By now, we’re sure you’ve read the advice over and over: Everyone needs to back up their files. But deciding to back up your files is only part of the process. There are so many different ways to back up your files, and it can be hard knowing where to start. We’ll cover all the best ways you can back up your files and help you find the method that’s right for you.
The options here range from free utilities already included with your Windows 7 or Windows 8 computer to cloud-based backup solutions that offer free storage or charge a fee to store your files. The most important thing is having several copies of your files — either on an external drive or in the cloud somewhere.
Backup Files in Windows 7
Windows 7 includes integrated backup tools. Launch the Backup and Restore application in Windows 7 and set up Windows Backup. These tools are fairly flexible, allowing you to back up your user data files, specific folders, or even every file on your computer. Windows 7 also allows you to create full system image backups, which you can restore from to get your system back to the state it was in when you created the system image.
Windows allows you to save this backup to a network location, another internal hard drive, or an external drive. You can configure the backup to happen automatically on a schedule. If you’re backing up to an external hard drive, you’ll want to leave it plugged in or connect it before running a backup manually.
You can then restore files from this backup later. Windows 8 includes its own backup feature, but it also includes the Windows 7 backup tools — so you can continue using Windows 7 backup on Windows 8 or restore files from Windows 7 backups.
Read our guide to setting up and using Windows 7 Backup and Restore for more information.
Windows 8 Backup
Windows 8’s Backup feature is known as File History. It functions just like Apple’s Time Machine. Not many people used Windows 7’s backup features, so Microsoft tried to design an easier-to-use backup and restore system. Unlike Windows 7’s backup system, Windows 8’s File History can only back up files in user data locations like your libraries and desktop folder. If you want to back up an arbitrary folder elsewhere, you’ll have to add it to your libraries.
Once you set up File History, Windows will save copies of your files on a regular basis — either to an external drive or a network share. It does this automatically in the background. If you’re using an external drive, File History will begin saving backup copies again when you plug the external drive back in.
You can later use File History to “go back in time,” restoring copies of deleted files and previous versions of existing files. For more details, read our guide to Windows 8’s File History feature.
Free Backup Programs
If you’re not entirely happy with Windows’ included backup features, you may want to take a look at a third-party backup application. In addition to paid applications, there are a several good free ones. Cobian Backup is one of the best free backup solutions you can find.
Cobian Backup and other third-party backup tools generally differentiate themselves from the integrated Windows backup tools by being more powerful and flexible.
With Cobian Backup, you have much more control over your backups. You can create a variety of backup tasks, each with separate “source” and “destination” pairs. You can set up filters that exclude and include different types of files. You can perform events, such as launching or closing a program, at the beginning or end of each backup task. You can choose to automatically archive and encrypt your backups, create differential backups where only the changes are stored, and more. All of these settings can be customized for each individual backup task. There are too many features to list here.
All these bells and whistles make for a very powerful application, but it’s also overboard for most users. Most people will probably be happier with a simpler solution like the one integrated into Windows — but power users will get a lot more flexibility from another backup program.
For an alternative, check out our coverage of Macrium Reflect.
Paid Backup Programs
You may also want to look at a paid backup program. For example, the Paragon Hard Disk Manager suite includes its own backup and restore application in addition to other disc management tools.
Paid products like Paragon Hard Disk Manager generally combine the user-friendly interface of Windows backup with all the advanced features you’ll find in a program like Cobian Backup. Free backup programs are generally rougher-around-the-edges in terms of their interface, while a paid program provides similar advanced features in a more polished package.
You could also choose to skip all the local backup programs and take advantage of cloud storage to keep your files safe. For example, you could just dump your important files in a cloud storage folder—there are plenty of solid options for online backup services including Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft SkyDrive—and they’d be backed up online and automatically synchronized to your other computers and devices. Of course, Dropbox and similar services aren’t really intended as backup solutions—if you accidentally delete files from your Dropbox folder, they’ll be deleted from your Dropbox cloud storage as well. You could try to recover the deleted files from your cloud storage, but they may be automatically deleted after a period of time, depending on your service of choice. You may want to keep local backups of your more important files.
Instead of a cloud storage and syncing service, you may want to try a cloud-based backup solution like the well-regarded CrashPlan. CrashPlan is different from Dropbox because it’s focused on backing up your files, not just on synchronizing them. It runs in the background and automatically backs up files from anywhere on your hard drive you specify. It can also be configured to back up to an external drive, too — giving you both local backups and cloud backups. You can even back up files to a friend’s computer for free — if you have a friends with some free storage on their computers, you can choose to back up to each other’s computers and gain free off-site backups in that way.
Cloud-based backup solutions can be particularly attractive because they allow you to keep copies of your files off-site. If your home ever burns down or is robbed, you’ll still have your files off-site with a cloud backup service, but there’s a good chance you might lose any backups stored in your home.
Other Backup Solutions
The solutions we’ve listed here are far from the only options. If you only have a few important files, you could use the old-fashioned method of regularly copying them to a USB drive or disc — although that’s very tedious compared to dedicated backup solutions. If you’re a geek, you could set up backups to happen automatically to a network service or data center via rsync. You could purchase a dedicated NAS (network-attached storage) backup solution to back up all computers on your local network.
You can even try using BitTorrent Sync, which automatically synchronizes files between several computers, to ensure your files are synchronized to other computers you own. If you have several other computers with a good chunk of hard disk space and bandwidth, this could be a clever solution — BitTorrent Sync doesn’t store your files online, it just transfers them between the computers you configure. This means that you can back up an unlimited amount of files, as long as you have the hard drive space and network bandwidth.
How do you back up your files? Which application or service do you prefer? Leave a comment and let us know!
And if you want a quick way to back up and restore Windows, check our our guide on creating an ISO image of your Windows system. It’s also a good idea to arm yourself with data recovery software for worst-case scenarios.