to fairly elaborate “customized” clone/backup images for the more experienced.

    I had pretty much decided to:

  11. JOYOUS Reply

    HOLY COW!
    ALL I WANT TO DO IS SAVE MY E-MAIL FOLDERS TO A CD!
    HOW COMPLICATED IS THAT………..
    I HEARD YOU CAN BACK UP THE FOLDERS AND FREE UP SPACE SO YOUR COMPUTER CAN BE FASTER.
    AS YOU CAN SEE…I AM A NOTICE….AND DO NOT KNOW HOW TO DO IT……TOOTLES

  12. Bonita Reply

    Leo,
    I invested in a large capacity USB external hard drive for the specific purpose of making an image backup. When I went to choose the image backup program, the salesman advised me to make the backup on DVDs instead, “since the DVDs would be bootable and the hard drive wouldn’t.” I feel frustrated by my lack of knowledge and would appreciate knowing what extra steps would be involved in making a functional image backup on the external HD instead of DVDs.
    Thank you.

    There are many different approaches, and while the salesman is incorrect in some regards, he is correct in one: in a worst case scenario you need something to boot from.

    My approach (using Acronis) is to create an Acronis Rescue/Boot CD once and then backup my data to the external USB hard disk. Then in the worst case scenario I can boot from that CD, which then has the Acronis tools to recover my data from the external hard drive.

    - Leo
    03-Nov-2008
  13. Steve Burgess Reply

    Leo, I TOTALLY agree with what you say about keeping the backup as far away as possible from the original.
    A local school library burned down – all of the contents were lost. The laptop on the librarian’s desk looked like a cinder coughed up by a volcano. The laptop held an inventory of the library’s contents – all of the info needed for the insurance company to pay out. The backup was on a CD in the desk drawer under the laptop. It turned into a little puddle of plastic. Fortunately, we were able to recover the data. If you’re curious, there’s a picture of the laptop here: http://www.datarecoveryworldwide.com/ (I don’t think I can paste a picture in here). Incidentally, one of the things that kept the HD from being too far gone was that the laptop was sitting on a cheap plastic and cardboard three-ring binder – it provided just enough insulation so that the guts of the HD weren’t totally fried (just well-done). Now the school district keeps backups in another room – AND keeps cheap three-ring binders under laptops!

  14. Dennis Conard Reply

    I have Acronis True Image 11 Home.
    I’ve been LQQKing at your postings on the subject of backing up.
    Could you please post by the numbers, the steps to back up a C: drive with Acronis True Image.

    Your doing what I want to do in Backing-up, I just want to go forward now.

    Thanks,
    Dennis in Sacramento

  15. DEBBIE Reply

    i THINK HE WANTED THE ANSWER TO THIS QUESTION. ONCE I PLUG IN MY EXTERNAL HARD DRIVE ETC THEN HOW DO I GET THE FILES TO SAVE TO IT. EASY QUESTION BUT WAS NOT ANSWERED

  16. Tom Smith Reply

    I like carbonite online backup service – carboniteremote.info

  17. Moshe Natan Lando Reply

    When I try to back up to my external hard drive to a disk or disks I get a message {“You have too much information for one disk”}.
    Fine, I’ll use as much disks as it takes, but HOW?

  18. patrick Reply

    Leo,
    im on vista and i went into control pannel and then into backup and restore center and then into backup computer and i selected my external hard-drive but it says underneath the drop down box (the one where you choose what drive to backup to)next a yellow triangle with an explanation mark “this disk cannot be used to store a windows complete pc backup image because because it is not formatted with NTFS”

    I don’t see a question in there but it sounds like the drive is probably formatted with FAT32. See this article How do I convert to NTFS?

    Leo
    14-Nov-2009

  19. Teri Reply

    Question. If I get an external hard-drive, run a back-up using Acronis (or whatever)…can I restore my system on a different computer? Specifically, my son is moving in with me, and he has this monster of a gaming computer…and my 4 year old laptop is about running slower and slower all the time – so, what I want to do, is backup my laptop (with all the data AND PROGRAMS I have) and just plug it in to his pc and run my programs independently of what he already has loaded on the system. Does that make sense? Is it possible?

    No. The problem is that the applications are installed in your laptops copy of Windows, and that copy of Windows is configured for the hardware in your laptop. Restoring it to another computer – particularly one that is vastly different than the original – won’t work. What will work is restoring it to a drive and accessing files from it, but restoring and expecting the restored OS and applications to “just work” isn’t in the cards.

