If you aren’t backing up your data, you need to start right now. With data loss horror stories as common as they are, the no-data-backups lifestyle just isn’t worth the risk. Don’t wait until you lose an entire thesis paper or promotion-worthy work presentation — start backing up today.
There are many ways to back up your computer and several data backup tools that can make the process as easy as clicking one button. Whatever works for you. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you make backups as long as you are making backups.
In this article, we’ll look at how to back up your computer using the three most popular cloud storage services.
Note: We had originally included CrashPlan in this roundup, which used to be a reliable paid solution for backing up your data to the cloud. On 22 August 2017, CrashPlan announced that it would discontinue its services for Home users by 22 October 2018. While CrashPlan has said that it will honor existing subscriptions beyond this date, we recommend choosing an alternative backup service for your private backups. Below are several options.
Which Files Should You Back Up?
When we talk about “backing up a computer,” we don’t necessarily mean backing up the entire computer — every single file, folder, app, etc. That would be akin to cloning your hard drive, which is a more involved process that’s unnecessary for most people.
You only need to back up personal data files. Key file types include documents, spreadsheets, presentations, photos and images, music, and videos. In other words, you should back up any file that you’ve personally created or acquired and want to keep.
You do NOT need to back up system files — at least not to the cloud. Windows has two built-in features called System Restore and Factory Reset: a portion of your local hard drive is dedicated to backing up system files and recovering your system from errors.
You should NOT back up apps. Apps can be several hundred MB large, so you’re better off backing up the configuration files that make the apps unique to you. If you ever need to reinstall an app, just replace the configuration files and you should be good to go in most cases.
The tricky part is that not all apps store configuration files in the same place. Some are stored directly in the app’s installed folder, others are kept in your user home folder, and still others are kept in your system’s AppData folder. It’ll be up to you to learn which files need to be backed up for each of the apps you regularly use.
Backing Up a Computer to Google Drive
In July 2017, Google released a tool called Backup and Sync that lets you pick and choose folders on your system to keep backed up to Google Drive (normally, only the Google Drive folder is kept synced). This flexibility makes it one of the best options available for cloud data backups.
The Free plan is limited to a generous 15 GB — much more than you’ll find elsewhere, and more than enough for most. Need more? You can get 100 GB for $2 per month, 1 TB for $10 per month, or 10 TB for $100 per month.
How to back up your files using Google Drive:
- Install the Backup and Sync utility, then launch it.
- Choose which folders you want to keep backed up. Add as many as you want using Choose Folder.
- Select which folders you also want to keep in sync on your computer. This is basically the same as Google Drive proper with a bit more flexibility.
- Keep the utility running and your chosen folders will stay backed up.
Backing Up a Computer to Dropbox
Even though you can use Dropbox for storing data backups, it wasn’t quite designed for it. It creates a special “Dropbox” folder and only files in that folder are synced to Dropbox’s servers. If you want to back up anything outside of this folder, it must be copied in by hand every time.
The Basic plan is free with a 2 GB limit — not enough for doing comprehensive data backups. You’ll want the Plus plan instead, which has a 1 TB limit for $9.99 per month.
How to back up your files using Dropbox:
- If you don’t have Dropbox, download and install it.
- Create and sign in with your Dropbox account.
- Navigate to %UserProfile%/Dropbox for your Dropbox folder. Add any file or folder to add it to your Dropbox cloud. It will automatically start syncing.
- Visit the Dropbox site to access files at any time.
Backing Up a Computer to OneDrive
OneDrive is similar to Dropbox in that it creates a special “OneDrive” folder and only syncs the contents of that folder to its cloud servers. The downsides are the same: if you want to back up anything outside of this folder, you have to copy it in by hand each time.
The Basic plan is free with a 5 GB limit — more than Dropbox and may be enough depending on how much you need to back up. The Storage Only plan grants 50 GB for $2 per month, or you can expand to 1 TB with an Office 365 Personal plan for $7 per month.
(Wondering if you should consider OneDrive for Business instead? Our comparison of OneDrive and OneDrive for Business can help you make the right choice.)
How to back up your files using OneDrive:
- If you don’t have OneDrive, install it from the Windows Store.
- Log in with a Microsoft account.
- Navigate to %UserProfile%/OneDrive for your OneDrive folder. Add any file or folder to add it to your OneDrive cloud. It will automatically start syncing.
- Launch the OneDrive app or use the OneDrive site to access files at any time.
A Better Way to Back Up Lots of Data
While backing up to the cloud is convenient, it has its downsides. If the storage service ever closes doors, you’ll lose your data. If your internet connection dies, you’ll be unable to access your data. The services can also change limits and prices whenever they want.
See our ultimate guide to data backups for more ways to keep your data safe. I personally recommend using a NAS device, which is like a network-connected external drive. This grants many of the benefits of cloud storage without most of the downsides. See our comparison of NAS vs. cloud for more details.
Which cloud storage service do you like best? Are there any good ones we missed? What kind of data do you keep backed up? Share with us down in the comments below!