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Do You Back Up?

This past month I’ve focused a little more specifically on backups. Not that every month isn’t “backup month” here at Ask Leo!, but at the risk of over-saturating you with backup-related information, I elected to try and run with a little bit of a theme.

Today, I want to explain why.

I’ve been running a little survey, and the results are not encouraging.

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The silver bullet

You probably already know that backups are the single most powerful approach to preventing data loss in the face of hardware and software failures, malware, and account hacks.

Yes, backing up is that powerful.

However: day in and day out I hear stories from people who’ve lost precious files – irreplaceable photographs, life-critical documents, important correspondence, and more – simply because they’ve not backed up. And yes, in many cases, even the most basic of backups would have saved ’em.

You know the mantra by now: If it’s only in one place, it’s not backed up.

Do you back up?

Back Up!For the last month or so, after people confirmed their subscription to The Ask Leo! Newsletter, they received a survey with a simple question: Do you back up? with the following options:

  • Yes, I have automated image backups
  • Yes, I have automated data-only backups
  • Yes, I back up manually
  • Usually, when I remember
  • Rarely
  • No, I don’t believe I need to
  • No, I know I should but I don’t know how
  • What’s a backup?

The results are … depressing1.

Not at all: 25%

A full one-quarter of the responses fell into the “No”, or “What’s a backup?” camp.

These are the folks whose data is at risk, they know it, and they’ve done nothing about it.

Now, to be fair, 4% of the “Not at all” folks were people who don’t believe they need to back up. Whether they’re right or wrong, only time will tell, but at least it’s a conscious choice on their part.

That leaves 21% of that group who simply don’t know how to do it.

It’s depressing, since these are the very people I’ve been trying to educate with article after article and book after book. Clearly, my work here is not done.

Sometimes: 25%

Just under another quarter of the responses fell into the “Usually” or “Rarely” category.

Naturally, anything is better than nothing, but this haphazard approach to backing up should make you nervous. Whether or not you believe in fate, it seems that if something bad is going to happen, it’s likely to happen at the worst possible time. When it comes to backing up, that worst possible time is before the data you care about has actually been backed up.

A “Usually” or “Rarely” response implies that you’re doing it manually, and have to remember to do it.

Trust me on this: you will forget. And you will forget at the worst possible time.

Add our first two categories together, and we see that half the survey respondents are not even coming close to backing up appropriately.

Yes, mostly: 37%

The good news here is that over one-third of respondents are backing up something, albeit not necessarily everything, or in an automated fashion. These are the folks who indicated that they back up manually (27%), or automatically back up only their data (10%).

Part of me wants to admonish both categories:

  • Backing up manually is error prone. Like the “sometimes” crowd above, manual backups rely on your remembering to backup when it’s important. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to overlook it at exactly the wrong time.
  • Backing up only your data is also error prone, and potentially inconvenient, come recovery time. To begin with, it assumes you can successfully identify everything that is “your data” to be backed up. When it’s time to recover, it also assumes you don’t mind reinstalling everything, losing application and other histories, and reconfiguring all those hundreds of application settings and tweaks.

However, these people said “Yes, I back up”, at least in some form. That’s absolutely fantastic. Rather than assume the shortcomings might have been overlooked, I’ll take the confidence in saying “Yes” as a sign that the issues have been thought through and decisions made.

Leo’s heros: 13%

You know what I like: I like automated, system-image backups of some sort.

When it comes to protecting your PC, I’m a strong believer that nothing protects you like backing up your entire system regularly, and automating the process so you don’t even have to think about it.

I’m thrilled that 13% agree and have this set up. These are the people I won’t hear from in a panic on the verge of massive data loss. They’re the people who, when – not if – something happens, will just use their backups and get on with their lives.

These are my heros.

I wish there were more of you.

The goal: 100% heros

OK, maybe not all situations call for automated full-system image backups. I’ll be honest and say that I have a couple of sacrificial machines myself that, if anything were to go wrong, would need a re-install to recover. (But no data would be lost – that’s backed up.)

So maybe 100% is a bit of a stretch. So let’s turn it into an 80/20 goal instead.

