Technology Explained

What’s the Best Way to Back Up Data on a Computer?

Dan Price 18-10-2018

We all know that making backups is an essential part of computing. As the October 2018 Windows Update debacle proves, you can lose your data when you least expect it.


You can take a few different approaches when it comes to storing your backups. NAS drives, external drives, and cloud drives are all options. You can also use a dedicated online service. But what are the pros and cons of each method? Let’s take a look.

Backing Up Data With NAS Drives

If you want to keep complete control of your data in the most reliable way, you should consider saving your backups on a NAS drive 10 Reasons Why You Should Store Your Data on a FreeNAS Box Which company should you entrust your sensitive data to? Want to access your media across all your devices anywhere in the world? Here's why FreeNAS might be the right pick for you. Read More . Once you’ve got the device setup, it will appear like any other drive on your computer.

Even though NAS Drives have fewer downsides than simple external drives (which we’ll discuss in a moment), they aren’t perfect. Depending on which RAID configuration you use, one failed drive in your array could lead to complete data loss.

NAS drives also come at a cost. Even mid-range products will cost you a few hundred dollars.

On the positive side, if there are several computers in your home, NAS drives are a convenient way to centralize all your backups in a single place.


They are also entirely “hands-off,” you don’t need to worry about connecting them every time you want to make a backup.

If you decide a NAS drive is the right solution for you, make sure you check out our guide to the best NAS drives before you hit the shops.

Backing Up Data With External Drives

We don’t know, but we’d guess that using an external hard drive is the method that most people use for backing up their data.

External hard drives are cheap, readily available, and have a low learning curve. Many people will probably have one already lying around their home.


Note: If you don’t have one, check out the reasonably-priced 2TB Western Digital model on Amazon. Even the 4TB model is affordable.

WD 4TB Elements Portable External Hard Drive - USB 3.0 - WDBU6Y0040BBK-WESN WD 4TB Elements Portable External Hard Drive - USB 3.0 - WDBU6Y0040BBK-WESN Buy Now On Amazon $91.99

However, external hard drives lack the convenience factor of a NAS drive. Almost all the models are wired, and you can only connect them to one computer at a time.

And, because external hard drives are portable, they will probably be exposed to more wear-and-tear than a NAS drive—consequently, the hard drive is more likely to fail.


Lastly, if you have a lot of data, external hard drives might not be suitable. Unlike NAS drives and online services, they are not easily expandable.

What About USB Flash Drives?

For quick and easy backups, you can use a USB flash drive. Of course, their capacity means they’re not suitable for system images or huge backups, but they will always be a fast and easy-to-use option if you’re in a hurry. You can always transfer your data onto an alternative media later.

Backing Up Data With Online Services

There are two ways you can use online services to back up your data. You can either use a cloud drive or a dedicated backup company.

Both approaches share one significant advantage and one major disadvantage:

  • Offsite: All your backups are kept offsite. If you suffer from a flood, fire, robbery, or hard drive failure, you won’t lose your data.
  • Internet Connection: If you don’t have an internet connection, your backups will fail. Uploading your data to the internet also takes longer than saving it on a NAS or external drive.

Cloud Drives

We’re all familiar with the big four names in cloud storage: Google Drive, OneDrive, iCloud, and Dropbox.

All four services can be used for backing up your files and folders. They will encrypt your data and keep it synced with your locally-saved copies.

Of course, all four also offer a free tier. That’s both a blessing and a curse. If you hit your data limits, backups will fail; you’ll either need to migrate to a different service or get your wallet out and upgrade to a paid plan.

Furthermore, the desktop apps of Google Drive, OneDrive, and Dropbox do not allow you to take complete system images. Therefore, if your computer suffers a hard drive failure, you won’t be able to instantly return it to its pre-crash state.

Dedicated Backup Services

backblaze plan prices

If want a more holistic approach to data backup, you could consider using one of the web’s dedicated backup services. All of them require a monthly subscription, so if you want a free option, they are not for you.

The services’ apps run in the background on your computer and take backups in real-time.

Some of the leading companies include Backblaze, Acronis, OpenDrive, and SOS. You can expect to pay around $5 per month, per computer.

The big worry with these types of companies is longevity. For example, one of the market leaders used to be CrashPlan. In August 2017, it announced it was pulling out of the consumer market CrashPlan Shutters Cloud Backup for Home Users Code42, the company behind CrashPlan, has announced that it's ditching home users. CrashPlan for Home is being killed off, with Code42 instead focusing entirely on enterprise and business customers. Read More and would instead only cater to businesses. Its loyal customers were left scrambling for an alternative.

Backing Up Data With Disc Backups

It might be dated, but saving your data onto discs is still a surprisingly reliable way of creating backups.

CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs are not at risk of drive failure or water damage and can easily be stored in an offsite location.

Of course, capacity is an issue, as is possible scratching and the amount of time it would take to burn serious amounts of data. You also have to question the future of technology. Disc drives are becoming increasingly rare in laptops.

