19 April, 2015
By Joe Callison
Backing up your computer data is essential if you do not want to experience the agony of losing irreplaceable family photos, tax and financial records, and other data that can be gone in an instant if your hard drive suddenly fails or if CryptoLocker type malware locks all of your files. There are so many methods of doing backups and pros and cons to consider that I have hesitated writing on it because it would take a small book to do the subject justice. Of necessity I am limiting this post to a few of the simplest and lowest cost methods available.
Windows Backup and Restore
Windows includes basic back up capability in Control Panel under System and Security. Clicking on “Back up your computer” will provide you with two backup options.
Creating a system image will back up everything on your hard drive or selected partitions of your hard drive if it has multiple partitions. It is the most complete type of backup, but also requires the most data storage as the backup file will be approximately the size of the used space on your hard drive. You can find the amount of used space by right-clicking on Local Disk (C:) under Computer and choosing properties from the menu. You will want an external hard drive with USB interface with a capacity at least 3 or 4 times the amount of used space on your hard drive to perform this type of backup. This will allow you to make 1 or 2 newer backups before deleting the oldest backup. A 1TB (1000GB) external drive is currently $55 to $65.
Backing up just your “files and settings” will only back up all of the user documents (documents, music, pictures, videos) that are located in the “Users” folder and the user settings for Windows that you have personalized during and after the time the operating system was installed. It does not back up the Windows operating system or any of the programs that have been installed. If you have the disks to reinstall the operating system and programs, then backing them up only provides the convenience of not having to download and install all of the updates again should you need to restore everything. The amount of data storage required to back up only files and settings will be approximately the size of your “Users” folder, which you can find by right-clicking on the folder and choosing properties from the menu.
If you do not have a lot of music, pictures, and videos, then the size may be small enough to back up on a USB flash drive. A 32GB USB 3.0 flash drive is currently as low as $11 and 64GB as low as $22. If you need more space than that, you might as well buy an external hard drive.
Other Back Up Software
External USB hard drives are usually provided with software to back up your computer, either preloaded on the external drive or available as a free download from their website. The software typically offers several options for backing up your computer and a scheduler to automate the process. The typical options may include a system image, all files and folders, selected files and folders, and continuous backup. Continuous backup is the default setup on Western Digital Passport drives I have set up, which is an initial complete backup of all files and folders and then incremental backups of any changes at short intervals. Continuous backup requires being continuously connected to your computer to function, which has the downside of being vulnerable to virus and malware attacks.
There are many other free and paid software programs available to back up your files. See the earlier post titled Free!(Or Not?) for sources you can use to search for free ones. One very popular free method is FreeFileSync from www.freefilesync.org .
My favorite paid software program, which is also included with some new WD Passport drives, is Acronis True Image from www.acronis.com . True Image will replace the built-in Windows back up and restore function by default, so clicking on the “Back up your computer” will no longer function, which is why I could not include a screen shot of the Windows back up options.
Some people prefer to just use system imaging software instead of file back up software. Free system imaging software is available from a number of sources if you do not want to use the Windows built-in version. The Windows version works fine, it is just not as easy to set up the Windows Task Scheduler if you want to automate the process. The contents of the compressed backup file are also not viewable unless you “mount” the image as a drive, which is too complex for many computer users. An alternative method of extracting and viewing the contents of a Windows backup file that I have found is 7-Zip from www.7-zip.org .
Cloud Storage Back Up
Cloud storage refers to storage in remote internet data centers offered as free or paid services by Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, iDrive, and a multitude of others. Typically around 2 to 15 GB is free and 1TB is around $10 per month. The term “personal cloud” has also been coined in addition to the older generic name of Network Attached Storage (NAS) referring to external hard drives that are connected to your Ethernet router to serve all of the computers and other devices on your home network. The off-site cloud services provide the capability of automatically synchronizing files placed in specified folders on your computer with the cloud storage, where they can be accessed by designated users from anywhere through the internet. Because the files are synchronized at a slow rate in the background so as to not interfere too much with your internet access, and also limited by internet service provider upload rates that are typically a fraction of the download rates, backing up or restoring large amounts of data can take many hours or even days to accomplish.
There are paid cloud back up services available such as Carbonite and CrashPlan for about $60 per year that do nothing but back up your computer files. Carbonite does not back up program or system files, only personal content. CrashPlan will back up any file, even from external drives at no extra cost. Backing up or restoring large amounts of data can take many hours or even days to accomplish.
Personal cloud or NAS storage functions similar to external hard drives directly connected to your computer, but can also be shared simultaneously with multiple computers or devices on your home network and by remote access through the internet when you are away from home. They can also function as media servers for shared music, pictures and videos accessible by all of your networked computers and devices, including smart TVs and DVD players. Personal cloud storage is much faster than off-site cloud storage, but is vulnerable to damage or loss from hardware failure, fire, storms, theft, etc. Personal cloud storage costs around $200 for 4 TB of storage, or $300 if you want mirrored drives (RAID 1 redundancy) for greater hardware reliability. I have an older 1TB of mirrored NAS and have had to replace one failed drive. The replacement drive just plugs in and automatically duplicates the contents of the good drive. For my back ups, I use my 1 TB NAS and also my 1TB of Google Drive storage that comes with signing up for Google Fiber to back up a desktop computer and a laptop. I use Acronis True Image 2015 to do complete back ups about once a month. I also try to keep important files copied to the NAS to prevent data loss in between back ups.