Back Up Your Computer to Avoid Disaster

By Jim Janke | Mar 25, 2013

Sit down at your PC on a rainy afternoon and use Windows Explorer to review all the folders and files on your hard drive. Pay particular attention to things that would be virtually impossible to replace, like financial records, important correspondence, and family pictures.

Hard drives fail or accidentally get formatted. Viruses corrupt data and programs. PCs get stolen, or ruined by fire or water. Over the years I’ve experienced several of these disasters at home and at work. But because I had implemented a backup strategy I was able to restore everything to approximately where it was before the problem occurred.

Regularly backing up your computer protects you from these disasters. And it’s not difficult to do.

First, decide what to back up. You can back up the entire hard drive, including operating system, installed programs, configuration settings, and personal files. The amount of storage required is large, however, possibly restricting the number of backup versions you can keep. And a complete hard drive backup can take several hours.

Alternately, back up only files that you have created plus select system files. This takes much less time and storage capacity, and with software installation discs gives you the capability for a complete restore in a worst-case scenario.

Then pick the software to use. Windows includes a backup program. External hard drives often include similar software. Many third party programs are available with lots of options. Or you can use Windows Explorer to simply copy files from your hard drive to whatever media you choose.

Next choose the media. If you are backing up only a few data and correspondence files, rewritable CDs or DVDs may be all you need.  If you have lots of music or graphics, 1 terabyte (1,024 gigabytes) external hard drives cost less than $100. Online backup services with even more storage start at only a few dollars per month, and may be free from your internet service provider or anti-virus software company.

Pick a backup frequency based on how frequently files change and how much work would be lost if disaster strikes. For a business this could be daily or hourly. For home PCs every week or two might suffice.

Other considerations.

Keeping multiple backup versions is a necessity. A file may be corrupted on your most recent backup, but an earlier backup may contain a clean copy. Better to lose just your recent work on that file than have to start entirely from scratch. You can create multiple versions simply by changing discs. Many backup programs automatically create an additional version of any file that has changed since the last backup.

If you get a computer virus or have a hardware issue, do not overwrite your previous backup. If you do, virus-contaminated or corrupted files will overwrite potentially clean copies from which you could restore the system. Back up on virgin media instead.

Make archive copies of files that contain email and financial records, and back these up along with your regular data. If you use Outlook, for example, copy Outlook.pst to Outlookmmddyyyy.pst once or twice each year, and you’ll be able to access old emails and calendar entries that have been deleted from the current file. Keep these archive copies in folders that are backed up periodically.

Store at least one recent backup offsite for fire and theft protection. If you use one of the online services, this is automatic. If you back up on discs or an external hard drive, store one copy at work or in a safety deposit box. Update these copies periodically.

Some files won’t allow themselves to be copied when they are open, so you may have to close the program using that file before starting the backup.

If you’re on a network you can back up multiple PCs from one location with the appropriate file sharing permissions.

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My backup strategy. Recent files and those that change frequently are backed up weekly (automatically at 3am Sunday) using Windows’ built-in backup program. A rewriteable DVD has sufficient capacity for a month of these backups. At the beginning of each month a new DVD is formatted for use and the old one archived for a month or two before being reused.

Files that don’t change (like archived documents, pictures, music, videos, and eBooks) are backed up quarterly using Windows Explorer on 2 external hard drives, one of which is stored offsite. This strategy gives me at least 3 months of history for each file.

Jim Janke’s computer resides in Waynesville.  © 2013 J. A. Janke             

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