In my ideal world, the answers to “Do you back up?” would fall into two buckets:

  • 80% of all computer users would have complete, automated, full-system image backups on a schedule appropriate to their level of computer use.
  • 20% of all computer users would have at least all their data backed up automatically somehow, or make conscious and well-informed decisions to not back up some portion of their digital life.

What a wonderful world that would be.

How would you make it happen? Have ideas? Let me know in the comments.

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Footnotes & references

1: To be super clear, I don’t in any way claim that this is scientifically accurate. I do, however, believe that the sample size (roughly 500 new subscribers chose to participate) is at least indicative of some overall general trends, and interesting for purposes of discussion.

46 comments on “Do You Back Up?”

  1. Another thing to ponder: the more people back up, especially image backups, the less return malware authors and crackers get. It removes their teeth, you could say. Ransomware authors/distributors would go broke!

  2. I Manually backup, to a Hard Drive and sometimes flash drives. NOBODY I know(except maybe my brother), backs up a single thing. for some I used to give speeches, but have given up. It is not my data.

  3. I can’t convince some of my relatives to do it, but I have an automatic backup every fourth day via USB 3 with Acronis which is definitely worth the investment. Then I go back and weed out older backups since I only have a 2 TB external hard drive.

    I back up my laptop and ultrabook to two different WD external hard drives so I back them up periodically. They really don’t get much use. I only have room on that desk for one of them at a time so automating is out.

  4. I am just a average user, nothing important on my computer (maybe some pix’s) and a spread sheet of my personal bills and I do that once a week. I feel that if my computer gets to screwed up it is time for a complete re-install. Usually by this time there is a bunch of junk I don’t want or need. I have all the programs that I need on CD’s. For me a total backup is not necessary.

  5. Daily differential backups, weekly full image backup all using Macrium Reflect (on both my I and my wife’s computers) to 2TB external HDD per PC. Data also backed up to Dropbox on-the-fly. I’m confident that should the worst happen a simple restore and synchronize would see all back to normal.Wireless internet with 8GB per month otherwise I’d consider online image backups too.

  6. My wife and I have identical Dell XPS 8500 Desktop PCs. We do a manual full image backup once per week every week using Macrium Reflect Standard Edition 64 bit to a WD My Passport Ultra external Hard Drive. Believe me my wife never lets me forget to backup. She is relentless! We also backup weekly to a 64 GB flash drive our most important software; for me it’s my music. For my wife it’s her photography. So when not if the external HD fails one day (sooner or later) hopefully later rather than sooner our most important software will be saved on the flash drive.

  7. When a person does a recovery with Macrium Reflet does Macrium format the C.Drive before reinstalling the backup or does it just overwrite everything, if not how does one format the main drive before recovery or is this not possible.

    • Macrium Reflect overwrites the information on the c: drive There’s no need to format as the overwriting, for all intents and purposes, formats as it writes.

    • Macrium does not, because unless you’re concerned about data recovery in the free space on the drive there’s no need to. If you are concerned, I’d run DBan first, and then restore.

  8. Leo has a VERY SIMPLE step-by-step guide, provided by a reference in one of his Backing Up articles in 2014. Took me less than 15 minutes to download Macrium Reflect and set up daily image backups. Here’s the link
    I used to back up manually to a NAS box and DVDs. Mostly monthly but things happen. And it was data only, at least all the stuff I could find – there’s lots of data outside My Documents, email and contacts for example. And it took a considerable amount of time, that was part of my procrastination. But when I skipped backing up for a couple months I KNEW I had to bite the bullet and just do it. Then I came upon Leo’s content about image backups and Macrium Reflect. Now it’s done every night while I sleep, and it captures everything. I have less stress and more time. The step I’ve added is to use two physical external discs that I swap periodically so if something catastrophic we’re to happen I’ve got everything even though it’s a few months out of date … when not in use I keep it in a safe in a steel building away from the house.

