I’m pretty sure you know at least one person who has lost some or all of the files on their computer because they had no file backup solution or software in place.
They just hoped “it” would never happen to them.
You saw the panic on their face, because they’d just watched several thousand files or photos flushed down a digital toilet, and there’s nothing they could do.
Learning how to backup your computer files is something most people don’t bother looking into until they suffer some kind of hard drive crash.
But the thing is you never have to lose any of your important files, and in this article I’m going to explain exactly how you can do that. In fact, you can even do it without spending any money, if you’re really strapped for cash.
Different Computer Backup “Devices”
Saying “devices” is a throwback to the days before cloud storage, but for the purpose of this article we’ll treat cloud storage as a device, of sorts. I should also mention that this article only focuses on the backup process, and not on restoring files from a backup.
What it comes down to is this: you have three choices when it comes to backing up your files.
- Local/Physical (hard drives, flash drives)
- Remote/Cloud (Mozy, Dropbox)
- Local Network (NAS systems)
Storing your files locally on a hard drive or flash drive is quick, easy, is a once-off cost, is also relatively cheap, but you run the risk of losing data in the event of a fire, flood or other disaster-type situation.
Backing up your files to a cloud-based storage system takes far longer, usually has an ongoing cost, but the huge benefit here is that your files are safely stored online in the cloud.
NAS systems kinda give you the best of both worlds, because you effectively create your own “cloud server” system, with as much storage space as you could ever need. But the concept is not without its own set of potential flaws.
Let’s take a look at the most commonly used file backup options for your typical small business owner and/or anyone working from home.
Backing up to your internal hard drive
Most computers (laptop and desktop) come with a single internal hard drive. And this is exactly where most people choose to keep the only copy of all their most important files.
That’s the ultimate case of not only putting all your eggs in one basket, but in a basket that will eventually fail.
I’ll keep this bit short: Never, ever use your internal hard drive as your only backup option. Ever. It might take 5 or 10 years, but you have my word that the drive will fail, and when it does you’re looking at either losing every single file on it, or a stupidly expensive bill from a data recovery company.
There’s no longer any excuse for people to do this, especially with low-cost external hard drives, and free (totally 100% free) online backup options.
I’ve lost count of how many people have contacted me (sometimes in tears) begging me to restore the last five years of their work files, final year college project, wedding/baby/family photos, college thesis, etc.
Keeping all your files on an internal hard drive is literally insane.
Using an external hard drive to backup your files
Anyone in their 30s or 40s reading this will probably remember Zip drives and tape drives (yes, we used tapes to store important data), and remember the feeling when you could get an external hard drive that wasn’t the size of a small laptop.
Using an external hard drive to make a backup of your files is a quick and easy way to keep files safe – you simply plug in the hard drive, and then press a button to copy all your data across automatically.
External hard drives have gotten ridiculously cheap, and incredibly reliable. Or at least that’s been my experience with my Western Digital My Passport drives. I’ve owned (and trashed) several other brands during the years, so I’m speaking from experience. There’s no feeling quite like watching a “desktop” external hard drive tip over, knowing in your heart you just killed it.
So, are there any downsides?
Yup, and the big one is that external hard drives can be a pain when it comes to incremental and differential backups. These might sound complicated, but basically mean that only the files that have changed since your last backup are included in the new backup set. So you only backup maybe 5MB of data each time (which takes seconds), instead of 50GB (which can take hours).
What usually happens is that you wind up with several dozen copies of the exact same files, spread across different folders, all clogging up your hard drive. This typically happens when you’re trying to drag and drop folders manually, and not using the included file backup software. The other issue is that some of the backup software included with some external hard drives is…well…not very good.
All of the above can make restoring files a real nightmare, and not one you ever want to have to repeat.
Backup solutions, like Mozy, offer a way around this, but I’ll cover that in more detail later in this article.
Backing up to a USB flash drive
When I sat down to write this I had a flashback to a business trip to India I took way back in 2001. I had to deliver a stack of IT training material, which meant taking a whole pile of CDs and DVDs with me. Flash drives existed back then, but the storage capacities were so small I had no choice but to bring piles of discs with me instead.
Flash forward (no pun intended) to 2003, and a similar business trip to Canada. The difference this time was I had all my training files on two tiny USB flash drives, including a number of OS images for deployment to the new site.
Anyways, flash drives can be used to keep a backup of your files, photos, etc.
Should you use them for this?
Not unless they’re a secondary form of backup, and not your only one.
Well, because flash drives are robust, can take a knock, and survive hard environments, but they’re still prone to failure. This failure rate increases the more frequently you use them.
The next reason is that the cost of truly high-capacity flash drives absolutely dwarfs what you’d pay for some of the best external hard drives available today.
