Disasters happen. Unless you’re willing to lose all your data in the blink of an eye, you need a good backup routine. Agree but haven’t gotten around to it yet? Then you’ve come to the right place!
By the end of this guide, you’ll know everything you need to know to regularly back up your PC: what to back up, strategies for backing up, and which tools to use. Here’s an overview of what you’ll learn:
In this guide: What Are Backups and Why Do I Need One? | Types of Backups | The Master Backup Plan | Which Files Should I Back Up? | How Often Should I Make Backups? | Backup Strategies | Backup Tools | Where Should I Store My Backups? | How Do I Back Up and Restore My Operating System?
1. What Are Backups and Why Do I Need One?
A backup is a copy of electronic data that gets stored separately from the original files. If the original data gets corrupted, damaged, deleted, or lost, you can recover and/or restore the data using the backup.
In short, a backup minimizes the risk of permanently losing data.
Backups are necessary because data has value. Whether the data is sentimental, commercial, or legal, backups act as a way to secure sensitive details. In a world where most information is traded digitally, nearly all data carries financial value (e.g. purchased music or ebooks). And for files that don’t have monetary value, they likely have time value.
If you can afford to lose your files, then you don’t need to waste time or effort on preparing backups. In fact, there’s an entire industry that depends on people who don’t make backups: the data recovery industry. Should your hard drive break down, there’s a good chance that your files can be recovered. However, that expert service comes with a high price tag whereas self-made backups can be done entirely for free.
This manual will guide you through the process of setting up and maintaining regular backups in Windows 10. The concepts can be adopted for nearly any other operating system, though the exact steps may differ slightly.
2. Types of Backups
Before choosing a backup strategy, we must understand the different types of backups.
A full backup is a 100 percent copy of the original files. It is typically saved to a fresh folder that carries a timestamp. This is the traditional way to back up files. Since every single file is copied, the full backup is the slowest of all backup types but most reliable when restoring.
A differential backup tracks all files that have changed since the last full backup. This means it adds all new and updated files to an existing full backup. If other backups were made in the meantime (i.e. another differential backup), files that were backed up during these sessions will be backed up again, since differential backups are not full backups.
This is the most convenient way to back up files because differential backups are fast and allow you to revert to previous versions of a file when necessary.
Like a differential backup, an incremental backup backs up only changed files. The difference between the two is that the incremental backup simply backs up files that were changed since the previous backup, no matter whether this was a full, differential, or incremental backup. This is the fastest way to update an existing backup.
Technically, syncing is a form of backup. The difference is that it works in multiple directions. For example, if a file is synced between two computers and gets edited on one computer, the latest copy is synced to the second computer. That synced copy acts as a backup in case the first is lost.
As you may have guessed, this method is interesting and worthwhile if you regularly access and edit files from different locations (e.g. your home computer and your work computer).
3. The Master Backup Plan
Throughout this guide, you’ll learn how to organize your data and which tools to use for backups. But since this topic can be overwhelming at first, let’s start with a master plan before diving in.
This is a simplified overview of the steps you need to take to create a simple and automated backup routine:
- Get an overview of your files and where everything is.
- Move all personal files off the system partition.
- Decide which files to back up, how often, and where to.
- Decide which tools to use and set up scheduled backups.
- If the tools you picked do not provide scheduling, create a scheduled task.
- (Optional) Back up your operating system in case you need to reinstall.
Seems straightforward, right? Now let’s have a closer look at how to make this all happen.
4. Which Files Should I Back Up?
As a general rule of thumb, you should back up all personal files, media files, downloaded files, system customizations, office documents, records, and statements. Common locations for backing up include, but aren’t limited to:
- Custom folders where you store files
- Other hard drives or partitions with data
If you find that your files are all over the place, be sure to check out the “Backup Strategies” section for ways to better organize your files and folders in a smart way. For a deeper dive into all the different kinds of files you should back up (and should NOT back up), plus reasons for why or why not, see our article on choosing what to back up in Windows 10.