  9. Answer to Mike Markwick: I have used Macrium Reflect to successfully restore an image backup several times on both my PC and my wife’s PC. You do not have to format the HD before the restore. Here are the steps:
    1. Plug in your external HD that has the image backup on it
    2. Insert the Macrium Reflect Rescue CD
    3. Reboot
    4. Press any key to boot from the CD
    5. After a few minutes the wizard pops up
    6. Select the most recent image backup ( I always keep two on the external HD)
    7. Click “Next”
    8. Click “Restore”

  10. Backing up is like breathing to stay alive to me. Every byte of data on the main drive is backed up to a mirror drive; and every important photo and document is backed up again in a rotating pocket drive. So essentially i have a back up of all programs and a triplicate [ rotating ] of documents and photo’s. Since my partner runs a business in her office. The whole business machine is replicated to another machine [ via the LAN ] om a spare office desk – anything untoward happens on her main machine, it’s simply a matter of moving to the other desk and carrying on until I solve the problem on the primary machine. No chances taken with the monitors either. Duel running monitors are the norm apart from the fact it gives you double the space to move stuff out of the road; if one monitor fails, windows immediatly defaults to the good one.

  11. Thanks to Leo’s urging, I use Macrium Reflect to automatically backup my computer to an external hard drive. On Thursdays at 4 AM an image backup is run, followed the next night at the same time by a file folder backup (my “User” folder). On the following two nights, the backups are repeated but this time to a second internal hard drive.

    Is it OK simply to copy the image and folder backups to the second hard drive instead of doing them automatically over two additional nights? I’ve done this but don’t think copying saves much time, although in my case this might be more desirable. I have researched this question and have not found a direct answer to it, although I have found statements that imply that copying is OK.

    • You can copy “.mrimg” files whereever you like. I do it myself, often. The only “catch” is that you want to keep the set of full backup + corresponding incremental backups together.

  12. I have a desktop Dell machine running Win 7 Pro. I also have four powered External HDDs (which are normally connected and powered up at all times) and two portable External HDDs (used alternately for monthly off-site backups). Incremental nightly image backups are performed to two of the external HDDs with a weekly full backup — the full backups on one HDD are done on a different day of the week to the other one, and backups are kept for a rolling 8-10 weeks. The off-site backups are full image backups done on the first of every month. In addition, I also do nightly data backups of a critical data folder and all of its subfolders. Finally, I do an annual backup in January of my .PST emails and contacts for the preceding year (I have all my emails going back to 2004).

    I have been using Acronis True Image (ATI) for many years but have had a lot of trouble with recent versions, so have stopped buying it. Instead I have been migrating to Macrium Reflect (MR) as per Leo’s recommendation. Additionally, before the old PC died, I was also running EaseUS Todo to evaluate it as a free backup program for a family member. I ended up using it for myself in order to run a data backup every two hours from 9 am to 11 pm of the critical folder and subfolders referred to above (it saved my bacon a number of times when I have screwed up a critical Excel file). With the exception of the two-hourly data backup, all backups run overnight at different times while I am sleeping.

    So in summary, I ran two nightly incremental image backups on a weekly cycle on two HDDs (one ATI, one MR), two nightly critical data backups (one incremental on weekly cycle and one full backup only, again one on ATI and one MR), rotating off-site monthly full image backups, and an annual email backup.

    In November 2014, my former PC (another Dell desktop running Win 7 Pro) died and for the cost of repairing it I could buy a new machine with a faster CPU and more memory. When I first powered up the new machine, I wanted to do an image backup of its HDD as delivered. As I had not yet installed any software, I decided to use Win 7 Backup. This Windows backup ran most of the way through before aborting with an obscure 0x.. error code which gave no clue as to what went wrong. Repeated this a couple of times, always with the same result. At this point I realised that I had full versions of both ATI and MR as Recovery DVDs (though not quite at the latest patch levels – how often should you burn a new Recovery DVD for these programs?). So I booted to the MR DVD and was able successfully to create an as-delivered image backup of the new PC.

    Then I was faced with a choice: should I restore the latest image backup from the old PC to the new PC (quick solution) or should I keep the Windows 7 Pro system delivered with the PC and just restore my data from the image backup (and, of course, re-instal all my applications). As the new machine was booting MUCH faster than the old PC, I opted for the latter approach. So while the Recovery DVD version of MR was still loaded, I attempted to restore data from the most recent MR image backup. Here I ran into an insurmountable problem: the only destination HDD that MR would offer me was the external HDD that the image was mounted on! I persevered for some time trying to resolve this problem to no avail (obviously I was missing some important step) – eventually gave up and rebooted to the ATI Recovery DVD. Using ATI I was able successfully to restore my data from the latest ATI image backup.

