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Backup: it’s what you should be doing

November 26th, 2014


Backup: a word to strike fear and guilt into all but the most committed computer user. We all know we should be doing it, but we don’t. We forget, delay, become complacent. We don’t think we’ll ever need it.

I’ll confess: not long ago I lost a lot of music, and only later realised I had an unexpected backup, thank god. But we’ll come to that later.

What does a backup look like?

At its simplest, a backup is a copy of a file or set of files, which are kept safe, to be drawn upon if something bad happens to the ‘master’ set.

A proper backup scheme has some recent versions, as well as one or two older sets, letting you choose which version you want to roll back to.

There are some other criteria, which we’ll quickly ignore when we make our first backup:

Two backup copies at least

There’s a saying that goes like this: if there aren’t three copies of a file, it doesn’t exist.

That’s a nice and scary way of saying that a single copy isn’t safe, and one backup copy isn’t enough. You may not need to take this to heart unless you’re running a business, but it should make you think.

Backup to separate media

It might be obvious when you think about it, but you should make a backup copy on a different disk to the one the original is on. This can be on a DVD, an external hard drive, or even on a different hard drive on the same PC or laptop. You can even back up your data to the Web, which we’ll come to. However you do it, though, keep your backups away from your originals.

Backups must be tested

Big business sometimes calls it ‘Disaster Recovery’, but what it amounts to is making sure that your backup, or backups, work properly. The easiest way to do this is to delete all your data, smash your hard drives with hammers, and then see if your backup copies can be accessed and restored to your satisfaction.

OK, that might not be the safest way to do it, but you get the picture. You need to be sure that your backup is actually something you can use if catastrophe strikes.

To help you get backed up, I’ve divided this guide into 4 stages, starting with Level 0:

Stage 0 – The Copy and Paste Backup you can do right now

If you’re at your laptop or desktop now, stop immediately. Open Windows Explorer (the place where you handle all your files and folders), and select everything in there. Now right click and select Copy in the menu which appears. Then navigate to the root of your hard drive (probably C:), create a new folder called ‘Backup’, then go into it and right click. From that menu select ‘Paste’.

It might take hours, but you’ve created your first backup. Well done!

It’s not the best backup ever (it doesn’t conform to all of our criteria), but if you ever mess up a Word document or a photo, you’ve got a spare lying around.

Stage 1 – CD / DVD and hard drive backups

This is the first proper backup. Instead of copying everything to another part of your hard drive, copy it to an external storage space. The simplest is a DVD, which almost every computer these day can write to.

If you’ve got no spare blank DVDs to hand, just order some right now. Right now! Here, I’ve found some for less than a fiver on Amazon: Samsung DVD+R 10 PACK SPINDLE – 4.7 GB 8 x – BLANK RECORDABLE DVD. The famous ‘For Dummies’ website has instructions on how to write all those files to the DVD.

Your other option is to use an external hard drive, or a second internal hard drive if you have a desktop. Just drag and drop the files you’d like to back up like we did in Stage 0.

2 – Simple software

I think you’ll quickly realise that simply copying and pasting all your files every now and again isn’t going to cut it. You could simply over-write all your old files with the latest versions every month or two, but while this would be easy, and would act as a simple backup, there are two ways in which you can be a bit more sophisticated, without getting technical or breaking the bank.

Full Backup

This is backup at its simplest: everything is copied from the Master to the Backup, and everything on your hard drive, say, is in every backup. Each backup process creates a collection of files which is the same size as the Master. This can get big very quickly, and so needs a lot of storage space. However, it’s mandatory the first time you perform the backup process.

When you run a backup for the second time, the new backup archive contains a second complete backup of all your files. The advantage is that you can compress (e.g. via zip) the whole archive to save space, while knowing exactly when that backup was created. However, in the end, this kind of backup will get bigger and bigger very quickly.

Incremental Backup

Instead of a Full Backup each time, you can do one Full Backup, and then Incremental ones after that. Incremental Backups just back up files which have changed since the last Full or Incremental Backup. Each new backup therefore only takes up a little space if you’ve not changed many files, or created many new ones. However, restoring a backup takes longer, as the software has to go back through all the increments to make sure it’s restoring the correct version for you.

Synchronised Backup

This is a very simple backup scheme. Each time it is run, all the files in the Master set are scanned. Files which are already backed up, and unchanged, are left alone, but new files are added, changed files are updated in the backup, and files which have been deleted from the Master set are deleted from the backup.

You can probably see the limitations of this type of backup: if you mistakenly delete a file from your Master set, but don’t realise before the next backup is run, then you’ll lose it completely. A synchronised backup is purely a second copy of your files. It has its uses, but they are limited.

When you’re looking for backup software, check which of these types of backup it does. Incremental is recommended for home users. One example that I’ve used satisfactorily in the past is Genie Timeline.

3 – Offsite & Cloud Backup

I said earlier that backups should be kept as separate as possible from the Master version. This is so that, if your computer is stolen, or your house/office burns down (perish the thought!) your backup is safely stored elsewhere.

The simplest way to create an Offsite backup is to copy all your files to an external hard drive such as the Seagate Portable Hard Drive which I use, and post it to a friend’s or family member’s house. This is a little fiddly to do regularly, but works a treat. You could enter into a partnership, posting backups to each other every month or two!

Another way of doing Offsite backup is to sign up with a ‘Cloud backup’ provider. These companies offer a small piece of software which bundles up your files and uploads them to the company’s servers, where they’re kept safe until you need them. You then access and restore your files through the software itself.

The great thing about this method is that it is continuous – it’s happening all the time in the background – and it allows you to restore the version of your choosing. It’s also my preferred method, alongside the Seagate Backup drive.

The most popular companies are probably Mozy, Carbonite and SpiderOak. I use SpiderOak, because of their stance on privacy, and because it works across Windows, Mac and Linux, and has Android and iOS apps to help you monitor your backups. Set one of these up on your PC and your backups are automatic, tested and retrievable.

4 – Per-format backup (Google Music, iTunes for films, Time Machine)

Going back to when I lost much of my music collection…

I’d done that classic thing: I’d formatted a hard drive without checking what was on it. This isn’t always a problem, as you can get your data back if you realise soon enough. However, it was a long time before I realised it was gone. I was gutted when I did realise, and it was even longer before I remembered that Google Play Music had automatically backup my music files months ago, and I could download them all again with ease!

Which in turn reminded me that there are several programs which will back up the data stored in them, if you give them permission. They include:

  • iCloud / iTunes: you can redownload purchased music and apps across all your devices (though it’s not a true backup)
  • Google Play Music: will backup all your Music to Google’s servers, and this can be downloaded again
  • Microsoft OneDrive: especially in Windows 8.1, OneDrive can be made your premier document storage location, and therefore a backup
  • Google Drive: like OneDrive, Google Drive makes your documents available online, and so can act as a basic backup.


This is a mere overview of your backup options. What I’d really recommend is choosing two methods: an online (or ‘cloud’) backup service alongside a backup on an external hard drive which you keep at home. This way, should any of these versions become damaged or inaccessible, you’ll still have a couple of places where your files are safe until you can reinstate the problem vault.

Do you have any tips on backing up your data? Anything you’ve found simple to use, or any problems you’ve run into? Tell us in the comments!

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