Tip: Hidden files!
Some of the listed folders may be hidden. To view them, open their respective parent folders, go to Organize > Folder and search options. In the Folder Options window, switch to the View tab. Under Files and Folders, select Show hidden files, folders, and drives. Click OK to apply to the selected folder only, or click Apply to Folders to apply to all folders.
5. How Often Should I Make Backups?
In one word: OFTEN!
Well, the truth is there are files you don’t need to back up every day or even every week. For example, large data collections that barely change only need to be backed up every other week or month, depending on how often you add to them. Files you change daily or weekly (e.g. emails or work documents) should be backed up at least once a week or every other day.
Important files that you access and edit daily, even from different computers, can be stored in one folder and synced with online storage space. You can automate this process so you don’t even have to think about making backups.
Let me repeat that you need to run backups regularly. The frequency depends on how often the files change and on how important the changes are. Rule of thumb? The more frequently the file changes and the more important the file is, the more often you need to back it up.
Learn more about this in our overview of basic data backup facts.
6. Backup Strategies
You can either back up everything, or you can revert to smart backups using differential or incremental backups (revisit the “Types of Backups” section).
A smart backup saves time, hard drive space, and preserves energy. The smart backup strategy is to create different types of backups depending on what you are backing up, and creating automatic schedules that will help you not to forget or skip backups.
Personal vs. System Files
My first and most important advice is to organize your files so that your personal data is NOT stored on the same drive or partition as the operating system. This strategy has several advantages:
- Your personal data will be safe if your system fails. Nothing to worry about!
- Your personal files will live in one location. Simple to back up!
- When reinstalling your system, you have to restore less data. Faster setup!
To move personal files from your system drive, you either have to install a second hard drive or create an additional partition on your primary hard drive. The latter option is completely free and can be done at any time without installing additional tools.
Re-partitioning a hard drive is generally safe but can go wrong. Don’t attempt it unless you’ve already made a backup of your data.
If you do decide to re-partition, make sure to allocate at least 20GB for the operating system (more if you install a lot of software or games). You should always have at least 5GB of free space for smooth system performance. Learn how to do so in our guide to resizing hard drive partitions in Windows.
Online Backup and/or Sync
Backing up files online has the advantage of being able to access them from anywhere, provided you have an internet connection. Since the servers that store your data are generally backed up themselves, this is also the safest way to back up your files. Server space is expensive though, so you should only back up your most heavily-accessed files online.
What keeps many people from storing data online (or “on the cloud”) is the misconception that cloud-stored data is easier to hack, copy, and abuse. But for the most part, professional servers tend to be better secured than the average home computer.
For large media collections (i.e. music and movies), you only need to keep one full backup that you update regularly. For this, I would recommend setting up a weekly or monthly incremental backup that runs on a set schedule.
Remember that if you edit the original collection, any deleted files will still be present in your backup. Hence you should make a full backup after removing files or folders from the original copy.
We recommend seasonal backups for files and folders you don’t change often. For files you never change and rarely update, once a year might even be okay.
For example, when you return from vacation you probably upload photos from your digital camera to your computer and sort them into respective folders. This is when you should run an incremental backup to add these files to your backup. You can do the same for music or movie downloads and run those backups whenever you deem necessary.
7. Backup Tools
The good news is, there’s no lack of high-quality backup tools for Windows users. The operating system itself comes with a File History feature for backups, but you’ll find an abundance of third-party alternatives out there as well. Whatever your needs, one of them is sure to deliver.
Windows File History
Windows 7 had the Backup and Restore feature, but it was replaced by File History in Windows 8.1 and 10. This is the operating system’s built-in method for backing up data, and it uses an incremental backup technique that can save changes in real-time.
To launch the File History feature in Windows 10, open the Start Menu and search for backup. From the results, select Backup settings and hit Enter.