    Leo
    22-Nov-2009

  20. netta Reply

    OK, I want to back up my computer on Discs. Which discs do I buy, (there are several to chose from), how many, (range)?. thanks *n

  21. Anthony Reply

    At the moment I have most of my files copied on both my work and home computer, as well as a Flash Drive. Originally that was for easy access at any time but how does that measure up in relation to your idea of backing up?

    It’s not so much how it measures up to me, but to you. Take anyone one of those three. Now imagine that it disappeared completely. As far as your data is concerned, is that a disaster, a pain, or simply an annoyance? If it’s a disaster, then you’re not backing up enough. If it’s a pain, then a more complete backup strategy may help ease that pain should it ever occur. If it’s just an annoyance, then you’re probably just fine.

    Leo
    26-Nov-2009

  22. Jim Vetor Reply

    I do not trust USB external drives, home made one or boughten ones. I have had data corrupt on more then one of them for no apparent reason. I recently crashed my hard drive being stupid. I thought I had it backed up on my External. When I hooked it up the data wasn’t seen. I used some software online and thank God the data was seen and I was able to copy it to my hard drive. I bought two 500 gig drives, mounted one in the computer and the other as USB. I now keep an updated copy on each drive using the free second back up program. Barring a fire I should be safe unless both drives go south at the same time with my hard drive. The only media I really trust is burning a CD-R but the loss between burns could be extreme and it is time consuming. I now only burn back up data I no longer need but want to keep. Enjoy your work. Thanks.

    Jim

  23. Mike Reply

    I use a program called Nova Backup Professional. I’m not very technical, but I found it pretty easy to use. I run a small online business so I have it back up my business data automatically every night. The cool thing about Nova Backup is that it makes it really easy to back stuff up online. They have a list of storage companies and for like 10 bucks a month you can subscribe to one then just check it as one of the devices you want to back up to and it will back up your files locally and off site in case the local device gets destroyed.

  24. Jessica clementson Reply

    Is it better to back up(system image) your computer using cd’s or a flash drive? I heard that flash drives don’t work well with long term/archiving information. Which is better?

  25. DuLe Reply

    Well, I guess I’m not too smart…. When I recently purchased a new PC I also bought an external HD. For the first time in 10 years I was, by gosh, going to back-up my stuff!

    But now I’m frustrated with/by my external HD (Seagate – 250 GB).

    After running a back-up *one time* the HD says it’s full — 196 GB of 232 GB used. And I can

  26. ThadaB Reply

    I downloaded a free trial of Acronis TrueImage and ran it. It stopped saying no space so I deleted files on external drive. When it finished, it had made 3 files! They are named @date@, @date@2, and @date@3 instead of giving me the choice of a name with date, which I requested. I clicked on them since you say they are searchable. They are NOT! They cannot be opened. what gives?

  27. JohnnyBoyClub Reply

    I personally use http://www.dmailer.com/dmailer-backup.html to backup my HDD.

    Why i am using it ?
    Because is easy to use and has a friendly user interface , and is also free .
    Another great reason why i am using it is that it has a feature where you can store up to 3gb any backups your have for free members ( you can buy higher webspace )

    On as cale of 1-10 i will give Dmailer around 9

  28. Eric Schilling Reply

    Good article! While I am intrigued by the strategy of backing up to multiple places on the home office network, I can only wish I had that many computers. Sadly, I only have two – a fairly ancient laptop (1999) and a reasonably recent desktop.

    I’m thinking about buying 2 usb drives and rotating them nightly. I also want to be backing up every day. Drive A is plugged in before I go to bed and drive B is unplugged and put in the fire safe. The next night I swap back and so on. If I do a full image with drive A attached, then the next day’s incremental (or differential) would be on drive B. This means I’d potentially need *BOTH* backup drives in order to do a restore, which is bad if one of your backup devices fails too. (Like you have a fire and the system and backup drive attached are toasted.) So what is a good strategy using two USB drives and rotating them? Is there a better strategy for more drives? They are getting awfully cheap. Thanks!

  29. John Nicholls Reply

    Great articles on backing up – but nothing about restoring! One necessitates the other.
    I imaged my hard disk onto an external HD but I’m at a loss as to how to restore if I have to. That’s because you need a floppy disk(!) for the purpose. My laptop has no FDD. I read some advice about creating a bootable CD but it lost me. So now I have my backup and the hope I will not need it!!

