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Simple Computer Backups

Backing up is an essential part of computer maintenance. Some simple strategies for the average PC user are discussed.

I continually encounter PC users who have problems that a backup would have fixed or ameliorated. Even worse, I see hard disk failures with the concomitant total loss of valuable and often irreplaceable data. People know they should back up but somehow they just don’t seem to get around to it. The common failure to carry out this vital chore is due in part to human inertia but it is also partly due to hesitancy about what is involved in the backup process. In addition, really proper backup requires some extra software and external storage devices and this is a hurdle for many people. I also think that many people are unaware that hard disk failure is not an especially rare event.

Everybody would be better off with regular and thorough backups. However, experience indicates that a large group of PC users are just never going to do this vital housekeeping. I am going to address this group in this article in the hope that that it will help persuade people to at least back up their most vital data. I would like to outline some simple backup strategies, which use resources that most people already have, and that even the most casual PC user can employ. These minimum procedures are not substitutes for the real thing but they will at least prevent total disaster.

Those who wish to do thorough and complete backups will find many “how-to” articles on the Internet. One excellent and comprehensive discussion is from Fred Langa. If you are willing to spend something like $100- $150,several manufacturers sell external USB hard drives that comes with their own software and are supposed to enable “one-button” backups. Seagate (after having purchased Maxtor) is the leader here. I am not a fan but Windows XP comes with backup software that you may wish to try. I describe its use here.

Where and How to Backup

The whole point of these backups is to protect against hard drive failure, a virus infection, or other problem that either destroys vital data or makes it inaccessible from your present system. Thus, the backup medium must be external to the hard drive. Ideally, this means another hard drive but for a minimum procedure a CD-RW drive will serve. Almost all computers now come with CD burners (or better yet a DVD burner). (Options for systems lacking a CD-RW are discussed later in the article.) Please note that GoBack, Windows System Restore, and similar programs provide no protection against disk failure since they back up on the main hard drive itself.

Although many people recommend the rewritable kind of CD (CD-RW) and the use of incremental backups, I am going to suggest using the plain CDs (CD-R) that can be written to only once. Actually, if you have packet-writing software and don’t close the CD, you can keep writing in multiple sessions until the CD-R fills up. However, I am going to keep this as simple as possible. I am aiming this article at those who want the least possible bother. Both CD-RW disks and packet writing to CD-R disks require extra software and care and involve special formats that can have problems. For example, not all CD drives can read some of the formats. (A good discussion of formats is here)

For simplicity, I suggest that once a week you burn to a CD-R whatever files you want to protect. Each week use a fresh CD blank. To be safe, keep a couple of week’s worth and throw away the rest. Since we are not talking about a full backup, one CD may be enough to hold everything that you wish to back up. Those with DVD burners have a lot more capacity but if you have a lot of photos or multimedia, you should probably be considering another hard drive. Almost any computer that comes with a CD burner will have the necessary software and the procedure isn’t much more involved than copying to a floppy. If you have Windows XP, you can use the minimal CD burning capability that is bundled with the operating system. A spindle of 50 blank CDs costs only a few dollars at most. Often you can find a deal, where the CDs are free after a rebate. Thus, the cost of using a new CD every week should be no more than 10-20 cents, probably less. Completely recopying files each time may take longer than an incremental backup, but it keeps the process simple. In any event, even burning an entire CD doesn’t take all that long. Learning how to use backup software and how to restore backups is an obstacle that keeps many people from bothering; straightforward copying avoids that problem. A simple copy on a closed CD-R requires no special software to restore and can be read by any ordinary CD drive.

Thumb or flash drives as a backup

USB thumb drives (or flash or jump drives or whatever you want to call them) are large enough and cheap enough to be another perfectly feasible backup medium. They do have a limited number of possible rewrites but the number is large enough for practical purposes. A 1GB drive is now available for approximately $20 or less and prices keep coming down. Except for their possibly more limited lifetime, these drives are even more attractive than CDs as a backup medium. As of this writing DVDs are still superior in capacity but large capacity thumb drives keep coming down in price. Thumb drives act just like another drive and are very easy to use. (They are also easy to lose so be careful with them.)

What to backup

So what should be included in a minimum backup? Obviously, it will vary from person to person, but there are certain basic categories everyone should consider. Since we are addressing the needs of the prototypical average home PC user, these categories include:
  • E-mail, address books, Internet bookmarks/favorites, passwords and logins
  • Financial data- banking, tax, investment
  • Other important personal data
  • User-created documents such as correspondence and school reports
  • Limited number of photos

For the most part, backing up just means copying a file (perhaps after compressing it) to the desired medium. Copying can be done from Windows Explorer or in some cases copies can be created directly from the file menu of the software involved, as in Word, Quicken or tax programs. The easiest procedure is to create a folder on the hard drive and to make copies of documents in that folder whenever you work on them. Then periodically copy this backup folder to the external medium.

Backing up Internet related items

Backing up Internet related items can be more complicated and the methods depend on what browser and which e-mail client you use. Most common browsers have an export function that will allow you to back up favorites (bookmarks) and cookies. In Internet Explorer open the "File" menu and select "Import and Export.." Follow the instructions in the so-called "wizard" that will open, which will allow you to create a single hypertext file “Bookmarks.htm” containing all your Internet Favorites. Export it to your backup location. This file in turn can be imported by IE should you need to restore your favorites. Backing up email will vary among clients but for Outlook Express the procedure is described at this site. The Windows address book is in a file with extension WAB. You can copy this file to a backup location.