Let’s start with the obvious: what do you need back up? Well, first and foremost, you need to back up your personal files. You can always reinstall your operating system and redownload your programs if your hard drive fails, but your own personal data is irreplaceable.
Any personal documents, photos, home videos, and any other data on your computer should be backed up regularly. Those can never be replaced. If you’ve spent hours painstakingly ripping audio CDs or video DVDs, you may want to back those files up, too, so you don’t have to do all that work over again.
Your operating system, programs, and other settings can also be backed up. You don’t have to back them up, necessarily, but it can make your life easier if your entire hard drive fails. If you’re the type of person that likes to play around with system files, edit the registry, and regularly update your hardware, having a full system backup may save you time when things go wrong.
The Many Ways to Back Up Your Files
There are many ways to back up your data, from using an external drive to backing up those files on a remote server over the Internet. Here are the strengths and weaknesses of each:
- Back Up Over the Internet: If you want to ensure your files stay safe, you can back them up to the internet with a service like Backblaze. Backblaze is the well-known online backup service we like and recommend since CrashPlan no longer serves home users, but there are also competitors like Carbonite and MozyHome. For a low monthly fee (about $5 a month), these programs run in the background on your PC or Mac, automatically backing up your files to the service’s web storage. If you ever lose those files and need them again, you can restore them. Pros: Online backup protects you against any type of data loss–hard drive failure, theft, natural disasters, and everything in between. Cons: These services usually cost money (see the next section for more details), and the initial backup can take much longer than it would on an external drive–especially if you have a lot of files.
- Back Up to an External Drive: If you have an external USB hard drive, you can just back up to that drive using your computer’s built-in backup features. On Windows 10 and 8, use File History. On Windows 7, use Windows Backup. On Macs, use Time Machine. Occasionally connect the drive to the computer and use the backup tool, or leave it plugged in whenever your home and it’ll back up automatically. Pros: Backing up is cheap and fast. Cons: If your house gets robbed or catches on fire, your backup can be lost along with your computer, which is very bad.
- Use a Cloud Storage Service: Backup purists will say this isn’t technically a backup method, but for most people, it serves a similar enough purpose. Rather than just storing your files on your computer’s hard drive, you can store them on a service like Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, or a similar cloud storage service. They’ll then automatically sync to your online account and to your other PCs. If your hard drive dies, you’ll still have the copies of the files stored online and on your other computers. Pros: This method is easy, fast, and in many cases, free, and since it’s online, it protects you against all types of data loss. Cons: Most cloud services only offer a few gigabytes of space for free, so this only works if you have a small number of files you want to back up, or if you’re willing to pay for extra storage. Depending on the files you want to back up, this method can either be simpler or more complicated than a straight-up backup program.
While backup programs like Backblaze and cloud storage services like Dropbox are both online backups, they work in fundamentally different ways. Dropbox is designed to sync your files between PCs, while Backblaze and similar services are designed to backup large amounts of files. Backblaze will keep multiple copies of different versions of your files, so you can restore the file exactly as it was from many points in its history. And, while services like Dropbox are free for small amounts of space, Backblaze’s low price is for as big a backup as you want. Depending on how much data you have, one could be cheaper than the other.
Backblaze and Carbonite do have one big limitation you should keep in mind. If you delete a file on your computer, it will be deleted from your online backups after 30 days. You can’t go back and recover a deleted file or the previous version of a file after this 30 day period. So be careful when deleting those files if you might want them back!
Ultimately, you just need to think about where your files are and ensure you have multiple copies at all times. Ideally, those copies should be in more than one physical location. As long as you’re actually thinking about what you’ll do if your computer dies, you should be way ahead of most people.