  30. Tony Reply

    I’ve owned a computer for nearly two years but only just bought an external hard drive two days ago. I recently changed to Windows 7 and there’s a prompt that constantly reminds users that “your files are not being backed up”. I successfully ran a back-up but my question is – What should I expect to see when I look at that drive? The back-up size was 83.26 GB but why can’t I actually “see” all this information on the drive!

  31. rahul Reply

    hi,
    my harddisk got infected with virus….i am planning to format it …so is ther a way to backup all the data without carrying the virus

  32. Lyn Reply

    Hi Toni,
    Yeh, my Win 7 backup to Ext HD was showing (Empty) in some things. Yet there was all the GB’s used. I kept on clicking on things and it … like … installed, or something. And then it was suddenly there! I don’t know why Win 7 doesn’t have sensible instructions.
    Lyn

  33. Aunt Nina Reply

    Good article. It is in language I can actually understand and answered all of my questions about backing up and using a usb. I am having printing problems and am going to have to have my computer worked on and this will save me worry about them losing my info.

  34. Robin Beeson Reply

    To back up you suggest I get a USB hard disc -ok. But what then? How do I download everything from my computer? If hard drive dies
    I assume I purchase another to replace it and then introduce the stored data to it – if so how do I do that please?

    That’s what backup software is for. You run it regularly to backup yoru data to the external disk, and when time comes to restore it you use it again. This series has an example of the backup process step by step using an older version of Acronis: How to Backup.

    Leo
    10-Jun-2011

  35. jasmin Reply

    Thanks so much! You really helped me :) Now can I just get a flashdrive & back my files into that? Please respend. Thank you. :)

    Using flash drives is one form of backup, but realize that it doesn’t backup everything, flash drives are easily lost, and flash memory does wear out.

    Leo
    10-Jun-2011

  36. Robin Clay Reply

    I understand that CDs and DVDs (particularly cheap ones) may have a life of only five years or less. “Archive quality” I gather will last longer – but probably not for ever.

    I backed up some files to floppy (well, 3.5″ “stiffy”) disks. Ten years later (when I needed them) they were unreadable.

  37. peterlonz Reply

    It’ about time that the writers of PC articles are addressing users with many Tb of stored data.
    With Music video & movies, my system which is probably towards the low end of high level data storage, uses about 3.5Tb.
    Do I need to back up everything – probably not, but if I do a half pie decent job, I will need either a removable HD or external HD with say 5 Tb of storage.
    This is no small investment & frankly I don’t recall seeing anything of this size for sale.
    Then there is the issue of copy time, can it be done overnight, if not how many hours in the day do I sacrifice?
    Lets get to the heart of this matter – people do not back up because its APITA.

    That may be… and I honestly wish backup programs were easier for the average consumer … but like it or not the choice not to back up means you could lose everything in an instant and without warning. If you’re OK with that, then don’t backup. On the other hand, that kind of data loss (terrabytes of data loss?) would be a bigger PITA to me than figuring out how to get it safely backed up.

    Leo
    09-Dec-2011

  38. james leslie Reply

    Can I use the cd player on my Gateway 8510 laptop to image backup my system. In addition to protecting against loss I’m considering wiping the harddrive clean and begining over. My system seems to be slowing down but Security Essentials and Malwarebytes don’t find infections.

    • Roy Reply

      Image backup means duplicating your drive, Not only not enough space on a cd or dvd but cannot replace the damaged disk. Best done on a dupicate hard drive that can replace the one you lose.

  39. Connie Reply

    @James
    Seems like it would take a lot of CD’s to back up the whole computer. A flash drive, or external drive would save you a lot of grief.

  40. Daryn Reply

    I would like to backup my entire system but exclude space intensive stuff that isn’t critical to my computer’s operation, such as the pictures, music, movies and documents. Is there a good backup program that will image the system less this kind of user data? I would then plan on backing up the user data using something like Carbonite. I know one idea would be to move the user data to a second partition but I’m looking for other options that would leave the original structure intact. Thanks!

  41. Mark J Reply

    @Daryn
    Partitioning is probably your best option. As far as I know, there aren’t any backup programs which have filters to exclude certain file types.

  42. Ron007 Reply

    On any backup discussion I like to post this quote:

    Remember 3-2-1 to have good backups —
    - at least 3 copies of any file,
    - in 2 different formats (say on a hard drive and DVD or the cloud),
    - at least 1 copy offsite — in case of fire!

