5 Basic Backup Facts Every Windows User Should Know

Joel Lee 30-12-2015

You’ve heard us say it again and again over the years: make backups of your data! As someone who uses electronic data devices — whether those devices are laptops, smartphones, or even cameras — it’s your responsibility to keep your data safe How Secure Are Your Documents In Google Drive? Read More .


But I get it. Backing up data sounds like an advanced, overwhelming task. Maybe you don’t know the first thing about backing up data, and if that’s the case, then the fault is ours, not yours. The truth is, it’s not as complicated as it sounds!

Here’s everything you need to know, starting from ground zero. In this article, we assume you know absolutely nothing and it’s our goal to answer all of those questions you’ve always had, but have been too afraid to ask.

1. Why Should You Make Backups?

In the simplest of terms, a data backup is nothing more than a copy of said data. Take any file on your system, select it, press Ctrl+C to copy it, and then press Ctrl+V to paste it, which creates an exact duplicate of that file. For all intents and purposes, you’ve just made a backup of that file.

Backups are important because there are unpredictable scenarios that might cause files to become inaccessible. I don’t mean that files randomly get corrupted Access & Recover Corrupt Office Files with These Tips Your important document is corrupted and you don't have a backup? Not all is lost! You can try to repair the file or find a backup you didn't know you had. Read More for no reason, but there are things beyond your control that may happen without your knowledge.



For example, suppose you contract a virus that destroys your hard drive Viruses, Spyware, Malware, etc. Explained: Understanding Online Threats When you start to think about all the things that could go wrong when browsing the Internet, the web starts to look like a pretty scary place. Read More or holds your files hostage for money Beyond Your Computer: 5 Ways Ransomware Will Take You Captive in the Future Ransomware is probably the nastiest malware out there, and the criminals using it are becoming more advanced, Here are five worrying things that could be taken hostage soon, including smart homes and smart cars. Read More . Whether that malware came from a malicious website or an infected USB drive, it doesn’t matter: your files are now gone for good. Wouldn’t it be great if you had a copy of those files elsewhere?

Here’s a more mundane, practical example: you’re working on a term paper, PhD dissertation, or epic fiction novel. One day, you hit the wrong key and everything gets deleted. (It happens more often than you think! Turn Back Time: 4 Tools & Tips To Restore Deleted Files In Windows One of Windows' biggest flaws could be your rescue, should you ever accidentally delete an important file: The Windows file system does not actually delete files. Until they are overwritten, deleted files can be restored. Read More ) A simple backup could be the difference between months of lost work or a quick shrug of the shoulders.

But most importantly, a true backup is more than just moving files onto another storage medium — like an external drive — and hoping it endures time. You have to make multiple copies in multiple places. After all, if all of your backups are on an external drive and the drive itself dies, all of your backups die with it.

2. What Should You Back Up?

The general rule of thumb is that you should back up any file that you couldn’t stand to lose. Term papers and books-in-progress are obvious choices, but other commonly backed-up files include music, movies, photos, legal documents, personal notes, configuration files, and more.


Some people want to back up everything, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there are some things to keep in mind before going overboard with your backups.

First, backups require storage space. This isn’t a big deal for small files like Word and PDF documents or configuration settings. However, if you want to back up music and video collections that are dozens or hundreds of gigabytes large, then you’re really limited in where those backups can be stored.


Second, backups take time to create. Again, this isn’t a big deal for smaller files, but copying a 100 GB collection of video games can take a really long time, depending on the speed of your transfer connection. Restoring those backups will also take a long time.


Third, some files may be illegal to back up. In some jurisdictions, it’s illegal to make copies of CDs and DVDs even for backup purposes. Similarly, digital media files that are protected by Digital Rights Management What Is DRM & Why Does It Exist If It's So Evil? [MakeUseOf Explains] Digital Rights Management is the latest evolution of copy protection. It’s the biggest cause of user frustration today, but is it justified? Is DRM a necessary evil in this digital age, or is the model... Read More require workarounds in order to back them up.

But even though breaking DRM is possible How To Break The DRM On Kindle eBooks So You Can Enjoy Them Anywhere When you pay Amazon some money for a Kindle eBook, you probably think it’s yours now. I mean, you paid some money, you got some content, and now you have it, just like any other... Read More , we recommend DRM-free media whenever possible instead, such as buying DRM-free video games 6 Places To Buy DRM-Free Games [MUO Gaming] Since I’ve decided not to buy games from Steam, I need to find other sources. Many of them are actually worse than Steam itself. Ubisoft’s store is baffling and full of annoying DRM. Electronic Art’s... Read More .