Here’s an example:
- Kingston Data Traveler 1TB – $700 (flash drive)
- Western Digital My Passport 4TB – $110 (external hard drive)
Are there any other downsides? Yup, you can lose the damned things without even trying, and if they get lot that means they run the risk of being damaged, or your data being stolen by another person.
Note: I put together an in-depth blog post on external hard drives vs. USB flash drives for those of you having trouble deciding.
A second internal hard drive
Although this isn’t a perfect solution, it’s better than using absolutely nothing at all. You basically buy and fit a second hard drive inside your desktop PC (sorry, laptop users!) and then set it up in one of two ways:
- Set your file backup software to use that drive just for storing your files – I cover that in the next section.
- Use it for creating what’s called a “mirrored Windows volume”
Wait….come back! Seriously, we’re not going down some geek rabbit hole here.
Mirroring just means setting Windows up to create an exact clone of your current hard drive, but not just at specific times – all the time. In fact, this is the best way to have real-time backup of a Windows PC.
Then, if and when your main hard drive fails, you can replace it, and use Windows to recreate all your old hard drive data. But, the important thing is that you’ll have an exact copy of all your files there.
If you’d like to read more about the topic of hard drive mirroring then check out this article on Windows Central.
What about backup software?
I’ll be honest here and say that I do not use a separate piece of backup software when making copies of my data. I’ve used plenty over the years though, including everything from Iomega’s Zip suite, to tape drive backup systems, and even dusty old Windows Backup.
The reason why I don’t use dedicated backup software is that my current file backup system works for me in a way that doesn’t require specific software.
That’s not to say that you won’t need some kind of software to help you get started making backups – that’s just a personal choice. So, if you’re looking for backup software that’s not only easy-to-use, but also free, then take a look at either of the following products:
EaseUS Todo Backup Free – I’ve used this in the past and quite liked it.
Paragon Backup Free– this software comes highly recommended, but I haven’t personally used it.
Backing up to the “cloud”
The geeks behind remote file backup solutions finally figured out that giving things nice names makes them far more appealing to the average consumer. So, instead of “Remote, automated, and encrypted file backup architecture” they chose instead to call it the “Cloud”.
What is the cloud? Nothing more than a big network of servers, all used to store your documents, photographs and videos on. Interesting trivia: Amazon provides more than 96% of all cloud storage space.
The biggest benefit of sending your files to the cloud is that you can access them no matter where you are on the planet, with the only limit being the speed of your Internet connection. So, no matter what happens to your computer, you know that your data is safe.
Are there any downsides? The main one is that the speed you can transfer files at is limited to the speed of your Internet connection. This is fine if you’re on a 240Mb line, but not as much fun if you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere on a 3G connection…if you’re lucky.
The “Big Three” online file backup services for Windows users are:
- Back Blaze
Mozy is my preferred cloud backup service, and has been for years. The main reason for this is that I’ve seen other competitors come and go from the market, but Mozy has been consistent i.e. they haven’t gone out of business, or just ditched the consumer market. It also has a feature that automatically dumps an incremental backup to my second internal hard drive, so that saves me having to buy a separate piece of software to do that.
That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with Carbonite or BackBlaze as backup solutions, but I’m a creature of habit and tend to stick with something I like until something faster, more efficient and PROVEN comes along.
Are there any backup services where you can backup all your files online for free?
Well…I don’t want to say “all” of your files, but Google Drive does offer the ‘Backup & Sync’ service. You get 15GB of online storage for your files free of charge, and an upgrade to 100GB only costs about $2 per month.
It only takes minutes to download and install, and is easy to use – there’s just 3 steps to creating your backup. I haven’t made much use of it yet, but backing up your files to Google Drive is definite option for anyone who has no cash.
You do also have the option of using something like Dropbox or OneDrive. Dropbox provide all free accounts with 2GB of free space, or Microsoft’s OneDrive gives you 5GB of storage space free of charge. It’s also worth mentioning that these are box “sync” services, so if you delete the file from your computer then it gets deleted from your online backup too.
Is either of these as good as Mozy, Carbonite or BackBlaze? Nope, but they’re free, and you gets what you pays for in life!
How secure are files stored online in the cloud?
I’d recommend only ever using free cloud file storage from a brand name you recognize and trust. Otherwise you’re giving some random company access to literally every single important file on your computer, including potentially sensitive information.
But…what about all these celebs having their “glamour photos” leaked from their cloud accounts? Most of these were hacked because they had an unsecured Bluetooth connection on their device, and no doubt their password was something their pet’s name.
And that’s why they’re celebrities and not network security analysts.
Network Attached Storage (NAS) backup options
If you’ve ever worked in a corporate environment, where “network drives” are the preference instead of storing files on your “C drive”, then you’ve already used a type of NAS system. It’s just far more complex than the one you can create at home.
Now, in the interests of full transparency, I do not currently own a NAS setup for my home/home office. I’ve looked into it, but never quite got around to setting one up.