    Steve Gibson

    IMHO, Attributes of a “Good” backup program:

    - split backup when writing to BluRay#!?!# / DVD / CD #don’t bother any more!# diskettes

    - allows creation of a Bootable backup application program CD/DVD to allow you to boot to the app and restore from external backup when your HD is dead

    - makes creation of bootable disk easy! #Some are still too techie#

    - backup compression. I prefer to trade a little extra time during backup to use less backup space #which is more limited, since I have to pay cash for it personally#

    - allows you to explicitly include and exclude files/folders

    - creates an image that can be mounted as a virtual drive, so you can extract individual files if needed

    Given size of drives shipping by default, now it makes sense to partition those drives, ie: C: for Apps & OS and D: for Data

    Partitions allow separate backup strategy, ie: Full monthly image of C: , say the Weekend Before Windows Patch Tuesday =in case they screw up= and incremental weekly for rest of month.

    D: Full image monthly =different weekend than C:= and weekly incrementals =for “average” home user without much change=
    OR
    D: full Image Weekly, and daily incremental on a machine that has lots of daily activity or HIGH VALUE daily activity =ie business machine=
    OR
    D: full Image weekly, and real time or near real time backup to internet for high value business machine.

    Earlier poster asked what is best disk to use?
    #1 External Large USB drive#s# 1TB or larger!
    #2 RE-WRITEABLE -Double layer- BluRay / DVD -so you can cycle them!-
    #3 Write once BluRay / DVD disks, say for monthly or 6 monthly or annual “archive” backups stored off site =cheapest, but disposable=

  43. Warren Reply

    Hi, your article is pretty thorough. Your three penetrating questions, what program to use, why can’t if just make a copy, and slick how you introduce what might be to many a confusing question about backing up methodology. I click on the Macrium Reflect link, but it appears to be your own product. I go back to the old mainframe days when we had to spend hours backing applications up to 7 track tape, and store the 20 to 50 or more tapes in a separate tape library. My idea of a good back up system, is that it be dynamic, ie continually checking and backing up on the fly. But, that’s not the reason I selected my program, which I won’t mention the name. But, it does come with a business offer as well. If anybody is curious, they can email me. I see your near Puget Sound. I worked in the old Alaska Building downtown Seattle,
    probably long before you were born. I watched them build the Space Needle out of my bedroom window. Warren

    Macrium Reflect is not my product. The link is likely to my article recommending Macrium Reflect. They’re based out of England. (And I remember a Microsoft Christmas party in the old Alaska building many years ago :-).

    Leo
    20-Jul-2012
  44. Damirg Reply

    I have Windows 7 back up program for storing of 1)system image and 2) file back up. I used WD Passport to back up system image. On disk I have main file VHD 160GB and several files XML. How can I open such files to see thier real structure, where can I get permission or privilage for opening such files?

    There’s an option in the Disk Management tool (via Computer -> Manage) that will allow you to mount a VHD as a virtual drive. (I’m not really trying to pimp my book, but I actually cover exactly how to do this, screen shots & video, in Maintaining Windows 7 – Backing Up)

    Leo
    21-Aug-2012
  45. Duane Reply

    I have been addicted to my computer for at least 15 years. And I’ve been a regular subscriber to ask-leo for a long time.

    I’m on my 4th computer: Win 95, 98, XP and now, 7. (Aside: I wish I had XP back!) But I have concluded that I’m just not very smart (computer savvy).

    There is not a single subject I have read about, worried about — and simply do not understand — more than “backing up.” Is it really that complex or am I really that dense?

    I just purchased Leo’s “Maintaining Windows 7 – Backing Up” .pdf file. Quite frankly, I don’t expect to be able to understand it … but I consider my purchase a well-deserved contribution of $9.99 to Leo for all the great work he does. =)

  46. Terry Reply

    Hi Leo, I am interested in finding out more about the system Warren mentioned. Can you provide me with his email. Perhaps you would like to review it?…thanks….”My idea of a good back up system, is that it be dynamic, ie continually checking and backing up on the fly. But, that’s not the reason I selected my program, which I won’t mention the name. But, it does come with a business offer as well. If anybody is curious, they can email me. I see your near Puget Sound. I worked in the old Alaska Building downtown Seattle….”

  47. suzan Reply

    A good horror story for testing your backup:
    I worked for a company years ago that was responsible for the Montgomery Auto Club. The database became corrupt and it turned out that the corrupted database had been backed up regularly! Heads flew!