    The reason I had been duplicating all my backups using both MR and ATI was for evaluation and comparison (MR is more user friendly and makes more compact backups). But I now intend to continue this duplication as having two different backup programs saved the day for me!

    Since installing the new PC, I have left two of the external HDDs powered off. I have not yet got round to starting up again the two-hourly EaseUS Todo backups, and the only ATI backup I now do is the duplicate nightly image. I use MR for everything else. One of the things I particularly liked about earlier versions of ATI was its Non-Stop Backup feature (NSB). Not sure about the latest ATI version (I have stopped upgrading ATI), but in later versions NSB was a mess – at least I could never get it working properly and it was devilishly hard to stop it running once it ran feral. Hence my use of EaseUS for two-hourly backups as a replacement for NSB.

    Apologies if this has run on too long!

  13. I use Acronis True Image to clone my C: HDD to an identical HDD and I repeat that after adding / deleting any program or making any system change.
    I also use Genie Backup Manager set to automatically backup my data, daily, to my D: drive, retaining 2 copies at all times. Conveniently, Genie allows individual files that have been backed up to be selectively retrieved – it does not create one composite file or image – thus making comparison of two versions of the same file quite simple.

  14. cant help myself,go to all kinds of websites and have gotten malware at least 8 times .I went to my once a month backup and good to go.Must thank you leo for stressing the importance of backing up.sure has made my computer experience much,much simpler.

  15. I’m somewhat addicted to backing up. I use Acronis True Image to back up the image differentially. I use Genie Timeline Pro to do a continuous backup of the entire system and lastly I use Freefilesync to sync my files between my 2 internal hard drives. Oh, and I have a Onedrive account. Did I mention I also have an external drive I backup my Folders and documents to with said software.

  16. I setup my PC to weekly full image backup automatically to an external hard drive (Macrium Reflect). However, it is not fully automatic because I have to remember to hook up the external hard drive each week. ( I believe in keeping the external hard drive powered off and disconnected for security sake). I think the only answer to this problem is to get a second external hard drive so that I can keep the latest backup powered off and safe whilst still having an external hard drive hooked up to receive the current backup. Any thoughts or suggestions t improve this process?

    • I’d leave it connected, personally. Failing that I think having two, and swapping so at least one is always connected and the other protected is a fine approach.

    • That sounds like a great solution. The major advantage is clear: two backups are better than one. especially in case of a power surge which can fry and attached drive. If you keep it in a different physical loction away from the computer, it also can protect your data against fire and theft.

  17. I have written to you before about my method of B/U asking your opinion. Since you have to deal with so many e-mails, you never were able to respond. I have been using the following proceedure for some time without any problems of any kind.
    I use three HDD, I make a clone of my entire HDD using True Image by Acronis. After the cloning I use the clone as my system’s HDD. One month later I use the third HDD to create another clone and use the new clone as my system HDD. The following month I use the first HDD (original), erased and make a clone. This method gives me three HDD clones as backups. I test for viruses and malwares each time before cloning. For simplicity, I use a bootable DOS CD to go into DOS and use fdisk to remove the partitions in the old HDD in effect erasing all data. This allows me to do a new clone. I could use the disk wiping feature in True Image, but that can take two to three hours. My way, erasure and full cloning, 20 to 30 minutes. I do this every month rotating the use of my HDDs. This allows me to use each HDD four months out of the year, prolonging the life of the HDD.
    If you find anything wrong with this method, please let me know. Thanks.

  18. Leo, I back up every Sunday to a external hard drive. Because I only use my computer for email and browsing the web. I don’t store anything but a few pictures on my machine. Also I do no banking and if I do I only use PayPal for purchases.
    I shut my computer down when not in use. I use Vipre for my protection and run C Cleaner two or three times a week. I feel this is all I need. I set the backup with Microsoft Home Program and only make sure the computer is on in time for these backups, Sundays Evenings.