Fourth, make sure you back up the less obvious stuff. Settings are just as important as files, and in some cases more important. For example, System Restore is like a system backup What You Need To Know About Windows System Restore Imagine the trouble you could find yourself in, if your system failed! The Windows System Restore feature could save your butt. This article explains how to create and use Windows restore points. Read More that you can use to recover Windows if it ever starts acting strangely. Windows Registry backups 5 Windows 10 Registry Tweaks to Improve & Unlock Features The registry editor is the only way to enable some of Windows 10's hidden features. Here we'll show you easy tweaks like enabling the dark theme or hiding folders. Read More are also important in case of unfixable registry errors How to Fix Windows Registry Errors (And When Not to Bother) Fiddling with the Windows Registry can be harmful to your PC. Here's how to fix registry problems and when to not bother at all. Read More .

3. How Often Should You Make Backups?

This is one of the commonly asked questions from people who are just starting to make backups — but while the question is a good one, it’s tough to give a good answer. The truth is, the answer is different for everybody.


But as a general rule of thumb: the more often your files change, the more often you should back them up. And if you can predict a big change, then you should always make a backup right before the big change happens.


For example, my financial statements never change and I already have backups for them, so there’s no reason to keep making new backups. However, when I get new financial statements, I immediately make backups as I receive them.

On the other hand, if I were working on a novel, then I’d probably make weekly backups — and I’d keep each backup dated separately in case I need to revert to a specific backup.

But here’s the most important thing: too many backups and too few backups are both better than no backups at all. So pick a backup frequency and just go with it. You can always increase or decrease in the future! As long as you’re making some backups at all, that’s what really matters.

4. Where Should You Keep Your Backups?

Generally speaking, there are two types of storage for data backups: local backups and online backups. Each has its own pros and cons, which means they’re both important in different ways. Ideally, you’ll use both methods.

Local backups are stored in a place where you have physical access. Examples include your main computer, a second laptop, an external hard drive, or even a USB flash drive Are USB Flash Drives Still Worth It In 2015? USB flash drives are great for storage, but they have so many other uses. Here's how they're worth their weight in gold. Read More . Local backups are great because you have full access to them at all times and you’re in complete control over them.

Plus, local storage methods often have far larger capacities than online storage methods. The downside is that if you want more space, you’ll need to invest in new storage drives 5 Simple Ways to Save Money on New Hard Drives We’ve already covered all the things you need to consider to buy the right hard drive. Now it's about saving as much money as you can. Read More and that could cost you a pretty penny.


Online backups are stored somewhere on the Internet, usually in a datacenter that you’ll never physically visit. For regular users like you and me, online backups are most often kept in cloud storage accounts Dropbox vs. Google Drive vs. OneDrive: Which Cloud Storage Is Best for You? Have you changed the way you think about cloud storage? The popular options of Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive have been joined by others. We help you answer which cloud storage service should you use. Read More like Dropbox or Google Drive, which is great because you can access them from anywhere.

But there are two downsides. One, uploading files to the Internet is much slower than transferring directly into a physical drive, which is a big nuisance for really large backups. Two, your data is at the mercy of the online storage service Securing Dropbox: 6 Steps To Take For Safer Cloud Storage Dropbox isn’t the most secure cloud storage service out there. But for those of you who wish to stay with Dropbox the tips here will help you maximize your account’s security. Read More . If there’s a breach, your data could be stolen and you couldn’t do anything about it.

My own recommendation is to use local storage for sensitive data and big collections of media. For everything else, I think cloud storage is just fine.

5. Is There Anything Else?

Before we close, here are a few tips and pointers that may make your life easier. We know that backups can be a pain to manage, so we want to make it as convenient for you as possible.

You can back up an entire hard drive. System Restore is good, if all you want to do is back up critical system files, but there’s also the option of backing up your entire Windows system How to Create an ISO Image of Your Windows System Need to backup and restore Windows without backup tools? It's time to learn how to make an ISO image of your Windows PC. Read More . You can do this by making an image of your hard drive and saving it as an .ISO file. Later, you can use that same .ISO file to reset your hard drive to the exact state in which it was when the image was made.

Automatic backups are a godsend. When you use cloud storage like Dropbox or Google Drive, you can set it so that your files are automatically synchronized between your computer and the service. This is effectively a method for making automatic backups — your computer’s files are periodically copied to the Internet.


But if you’re on Windows 8.1 or Windows 10, there’s a built-in system feature called File History 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 that you should really consider using. File History automatically takes snapshots of files and saves them to an external drive or network drive, allowing you to revert to any previously saved snapshot.

And if you really want to get serious, you could look to third-party automatic backup solutions How To Automate & Schedule Regular Windows 7 Backups Far too many PC users fail to properly back up their systems and their data. Because of that, I've often found myself in the position of having to tell family and friends that all of... Read More , though we don’t really recommend those for casual computer users.