    I was a member of the auto club and had to call them for service about a week after the corruption was discovered. They tried to tell me that I wasn’t a member! However, I had the latest magazine complete with ID number and insisted they find me. I told THEM about the database problem!
    But, it took them a while. Needless to say, I’m sure it didn’t help business.

    • Leo Reply

      Its fine, as long as you realize what you are and are not backing up – that’s a tool that works well for data files only

  48. kelltic Reply

    Backups only confuses me when it comes to the difference between cloning and imaging. What I want, and what I have are two COPIES – I’m using that word to avoid the clone/image differentiation – of my C drive. I made one with Paragon Drive Copy and the other with Macrium Reflect. I can see the files, use the files, back up to the drives. A couple of times a Windows file on my C drive was corrupted and I was able to replace the file from one of the copies. I also made a bootable CD. I THINK I’m covered, but I’m not entirely sure.

    I don’t use incremental backups. It only confuses the issue and, in my mind, would make restoring unnecessarily worrisome. I have a couple of smaller USB drives that I use to backup data. They get used every day.

  49. bob D. Reply

    the issue is NOT if you should backup, Leo already, many times, has proven every one who uses ask Leo ought have a backup

    nor is price an issue, i got mine at wallymart $30, 5 yrs ago, i asked the tech and he said yes it is, i asked but is only
    gigi-gigi bites, he said i would not live long enough to use that much space, so i bought it and i dont know if it works
    have not had to use the contents of this backup, but i sure feel good, @ $30/5y cost is about $6/y so far and next
    years get cheaper and cheaper, but talking about cheap i think i will break down and buy a new one if same price
    or if less that $50 or no matter the cost

  50. bob D. Reply

    when ask Leo opens a chat about anything, he is not saying this is good, he is saying you are a dummy if
    you dont have it in your machine, esp when he touts the values, but i learned long ago when dealing with
    a whiz kid, esp electronics, esp ask Leo, i dont bother tinkering with his recommendation, i just use the
    info as best i can, even if i have to invest a few bucks, after all i cant take my loot with me so might as
    well splurge and e.g. get a back up at wally mart, and otherwise have the stuff Leo tells me is good
    stuff to have ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, ho hum

  51. Ursula Reply

    I bought a little gadget called “Passport”. I keep it plugged into my laptop and whenever I get an email or whatever that I want to save, I put it on that Passport. The only thing I don’t know how to do is to save the Programs and the Registry, in case that is necessary. I have Windows XP. I’m no computer expert, as all of you can probably tell.

  52. Stan Firth Reply

    I backed up to an external hard drive, but when the PC died, my new PC could not access it, so be careful how you save it!

    • Mark Jacobs Reply

      Total Commander used to support it and probably still does. But as Leo said “what computers have parallel ports these days?”

  53. John M Reply

    I use an open source program called Free File Sync. I use this to sync my shared folders on my server to my desktop, this is my native file format backup as well as my local backup. I have a CrashPlan subscription that I use on the desktops and laptops for offsite encrypted backups. I will periodically pick a random folder from offsite backup set and restore it for test purposes. It’s not elaborate but it suits my needs.

  54. Jim H Reply

    Over the years I have had very limited luck with back-up and restore software. I often try to get products that have the best reputation because I trust user experiences more than company hype.

    I first used a backup program called Retrospect which worked fine but the one time I actually needed to do a restore, it didn’t work. It backed up fine apparently but if it can’t put what it backs up back, what’s the point?

    Next, I tried Acronis products. I currently have Backup/Restore 11.5 with Universal Restore and I have Acronis Disk Manager. Both of those were impossible for me to install and I had to have Acronis Tech do both of them via remote connection. I’m no slouch with PCs and paid attention to what they did and no way I would not have figured it out on my own, especially when some other stuff was downloaded and installed to make the programs work. Nothing should be that difficult to install and get working!! There was no leading up to them using a remote connection by having me try anything so they have to be aware people are having trouble. Even the tech took 45 minutes to get Disk Management to work and the other time with 11.5 it was over a half-hour. It has really affected my already shaky confidence in Acronis.

    I currently do a weekly simple full back up to external drives. The scheme backs up the entire drive each time so there’s only a single full backup. I don’t care to deal with the extra storage space update files from incremental/differential backup create, and yes I know I can auto-purge them but I would prefer to restore from a single file if the need arises.

