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When was the last time you backed up your computer files 5 Basic Backup Facts Every Windows User Should Know 5 Basic Backup Facts Every Windows User Should Know We never tire to remind you to make backups and keep your data safe. If you're wondering what, how often, and where you should back up your files, we have straight forward answers. Read More ? If the answer isn’t at least “Yesterday” then you might need to rethink how secure your data actually is.

Here’s the thing: your computer’s hard drive will eventually fail, and when it does, the data on it will be gone. If you haven’t backed any of it up, then everything — including all of those work documents and personal photos you cherish — will be gone forever.

If your data is backed up, however, then such a failure would only be a minor inconvenience as you restore your data to a new machine The PC Backup & Restore Guide The PC Backup & Restore Guide Disasters happen. Unless you're okay with losing all of your data, you need a good backup system. Read More . Indeed, backing up isn’t difficult these days! All you need is a good data drive. But how do you choose the right one to buy? Let’s take a look.

Local Physical Storage

When looking for a backup solution, most people will automatically gravitate towards external hard drives, often explicitly branded as backup drives. And for most users, this is the best way to go.

Size & Speed

For regular backups (which run on an hourly, daily, or weekly basis) your main priority should be a drive that is somewhat larger than the capacity of your computer’s internal drive. This enables you to store multiple copies of each file, which is good in case some files get corrupted.

Given the falling prices of high-capacity drives, there’s no need to settle for something small unless you’re on the tightest of budgets. WD My Passport and Seagate Backup Plus drives with a two terabyte capacity cost less than $90 these days.

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wd mypassport

Speed isn’t overly important in this context. Backups are incremental: the first backup will create copies of every file on your drive, but subsequent backups will only save those that have since been changed. As such, unless you’re working with very large files on a daily basis, the amount of data being backed up at any given time is small.

To be clear, support for USB 3.0 or better is always good Why You Should Upgrade To USB 3.0 Why You Should Upgrade To USB 3.0 It’s been quite a while since USB 3.0 has been included in motherboards, but now we've come to the point where most devices and computers come with the new and improved ports. We all know... Read More  (assuming your PC can handle USB 3.0 or better), but the speed of the drive is not as important. For the same reason, a hard drive is currently better than a solid state drive. They’re available in far larger sizes for a lot less money.

Extra Features

Backup drives can pack a range of useful features. Most will include some software that helps perform, manage, and encrypt your backups, although its use is optional. Modern operating systems have their own backup tools built in, such as File History on Windows Did You Know Windows 8 Has a Built-In Time Machine Backup? Did You Know Windows 8 Has a Built-In Time Machine Backup? We sometimes forget with all the focus on Windows 8's new "Modern" interface, but Windows 8 has a variety of great desktop improvements. One of them is File History, a built-in backup feature that functions... Read More and Time Machine on Mac 4 Resources to Become a Backup Master with Time Machine [Mac] 4 Resources to Become a Backup Master with Time Machine [Mac] Read More .

Cloud storage is also becoming a commonly bundled extra. For example, a number of Seagate drives offer 200 GB of storage through Microsoft OneDrive for two years.

time machine

The alternative to this is to go for the fully DIY approach. Buy, or repurpose, an internal drive and place it in an external enclosure such as an Icy Box, then manually back up your files as needed. Not as elegant, maybe, but no less effective.

Durability & Reliability

Reliability is perhaps the most important factor when choosing your backup drive. Most drives come with a warranty of two to three years, but a massive survey by cloud backup company Backblaze found that more than three quarters of all drives will last for at least four years under heavy use.

seagate drive

If you’re looking at a drive for long-term storage rather than regular backups, you won’t need to worry about the drive wearing out. This doesn’t mean it will last forever Hard Drives, SSDs, Flash Drives: How Long Will Your Storage Media Last? Hard Drives, SSDs, Flash Drives: How Long Will Your Storage Media Last? How long will hard drives, SSDs, flash drives continue to work, and how long will they store your data if you use them for archiving? Read More , of course, but your data should be safe for many years. Best practices suggest keeping the drive away from extreme temperatures and powering it on every year to maintain the drive’s integrity.

Reliability is difficult to determine, though. Choose a drive based on the reputation of the brand and read reviews before you buy Ignore These Five Kinds Of Online Reviews Ignore These Five Kinds Of Online Reviews Online reviews can be a great way to decide if something is worth paying but, even if you avoid the dodgy reviews, there are plenty of other kinds you should ignore. Read More .

Network Attached Storage

So far we’ve been looking at connecting a single external drive to your PC. If you want to back up more than one computer, or need to access your stored files on different machines, then there is a better option.

