How to backup your computer?



There are many ways to backup your computer. Backup means making a copy of important data from your computer, in case something happens and you lose access to them or the files get corrupted. In this article, I’ll give you tips on how to back up your computer properly without losing too much time.


The first thing you need is a place to store that copy of important data. It could be a USB stick, Dropbox account, FTP server, or cloud storage. That place is called “backup destination”. Keep everything there regularly – at least once a week, but preferably daily if it’s possible for you – also keep in mind that if your hard drive fails and gets replaced with a new one, things will get out of sync so don’t wait too long to backup.

Backup Plan

Next, you need a “backup plan”. The most important part of your data is documents and photos – these can be backed up easily by saving them to the backup destination regularly. Emails, settings for applications, and browser bookmarks are also extremely useful to keep backed up, but they’re usually harder to recover from the backup destination because there’s no single standardized format that would allow everyone to use those files without problems. For example, Firefox allows you to export browser settings in XML format which could later be imported back easily – but this would work only if all users have Firefox installed on their computers.

So how do you make sure that every program saves its data in an easily understandable fashion? As it turns out, there’s a standard for that.

History of backups

In the late 1990s, a group of computer experts from several countries came up with a set of rules that should be adopted by all applications to make sure everyone can read and write files in a uniform and predictable way. The standard is called: Open Data (New Generation) Architecture (ODA). ODA defines how data is stored in XML format – opening it up for any other program to read and interpret it. Applications that adhere to these rules ensure data compatibility between different computers using Windows, Mac, or Linux operating systems.

The simplest thing you could do when trying to backup your documents would be to place them into a special directory on your computer where everything gets automatically saved in your Documents folder. Sounds good? Unfortunately, it isn’t. If your computer crashes, so does the backup copy because this common practice leads to overwriting files with old versions in case something goes wrong. This only works when every program is well designed and adheres to standards. But sometimes they don’t.

The challenge for programmers is therefore to find a way of saving files that doesn’t overwrite them with older versions but rather adds new data as a separate block of information next to the previous one. The best solution up till now has been serializing objects into binary file formats such as XML or YAML, or into a proprietary format such as Microsoft Word’s .docx files.

What kind of files should you backup?

The first thing you have to do when thinking about a backup strategy is to determine which information you’re going to back up. Most people know from experience that it’s very important to have backups of their documents and pictures, but not everyone knows how important it is to also backup program files or emails.

The three most important types of files you need to save are:

1. Programs and application data: These include the programs themselves and all the data they use in order to function properly.  Without these pieces, your computer won’t start up and will be rendered non-operational until the missing components can be reinstalled.

2. Emails: Email is an irreplaceable part of many peoples’ lives. Even if they store most messages locally on their computers, there may still be important emails stored on the email server. Emails can’t be recovered without accessing the email server directly, so it’s best to keep them in a safe place elsewhere.

3. Pictures and other media files: All your photos of loved ones or pets are precious, but they won’t be much use if they aren’t backed up somewhere safe.

So how do you back all this information up?

There are several options available to everyone today, mainly depending on how much effort you’re willing to put into keeping your backups secure and accessible.

The most extensive option that keeps all of your application data separate from your computer system is called cloning.  This involves backing up all the program files on one external hard drive or even better, an additional external hard drive, and then doing exactly the same thing with another.  For example, you could copy everything from your C:\My Documents folder to an external hard drive, which can then be plugged into another computer.  This way, if one of your computers breaks down you’ll have a backup copy of all your files ready on the other PC or Mac that still works.

You don’t need any additional software to clone your data files via an external storage medium; simply use Windows Explorer or OS X’s equivalent to drag each folder onto their counterparts on the destination device.

To backup your programs and settings to an external HDD or cloud storage service such as Dropbox, you’ll need a piece of software that clones your PC in its entirety just like above but also backs up your installed applications and saves their configuration files too.  This allows you to restore the full package onto any new/refurbished PCs in the future or repair damaged laptop installations by applying your saved store apps plus personalization afterward.  Albeit the abovementioned methods of backup will recover your data and system partitions plus all applications manually installed by yourself, we still recommend Windows’ built-in Sync Center for selectively syncing files between two PCs (or external media) via drag-and-drop.  This is particularly useful if you work with a number of computers or simply want to ensure that every important file has been transferred to another medium such as disc or cloud storage service, without actually backing up each and every one of them.  We can’t stress enough how many PC users don’t back up anything at all and find themselves in a complete pickle when their hard drive crashes; we firmly believe it should be second nature!

So what does this backup solution include?

As we mentioned before, you can use Sync Center to selectively sync folders between two PCs.  This means you only need to select which folders you want to be synced and where; there is no need to bother with the rest of your files.

One thing we’ve noticed when setting up our backups is that file transfer speeds tend to fluctuate quite a bit depending on the method (or application) used for transferring files from one place to another.  Transferring data via USB 2.0 will almost always be slower than transferring it wirelessly, even though modern wireless adapters implement this technology very well nowadays (don’t let yourself be fooled by marketing jargon).