Encrypted backups are always safer. There are many reasons to start encrypting your files Not Just For Paranoids: 4 Reasons To Encrypt Your Digital Life Encryption isn’t only for paranoid conspiracy theorists, nor is it just for tech geeks. Encryption is something every computer user can benefit from. Tech websites write about how you can encrypt your digital life, but... Read More , but most people use encryption so that files can’t be opened, even if they’re stolen. Think of encryption as putting your files inside of a lockbox How Does Encryption Work, and Is It Really Safe? Read More that can only be opened with a secure key. For sensitive data, encryption is crucial.


But how do you encrypt files? For local backups, the easiest way is to use a third-party encryption tool TrueCrypt Is Dead: 4 Disk Encryption Alternatives For Windows TrueCrypt is no more, but fortunately there are other useful encryption programs. While they may not be exact replacements, they should suit your needs. Read More , many of which are straightforward enough for anyone to use. For online backups, you can either encrypt files before uploading to the cloud 5 Ways to Securely Encrypt Your Files in the Cloud Your files may be encrypted in transit and on the cloud provider’s servers, but the cloud storage company can decrypt them -- and anyone that gets access to your account can view the files. Client-side... Read More or you can just switch to an encrypted cloud storage service Secure Your Files: 3 Encrypted Dropbox Alternatives Dropbox brought cloud-based file synchronization and storage to the masses, but it's been hindered by high-profile security problems. Fortunately, you have another option — an alternative service that secures your files with local encryption and... Read More .

Lastly, test your backups! There are few things worse than having months worth of backups only to find that there was a problem in the backing up process — and none of those backups can actually be restored. A broken backup is just as bad as having no backups at all.

At the very least, when you make a new backup, you should test it to see if it can be restored. You don’t have to do it for every backup you make (which would be a colossal waste of time), but you should check them as often as you feel comfortable doing.

How Important Are Backups to You?

If you got this far, we hope two things have happened: 1) you now feel comfortable enough to say that you understand data backups, and 2) you’re convinced that you need to start keeping your own data backups. Indeed, backups are for everybody!

If you want to learn more than what was covered in this article, check out our full guide to backing up and restoring your PC The Windows Backup and Restore Guide Disasters happen. Unless you're willing to lose your data, you need a good Windows backup routine. We'll show you how to prepare backups and restore them. Read More . It breaks all of these concepts down into individual steps and explores some of the more nitty-gritty details.

What do you keep backups of? How often do you make new backups? Where do you store them? Tell us about your backup habits in the comments below!

Image Credits: Blue Screen by stefanphotozemun via Shutterstock, Hard Drives by zentilia via Shutterstock, Files & Folders by kasezo via Shutterstock, USB Drive by BlueSkyImage via Shutterstock, Cloud Storage by Nobelus via Shutterstock, Locked Keyboard by Gajus via Shutterstock

Related topics: Cloud Storage, Data Backup, Restore Data.

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  1. Henry Pigault
    February 4, 2016 at 2:03 am

    I gotta admit, I was never a backup fan until my computer crashed and they had to wipe everything. Worst thing was, they couldn't recover any of my documents because they were all saved in the C: drive.

    This taught me to be a backup freak. I started backing up everything, even things that most would deem 'unnecessary'. While I am a online backup fan, I got to recognize offline backups as the most safe. Not necessarily the easiest thing though, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

    I wouldn't, however, call System Restore a system backup. While it serves to recover Windows, it does not do a full system backup. You would need other recovery software to get back documents, images etc. Other third-party system restore software (Rollback Rx, etc) do a full system backup.

  2. fred
    January 7, 2016 at 3:22 am

    The best thing about the Mac, for sure: Time Machine :-) Nothing else out there for the Windoze side quite like it :-)

    I have used Time Machine to do bare-metal restores of the OS, data and all apps for Macs after a hard drive craps out. Love it.

  3. Jang
    January 5, 2016 at 1:53 pm

    I learned about this program from a previous MakeUseOf article but Rollback Rx has really saved my butt on a few occasions. Is it a complete solution? Nope. It's important for all of us to have layered backups and security but for a really fast restore I think most people would agree it's one of (if not the) fastest.

    • Joel Lee
      January 6, 2016 at 9:56 pm

      Nice, I've never heard of that before. Will check it out. Thanks Jang!

  4. Anonymous
    January 2, 2016 at 5:01 pm

    The advice in this article should be heeded by users of ALL operating systems, not just Windows.

    • Joel Lee
      January 6, 2016 at 9:56 pm

      True, true! The programs mentioned in the article probably have alternatives on other OSes, but the concepts are cross-platform.

  5. fred
    January 1, 2016 at 4:20 pm

    Backups :-) Great topic...