Nonetheless, for precious photo albums or music collections, they are worth considering as a “backup backup”. You’ll probably always be able to get your hands on a CD reader, much as you can still buy VHS and audio cassette players.

Never Rely on Only One Method for Data Backups

In many cases, one backup method’s strength is another’s weakness. As such, you should never only rely on one approach to keep your data secure.

In our opinion, the perfect combination is to use a NAS drive and subscribe to a cloud-based service like Backblaze.

If your budget doesn’t go that far, you should at least consider having both onsite (an external hard drive) and offsite (a cloud storage provider) copies.

To learn more, read our articles about how to back up data on Windows 10 The Ultimate Windows 10 Data Backup Guide We've summarized every backup, restore, recovery, and repair option we could find on Windows 10. Use our simple tips and never despair over lost data again! Read More and how to back up your iPhone How to Back Up Your iPhone and iPad What would you do if you lost your iPhone tomorrow? You need to have a backup plan, and we'll show you how to back up to iCloud or iTunes. Read More .

Related topics: Cloud Storage, Data Backup, Hard Drive, NAS.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. CKShlafer
    January 26, 2019 at 6:17 pm

    Thank you for your many informative articles on NAS systems. I came across your site while searching for answers to some external-storage and file-backup questions.

    I apologize in advance for my ignorance. I’m by no means tech-savvy by almost anyone’s calculus, but for an old mom in my late 60s, I’ve managed to learn a couple of things about computers down through the years. Believe it or not, my husband and kids always relied on me to set up our networks, computers, and peripherals, and to put out every home-based-technology fire known to man/woman. (It’s a long story.)

    So I have two computers: a 2016 Lenovo ThinkPad laptop that is my everyday/business machine, and a 2015-16 (not sure of the year) MacBook Pro that I bought mainly for photo editing. For the Lenovo, I need an external storage solution that has enough capacity to accommodate hundreds of non-compressed music files. For the Mac, I need external storage for valuable photos. Finally, I need a good backup system for both.

    My husband uses an older Mac mostly for email and surfing, and nothing else. And the kids have long since flown the coop, thank god.

    Here are my questions.
    1) Would a NAS system answer my storage needs?
    2) Can a single NAS unit accommodate both a Mac and a Windows operating system?
    3) If the answer to both of those questions is yes, is it possible to backup the NAS using an online or cloud-based service?
    4) How difficult would it be to set up such a system? (For reference, probably the most advanced thing I’ve done with software has been setting up various modems and routers for our home network.)

    Thanks in advance for any help or suggestions. They will be much appreciated!

  2. likefunbutnot
    October 18, 2018 at 11:52 am

    Tape is real. It has a high up-front cost, but if you have tens of terabytes of data, there's a strong case to be made. Hard drives aren't stable over long periods of time in the same way as tape and flash storage in the form of SD cards and thumb drives isn't terribly reliable. Any backup is better than no backup, but too often I find that people don't pay attention and just assume their media is working. Using a NAS for long term storage also doesn't make a lot of sense; you're making an assumption that the NAS's storage technology will continue to be available and usable at some future data. That may or may not be the case, especially if the NAS uses some weird modification of RAID technology (looking at you, Drobo).

    RAID isn't really discussed here, which is good because it's not a backup tool so much as an availability and data integrity tool, but it probably should be discussed in the context of NAS devices. Single hard drives these days are very large, but if you're tempted to group multiple 4TB+ drives into a large disk array, be aware that the rated physical limit for hard read errors on consumer drives is around 1 per 10TB, meaning that RAID with Single Parity (usually RAID5) is certain to fail a rebuild after a single disk loss for arrays larger than that. RAID with Double Parity (often called RAID6) is useful and necessary for larger volumes and is itself only useful for volumes up to around 30TB.

    Also, a copy is just a copy. It is not an archive. It is not a record of changes. Having a copy you've stored someplace else might be acceptable for photos, but documents and databases should be stored in a fashion that offers versioning so you know which document is which. Just copying stuff to an external drive really isn't a backup.

    Crashplan absolutely still works and home users can still use it. They just have to sign up for Crashplan for Small Business instead of Crashplan Home. The main difference is Small Business doesn't offer a family plan package. There's just a $10/month /PC cost. Crashplan is unique for offering the option to keep all versions of all files in the backup set. Other services only keep older versions for some set period of time. That may or may not be relevant for your needs.

    Online backup has an additional limitation, which is the speed at which backups can be transferred. Consumer-level backup is more or less always going to be rate-limited, probably significantly slower than your ISP upload limit. Expect your initial online backup to take months to complete. Among large cloud providers, Amazon alone seems to offer line-speed access to consumers, but at $60/TB/year, it's not exactly cheap (Amazon Glacier storage is slightly cheaper than Amazon Drive, if anybody is tempted. Figure roughly $50/TB/year so long as you don't actually need to recover or delete anything).