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A novice’s guide to backing up a PC

We all know we're supposed to back up our data. We could go so far as to say that a backup of digital data is essential to a person's well-being and peace of mind. (One copy of a file on your computer does not a backup make. Redundancy, people, redundancy).

Why, then, do so many people still not bother to back up? Even after losing an important document, irreplaceable photo, or entire sets of financial records, some still don't take the time. Perhaps it's because backing up data takes some effort. In the past, it's been complicated. Now, thanks to new software, hardware, and services, it's easier than ever. Here's a quick look at the types of backup are available, as well as the tools you'll need to pull it off, with as little work as possible.

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 think about backing up.

Email: It's unlikely that your email client software places your email data files in a convenient place for backup. Seek them out to back them up.

Outlook users have to keep track of a file called the PST (Personal Storage Table), which could be in a couple of different places, depending on which version of Windows is running.

In Windows XP, the path is: C:/Documents and Settings/username/Local Settings/Application Data/Microsoft/Outlook/. In Windows Vista and Windows 7, look in: C:/Users/username/AppData/Local/Microsoft/Outlook/.

In the above path, replace username with your own.

You can back up the PST manually, of course, but since it can get as big as 2GB, that's not always easy. Outlook has an Import and Export option that helps. There's also an Outlook 2007/2003/2002 add-in from Microsoft called Personal Folders Backup that does just what it says. Follow these instructions from Microsoft to use it in Outlook 2010.

If you're using Thunderbird, your email isn't in one single file; it's spread across many .EML files in mailbox folders. Luckily, Thunderbird supports plug-ins that can be used to help. The best tool for a full Thunderbird backup and restore of not just messages but all the settings you've made is not even an extension, it's a free program called MozBackup. It works on more than just Thunderbird; MozBackup can back up any Mozilla-based software, as you'll see later on.

Businesses with a lot of Outlook users would be wise to look at DataMills EdgeSafe, which backs up all the PST files on local computers to a server.

Browsers: Why backup your window to the web? Well, if you've carefully cultivated bookmarks or favourites, that's reason enough. Let's not forget all of those passwords and delicious cookies that make access to sites easier. You don't want to lose them in a crash.

Mozilla has backup and synchronisation with encryption called Firefox Sync built into the browser. Access it from the Tools menu, set up an account, and then set it up on all your Firefox-enabled computers (and also mobile devices). MozBackup, mentioned earlier, is also great for Firefox backups.

Google Chrome has a similar sync feature, which saves browser settings (bookmarks, extensions, themes, even apps) to your Google account if you desire; changes are synced whenever you use that account with Chrome on other computers.

But who only uses one browser? Xmarks is a hugely popular way to sync browser data across multiple browsers, including Firefox, Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Safari. It can ensure the same (or at least a similar) browsing experience no matter what browser you're using. Make a single change and it's backed up to the Xmarks servers, and then added to your other browsers when they're opened.

Drivers: If you've got peripherals, you've got drivers — the software that makes your computer talk to video cards, printers, scanners, and the like. Don't neglect backing up these handy files or you might have to rummage through every manufacturers' website to get them when you're doing an emergency restore.

Simple Windows software apps like DriverMax (which installs extra toolbars, so watch it during installation) or SlimDrivers will back up your current drivers and also search out current versions of drivers that are out of date.

Social Networks: It may seem weird to back up info that you don't keep on your hard drive, but do you seriously trust Twitter and Facebook never, ever, ever to suffer a catastrophic data loss? Be prepared. It's not like you'd use these backups to restore online in most cases, but it's better to have a redundant copy for your records than risk losing it all.

SocialSafe is a download for Mac or Windows that will back up social services, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google+. It's free to try for two months, but then you'll have to pay up.

If you just want to make sure you have your entire Facebook history, from posts to photos to video, Facebook will give it to you in one gigantic archive (ZIP) file. Go to the menu at the upper right of Facebook, select Account Settings, and on that page click "Download a copy of your Facebook data." Once you start the archive, it takes a while, so Facebook will mail you the link later to download it. You'll get everything you've ever posted, plus some of your friends' names and emails (if they share them). You do not get friends' status updates and photos, even if you're tagged in them, nor your pithy comments made on other people's posts.

Types of backup

You might think backing up is as simple as copying a file from one spot to another, and it can be. But the arsenal of tools at your disposal is capable of doing so much more. What you need for redundancy, security, and access, however, decides 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 what files you want to save. (Remember, simply moving a file isn't backing up. You need at least two copies. Once again, redundancy, folks, redundancy). Just 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 7's own integrated Backup and Restore feature, or with Windows 8 you have File History. Other software you could consider: Bvckup (free for now) and SyncBackSE or SyncBackPro.