  19. Week 1 – on Sunday and Wednesday I run two full automated backups to an external hard drive. Week 2 I run a full backup on Sunday and an incremental backup of the previous Wednesday’s backup. Week 3 I run two full backups again. Week 4 I run the full backup on Sunday and the incremental backup on Wednesday. I automatically verify each image after it’s created. I also automatically delete the oldest image after the new one is verified.

  20. Leo,

    I border on paranoid on this issue. I’d been running a full automatic backup up until hearing about ransomware and how it could go after any attached drives. At that point, I implemented a hybrid process. I run an automatic backup to a second internal drive. Then, a couple of times a week, after running Bleeping Computer’s ListCRIlock to check for encrypted files, I connect and copy my backups over to my normally disconnected external drive.

  21. YES I BACK-UP! Regularly & compulsively… Having OCD does have it’s benefits. But, OCD aside; I’ve been an advocate for backing-up since the dawn of the PC era. I currently have 300GB of OneDrive set for auto back-up of all my important files in my OneDrive parent folder & sub-folders. Those include my MOST important files which reside in my many library folders I’ve created: images, My office, church files as “church historian”, Photo 101 for images to be tweaked, documents, videos, etc… I dedicate my Google Drive, Dropbox & Box for certain files, etc., and have a 1TB external drive for my weekly FILE HISTORY B/U in Windows 8.1. I have plenty of thumb, flash & portable drives: all dedicated. I also B/U my important Office Outlook 2010 emails using the export/import settings. I also purchased the ABF Outlook B/U app which is on auto-pilot. B/U my favorites in IE, Images of ALL installed programs & apps, etc. When you need to restore, reset or re-install these, you will thank yourself if you do! No more guessing what I had installed. It’s well worth the effort to spend a little time doing this, and a little less time surfing the ‘net! Honestly, you’re not too smart if you don’t Back-Up… If you don’t, you WILL learn the hard way… Best, LeRoy

  22. Yes, I do back up (now) as a result of two serious data losses in the past and your (helpful) nagging.
    I back up to the could (malware) and on an external HD.
    It is amazing how confident I have become about not losing my data.

  23. I have and use Carbonite, plus having three pc’s I back up them to each other about once a month…backup equals, car seat belts, fire extinguishers and so

    Sent laptop in for new hinge..HP said they might wipe HD, why I never have received an answer, and so they did. I used win 7 for back up and restore, didn’t work hardly at all that’s when I got Carbonite

  24. I do an automatic backup with Macrium Reflect, free version, once a week.
    My main concern is that I have to remember to delete some of the older backups to create space.

  25. Backing up, I am an oldie but goodie and have gone thru a Toshiba hard drive, it did not work after awhile, then bought a new version of the same brand, could not get it to work, then bought a Seagate and never figured out how to run it so asked Best Buy for an untechy what should I get and they said get a WD Cloud. Got it set up on both computers, watched the video, called the company for some help but they said you have to do some special things to save Outlook email, gave up after that! I really want to learn but I need more videos I guess. Leo, can you go and make some YOUTUBE videos to help us, or create some that we pay you and you email them to us. I would be happy to pay, just need to get it going. Keep spending money and not getting the backup! Even better idea, can we pay you for you to get on our computer remotely and set it up and get it working and we will watch you work!! Have some really valuable classes on my computers and I just hold my breath when I see a BLUE SCREEN… Allyson

  26. I have used three backup program; Acronis, Macrium and now Paragon. They are all too hard to use. I spend half a day figuring out how to make the first backup. I think the result is an image backup but the program didn’t make that clear. I think the image can be restored to a new drive but I’m not sure. Why can they not simply tell me? I have not yet set up the program to do automatic backups, either full or incremental, because I haven’t wanted to face another half day of frustration figuring it out.

  27. I use Macrium Reflect for a once a week incremental and once a month full BU. Not automatic as the drive is stored in a fireproof safe. I have documents and photos auto synced using Allway Sync to a home NAS with 4 hard drives running Raid0 I also use Allway Sync weekly to manually BU email and music. So far it is working for me. I have been able to restore w/o data loss. Any other suggestions?