Network Attached Storage (NAS) is an external drive NAS vs the Cloud: Which Remote Storage Is Right for You? NAS vs the Cloud: Which Remote Storage Is Right for You? Network Attached Storage (NAS) straddles the line between a local hard drive and cloud storage, and gives you the benefits of both. Read More  or drive enclosure that connects to your network via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. You just need the drive’s password to access it, and many systems include software that will manage backups from two or more PCs.

seagate nas

In addition, multi-bay NAS systems have room for multiple hard drives and use RAID technology to provide protection against hardware failures. One common configuration in consumer NAS systems is RAID 1, which uses two mirrored drives — if one fails, you’ll still have access to the full contents on the other one. (Learn more about RAID here What Is RAID Storage & Can I Use It On My Home PC? [Technology Explained] What Is RAID Storage & Can I Use It On My Home PC? [Technology Explained] RAID is an acronym for Redundant Array of Independent Disks, and it’s a core feature of server hardware that ensures data integrity. It’s also just a fancy word for two or more hard disks connected... Read More .)

Remote Physical Storage

And what of other types of physical storage? Memory cards and USB flash drives are fast but are designed primarily for moving files from one location to another rather than for archiving. Although the data on them can last for decades — and they tend to be physically robust — they aren’t reliable enough for long term storage.

When flash drives fail, they often go without warning The Best, Fastest, Most Rugged USB Flash Drives You Can Buy Right Now The Best, Fastest, Most Rugged USB Flash Drives You Can Buy Right Now USB flash drives are some of of the coolest inventions for geeks. We've rounded up five of the fastest, most rugged, and overall best drives on the market. Here's what we've found. Read More .

bluray

Optical discs are virtually obsolete, and while they can last for a long time if stored properly CDs Are Not Forever: The Truth About CD/DVD Longevity, "Mold" & "Rot" CDs Are Not Forever: The Truth About CD/DVD Longevity, "Mold" & "Rot" The digital age has revolutionized the way we handle information. Never before could humankind record and store so much information and in such diversity. While the amount of data has increased exponentially, the predicted life... Read More , they’re slow and have limited capacities. Moreover, there’s the practical consideration of whether you’ll even have a drive capable of reading the Blu-Rays or DVDs in a few years’ time.

Cloud Storage

If you don’t want to back up locally, or if you want a secondary backup method, then you can look to the cloud. To back up your entire hard drive to the cloud, you’ll need to pay for storage on a monthly basis.

You’ll also need a fast Internet connection, with fast upload speeds in particular. Transferring tens of gigabytes of data to the cloud will take some time.

copy closing

You also need to bear in mind the potential security implications of storing all your data in the cloud and read the privacy policy of your chosen provider. If you aren’t going with one of the big guns, you might want to check their service guarantees, too. It’s not unheard of for cloud services to suddenly close down.

It’s important to note that online backup and cloud storage aren’t the same thing Read This Before Choosing An Online Backup Provider Read This Before Choosing An Online Backup Provider Backing up your files is a no-brainer - at least it should be. Hardware failure, security breaches, natural disasters, thieving scumbags and clumsiness can all lead to heart-in-mouth moments when you realise that your precious... Read More .

Services like Carbonite and CrashPlan run in the background and back up your files constantly in a non-intrusive way. It’s fully automated and no different to running Time Machine on a Mac. On the other hand, cloud storage integrates with your operating system and works just like any folder on your computer: manually.

amazon cloud drive

A good compromise solution might be to use different cloud storage providers to back up specific types of file. Your everyday documents, for example, could go into Dropbox, which you can set up as a local folder Make Dropbox Even More Amazing with These Time-Saving Shortcuts Make Dropbox Even More Amazing with These Time-Saving Shortcuts If you have trusted Dropbox with your files, you might as well do all you can to get more out of it. Begin by trying out the awesome shortcuts listed here. Read More on your computer. You can upload 50,000 songs Use Your Browser To Upload To Google Play Music Use Your Browser To Upload To Google Play Music Google just decided to make Google Play Music a lot more useable. The following Chrome extension will change the way you can make use of Google Play Music for good. Read More from your iTunes music library to Google Music for free.

And for photos, you can store one terabyte of JPGs on Flickr (around a quarter to half a million photos) and Amazon Cloud Drive also supports RAW files 6 Amazon Prime Benefits You Might Be Ignoring Right Now 6 Amazon Prime Benefits You Might Be Ignoring Right Now Scratch the surface. Amazon Prime has so many more benefits that people have forgotten about or simply don't realize exist. Read More for a number of cameras.

What’s the Bottom Line?

It’s best to think of computer backups as an ongoing process. All hardware wears out or degrades eventually. Ubiquitous technologies can become obsolete Museum Of Obsolete Objects: View Short Informative Videos Of Obsolete Technological Items Museum Of Obsolete Objects: View Short Informative Videos Of Obsolete Technological Items Read More and obscure in just a few years. As such, there isn’t a single solution, you should pick what works today, but be ready to change in future.