    My C drive is a 240 GB SSD and my secondary drive, where I store most all my data and a lot of installed programs, is a traditional 1.5 TB drive. Both back up to external drives which are double the capacity of the drives being backed up to them, 2 and 3 TB respectively. The drives with the backups are always on, but are backed up to other external drives which are only connected and powered on when backing up the backups. (I have looked at online storage but storing that much data is way too costly for me)

    Top mirror what some have said, I also have been let down by Acronis years ago when I tried to restore files I had backed up from an external drive to another drive. Although EVERY backup validation showed no errors and never a failed back up, the backup files were corrupted when I tried to reinstall them on a new, yet identical drive. (A note about online backup here- I had been saving my backup files to Mozy who allowed backing up from external drives (Carbonite did not) and was more liberal than Carbonite as to what types of files were backed up. Now, both have pretty strict restrictions on what types of files they allow to be saved and backups and any type of executable are NOT allowed! I learned that the hard way when my backup files were gone and seeing dozens of ‘restored’ folders with no contents.)

    With Acronis 11.5 I keep having my C: backup scheme works fine once or twice then it errors out with different problems that I can’t correct. I have to delete the entire backup scheme and recreate it which will also work for a week or two and then start with the errors again. I had to do that about an hour ago again.

    Long way round, I have about lost faith in Acronis BUT their Universal Restore is what keeps me with them. Supposedly it allows a backup to be restored on a different hardware configuration, even a different PC. Because I always like to swap out hardware, change drives and drive sizes, add things, etc. that ability to be able to restore to different hardware,. especially a larger drive, that make this like the Holy Grail of backup. But, so far I haven’t tried it and I sure don’t want to risk my computer and data to do a ‘test restore’ even though it’s pretty unchanged.

    Has anybody had any experience with Universal Restore? If I’m putting hopes on a product that doesn’t do what it says and any disaster will be just that- a disaster- I would like to know about it so I can look elsewhere for backup needs. I’d like at the very least an ability to restore to a larger drive.

    And how about Acronis backup products in general? It doesn’t sound like I’m alone with finding issues with it. From what I read among the responses here, nobody has successfully done a full restore with it except to the same exact PC.

    Someone among the responses mentioned only wanting to back up Outlook stuff. I use a program for that called ABF Outlook Backup 3. I do have to go in and clear out old backups occasionally, but it’s simple to use and it works..

  55. Phil Reply

    Leo, I’ve tried to use macrium reflect several times, but no matter if I attempt to clone or image my c drive it bombs out — I get the “blue screen of death” either way.
    I’ve quit trying to use it….
    Oh, I’m still using WinXP SP3 — perhaps that’s the problem?

  56. Joyce Reply

    OK, I’m 64, which I know doesn’t hold true for everyone my age, but I’m a dinosaur: computer-illiterate, technology-challenged, etc. I didn’t have time to read all the comments, so if the answer is in there somewhere I apologize for asking again. I understand that I have to back up using a disk. My question is: How do I get a specific file onto the disk? What command do I use? I am writing a book, and I don’t want to continue till I have a hard copy of it, which I can’t get if I don’t know how to transfer the data to a disk. Do I have to back up the whole computer? How do you access the data on the disk once it’s on there???? I miss good ol’ typewritten copies… :-(

    • Mark Jacobs Reply

      The article is pretty specific on how to back up, but if the language is too technical, and all you want to do is back up the book and any other files you may be working on, simply insert an external drive and copy the file(s) to that using Windows Explorer. Or you can use the “Save As” function from your Word Processor program, and save them to the removable drive . You can even use an inexpensive USB stick for this. I recommend you have a few of these USB sticks and keep at least one in another location as protection against fire and theft.

  57. Robert Reply

    I have been using Roxio BackonTrack to put an image on an external drive and make DVD copies of my drive. Both options have worked well and are simple and easy to use. Rather than do incremental backups which require the external drive to be on whenever the computer boots up, I turn it on only when making a drive image. Renewing the image is done regularly, with archive copies that are unchanged available on other partitions on the drive.
    Saving data is done on still another partition on the external drive with a free program from Microsoft called SyncToy. There are ways to save the Desktop and other folders should a rebuild be necessary. A flash drive can save video files making the folder holding data and media files smaller and the disk image easier to backup and restore.
    Having a fresh disk image available has proven to be the simplest solution. The software gives the option of making a boot disk which will allows for recovery to backup media in the case of total hard drive failure. I have recovered using the external drive, and with DVDs depending of the circumstance. Having said that, I checked out Macrium Reflect and I find no reason not to believe is is one of the best backup software packages available, even should I prefer for personal reasons my present arrangement.

