The Ultimate PC Data Backup & Recovery Guide

This is it. All you need to know about data backup and recovery, all neat and tidy in one place. Read on to become a master of data protection and recovery.

What do you do when your computer crashes?

  1. Hit the computer and scream at it.
  2. Stare blankly while contemplating your lost data.
  3. Calmly restore your data from your most recent backup.

Most users usually choose A and B before they decide to embrace C. We’ll cut straight to C and learn how finding, installing and managing the latest backup drives and technologies is easy.

Identify Your Backup Needs

How you use your computer will determine what backup system works best for you. If you’re only backing up a few Microsoft Office documents every day, a basic backup drive without too much memory will probably suffice. But if you work with video files, you’ll need a fast, high-capacity backup drive, as six minutes of uncompressed high-definition video requires about 1GB of space on your drive. In general, the more digital equipment you own and use, the more hard drive space you need for working and backups.

Take a look at your computer and note what ports are available for plugging in a backup device. If space and ports are at a premium for you, Staples can install a second internal hard drive in most desktop enclosures (they usually have room for an additional drive) to serve as your backup.

Match Your Backup Drive to Your Computer System

The kind of backup that’s right for you will depend on the type of PC and how you use it:

  • Laptops/Notebooks: A portable backup drive is best for mobile computing, since Web access for online backups is not always available when you need it. A flash drive or memory card can work for small-file backups, but a portable hard drive powered through the USB port of your laptop can handle a complete data backup.
  • Stand-alone Desktops: An external drive with an AC adapter provides the most storage space for your dollar.
  • Network-Attached Computers: To back up different computers on a network, special external hard drives can be attached to your home’s or business’s wireless router to back up everything on the network.
  • Business Computers: RAID- and cloud-based backups (see below) provide options that are redundant and secure, but they are also expensive. Staples’ Thrive Networks provide cloud backups as well as other information technology (IT) services for small, medium and large businesses.

Backup Drive Sizes

It is widely recommended that your backup drive be twice as large as your computer’s drive, so you’ll have room to archive old files and be able to back up current ones. Megabytes (MB), gigabytes (GB) and terabytes (TB) are measurements for how much data a drive can store; be sure to match GB to GB and so on when you calculate how much drive space you need.

Expect to pay between $100 (for 500GB drives) to $250 (for a 3TB drive). Most drives come with backup software and some drives include encryption software. Encryption is particularly valuable for businesses and professionals who keep copies of their backups off-site, as well as a safety mechanism if the hard drive gets stolen.

Backup Options

From flash drives that fit on your keychain to storing your data in the cloud, you have a variety of choices when it comes to where you back up your data:

  • CDs and DVDs. If your computer has a CD/DVD burner, you can back up your data using software already in your system or with third-party software. Since a CD holds 700MB of data, a single-layer DVD holds 4.7GB and a double-layer DVD holds 8.5GB, you must back up large files on many disks. The ongoing cost of disks quickly adds up, so this is not a permanent backup solution, but it is useful as a one-time backup for a valuable file.
  • USB (Universal Serial Bus). USB 2 drives have slow data-transfer rates, so they aren’t good choices for people who watch or edit video or play large computer games — you’ll notice dropped frames and pauses. Until recently, the majority of drives used USB 2 connections. USB 3 is now entering the market and it’s ten times faster than USB 2. It’s backwards compatible with USB 2 ports, and USB 2 devices will work in USB 3 ports.
  • Firewire. Firewire is used for digital media editing; many camcorders and digital cameras have Firewire connections. Firewire drives are easily cabled together to create redundant backups.
  • eSATA (external Serial Advanced Technological Attachment). These have the fastest transfer rates of any external hard drive, but they require a special interface or a card that is not compatible with many computers. However, any computer can usually accept an internal SATA drive without difficulty.
  • RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Discs). RAID is often used in business settings because of its backup and uptime capabilities. A simple RAID setup is two drives running simultaneously, with one mirroring everything that is on the other. So if one drive stops working, the other will keep the system going without a glitch. However, hardware RAID controllers and drives can be expensive.

Windows 7 Professional and above can control multiple hard drives using a software RAID setup, but they must be identical drives for optimal performance. Devices are available that can configure mismatched hard drives (for instance, a 500GB and a 2TB) into a RAID.

  • Cloud-Based Backups. You can store your data using a cloud-based (online) service.

 Backup Strategies

The best plan is to back up everything you use every day. Hard drive capacities have increased and prices have dropped to the point that this is possible. You may think you only need to back up key documents because you can reinstall your system and applications from their disks, but have you considered how long and tiresome that process will be? With everything backed up to an external hard drive, you’ll be back to work much quicker.

The software included with most external hard drives provides scheduling and auto-backup tools. Windows 7 contains backup software that is very good — and it also supports network-attached computers.

Redundancy is the Key to Backup Success

Hard drives die when you least expect them to — especially your backup drive! This is why it is important to make multiple backups of important files, photos, music and videos you can’t afford to lose and keep a copy off-premises. Try to mix your media to ensure your data can be recovered easily.

  • Make a copy of your data, including a bootable system, on a second backup drive and keep it off-site. Alternate this drive with your first backup drive on a regular schedule. Should your local drive and your backup bite the dust, you’ll quickly be up and running with your second backup.
  • Use a flash drive to back up critical files on an hourly basis while you work. If a scheduled backup didn’t happen before your computer drive dies, you’ll only lose an hour of work. Flash drives are small and easy to lose, so they shouldn’t be used as a permanent archive.
  • CDs and DVDs can be used for additional backups of valuable files.
  • Online backups can be used like a flash drive to store important projects as you work.

Online Versus Physical Backups

Online backup services provide you with space to store your data “in the cloud,” meaning over the Internet into their servers. The main benefits of online backups are that your data is automatically stored off-site and copied to many servers, and it is automatically encrypted and checked for viruses before it is sent to the cloud.

The costs of online backups can add up because fees are ongoing and are based on how much data you store. Furthermore, if you back up lots of data, you may exceed the monthly limits of your Internet provider, incurring additional fees.

Physical backups have certain advantages over cloud services, such as the falling cost of large-capacity hard drives and ease of installation. However, hard drives can be stolen; if an accident occurs in your home or office, you can lose all the data on your computer and your backup (if you don’t keep a backup copy offsite) — and viruses that accidentally get backed up will reinfect your PC when you restore files.

Backups: The More the Merrier

Having multiple copies of your most important data makes sense, but you shouldn’t stop there. Also create copies of all your passwords, serial numbers and activation codes for any software you may need to reinstall, as well as information needed to reconnect your restored computer to your home network and the Internet.

If you have lots of passwords to keep track of, free programs are available that help you manage and encrypt all your passwords in one easy-to-use application.

Now it’s time for the post-test: What do you do after you establish a working backup system?

  1. Relax.
  2. Never stop using it.
  3. All of the above.
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