If File History isn’t set up, you’ll see this:
Click Add a drive and it’ll start scanning for connected drives. I’m using a USB flash drive in this example, and that’s fine if you want to as well, but for long-term backups you’ll be better off with a full-blown external drive:
Once a drive is selected, File History will turn on. If you don’t care about automatic backups and only want to do them manually, disable the Automatically back up my files toggle:
To customize File History settings, click More options. You’ll arrive on the Backup Options page. Here you can change the automatic backup frequency and how long backups should be kept, and you can click on Back up now to initiate a manual backup:
Scroll down a bit to see the Back up these folders section, where you can select and/or remove which folders to include in the backup. Click Add a folder to add one, or click on an existing folder then Remove to remove one:
Scroll further down to see the Exclude these folders section. If you’ve selected a certain folder for backups but want to skip over one of its subfolders, this is how you mark it to be ignored:
To change to another drive, click Stop using drive at the bottom. This lets you go back and choose another drive when clicking Add a drive.
Local and FTP Backups: Cobian Backup
Cobian Backup has been my personal tool of choice for many years. It offers advanced features while still being easy to use for day-to-day backup purposes.
When installing Cobian Backup, install it as a service rather than as an application. Go to Help > Tutorial for an explanation of why this is important. For this guide, we’ll walk through the steps for creating a monthly incremental backup.
Backup jobs in Cobian Backup are called Tasks. Click on the clock icon or navigate to Task > New task in the menu to create your first backup job.
The new task window launches with the General tab open. If you create separate backups with a timestamp, you can select how many copies to keep (bottom left). If you set up a differential or incremental backup, you can choose how often a full backup should be prepared (bottom right).
The Dummy option opens the respective task on schedule, but doesn’t run it. This is handy if you simply need a reminder (e.g. to run a backup once you no longer need the computer). If you don’t want a task to run for a while, you can uncheck the Enabled box:
In the Files tab, specify both the files and folders you want to back up (Source), as well as where you want to back them up to (Destination). Cobian Backup also supports FTP server backups (to and from).
Setting up multiple destinations is practical if network letters for your external hard drive sometimes change. Or you can make a backup to multiple locations. Cobian Backup lets you drag and drop files and folders, which I find very convenient:
The Schedule tab is straightforward with no surprising or complicated features. This tab also completes the basics that are required for a proper backup:
Under Archive, you can set up file compression and encryption and password protect your backups. I prefer to run my backups with neither:
Likewise, I don’t use Exclusions or Inclusions. However, it’s an interesting feature if you have an older backup made with another tool and would like to back up only newer files. You can also discriminate by size, file, or directory:
If you want to back up application profiles, you may want to look into the Events tab. Here you can let Cobian Backup run events before and after the backup (e.g. close and open programs or shut down the computer after the backup concludes).
If you run Cobian Backup as an application, you should always close programs if you intend to back up their profiles. However, you can also install Cobian Backup as a service and simply log off your user account before the backup starts.
Under Advanced you can run the task as another user and set other preferences:
Cobian Backup does not offer a restore feature. However, to copy files back to the source, you can use a reverse backup task or a command-line option like robocopy.
Online Sync: Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive
If you decide to back up data on a cloud storage service, your three main options are Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive. They all work in pretty much the same way: a designated folder that syncs in real-time whenever you add remove, or change files.
All three options offer the same core features, including cross-platform support for mobile devices and the ability to access your files from anywhere using a web browser.
So why choose one over another? Two reasons. The first depends on whether or not one of these services has an advanced feature that you really want (e.g. File History in OneDrive). The second depends on how much space you need. For free users, Google Drive offers the most space (15GB), followed by OneDrive (5GB), then Dropbox (2GB).
Learn more about the differences in our comparison of Dropbox vs. Google Drive vs. OneDrive and in our guide to backing up a Windows PC to the cloud.
Automatic Backups With Scheduled Tasks
If you end up using a backup solution that doesn’t provide a scheduling option, or you don’t want to keep apps running in the background all the time, then you can use Scheduled Tasks in Windows. Use these to automate the backup process, or if that isn’t possible, then at least remind yourself to do it manually.
