We all know we’re supposed to back up our data. It’s essential for peace of mind, but one copy of a file on your computer does not a backup make. Redundancy, people, redundancy!
As the organizers of World Backup Day note, people produce quadrillions of files every year but fail to take adequate steps to preserve their data. Why? Computers get infected and accidents happen, but even after losing an important document, irreplaceable photo, or entire sets of financial records, some folks still don’t take the time.
The reason is, backing up takes some effort. But it’s easier than ever. Here’s a quick look at the types of backup available, as well as the tools you’ll need to pull it off, with as little work as possible.
Types of PC Backup
Backing up can be as simple as copying a file from one spot to another—from a hard drive to a removable USB flash drive, for example. But what you need for redundancy, security, and access dictates what kind of backup you should use.
Select Files and Folders
If you only need to back up specific data, use software that will let you pick and choose which files you want to save. (Remember, simply moving a file isn’t backing it up. You need at least two copies.) To be safe, back up entire folders on a recurring basis to ensure that newly created or updated files get backed up at a later date.
There’s plenty of free software to take care of this for you, including Windows’s integrated feature. Find it via the Settings > Update & Security > BackupBackup. It lets you back up items using the file history, which offers recurring copying of files (from every 10 minutes to every day) to a secondary drive as backup. Then, you can restore only the version of a file you need to recover, when necessary. File History is easy to set up, but it’s limited in scope.
Windows 10 and Windows 11 can also back up files to OneDrive, Microsoft’s online backup and synchronization offering (more on that below).
Cloud Storage and File-Synchronization Services
A must for anyone with more than one computer or device in use, synchronization software ensures you have the same files on all your PCs (and they’re usually accessible on mobile devices, too). Make a change to a file and it’s automatically sent to all the other PCs using the account, even on other operating systems. It’s the ultimate in redundancy.
Big names in this area include IDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive; the latter has a perfect five stars in our latest review. There are many others. All of them provide a few gigabytes of online storage for free, typically 2GB, but you can get a lot more by paying a monthly or yearly fee.
Online Backup Services
We’re in the era of the cloud, so online backup, once a bit specialized, is now the norm for important files. Unlike the above services, which also include a file-sync option, straight backup products lean toward direct transfer of files from a hard drive to online/cloud storage, with easy restoration options. They may throw in some file syncing, but enhanced security is the most important option.
Install online backup software on a PC, tell it which files/folders to keep backed up, and it does the rest in the background. Because the storage is online, you can typically read files via the browser, or restore the files to other systems, as needed.
Cloning a Full Disk Image
There are several ways to back up an entire hard drive. The first is to use software to copy all the individual files from the drive to another (larger) drive, as described above. This means you get everything, even if you don’t need it, but it is easy to keep up-to-date and restore select files from it as needed.
A better method is to make an image or clone of the drive. An image/clone is a replica of all of your data—every file and folder, even the programs and system files—a true snapshot of the drive at the moment of backup. When used for restoration, the clone/image overwrites the existing system and the hard drive reverts to the state it was in at the time of backup.
Imaging/cloning is a great way to back up a brand-new computer. Then, when it starts acting wonky (it happens) you can revert the drive back to its original settings. Keep in mind, however, that this is like going back to the factory settings—albeit your own—which means the restoration will not include data accumulated after the original imaging. That data should be backed up separately. (Yes, you should have two sets of backups running.)
Your best option: do a full disk-image backup on a regular basis, with data included, using software that can read images and selectively pull files for restoration when necessary. You will need a very big backup destination drive to pull it off, typically an external hard drive or your own home network storage option.
Third-party software for imaging a drive includes IDrive and Acronis—they include cloning to supplement their normal file backup. There are plenty of free options too, such as DriveImage XML and Macrium Relfect Free.
How you back up data may depend on the type of media you use as the destination site. Here are some options.
It doesn’t get much easier than this: Plug an external storage drive into your computer and get started. Of course, drives come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. A standard drive won’t cost much, but it alone will do nothing but sit there and make you do all the work. Almost all drives today use connectors like USB-A 3.0 or USB-C for fast transfer rates.
Your biggest decision will be whether to go with a hard drive, or a faster but more expensive solid-state drive (SSD). Unlike hard disk drives, SSDs have no moving parts and that means fantastic performance, which is always a plus when you’ve got a lot of data to copy.
For more, check out SSD vs. HDD: What’s the Difference? If you’re not sure how to pick, read The Best M.2 Solid-State Drives and How to Copy Your Windows Installation to an SSD.
CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray Discs
The old standby for backup is to copy your files to a disc. The downsides remain capacity and speed. Plus, it’s harder than ever to get computers with CD drives these days.
CD-Recordables (CD-Rs) can only hold so much data, around 700MB, maximum. A DVD-R is much better at 4.7GB, but even 8.5GB dual-layer DVD-R discs won’t hold your entire music and photo collection. Dual-layer Blu-ray discs (BD-Rs) store up to 50GB, but the prices fluctuate. A few years back, we found a 50-disc spindle for $25, but supplies must be down as these days they go for closer to $90. Even at that capacity, backing up to discs will feel interminably slow compared with fast SSDs and flash drives. Who wants to swap discs in and out all the time?
The upsides: Discs are super portable, and it’s always a good idea to keep a backup of your data offsite, if possible. If a disaster takes out your computer, it won’t destroy what’s not there.
USB Flash Drives
Small USB drives are almost as inexpensive as discs, even as their capacity increases. They have the advantage of being ultra-portable. Maybe too portable, since they’re easy to lose (and steal). But locking one multi-GB flash drive in a safe deposit box is easier than storing discs or hard drives. Some USB drives are even designed for protection from the elements, making them a safer destination for your data.