    First, in my PC's (yes I have a lot of them hehe), the OS and Data reside on separate hard drives in each system. So when Windoze goes insane as it does from time to time, data is not affected.

    Second, I have a system that is a "backup server", meaning it has a couple of large internal hard drives, and using Acronis boot CD's, I image each system after any significant change to the OS drive, like Windoze Updates or any new installed programs. That backup system has an external USB hard drive backing up the images :-)

    For Data, each system has an external USB hard drive backing up the data hard drive...

    Eventually, I plan on getting a media fire safe and keeping a USB hard drive in it of my critical data. I've lost stuff too due to being lazy about backups. No more :-)

    I'm a computer tech and many of my customers learn the hard way about the value of data backups :-)

    • Joel Lee
      January 6, 2016 at 9:55 pm

      Whew, I'm sad to say my own backup process is nowhere near as involved as yours, haha. It's definitely one of those things where you have to learn the hard way before you understand the value of backups, but even then, it's too easy to be lazy about it... argh!

      • fred
        January 7, 2016 at 3:24 am

        I learned the hard way, lost too much before :-) Gotta be disciplined about doing it as a regular habit :-)

  6. Bruce Epper
    January 1, 2016 at 12:27 pm

    Corollary 3a: Not all of the files you are backing up need to be backed up with the same frequency.

    Corollary 3b: Different types of data may require different retention times.

    • Joel Lee
      January 6, 2016 at 9:53 pm

      Spot on, Bruce. Of course, wouldn't expect any less from you! :)

  7. Peter Hood
    December 31, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    I'd say there are several types of storage; Online, NAS, portable drive, internal backup drive. There are merits and demerits to them all. For example, if you use an online storage facility you may find that the owner has some claim to rights. OTOH, using an internal storage drive might result in destruction by fire, ditto to some extent the portable solution and the NAS. At the moment I am permanently on the road and have two main 2 TB backup drives andI use Shadow Copy to mirror the files that I have changed. Somewhere I have Auslogics bitreplica, which I probably ought to use for more mundane stuff.

    File rights? If you backup in a non encrypted format and you have award winning research, photographs, music that you created you might like to consider this. It is a fact. Read the terms and conditions. I never use an online backup facility. For one thing they may be subject to network outage (ditto me), and they could also be hacked. In the same way I do not rely on any online password storage facility. I use a package called PINs, and I use my local facilities for the same reason; I do not trust external storage for every reason that you can conjure in your imagination.

    • Joel Lee
      January 6, 2016 at 9:52 pm

      Ah, that's something I should've mentioned: terms and conditions for cloud and online services. You're right, some places respect privacy and ownership but other places do not. Very important to read those terms and conditions! Thanks for bringing that up, Peter.

  8. Anonymous
    December 31, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    You mentioned local backups to another computer or laptop or external drive, but I'd also add you should have local "off-site" backups as well for very important things. Store a copy outside of your home or office in case of fire or theft. Having a backup of your desktop stored right next to your desktop is a recipe for disaster should someone steal everything on your desk. At the very least, store a copy in a "media safe" that is rated fireproof for hard drives, CD's, etc. A document fire safe will not work.

    • Joel Lee
      January 6, 2016 at 9:51 pm

      Yeah, for sure, Shawn! Cloud backups are good for that, but keeping an extra set of physical backups in a separate location is certainly even safer.

  9. Andy T
    December 31, 2015 at 10:04 am

    I had a hard disc failure in the late 90s and lost everything. It was devastating. Since then I have tried to make sure I have backups and File History saved the day when my hard drive failed again a couple of months ago: One new computer and I was able to restore all my personal files and iTunes downloads without a hitch. Phew!

    • Joel Lee
      January 6, 2016 at 9:50 pm

      Glad to hear the backup saved the day! I have the same general story as you: suffered a catastrophic data loss and have kept regular backups ever since. Nobody ever believes in backups until they need them, unfortunately.

  10. Anonymous
    December 31, 2015 at 7:40 am

    I did a system backup when I had everything “just the way I liked“. In addition, I keep three sets of data - working set (c: drive), external drive, and cloud. Johng is right -better to keep an extra copy of your critical files offsite.

    • Joel Lee
      January 6, 2016 at 9:49 pm

      That's definitely a good time to make a backup. How often do you refresh your backups? Seems like it could get cumbersome if it isn't automated.

  11. Johng
    December 30, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    Keeping sensitive data and even personal videos and photos only locally is not a good idea. What if the house burned down or someone breaks in? No more data. Storing an encrypted external drive at a good friend or family members house nearby would be a good idea.

    • Joel Lee
      January 6, 2016 at 9:48 pm

      Yeah, for sure. It's better to have insufficient backups than no backups at all, but whenever possible, keep as many separate backups as possible. Thanks Johng!