  58. Robert DiGrazia Reply

    But… Backups can be bad.

    I kept my precious files on an external disk, connected via USB.
    The disk is about five years old, in human years. In computer years, it’s approaching a century.
    Event Viewer started reporting occasional disk errors.
    I ignored the reports. Big mistake. Let me add a detail: BIIIIIG MISTAKE!!!

    The disk failed so badly that chkdsk couldn’t run. It sat there silently, then exited. Maybe it left a report file somewhere.

    Procedure:
    1. Restore to another disk from a Macrium backup.
    2. Chug along for a day, then double-click on a restored JPG file name.
    3. The JPG file is no longer a JPG file. Its first 13 bytes are nulls, followed by what looks like a JPG file.
    4. Bazillions of JPG files are no longer JPG files.
    5. The newest JPG files that are still JPG files are one month old.
    6. Make sure you are backing up real files, and not squishy nonsense.
    7. I don’t know how to do that without working too hard.
    8. Backing up is good, but be lucky.

    • Mark Jacobs Reply

      That’s not a bad backup. It’s a good backup of bad data ;). That’s why it’s good to have a long term backup strategy set up with incremental of differential backups where you can go back to the point in time when those files were still good.
      What’s an incremental backup?
      Here’s Leo’s backup strategy. It might seem like overkill,but it would prevent a thing like you mentioned from happening.
      How many full backups should I keep?

  59. bentsnake Reply

    I don’t think you can do better than Karen’s Replicator. Replicator can back up any file(s) or folder(s) to any storage device, anywhere, anytime. It’s no-strings freeware too, what else can you ask for. Here’s my Utube how-to video:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8gmk_jKeGo

  60. 1 Reply

    ok regarding all this, has anyone heard of malware that infects a computer then gets onto everything you plug into it(cd s USB s and online backups) before at a later date trying to destroy all this data? is this even possible or is a usb and cd backup quite adequate and safe from infection even if you regularly plug the same usb or cd into your machine.

  61. JOSE alonso Reply

    A technician fixed my xp computer because a had alot of spams. He told me he restored the computer the way it was 2 weeks ago , so all the spams, etc.. disappier. what exactly he meant?. and what is the way to do it, i just want to learn that… thanks……..

    • Leo Reply

      Dealing with spam shouldn’t involve “fixing your computer”. I’d have to know exactly what it was he did. If all he restored was a backup image, then yeah – everything you’d received for the past two weeks would have been gone, but I’m not certain that’s exactly what he did.

  62. Paul B Reply

    I’ve been backing my data up on a USB Flash Drive. Is that okay?

    • Leo Reply

      It’s better than nothing, but it’s not recommended as a long term strategy. Flash drives wear out and you could be left with no backup at all. I recommend full image backups to external drives as a start.

  63. Jerome Paterno Reply

    I have a question,

    My hdd broke and i cant even get it to boot. I have a Windows 7 product key that has been used on that hdd. My question is if i get a new hdd will i be able to use the Windows 7 product key on that? Also do i have to call Microsoft for a product key that will work on my new hdd. I have seen on other forums that when your hdd breaks you can buy a new one and install the same windows 7 product key on that. Is that really possible?

    • Connie Delaney Reply

      If you have an image backup of the broken drive you can just reinstall it onto the new drive and be off and running. Things get a bit more complicated when you are going to reinstall from scratch. It may depend on the version of software you have, and the customer’s agreement. More than likely, it will work and the only way you are going to know for sure it to give it a try. Then… next time make sure you have an image backup!

  64. Tony2 Reply

    Where does online or cloud backup figure in all this? Would that in some way address the issue of having a backup stored in a place away from the physical computer? Would this be a good option for quickly and easily restoring lost data?

  65. wayne Reply

    hello. i had a problem with my keyboard the other month. letters were stuck. for some reason when starting up my laptop it went straight to system restore. i thought i had lost everthing. with a new keyboard now i have noticed that all my files where backed up on my d drive. is there anyway of restoring these files as when i go into restore from an earlier date, my computer says it cannot find any backup’s. windows vista op

  66. Joe Ski Reply

    I have windows XP professional on my Dell laptop which will soon be unsupported by Microsoft. I called the computer shop where I bought it and they said I could only install windows Vista because of my systems properties. From what I’ve read here, there are so many ways to back up my documents I don’t know which method to use. My computer has a backup wizard to assist with the process. I’ve never done it before, can you suggest a simple practical way that will allow me to re-install my files when I install the windows Vista OS. Thank you for your help.