The idea is a simple one though: You create your own dedicated set of network drives, and then share them via your router with anyone who needs access.
A NAS system is basically made up of a small “server box” that you then slot hard drives into. They usually come with their very own operating system, so all that’s required is to then connect it to your home router.
Your NAS system can be set up anywhere in your home, so you can choose a location that’s safe from tiny hands, or wandering paws. You can then access all this storage space either via your home Wi-Fi network, or alternatively by using something like a TP-Link Powerline ethernet setup that connects directly to your router.
What’s really neat about a NAS setup is you can also use them as media servers – some of them are even compatible with Plex, so you can stream your video content locally, or even access it remotely.
Are there any downsides here?
Yup, there’s two:
A basic NAS like the WD My Cloud 2TB costs around $150. And the cost doubled with the storage capacity, so a 4TB system costs around $300. Does 2TB sound like enough space for you? It might be, but what about the rest of your family, and taking future storage needs into consideration?
The next major problem with NAS is that while a good NAS system with mirroring is a hell of a lot safer than keeping all your files on your internal hard drive, it still doesn’t protect you from those “Act of God” events like fire, flood, lightning strike, or even just basic theft.
So, this means that a truly comprehensive NAS setup would be comprised of two NAS servers – one in your home office, and another in a remote location. The remote NAS then acts as a backup for your local NAS in case anything goes wrong. This is a great idea, but it also means doubling your setup and electricity costs.
Pros and cons of the different backup methods
- It’s cheap to add an extra internal or external hard drive
- It’s easy I.e. you buy an external hard drive and plug it in
- Software can automate most of the process of backing your stuff up
- If your internal or external drives fail then you lose all that data
- Your internal or external drives WILL eventually fail. You have my word
- You have absolutely no protection from “Force Majeure” events
- Your files are safely stored online
- You can access your data from anywhere in the world
- No technical knowledge required
- Very cheap when compared to physical/local backup solutions
- Monthly cost for using a service
- Security and privacy is a concern
- You’re limited by your internet connection speed
- Mass file storage isn’t practical
- It’s scalable – you can keep adding more and bigger drives
- Requires very little technical skill to set up
- Your data is all under your own control
- Can be accessed remotely as well as locally
- Can be expensive to set up, based on your storage needs
- Your files are still under threat from fire, flood and theft
My Personal Backup Setup
My first ever file backup was made using floppy disks on a Commodore Amiga 500. For those of you who don’t know what that is, here you go:
Anyone who has ever had to make backups using just floppy disks knows how frustrating it was to lose entire backup sets just because one of your disks went bad. And floppy disks ALWAYS became corrupted, no matter how careful you were.
Over the years I upgraded to tape drives, ZIP drives, etc. I thought I was doing was a pretty good job of keeping my files safe, using a combination of an internal ZIP drive and a secondary internal hard drive.
What could go wrong?
Oh everything. Everything went wrong.
I booted my PC up one morning, and was greeted with a dead hard drive. The loud clicking noise wasn’t a good sign. But I wasn’t too phased because I had my backup hard drive and my Zip disks.
So I swapped out the dead drive, booted the system up and copied all my work files across from a few Zip disks. Everything was back to normal. Yay!
The following morning I booted my PC up again…only to be greeted by a second hard drive failure. I’d already ordered a replacement for the original drive, but never once did I dream that my secondary drive had also failed. Both of these drives were manufactured by a major brand name, and had great reviews for reliability, etc.
And that’s where you’d think my hard drive crash fiasco ended. But, oh no, you’d be wrong. When my replacement drives finally showed up I went to restore my work files again, only to find that several of my Zip disks were also now corrupt.
The moral of the story: Only keeping local backups of your data is a stupid idea.
That’s when I started experimenting with offline storage, including using my own FTP server to store copies of important photos and documents. The very first remote file storage services were just coming online around then, so I tested all of them.
My current backup system is simple, and gets the job done, which is why I stick with it.
- Main internal hard drive
- Secondary internal hard drive
- The primary internal hard drive is a SanDisk SSD, used for the Windows operating system and key work and personal files.
- The second internal hard drive is a standard SATA drive, used to manually store downloads and other data that I can live without if they vanish.
Mozy then runs incremental backups of my main hard drive several times per day to their cloud storage system. But, Mozy also makes a copy of the same data to my second hard drive.
Dropbox is set up to keep a live sync of all my work files, especially any novels I’m working on, as well as all of my documents.
The last line of defence is made up of 2 x 32GB and 1 x 64GB Corsair USB flash drives, and a WD My Passport 750GB external hard drive. These are used to make now-and-again archives of important files. I literally zip everything up and just dump them onto those drives.
Is this the best home backup solution possible? Nope, but it works for me, and it also means that if anything goes wrong I never lose more than maybe 6 hours worth of file changes, at the absolute maximum.