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Backing up your data is an important habit to get into for every kind of PC user. Doing so regularly keeps your files safe in case of hardware failure, lets you resume working as usual with your files soon after a clean OS install or major upgrade, and allows you to move your data to other computers easily. And don't worry, it's a lot easier to do regularly than hitting the gym.
All you need to get started with local backups is a high-quality external hard drive to store your data—we're going to use the built-in tool in Windows to schedule backups and restore our files. With this nifty guide you're already reading, you can get set up in under two minutes. Let's go!
Choosing a good external hard drive for backups
There are three factors you need to consider when purchasing an external hard drive that you intend to use for backups: storage capacity, file transfer speed and reliability. It's a good idea to select a drive with at least twice the capacity of your system hard drive, as your storage needs will inevitably grow over time. Next, you'll want to a USB 3.0 connector for fast file transfers — USB 3.0 is generally thrice as fast as USB 2.0, and this new standard will help you back up your files in significantly less time. Finally, opt for a reputed brand and model that's received good reviews and benchmark scores and has minimal reports of failure.
I'm using the Western Digital My Book 3TB External Hard Drive, that costs just $140 and offers incredible value for money at $0.04/GB of space, along with USB 2.0 compatibility, password protection and hardware encryption capabilities. Alternatively, you can opt for a portable external drive that's easier to carry around: The Wirecutter recommends the 2TB Seagate Backup Plus Slim.
Using Backup and Restore to protect your files
Windows comes bundled with a great tool to backup your files, and it's simply called Backup and Restore. This smart little program takes just a couple of minutes to configure and automatically backs up all the files you want it to. You can also set it to back up a system image so your Windows install, programs, drivers and registry settings can be saved and restored with just a click.
Let's begin by making sure our hard drive is plugged in and turned on. Then, find Backup and Restore in the Control Panel, or just click Start and type backup to locate the program. Click Set up backup, and then select your external drive from the list of backup locations provided.
On the next screen, choose what you want to back up: you can either have Windows choose files automatically for you, or you can select folders yourself.
If you've been religiously saving your files into default locations under Libraries set up by Windows and also want to be able to restore your Windows install, you can let Windows choose your files for you. This works for multiple user accounts too.
- A few other default Windows folders are also backed up: AppData, Contacts, Desktop, Downloads, Favorites, Links, Saved Games, and Searches.
- If you'd like to restore your PC contents as they are at a later date, this option can create a system image to do just that. Make sure your backup drive has enough room and uses an NTFS file system before proceeding.
You can also choose individual folders to back up: select your folders on the next screen by checking the boxes next to each folder you want backed up.
On the next screen, click Back up now to begin the process. It might take a while, depending on how many files are being backed up, and how large they are. And that's it — your files will now be copied safe and sound onto your external hard drive.
Scheduling regular backups
It's best to set up a regular scheduled backup, say once a week or once a month. You can choose the time of day, week and month for this here. New files from your source folder will be added to your backup folder, and updated files from the source folder will overwrite older versions of the backed up files.
Backup and Restore makes it really easy to restore files. To restore a backup, click Restore my files in the same window. You'll be asked where you want to restore, and your files will be copied back and your system image mirrored on to your install. You'll find that your files are restored with their folder structure intact, so you don't have to worry about reorganizing them once the restore process is complete.
Alternative apps to back up your files
If you'd like more control over how your data is backed up, you can try some of these other great apps that make backups a cinch:
This free tool from Microsoft, available for both 32-bit (get the x86 installer) and 64-bit (get the x64 installer) versions of Windows, works by keeping two folders in sync. It's a good choice for those who want to manually back up files with fine-grained control over how files are copied over. SyncToy doesn't have a scheduler, which isn't necessarily a bad thing: it makes sense if you prefer to back up your files to an external drive that you store off-site and use a recurring reminder on your web or phone calendar to stick to a backup schedule.
To use SyncToy, install and launch the app, and begin by creating a folder pair (basically a source folder and destination folder that will be synced) and choose a sync method:
- Synchronize copies new and updated files both ways, so the contents of the two folders are always the same. That means that even file renames and deletes in one folder are repeated in the other.
- Echo copies new and updated files from the source to the destination folder, and file renames and deletes are repeated in the destination folder.
- Contribute copies new and updated files from the source to the destination folder, and file renames are repeated in the destination folder. Deletions are not repeated, so you'll always have a backup every file created and saved in the source folder.
I'd recommend sticking with Contribute, since this ensures that no matter what you do to the files in the source folder, you'll never lose the backups in the destination folder.
Built by Swiss developers Pipemetrics, Bvckup2 is a robust tool that features several options to configure your backups, and a great user interface with thoughtful details that make it a joy to use. Bvckup2 costs $19.95 for the personal edition, and you can download a free 2-week unrestricted trial to check it out first.
One of the best features of Bvckup2 is that it uses Delta copying, where the app identifies changes in existing files and notes new files, and only copies those over, as opposed to copying all files in their entirety - thus saving you a lot of computing time and frees up your PC for normal use.
To use Bvckup2, all you need to do is choose a source and destination folder, give your backup activity a description (like 'Work documents'), and click Create. Create as many separate backup actions for separate folders like this as you like, and configure the scheduler as per your preference under When to Backup. Bvckup2 will handle the rest, sitting quietly in the notification tray.
If you're looking for a way to seamlessly back up your files to an external drive and to the cloud for total peace of mind, CrashPlan's got you covered. There are two components to CrashPlan: a free desktop app that lets you back up files to external drives and other computers, and CrashPlan Central, a cloud storage system to back up your files to.
The desktop app comes with a free month-long trial of CrashPlan Central, which is very reasonably priced at as little as $4/month for a single PC. Plus, it works great with multiple PCs, so if you or your family use several computers, this is a splendid choice for backing up everyone's files securely.
To back up your files to an external drive and to the cloud, begin by launching CrashPlan and signing in with your account, or creating a new one if needed. Next, on the Backup screen, find the Files section and click Change to select all the folders you'd like to back up. Configure your external drive by clicking Folder in the Destinations section above, and choose a folder you'd like to back up your files to (you might need to manually create one by clicking Start > Computer, and navigating to your external drive). Click Start Backup when you're ready.
For cloud backup, click Destinations and then click Cloud. Select CrashPlan Central in the window, and then click Start Backup.
CrashPlan's app works really well even if you choose not to back up files to the cloud, and only want it for the easy-to-use interface and neat features, like email and Twitter backup status alerts, and filename exclusions.
That wasn't so hard now, was it? Once you've configured your backup schedule, you don't ever have to worry about losing data off your PC anymore. And when you're ready to perform a clean install, or upgrade your OS, your backup will come in handy when you want to bring your precious files back in a jiffy.
Do you have a favorite backup tip or tool? Let us know in the comments!