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How do I back up my PC?

By Tom Cumming


At first this may seem like quite a simple question, but unfortunately it is a lot more complicated than it sounds. There is a lot of different information on a computer that could be backed up, and a lot of different hardware and software products available to do it. What you have to decide is what is best suited to your needs.

The first thing you need to decide is what you need to back up and what you do not.
The contents of most hard drives can be roughly divided up into a few catagories:
1) The operating system (eg Windows)
2) Software programs and games
3) Your own work
4) Various settings related to the software programs, for example your Internet Explorer favourites, your emails, your address book, your Autocorrect settings in Word, etc.

You could back up absolutely everything. This means that if your hard drive ever fails, you can immediately replace it and get your computer back to exactly where it left off by restoring from this backup. If you are using the computer for extremely mission-critical tasks, and it is of upmost importance that when your computer fails you can get it working again as quickly as possible, this is the backup strategy for you. However, you must to realise that the amount of data stored on hard drives these days is absolutely enourmous, and so for this to be practical you will need to invest in some expensive specialised backup hardware, such as a tape drive, or a second hard drive at least as big as your main hard drive. You will also need a lot of patience as backing up using this method will probably take a very long time. Therefore I would not recommend this strategy to an average home computer user, but if the computer in question is controlling a nuclear power station then this is precisely what you need.

At the other extreme, you could just back up your own personal work and leave everything else. Provided you have not been indulging in software piracy, you will already have the original CD-ROMs or diskettes for your operating system and software programs, so you can re-install them from these [1]. This will make backing up very quick and easy. However, it will mean that the settings in no.4 you will either have to remember and re-enter by hand, or live without.

Most people manage to find a compromise between these extremes. This is what I back up on my machine:

-All my work in the "My Documents" folder;
-Any templates I have created for applications;
-My emails and address book;
-My Internet Explorer favourites;

and that is about it.

Once you've decided *what* you need to back up, you next need to choose what form of storage you will use to store the backup on. There are a number of different choices:

1) Another hard drive: This means quite a fast backup, that is always easily accessible, at a reasonably low cost. The capacity will be very high. If you have a PC with a RAID controller, you can set it to automatically "mirror" two drives as one, so you do not even have to explicitely back up, as the computer will automatically keep the two drives syncronised. However, the main problem with a hard drive is that it is non-removable, so if your computer fails, you cannot just remove the disk and insert it in someone else's computer, as this would mean taking both computers apart. You would have to wait until your computer is fixed.

2) Removable hard drive: This has all the capacity advantages of a fixed hard drive, but of course you can remove it and store it elsewhere. However the main problem with these is that they tend to be rather slow. The bottleneck tends to be in the connection to the PC: most external hard drives will use the parallel (printer) port or the USB interface, neither of which are anything like as fast as an internal (IDE or SCSI) hard drive. However if you have a new machine that has a USB 2 or Firewire (or I.Link, or 1394, or IEEE1394, or whatever you want to call it!!!) port then these are much faster.

3) Floppy disks: You very rarely see a computer without a floppy disk drive, so this has the obvious advantage that you can restore your backups from pretty well anywhere. However, you must remember that the standard 3.5" floppy disk was first invented in 1980, so has a small capacity of 1.44Mb and is slow and unreliable by today's standards. The floppy disk drive would therefore only be suited to backing up very small amounts of data; otherwise you will find yourself backing up to huge piles of floppy disks, which is impractical.

4) "Floptical" discs: By this I mean modern storage devices that use the same magnetic storage methods as the floppy disks, for example the Iomega Zip drive or the LS-120 "superdisk". The drives are quite cheap and fairly popular, but the overall cost of storage works out quite expensive if you consider the cost per megabyte of storage space. The capacities, at typically around 100Mb, are better than floppy discs but not enormous.

5) USB pen drives / memory sticks: These are little devices that connect to computers' USB ports, and because of their small size, low cost and lack of moving parts, are fast replacing many kinds of "floptical" magnetic disks.

6) CD-writer: Most PCs made in the last year or so have come with a CD-writer so if you have a newer computer then this is the obvious choice, as you already have one, the discs are quite cheap, they are fairly quick and lots of people can use them. They have a generous capacity of about 650Mb. However, remember that CD-*re*writeable discs cannot be read by all CD-ROM drives, only newer ones, so they are not as portable as the manufacturers would have you believe. CD-recordable discs are much more portable but these can only be written to once and so it would be expensive and wasteful to use these. Also, the CD-rewriteable disks do not last forever: they have a finite number of times they can be erased and rewritten before they become unreliable.

7) Tape drives: These are by far the cheapest option per megabyte of storage, and have enormous capacities, but are slow and not very portable, as there are a lot of different incompatible types of tape drives on the market. This is the best option if you have very large amounts of data to back up, but not for more modest storage requirements.

8) Internet storage: There are a few websites on the internet that allow you to sign up, get a username and password, and then you can upload all your data to be backed up to their server, which is regularly backed up. A few years ago you could find these for free, but unfortunately at the time of writing, I could only find one such site, HERE which requires you to pay a subscription. Do not be tempted to upload backups to your ISP's free web space, as not only is there a security issue, but most ISPs insist that all data in web space is directly related to a website, and they can delete data and/or shut down accounts if this ruling is not obeyed. The advantages of using internet storage is that you do not have the responsibility of having to look after your own media (discs, tapes etc), and if your house burns down, you can then get at your work from any PC with an internet connection, and not a PC with your particular backup device that you use fitted. The downside is the speed: if you only use a modem for connecting to the internet you will probably spend more time backing up your PC than you do using it! If you are not using an unmetered internet package it could also get very expensive. This is therefore only practical if you have a fast internet connection such as ADSL, or you wish to use it just to back up a few of your most important files.

Finally, you need to decide *how* you are going to back-up. This means deciding on your own strategy as to how often you need to back up what, how long you want to keep the backups for, before you reuse the discs. It will also mean you will need to decide whether to use backup software or not. Using backup software such as Microsoft backup, or the software that comes with your backup device, will allow you to compress the data to fit more information on the device. It will also mean you can chose to only backup files that have changed since the last backup (called an incremental backup) or only backup files that have changed since the last full backup (called a differential backup), which will mean you do not have to backup everything every time, and so will save time, but make the restore process a bit simpler. However, using backup software means you will need this software installed to restore the software as well, so if you want to be able to restore your data to a different PC, you will need the same sofware installed on the second PC to restore your data, as you used to back up in the first place.

You should also consider where you will store your backup discs or tapes: putting them next to the computer will mean you have a backup to hand if your hard drive fails, but if your house burns down you have lost the backups as well. It may be a good idea therefore to store your backups offsite somewhere. This may mean giving your backup discs for a neighbour or a friend to look after.

[1] I know some operating systems such as Windows ME do not always come with CD-ROMs if you get it bundled with a new PC, but you should still have a recovery CD of some description to get your PC back to the state it was in when it came out of the factory.


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