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How Should I Back Up My Hard Drive with Several Partitions to an External Drive?

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I am a relatively new PC user and want to start backing up my hard drive. I have an external drive, and my PC has two internal drives configured in a raid set up. The PC drive has four partitions on it.

Must I create the same four partitions on the external and back up the contents of each partition in the PC to the relevant new partition on the external?

First let me say good on you for setting up a backup. Sadly, you’re in a minority. Most people still don’t think about backups until it’s too late.

The answer to your question depends in part on the capabilities of the backup software you use. But I do have some ideas and recommendations.

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Drives versus partitions

I actually get this question relatively frequently, but in a slightly different context. Rather than having a single hard disk with multiple partitions, I get asked how to back up machines that have multiple hard disks.

While the physical characteristics are, of course, quite different, in this case the answer is usually the same.

And the best answer is: typically, it just works.

While you might have different drive letters – each to a partition, each to a physical drive, or some combination thereof – or you might even have “hidden” partitions that have no drive letter at all, most current backup software simply handles what you need to have handled automatically.

Image backup software

If you use image backup software (including either of my recommendations, Macrium Reflect or EaseUS Todo, or any of several others), your backup drive need not be similar to what it is you’re backing up. All it needs is to be big enough to hold the backup.

External Backup DriveMost image backup configurations are a two-step process:

  1. Indicate what should be backed up.
  2. Indicate where you want the backup to be placed.

You select your assortment of partitions and/or drives that you want backed up (hint: I recommend backing up all partitions on each physical drive), and the program creates a single file containing the backup of everything you indicated.

As long as your external drive has enough room, you’re done.

Restoring some, or all

When the time comes to restore from your backup, you have all sorts of choices.

  • You can restore the entire image of all disks and partitions.
  • You can restore only specific disks onto replacement disks, as long as the target disk is big enough to hold the data.
  • You can restore only specific partitions, as long as there is enough room for the partition and data.
  • You can restore only specific files.

In short, you can do pretty much anything you like.

I think you can see why I much prefer this approach to backing up over some of the alternatives.

Backing up only some

If you want to back up only certain disks, or certain partitions on the disk, that’s simply a choice you make when you create your backup.

I prefer that when you back up, you back up everything – that’s the safest approach.

However, if you want to back up only certain partitions and/or drives, you simply select only those partitions and/or drives when you create the backup. They’ll all be placed into the single, combined file.

Other approaches

Now, other backup approaches may work differently.

For example, I suspect you’re thinking about what I tend to call “cloning” a disk.1 That includes not only all files, but all layout information, and even unused areas of the disk. It’s much less flexible about where it can be stored, usually requiring an identical drive or partition as the destination for the backup.

Cloning has its place, but for most users, it’s unnecessary for backing up – an image-based strategy will do.

At the other end of the spectrum, you may just be copying files. The restrictions on that are much simpler: as long as there’s room for the files you copy, you can put them wherever and however you like. Just realize that you may not be getting absolutely everything on your machine in the same way that an image backup would.

Ultimately, the decision of how best to partition your backup drive depends on exactly what tools and techniques you use to backup. Most likely, you need do nothing special. I typically recommend partitioning it as a single drive.

But you’ll need to check the documentation associated with your backup program to be sure.

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Footnotes & references

1: There’s actually no agreement on the definitions of “clone” and “image“, so they are definitely used inconsistently. I’m using what I believe are the most commonly accepted definitions.

12 comments on “How Should I Back Up My Hard Drive with Several Partitions to an External Drive?”

  1. It was a great idea and most helpfull if you might let here link to download the batchfile, task or whatever script,like yours. Hmmm I bet he is thinking if…

    Regards

  2. Acronis TrueImage works great.

    The last time something went bad with my computer it took me a week to get everything loaded, updated, and rebuilt back to the way I wanted it, I also work at a job leaving little time for such fun. So I searched around for a better backup strategy and settled on Acronis TrueImage.

    I now use Acronis TrueImage to make an image of my C: drive to an external USB drive twice a month and copy any new stuff to a pen drive when needed.

    Last week something went wrong with my IE browser causing it to repeatedly hang, needing to cancel the process to clear things up. Scans with Norton AntiVirus, Windows Defender, and LavaSoft Adware-2007 found nothing. I finally had to give up and fix it.

    Using Acronis TrueImage to restore the entire C: drive from the last image backup, and downloading the needed Windows updates took me about ONE HOUR!

    Signed
    A True Believer

  3. Just aquired a 250GB external backup drive. How do I partition it so I can backup two other laptops in their own “drive”?

    • You don’t need to partition. If you use a capable backup software it will let you back up the laptop’s entire system into a folder that you name. Each folder subsequently will have a backup image of your laptops. I use Macrium. Even the free version will do this for you.

  4. Leo,
    When an older article is updated, it seems to me to make more sense to NOT include the comments to the earlier article. It can be confusing to current readers if the comment deals with something not in the more current article. Consider the comment that references a “batchfile”

    • Batch files still work on current versions of Windows. They are not nearly as common as with older versions of the OS, but they still can be useful in some cases. If they are used, the convention is generally to use a .cmd extension, but a .bat will also work.

      What you say about older articles still has validity, as some comments really are obsolete. We do delete any comments we come across which are outdated, but it would be a monumental going through thousands of articles to remove them. And since the majority of comments are still valid, removing them would be counterproductive. I guess the best solution is to check the date of the comment.

    • Batch files? They are still used and very usefull in many cases. There are still many scenarios when you are better to use command line level codes. In fact, there are case where you must use the command line and if you need to do the same commands sequence several times, a .BAT file is very nice.
      Some other times, it’s only the units used that are passé, like Mb to Gb for RAM and Gb to Tb for storage.

  5. Today is World Backup Day, so I just finished backing up my machines. I do a full image backup of each machine once a month, or after a major software change. My main machine also has a partition set up with just data, and I back that partition up separately each week, and keep anything I am working on in OneDrive and Dropbox as well.

    I use Macrium for these image backups. and rotate three different external drives.

    This has worked well for me, and fortunately did not lose any data when my main machine hard drive died last fall.

  6. I use a device called Docking Station that lets you insert a hard drive (3.5″ or 2.5″) and connects to the PC via USB 3.0
    Once I connect the docking station, I start Acronis and use the Clone option.
    The 1 TB hard drive on my desktop finishes the cloning process in 45 minutes and I feel safe that in the case of a hard drive failure I can open the PC case, switch drives, and be back and running in 10 minutes. I do this once a week when I do general maintenance like running Malwarebytes, Glary, etc.
    Since I have both Windows 8.1 and Windows 10 on the same drive, I found this to be the best way.
    For backing up library folders, daily I use the File History mode.

  7. I have a 1TB drive in my desktop with a separate partition (D) for my data. I make an image with Macrium Reflect about once a month on all the partitions except my D partition that has my data. I put those images on two USB 1 TB drives that I rotate. Then a couple times a week I copy my data from the D partition to a folder on those USB drives also. Then I also sync my data to my laptop with a program called GoodSync. This seems to work well for me. I haven’t lost any data and I have restored from an image a couple of times when I went from Win 8 to Win 8.1.

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