  • For regular backups: Any regular external backup drive, preferably double the size of your PC’s drive. Choose a reliable brand and read the reviews.
  • For long-term storage: Any external drive large enough to store the data you’re backing up. Store it carefully, and connect and power it up every couple of years.
  • For robust protection: Introduce redundancy either through multiple drives or by using online backup for offsite protection.
  • For files you need to access: Cloud storage such as OneDrive or Dropbox gives you a remote backup of files, while keeping them easily accessible.
  • For multi-device support: A multi-bay NAS enclosure will give you multi-device backups with redundancy for added protection.

What do you use for backing up your computer? Is there a hard drive that you recommend? Or have you gone all-in with the cloud? Tell us about your backup plans in the comments.

Image Credits: WD MyPassport via wdbrand.com, Seagate drive via seagate.com, Seagate NAS via seagate.com, BluRay via Pete

  1. Craig
    April 16, 2016 at 4:21 am

    What a strange 'coincidence' eh? You put the Seagate drives in the Durability & Reliability section - precisely the drives that are being abandoned because the have a significantly higher failure rate than their competitors. I wonder why.

    • Andy Betts
      April 16, 2016 at 6:50 am

      You've lost me. Why?

      • Craig
        April 17, 2016 at 12:26 am

        I'm sorry but now you have lost me! It seems to me that the reason for my surprise is very clear. However, let me reorganize my ideas to see if I can explain myself more clearly.

        (1) Portable Seagate drives have frequently been criticised for their lack of reliability and, therefore, their durability.

        (2) It therefore comes as a surprise to find them placed in the category "Durability & Reliability"

        • Andy Betts
          April 17, 2016 at 7:17 am

          Ah, come on now. You described it as a coincidence, but your use of inverted commas suggests you think it's something else. So what do you think?

  2. dan
    April 15, 2016 at 7:00 am

    Can backup software typically be installed on a thumb drive? After all, one never knows which of your PCs will fail.

    • Andy Betts
      April 16, 2016 at 6:52 am

      You can, and there are a few backup apps specifically for flash drives. It's not an ideal solution, though.

      • dan
        April 17, 2016 at 3:45 am

        If a thumb-drive is not ideal, then where is the preferred place to install backup and recovery software? Certainly not on the HDD of a PC that may someday fail?

  3. Michael Weldon
    April 12, 2016 at 7:21 pm

    This is an interesting one for me. I run 'Puppy' Linux exclusively. For starters, Puppies weigh in at under 200-250 MBs....fully installed! They use what's called a 'save-file' or folder; this contains all your personal settings, browser cache history, etc, etc. This contains a 'file-system within a file'.....which may take some getting yr head round, but it's an entire Linux ext2/3/4 file-system inside a single, compressed tar.gz file.

    It's incremental, just as any sensible back-up system is. The beauty of Puppy is that, so long as you have a copy of your save-file/folder, and a copy of the system itself in the root of the drive or partition ( and all this can be backed up with a simple copy'n'paste operation.....no special cloning software is required), you can be back up and running in less than 15 mins. The OS is small enough to fit on a CD; the save-file will happily fit on a 4 GB flash drive. And I always keep a copy of Parted Magic on another CD, to make sure I can re-format and re-partition a drive as and when necessary.

    You try doing this with Windows..!

    And the worry of 'Will I even have an optical drive in a few years?', doesn't really apply. Puppy's main mission is to re-purpose elderly hardware, which most folks have discarded as being too old-fashioned, and/or slow.....usually at the behest of the tech media, who take the view that if you're NOT running the latest, fastest, most powerful, up-to-date equipment, then there's got to be something wrong with you.

    Puppians could care less..!

  4. ringhalg
    April 12, 2016 at 11:38 am

    I have an external that I backed up an image of my hard drive every week. I also have a secondary drive in my PC where I backup the same image. I recently thought it was a good idea to restore my image for testing purposes to see if the backups are reliable. As it turned out, the external drive is corrupted and the restore process failed. Fortunately, I was able to test the backups before it actually became important.

    A key point here is to check that the backups can still be restored and that the drive be backed up to, is not corrupted.

    • A41202813GMAIL ..
      April 12, 2016 at 4:21 pm

      Exactly.

      Use More Than One OffLine External Backup.

      Try Not To Rely On Storage Without Moving Parts ( Flashdrives, SSDs ), Because Their Reliability Reputation Is Lousy.

      Cheers.

    • Michael Weldon
      April 12, 2016 at 7:26 pm

      @ringhalg:-

      It's agood point about corruption of the back-up images. As I've posted above, about Puppy, the main point here is that the Puppy OS itself is read-only; you cannot write to it, so essentially you start off with a pristine, untouched, brand-new OS every time you boot!

      It's a pretty fool-proof system...

  5. fcd76218
    April 11, 2016 at 11:38 pm

    Once you store your data on a drive you have no physical access to, you gave up any control over that data.

  6. Hildy J
    April 11, 2016 at 9:38 pm

    Keep in mind the "reliability" statistic you cited means that 1 in 4 backup drives fail in the first four years. And Murphy's Law says it will be yours. Redundancy is, ultimately, the key to backups.

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