Our advice would be to follow the following rules:

– If you’re able to, use an external hard drive to save your files (this naturally means you’ll need an additional power source too, ie. a power bank or wall socket).  Transfer speeds are typically pretty good and the file transfer process is very straightforward; just connect it and copy/backup your data.

– USB 3.0 is even faster than 2.0 and should be used whenever possible: but this mostly depends on whether or not your computer features a USB 3.0 port (and if it does feature one, we’d also advise that you upgrade your motherboard as well).  While almost all current smartphones have adopted micro USB ports over the years, is still using the old 30-pin connector.  This means you’ll need a special cable to connect your device to the iPad Pro or simply won’t work at all.

Another way of transferring data from one storage unit to another is using Bluetooth.  In this regard, there are many Bluetooth-compatible devices on the market today, but not all of them provide a similar level of versatility and compatibility with a variety of devices.

Nowadays, an external hard drive can be used as a secondary source for storing digital content, including videos, pictures, and documents – which makes it an invaluable accessory for those users who have limited internal storage on their smartphones.

To use your new hub as intended with Android devices, all you have to do is enable USB debugging on your phone, plug the device into the USB port of your computer and you should be ready to go.

Keep in mind that if you want to store data on an external hard drive connected to a PC or laptop, the aforementioned software tools will not work.  You can transfer files via Micro-USB without installing any third-party app by simply using Windows Explorer. Once file transfers are complete, unplug your device from your PC/laptop and it’s all set!

Sensitive information

External hard drives are great for storing digital media but what about backing up sensitive information?

Well, for this purpose laptops do come with built-in backup tools but they aren’t exactly perfect.

The first time you open the ‘Backup and Restore (Windows 7)’ tool it will scan your system for all connected storage devices.  If an external hard drive is found, it will allow you to create a backup file which you can then save to that same device or any other attached storage device that has enough space available.


It should be noted that when creating a backup file, Windows does overwrite previous versions of files with the new ones during each subsequent backup process.  This means that if you deleted an important document before backing up your computer, it would not return once the copy job is complete.

Finding the perfect external hard drive size

When searching for an external hard drive, look for one that isn’t too small but also not too big since it can take just as long transferring data from a 4TB drive as it is from a 500GB drive. Also, look for an external hard drive with something called user-replaceable batteries. These are usually sold as “portable” drives that run on DC power (from a wall outlet or car cigarette lighter), but you can also purchase them with standard AC power supplies and use them at your desk, essentially making any external hard drive “portable.” Lastly, make sure to look for one that has some kind of transfer software included since it’ll save time in the long run compared to manually transferring all of your files over.

The cheapest option is to use external hard drives. An external hard drive plugs into your computer just like an internal one does through USB or Thunderbolt ports, however, they only work when connected to another device so if you want to be able to access your files from more than one computer, you’ll need to make sure the drive is compatible with both (most are). They also come in different sizes (measured as GB or TB), which determines how many files you can store on it. External hard drives typically connect via USB and Firewire cables, but some models allow you to plug them into an AC wall outlet or car cigarette lighter, but you can also purchase them with standard AC power supplies and use them at your desk, essentially making any external hard drive “portable.” Lastly, make sure to look for one that has some kind of transfer software included since it’ll save time in the long run compared to manually transferring all of your files over.

Backup to Multiple locations

You’ll always want to keep a copy of your files stored in multiple locations. Generally, you should have a minimum of three copies: one on an external hard drive, one on a remote server, and a third copy saved onto another external hard drive or stored in the cloud. You can read about it here.

The reason for this is because if there’s ever a disaster that wipes out all of your equipment, you’ll have at least one copy that can be restored quickly. Backing up externally is generally the easiest and cheapest starting point since it won’t cost you anything to purchase another external hard drive (if needed) and storage space online is cheap these days; most external drives used today only transfer data via USB cable so backing up over the web shouldn’t be too painful.

If you don’t have an external hard drive, get one. You know what? Get two while you’re at it. If they’re USB 2.0 or 3.0 compatible, that’s just fine; the speed difference is negligible when compared to transferring data over the web. If you’re using a desktop computer tower with multiple internal drives, use an external enclosure to mount your old internal drive(s) in order to back them up onto external storage (or vice versa).

Once you’ve got your backups in place, keep them updated on a regular basis so whenever new files are created or modified on your system, they’ll also be backed up. Remember, if anything ever happens to your primary hard drive(s) containing your user folder, your operating system, and software applications, you won’t be able to restore any of that or install new programs without them.

Backing up data is essential to the security of both your files and critical data. The most common form of backup is an external hard drive connected directly through USB2/3 on a computer running Windows XP/Vista/7/8/10. Data can also be backed up using DVDs (DVD-R only; never rewritable media like DVD+/-R), CDs (CD-R only; not CD-RW), BDs (Blu-ray), etc…

If you still need assistance, then get in touch with one of our IT technicians to help you out.

I am a computer engineer holding a bachelor's degree in Computer Science, complemented by a Master's in Business Administration from University of Strathclyde, Scotland. I currently work as a Senior IT Consultant in Melbourne, Australia. With over 15 years of...