  28. I use Acronis True Image to back up to two external Hard drives. It does incremental Backups daily and a full backup once a month. One drive is kept at home and another is off site for safety.

    My biggest problem is lack of space even though both external drives are each 3 terabytes in size. It is surprising how quickly those drives fill up with extraneous programs and data! Also the Off site drive is kept at a location more than 25 miles (43 kms.) from home. That means I retrieve it on weekends and return it Off site on Monday morning so a period of my safe storage is compromised. I am also occasionally required to delete an older full backup although I always keep the very first Backup!

    As a side note I can remember doing Windows 98 SE backups on one or two DVDs. Those days are long gone now!

  29. one that resists doing much downoading and hardly is fluent at it -I have a question in regard to backing up:
    If you did not have a backup: what would actually go wrong? Lets say my filed of emails would be screwed up- SO WHAT?
    f most of the browsers and other operating system were either OK or very easily reloaded all That I would experience is a slight nuisance an some loss of intact data- which might be of no true negative consequence if I “set my mind to and accept this and move on with life.
    Really, truly any decent worth the money computer should have the capability of accepting improvement downloads from any respected source without severely crashing the OS and browsers.

    This is the way it should be- otherwise how can mac and microsoft, etc. keep after us to down;pad this and download that?

    Please confirm whether this is true or not!!

    It seems Geek Squad added Firefox into my 10.6.8 imac without precaution and with no problem!

    • If you do nothing on your computer except browse the web (including getting your email online) then you would not have any data to lose on your computer. But if you save any pictures from your cameras, or have any music, or write any documents, or have any programs that do things like your bookkeeping, then you will lose all the data from those programs.

      But data isn’t everything. Your computer is full of files that are set up the way you like it – whether you know it or not. All the programs that you use, the browsers and their settings (like bookmarks, etc.) are all on your computer. If the computer crashes you have to take hours and hours reformatting and reinstalling from scratch. An image backup will restore you back exactly the way you were before the crash. It’s very convenient.

  30. I have two 1tb external drives. I backup to drive 1 then mirror to drive 2 after checking all’s well with drive 1’s backup. Backups consist of a bare metal backup (monthly) and backups of my documents and Calibre library (at least weekly) In addition, the documents and Calibre library are encrypted with Encf (I use Linux Mint) and synced in real-time to Google Drive via Insync. My laptop uses Win 8.1, so I use Macrium to create a drive image about monthly. Insync loads the documents from Google Drive dynamically and Boxcryptor incrypts/decrypts them. No other backup for the laptop since I don’t keep anything there permanently. My documents directory is my file cabinet for everything valuable, so it’s backed up as part of the image, and separately to two external drives and the cloud.

  31. Hi Leo,
    I am using linux and everyday do a backup of my data with RYSINC. Once a month i do an OS image backup with REDO.
    My windows 7 data is saved through linux and the backup of the OS image is made after each update.
    My data is saved to a NAS and to MEOCLOUD, GOOGLE DRIVE and ONEDRIVE.
    The OS are saved to external USB drives.

  32. I know I’m decidedly late to the survey, but …

    Yes, I back up. I have two thumb drives, each approximately 60 GB.

    I back up …

    * my data

    * my program setup files (I’ve made a folder just for them)

    * registry keys with my options

    And whenever I make a change to a file, I back the new file up to the thumb drive immediately.

  33. My reasoning is as follows:
    Windows and programs change infrequently. I make a full image file manually about once a month, stored on an external drive, which is not plugged in otherwise, (and hence not at risk of corruption by ransomware encryption). (Yes, I know, unlikely, but covers all bases)
    Data changes regularly. I make incremental backups daily automatically. (If major catastrophe happens, I can restore back to the last image backup, (getting back my OS and program files), followed by updating all data files from my daily data backup.
    The wrinkle in this is that I wanted to backup both my desktop and my wife’s laptop automatically, to the large external drive connected permanently to my desktop, (reading my wife’s laptop over my LAN.) I found a program, GoodSync, which will do precisely this, for multiple machines. Not easy to get set up, (at least for a non-IT type like me), but once set up, it runs seamlessly, and very fast, detecting every changed file on each individual computer, and updating the backup record.


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