Synchronisation: A must for anyone with more than one computer in use, synchronisation software makes sure you have the same files on all your PCs. They always include a backup of files online, which you can access anywhere, even via a smartphone. It's the ultimate in redundancy. Make a change to a file, and it's automatically sent to all the others, even on other operating systems. All sync-services provide a few gigabytes of online storage for free, typically 2GB, but you can get a lot more by paying a yearly fee. Recommended services include SugarSync and Dropbox, but there are plenty of other options.

Full Disk Image: There are a couple of ways to back up a full hard drive:

1. Copy all the files from the drive to another (larger) drive. This means you get everything, even if you don't need it, but it is easy to keep up-to-date and easy to restore specific files from the backup as needed.

2. Make an image of the drive. An image is a replica of all of your data — every file and folder, even the programs and system files — taken like a snapshot in time of the drive at a given moment. When used for restoration, it would overwrite what exists and the hard drive would revert to the state it was in at the time of backup. Imaging is an especially perfect way to back up a brand new computer. Then, in a couple of years when it starts acting wonky (don't kid yourself, it happens to all computers) 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. Data should be backed up separately. (Yes, you should have two sets of backups running. Have I mentioned redundancy yet?)

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 to pull this off, typically an external hard drive (which we'll talk about shortly). Recommended software includes Rebit 5, DriveImage XML (which has a free private edition), and Paragon Backup & Recovery 2013 Free.

Backup destinations: What to use

How you back up your data may depend on the type of media you use as the target destination. Here are some options:

External Hard Drives: It doesn't get much easier than this. Plug a big old external storage drive into your PC via USB and get started. Of course, drives come in all shapes, sizes, and configurations. A standard drive won't cost much, but it won't do anything but sit there and let you do all the work (not that there's anything wrong with that). Adding encryption and fast connections like USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt makes a difference, but that performance will, of course, cost you. When it comes to external HDD manufacturers, Seagate and Western Digital are two of the most famous names you won't go wrong with, but there are plenty of options out there, and they're getting cheaper all the time.

CDs/DVDs/Blu-ray Discs: The old standby for backup is to copy your files to a shiny disc. The downsides here are capacity and speed. 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 and prices have dropped somewhat. However, even at that capacity, backing up to discs can be slow when compared with fast hard drives and flash drives. And who wants to take discs in and out all the time?

There are plus points to disc-based media, as they're pretty cheap (even a 4.7GB DVD-R can be had for just 25p or so, if you buy for example a 50-disc Verbatim spindle on Amazon). A single DVD is very portable, and a good option for a second backup, or indeed a simple off-site data backup. An off-site backup is a good idea, as if a disaster takes out your computers and storage, it's likely that your backups are gone as well, but it won't get what's not there. And a CD is about as easy as it gets to take with you. Okay, moving on to...

USB Flash Drives: USB drives are almost as inexpensive as DVD-R discs, but getting cheaper all the time even as their capacity increases. They also have the advantage of being uber-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 still safer destination for your data. Again, there are lots of options out there, but Corsair and Kingston do a good line in USB sticks, in fact the Kingston DataTraveler Workspace snagged one of our Best Buy awards not so long ago, so definitely consider that one.

Network Attached Storage (NAS): A NAS box is a hard drive (or drives) that sits 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, so you'd have to buy hard drives separately. The really cheap ones won't even let you change the storage options. That said, 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 phone is becoming commonplace. More and more share files across the network and out to the Internet, making it a web server as well. 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 even have multiple Ethernet, Wi-Fi, and USB ports, and some capture input from networked digital video cameras. These days, many offer Time Machine support, so they can back up multiple Mac OS systems, too. The options seem almost endless, which makes it worth shopping around to get the right one for your home or office. We'd recommend you take a look at models from the likes of Synology, QNAPand Netgear.

The Cloud: The cloud simply refers to online storage. This can be straightforward online storage space provided by big companies, including Google (Google Drive), Microsoft (SkyDrive) and Amazon (Cloud Drive). With these, it's up to you to handle uploading and downloading with minimal special tools to help you outside of the website's limited interface. They will give you a decent amount of free space (for example, 15GB in the case of Google Drive), so that's fine for smaller amounts of data. If you want to store more, you'll have to fork out for a subscription.

Cloud-based direct PC backup has existed for a long time. Mozy and Carbonite, which have been around for years, provide direct backup of files on your computer to the Internet, usually in the background and in a completely unobtrusive way. There is typically a free tier of service for these kind of services, and once again, a subscription fee is charged to back up more (the exact amount depends on the service).

Just remember – always bear in mind that one type of backup isn't enough! And keep some form of off-site backup, whether it's a DVD or a cloud service, in case of a real disaster.