A Guide To Backing Up Your PC

Posted on: 05 September 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Backing up is one of the most important, yet also one of the most neglected areas of computing.

Backing up your data should be at the top of your computer maintenance list, right next to Virus Protection.

Without data backup or virus protection, you are running the risk of losing your data. And it will happen - don't think that you don't have to worry about it.

What should you back up?

First, you have to decide, what valuable data is. It might be all your photographs, your correspondence, your contacts, your music, your business accounts, even your collection of vintage computer hardware brochure scans. Only you can decide what your valuable data is, because only you know what you use your PC for.

It can be hard to work out where your data is on your disk.

On Windows, a good starting point is your home directories. There are where you’ll find My Documents, My Pictures and the like. In Windows, these can all be found on your C drive in a folder called Documents and Settings/ Your Login ID. For example, if you log on to Windows as Pete, then it would be in Documents and Settings/ Pete. In Vista, they’re in Users/ Pete.

That’s fine for documents you create yourself. However, an application may save data in its own special folder. The internet is your friend - or at least a well-meaning acquaintance - and some research starting with the name of the program you use to get all the data will usually give you some good pointers.

Try looking for the information on the application’s website, or try typing “Where does Filemaker database store its data?” into Google - assuming Filemaker database is the name of the application. Someone out there has almost certainly asked before. If your application’s website has a forum or discussion board, then sign up and simply ask the question. Someone will answer in a day or five.

When should you back up?

Now! Go on, we’ll wait. Done? Good, we’ll continue.

Expert Tip

Keep old copies of your backups.

If you keep the most recent backup and the previous two, then you also guard against something being wrong with one of the backups, or from deleting a file so it’s no longer backed up, and then discovering much later you still want it.

Backups should be done regularly. How often depends on how much your data changes. If your data changes often you may want to back up daily. If it’s vitally important to your business, maybe more often. If it changes less often, you may find that weekly or even monthly suits you.

A good way to look at it is to ask yourself how much effort it would take to replace the data from scratch, i.e. how much work would you lose. A few hours to re-create lost data might be fine, but if it would take you days then you’re not backing up often enough. On the other hand, if you spend time every day backing up stuff that would only take a few minutes to recreate, you’re either backing up too often, or the wrong stuff.

What should you back up to?

We recommend CDs or DVDs, as these are cheap, reliable and easy to transport.

You might also consider external hard drives - computer disks attached to your PC by a USB or FireWire connection. These are bulkier and more prone to failure, but can hold a lot more data than a DVD.

Expert Tip

Test your backups.

Another important point is to test you can restore the data before you need to do it because of a catastrophe.

An internal hard drive - like a D drive on your computer - can be quick and hold a lot of data, but it is not really recommended because you’re only protecting your data against your other drive failing.

If you have more than one computer on your network, you can back each one up to the other. This can be reasonably quick and effective, and if the computers are in two different locations, very safe indeed.

You may wish to research online backups: these services, available for a small fee, let you send your data over the internet to a “digital safe”. Your ISP may provide a service for free or at a nominal cost - for example BT’s Digital Vault. If you’re thinking about online backup, consider the reliability of the service as you’re trusting those people to look after your data.

Backing up to tapes is unlikely to be cost effective or reliable for the home user.

Where Should You Store Your Backups?

That largely depends on how paranoid you are and how valuable the data is to you.

The best place is a different physical location. Then if your house burns down or the nearby power sub-station gets struck by lightning and the electrical surge fries your PC, you’re still OK. You can take a CD, DVD or external hard drive to the office or stick them in the boot of your car and feel pretty safe.

Online backup services are by definition somewhere else, so you don’t need to worry about transporting stuff around.

Please remember also that your valuable data may contain information which personally identifies you. When you back it up, make sure you don’t leave it lying around for anyone to pick it up, or you may find yourself the victim of identity theft.

Backing up your system

Microsoft Windows XP and Vista PCs have a system backup feature. This doesn’t back up your data, but it does back up the Windows system and you applications. Better yet, by default Windows does it automatically whenever it changes something on your system.

If you like to install a lot of applications on your computer - especially ones you’ve downloaded off the internet, and plugging in new hardware, you can easily break the system. So before you make any changes along these lines, you can also create your own system backups at any point. If you want to create a system backup - a ‘Restore Point’ - you have to find System Restore and select the Create a Restore Point option.

System restore

If you’ve just installed a new piece of hardware or software and you’re experiencing serious problems, this feature will let you roll your system and applications - mostly - back to where they were before you changed things. To get to System Restore, click Start, All Programs, Accessories, System Tools, and System Restore. Here, you can chose to back up or restore your system.

If you choose to restore, you then pick the date you’ll restore from and which particular backup if you made more than one that day. All programs and hardware drivers you’ve installed since that date will magically disappear. And so, hopefully will the problem.

If your PC is so broken it won’t even boot to the normal Desktop, you may be able to get it into Safe Mode or boot from a CD.

It’s often best to run System Restore from Safe Mode anyway, especially if you’re trying to roll back hardware changes.

The bad news about System Restore is that it doesn’t always work. If it doesn’t, you may be looking at a system reinstall, or perhaps you have a hardware problem.

Backing up data

Because System Restore might not help you out, and because your problems may not just be software ones, you still need to back up your valuable data so you can recreate it on a new computer.

These days, your valuable data almost always includes details of how you use online services, user IDs and passwords. Remember, you may have to back those details up too.

There are a wide variety of ways to back up your data. The simplest is to copy the data to the CD - or whatever you’re backing up to - using copy and paste or drag and drop in Windows Explorer. This method is simple, but it can use up a lot of CD space.

Backup Summary

  • Identify your valuable data, the stuff that’s impossible or very hard work to recreate
  • Back your data up regularly
  • Test you can restore your data
  • Don’t leave your backups exposed to misuse

We recomment using a product which compresses the data to a much smaller size. This means it fits on fewer CDs, or takes less time to upload to an online backup service. There are a number of products which do this, from the ever popular WinZip to products like WinRar and 7Zip.

If you really want to, there are any number of expensive backup software packages you could invest in. These can automatically run the backups for you at certain times, include and exclude files and folders, copy the backup files hither and yon and all sorts of other bells and whistles.  If you’re having trouble setting up a backup regime with something like WinZip, these might help you out, but you will be paying for the privilege.

Another thing to be wary of is the format these packages store the files in. if you simply copy the files or use a popular compression package, you can easily get the files back without special software - for example, Windows can read WinZip files automatically.

However, if the backup software you chose has its own way of storing the data, you may well need a working version of their software if you want to access your back-up data.

Final word

And one final word to the wise - you can’t back up too much or too frequently. If you do, the worse you end up with is a lot of backup CDs lying around. However, if you back up too little or too seldom, you are likely to find that the backed-up version of the file you are looking for is either way out of date or missing entirely.

Finally, in case you’re not entirely clear what the article on backups was about, or you skipped straight to the summary, the moral of the story is - back up, back up, and back up.

By Pete Neale & Geoff Stevens

The Beginners Guide To Fixing Your PCPete Neale and Geoff Stevens are the authors of The Beginner’s Guide To Fixing Your PC, which is published by Summersdale. It is available through all good booksellers or www.summersdale.com for £5.99, or online at Amazon for £4.49.

Do you back up your PC? Have you ever lost information from not backing up your computer?

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