  67. Zvi Reply

    Just to let you know that I use Acronis — and it seems to work very well… I had a pretty bad Hard Disk issue (twice!)
    and my backup taken with Acronis was quite valuable in allowing me to have a “rebuilt” Hard Drive with little pain.
    Because I did not have time to do all of this, I just gave the Tech doing the “repair” a bootable USB drive with Acronis on it
    as well as my back up disk … and all went well…
    I *also* use Acronis to “clone” my drive for a “hot backup” if I need that… (I always test the “hot backup” by booting it
    up BEFORE I put THAT away)….
    Just thought you might like to know….

  68. Frank L Reply

    I clone my HDD. Unless I overlooked someone’s entry above, I am curious if I am doing something wrong. I clone my HDD every month and I alternate with 3 drives so each is overwriten every 4 months. To make things easier, I have 2 removable HDD racks on my machine. The cloning takes about 30 min. I then use the cloned drive until the next backup. The HDD are cheap enough now and this process is faster the when I did a image backup.
    Since no one mentioned this method, I was wondering if I am missing some potential boo-boo.

    • Mark Jacobs Reply

      Cloning like that is as effective as an image backup. It’s not recommended as often because it takes up more space, and a good image backup program allows you to create incremental backups so you can update it daily with the changes since the previous backup.

  69. Brian Reply

    I have used Macrium Reflect for a number of years and it has proved very reliable and what is generally not known is that you can restore to different hardware e.g if you buy a different brand then you can restore the image to that new machine.
    A reliable back up is a ‘must’

  70. Bernard Winchester Reply

    Some of the comments so far recommend full image back-ups, others the use of file and folder synchronization software. I use a combination of both.
    Modern external hard drives are very large, so I see no advantage in using programs which back up into enormous compressed individual files. Instead I prefer to produce exact mirror images of the drives to be backed up. I have used a variety of programs for this, including the free Minitools Partition Wizard. This method has these advantages:
    1. It is possible to see the drive in its entirety and check its properties to ensure that the backup is not corrupted.
    2. It is easy to recover or replace individual files and folders without using special programs or de/recompressing the back-up.
    3. Using a rescue disk to restore backup to a new drive is simplified.

    I keep my system and data on separate drives with images on different partitions of my external drives. Because the data drive is large, completely re-writing it every time a few changes are made would be a long job. As the backup is not compressed, I can use a synchronization program to update it (FolderMatch is my choice). With this system, if I have just downloaded a GB of photos on to my computer, I can update the data backup with the synchronization program or by simple copying on an ad hoc basis.

    The system drive is much smaller, more complex, and less time sensitive, so best dealt with by occasionally over-writing the drive image.

  71. Loretta McGinn Reply

    So, I was told my 5-year-old pc’s motherboard died. F’sure I bought a new one. The salesman also sold me a hard drive enclosure in which I placed the trashed pc’s hard drive and now I can access it when I attach it to a port in the new pc. Can that be considered a back up external usb hard disc? Can I back up important info from the new pc to this enclosed hard drive? I absolutely LOVE this article about backing up because for the first time I’ve read something that uses language I can understand. Thank you for all your wonderful information!

    • Mark Jacobs Reply

      That drive should work fine as a backup drive as long as it has enough room on it.

    • Leo Reply

      Yes, you can. It’s “just” another external drive, so you can use it for whatever you like, assuming it has enough room.

  72. Ron Davis Reply

    Whichever sort of backup routine you choose, another way to overcome the collocation problem uses two external hard drives. Primary backup is to a hard drive connected to the computer, and the secondary is in a rented box in a bank vault. When too much is on the primary only, interchange them and immediately repeat the backup. Your info cannot be much safer or more secure than in a bank vault. It never goes out on the Internet, and you don’t depend on any other organization to be there when you need it. The downside is that access is restricted to banking hours, so this provision is good only for a secondary backup. Before I retired, I used my workplace office equivalently.

    • Leo Reply

      When my wife had a retail store we had an external backup drive both there and at home. Every so often I would swap them, giving both locations off-site backups.

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