Open the Start Menu, search for schedule, then launch the app called Task Scheduler:
Click Action > Create Basic Task:
Enter a Name and Description if you want, then click Next to move on to the Trigger tab. Pick your schedule preference (e.g. weekly) and enter the details (e.g. every Monday at 1am):
In the Action tab, select Start a program, then click Next. On the next page, click Browse and navigate to the application’s EXE file. In our example, we’re launching Cobian Backup:
Click Next, review the task details, and click Finish to complete. Now your backup tool will automatically run according to schedule!
8. Where Should I Back Up To?
You can back up your files in many different ways. The most common backup media include CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, hard drives, flash drives, and online server space. They all have advantages and disadvantages, which are reviewed below.
Tip: Hard drives vs. solid state drives!
When choosing either an internal or external data drive, your first decision will be what kind of data drive to get. Learn the differences by checking out our articles on what to know about hard drives, what to know about solid state drives, and lifespan differences between the two.
Which backup medium should you choose? First of all, it’s important to realize that different backup media are better (and worse) for different purposes.
The more important your files are, the more reliable the backup medium should be (e.g. CD, DVD, Blu-ray). Frequently-changed files should be backed up to a medium that allows frequent rewrites (e.g. hard drive). If you want to access files from more than one location, you should consider backing them up online or to portable media (e.g. USB flash drive).
Life or Business Documents
Since you’re going to save very important files on an ultra-portable backup medium like a DVD, Blu-ray disc, or a USB flash drive, you can easily store them away from your computer.
Keep them in a fire-proof safe, give them to someone you trust, put them into your drawer or locker at work or school, or hide them in your car.
Photos, scanned documents (i.e. digital backups), emails, address books, and other personal files that you cannot retrieve once lost should be stored as safely as possible. Consider storing them online or back them up to an external drive that you store away from home.
Whether music, videos, or movies, it’s easy to hoard hundreds of GBs worth of data. You should store these files on a portable hard drive.
And if you have the chance, store that drive in a different room or somewhere else entirely. If your house burns down, you’ll wish you had been smart enough to keep the external drive away from your computer.
9. How Do I Back Up and Restore My Operating System?
At this point, your data should be safely backed up. However, you can go one step further and back up your entire operating system.
While installing an operating system can be simple, it still takes a lot of time. Below we propose two strategies that can save you the hassle of setting up your entire operating system from scratch if you ever need to reinstall.
System Restore Points
With system restore points, Windows provides an easy solution for undoing changes made to the operating system.
You should create restore points before every major Windows Update, driver update, or change to system settings. When things go wrong, you can easily return to a working version of Windows without wasting hours on troubleshooting or even reinstalling the system.
In Windows 10, you can also entirely roll back a Windows Update. Go to Start > Settings > Update & Security > Recovery and under Go back to the previous version of Windows 10, click Get started. However, this is not a backup and the rollback option is available for 10 days only.
Drive or System Images
Another option is to clone your hard drive, which creates an “image” of everything on it, including the operating system. This drive image (or system image) lets you immediately restore the state of the system on a different hard drive or computer. If you keep a fresh and clean image, you’ll never have to reinstall Windows from scratch again because you can just use the image to restore the entire system.
Drive images should contain a complete setup of the system, including oft-used apps and system settings, but no personal data. If you followed the advice from earlier in this guide, personal data will be kept on a separate drive. Learn more about how to create an image of a Windows system.
Now You’re a Windows Data Backup Master
Bad things happen, and the best you can do is be prepared. Backups are an easy way to secure your work, but they can only help you if done regularly and stored safely.
This guide outlined all the essential steps required to keep your data safe from system failure and other events that threaten data loss. You should now have a good understanding of the options available to you. While some of the procedures may seem complicated and tedious, they don’t require a lot of maintenance once they’re set up.
Get out there and start backing up your files. Where are you going to store your backups? Let us know below!
Updated by Joel Lee.