Of course, you need to get the largest capacity drive you can get to back up everything, especially if you’ll be imaging your drive. That can get expensive but might be worth it for the convenience. For more, read The Best USB Flash Drives.
Network Attached Storage (NAS)
A NAS device is a storage drive (or drives) that lives on your network, so all the users on the network can access it. Sometimes, a NAS is called a home server. They’re not always cheap, and some don’t even include built-in storage—you have to purchase drives separately. But NAS boxes are getting easier to work with every day.
NAS can do a lot more than back up a few files. Many can back up multiple computers in a home or office. Streaming media from a NAS to a device like a game console or smartphone is commonplace; sharing files across the network and out to the internet, making it a web server, is also the norm. Most NAS boxes feature FTP, online remote access, security controls, and different RAID configurations to determine how drives store your data (redundantly or spread across drives). Some have multiple Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and USB ports. Some capture input from networked digital video cameras. The options seem almost endless, which makes it worth shopping around to get the right one for your home or office.
You can’t go wrong with the price or abilities of our top-rated NAS brands, which tend to be Asustor and Synology. The latter is consistently the winner of our Readers’ Choice Awards for NAS manufacturers.
We covered this above, but it bears repeating, as the cloud is the future (as well as the present) of backup. The cloud refers to online storage. Sometimes it’s used by a service, like Google Drive, to store your data. It can also be straightforward storage space provided by big companies or small, like our Editors’ Choice favorite, IDrive, which lets you back up multiple devices to 2TB of cloud storage for an annual fee.
Cloud-based direct PC backup is not new. Carbonite and competitors have been around for years providing direct backup of files on your computer to the internet, usually in the background and in an unobtrusive way. There is typically a free tier of service and a subscription fee to back up more (the amount depends on the service).
If you have only a few small files to store, and a Google/Gmail account, stick with Google Drive. Upload any kind of file you want to the service, as long as the file is less than 250MB in size. You get 15GB of free space across all your Google services; the next tier is 100GB for $1.99/month. Use Google Drive for desktop to setup all the backup and sync features.
What to Back Up (In Addition to the Obvious)
It might seem like enough to point your backup software to your documents, pictures, videos, and music folders and let it do its thing. Maybe it is, if you’re diligent about putting your data in the right place on your drives. Even so, there are other types of data you should consider backing up.
Don’t lose carefully cultivated browser bookmarks or favorites. Major browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome have a built-in backup—as long as you’ve got accounts with Mozilla and Google. The browsers will back up data like bookmarks, history, add-ons, even your open tabs in some cases—and sync it across browsers and computers.
On Firefox type in “about:preferences#sync” in the address bar; on Chrome, type “chrome://settings/syncSetup” (both without the quotes). Microsoft provides some info on backing up favorites in the Edge browser.
If you’re using a web-based email system like Gmail or Outlook.com, this may not seem like much of an issue—all your mail is in the cloud, controlled by big companies, what could go wrong? Well, even big companies have outages and get hacked. So if all your messages are mission critical, make a backup occasionally.
For Gmail you can use Google Takeout. Outlook.com doesn’t really let you export, but a third-party software product like eM Client (free for home use, $49.95 for pro) can access Gmail and Outlook.com and run an auto-backup.
Using client software like Outlook with Microsoft Office 365 is the preference of many, but the backup situation is a lot more complicated. It requires backing up a file called the PST (Personal Storage Table). Microsoft provides full instructions.
The best solution of all: use Outlook with a service that stores your email on the server. That could be something like Microsoft’s own Outlook.com or Gmail, or a work account through an Exchange Server or IMAP. Then you’ve got your message in the cloud, but also in an OST (Offline Outlook Data File)—which, again, you can back up separately.
If you’ve got hardware peripherals attached to your computer, you’ve got drivers—the software that lets your PC talk to video cards, printers, scanners, and the like. If you haven’t done a disk image, at least back up your current drivers with a tool like Double Driver.
If you don’t back up, you may have to rummage through manufacturers’ websites to grab drivers during a PC restore—and, to be honest, that might be the better way to go. Then you’ll have the most up-to-date drivers all digitally signed and from the proper source. It takes more time, but may benefit your PC and you in the long run.
It may seem weird to back up info that you don’t keep on your hard drive, but do you seriously trust Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok to never, ever suffer a catastrophic data loss? Be prepared. You can’t exactly use backups to restore them to online use, but it’s better to have a redundant copy for your records and failing memory than risk losing it all.
To get your Facebook data, on the desktop go to Settings > Your Facebook Information > Download Your InformationDownload Your Information. Check the boxes below of want you want, then at the top or bottom of the page, click Request a Download. It may take a while for the file to be ready. It’ll appear under that Available Copies tab in the middle of the page.
Twitter is similar, but less complex: on your desktop browser go to your account settings. Under Your Account, click “Download an archive of your data.” You’ll be emailed a link to the full file of all your tweets and uploaded pics. You can only do this every 30 days.
On Instagram, go to your profile, click Edit Profile, and then Privacy and SecurityPrivacy and Security > Data Download > Request Download. They’ll also email you a file of your info.
To get all your TikTok videos, click your profile, use the three-line hamburger menu to go to Settings and Privacy (on desktop click your avatar and select Settings) then Privacy > Download your data. This can take days to process if you have a lot of videos on the service, and once it’s available to download (in the same area of the app) you only have four days to grab it.