Backing up the data (files and folders) on your PC - why and how
The short answer(s) for those who know the basics of computing...
If you want an even more basic introduction to the topic,
please click here.
There are lots of tools, some of them free - all claiming that they
have a great solution for backing up data (files, folders - some even
offering to backup settings too!) but none that make it easy, simple
and relevant to the different types of data you are backing up.
Media files - pictures, music and video in particular
Anyone who has a modern camera may know that a weekend vacation can
generate a bigger need for storage (even with 20 pictures!) than the
entire sum of the spreadsheets and word documents that they have created
over the past decade!
Music is similar - 20 tracks is typically 100 units of storage
(Megabytes or MB if you want to know)...
A short video of an episode of a series will take 3-4 times that - 3-400MB.
This is why you should backup these files separately from the rest of
your files because:
- They don't change - so once (or twice!) backed-up they are preserved
- Some may have already been backed up because it is common for these
types of file to be copied onto read-only storage (CDs and DVDs) and for
there to be more than one recipient and therefore multiple copies
- They are already as small as they can be - already compressed (almost)
as well as the backup program might claim it can do
- They are well-suited to read-only storage because of the items above
- By backing up these very, very large files separately you can make
backups of the data that is really important much more frequently
and easily - as described in the following section, i.e. later.
Backing up these files is also not a regular, repetitive chore - it
should coincide with the addition of significant new files that have not
already been backed-up because you know that the other's have not changed
since your last backup!
Whenever you have added around 2000 Megabytes (500 Pictures from an 8 Megapixel
camera or 500 Music tracks or six episodes of a TV series or two
movies) you should take a backup of (only numbered for reference if needed):
- Firstly - all of the recently added material but ommitting anything which:
- has been backed-up for other reasons - wedding pictures or videos that
have been distributed to more than two "reliable" family members for instance
or music that has been copied to a CD for the house, car and a spare.
- is easily reproducable / retrievable from other sources for the
Note that as well as the folders: "My Pictures", "My Videos", "My Music"
you MAY want to backup recent files in "My Downloads" because although the
material MAY be available for download at some later date there is a good
chance that it will have been updated and MAY no longer meet your needs.
As an example - an older version of a program called a firewall may have
been free but the latest version may not! So you MAY want to retain copies
of files in "My Downloads" too
- After that you should add the same material that you last backed-up
because you want to have at least two copies of everything and ideally
- After that you should add the same material that you backed-up the
time before if it will fit. Do not attempt to copy more than 4000 MB -
if there is a choice then add the most important to retain.
- After you have burnt and verified the DVD then you should always burn a
second copy which is kept in a dark, cool place which is as free from the
risk of fire, flood, theft etc. as you feel is appropriate to the
value of what you have backed-up
Why use DVDs and other minor technicalities:
- CDs are much less reliable and robust than DVDs as well as storing a sixth;
the latter also making DVDs more cost-effective and easier to store in bulk
- What you add first should be added to the DVD first which is closer
to the middle of the DVD and less prone to corruption - hence the order above
- Whatever you do with DVDs and CDs they have to be kept away from heat and
sunlight and as free of scratches as possible - hence the best practice of a
second copy in case of failure.
- Writing backup files to a DVD will depend on what version of Windows you
have and more importantly if you have software installed which manages your
DVD writer. If you are a customer, please call our usual number or the one
below if you do not have it to hand.
Backing up your files that are NOT Multimedia format - i.e. not Music,
For the vast majority of PC users the amount of data to be backed-up
when Multimedia files are excluded will be measure in hundreds of Megabytes
at the most.
Because these files can typically be compressed into a quarter or a tenth of
their original space they can be stored, often with individual versions
on devices that are fast, cheap and without moving parts - flash
memory stickS! note plural because there are other good reasons
to have more than one copy - a classic case is when the owner of a document
makes major changes to a document and unintentionally deletes several
sections and saves the result - if you only have a single backup then the
backup of the document will ALSO be overwritten during the next backup.
If I backup the data do I need to worry about anything else?
Sadly yes... Data can only be used by programs and they are stored on your
PC too. The bad news is that programs are normally
deliberately NOT PORTABLE because the author
(inc. Microsoft!) typically wants you to go through an installation process as it
is an opportunity for them to charge you for a license to run it.
See System backup - changing software for a guide to backing up your system - the why, when
and HOW is even more important with this type of backup than
what is described above.
Introduction to backing up files on your PC
How valuable are the files on your PC to you? - it depends...
Files (sometimes referred-to as data) are stored in your PC on devices
called hard drives. Hard drives contain intricate mechanisms operating at
nano-heights over hundreds of thin platters which rotate a hundred times
per second - it goes without saying that these can and will fail after a
period of time even IF you treat them really, really carefully.
On the whole - anything that YOU have spent time and effort creating
that is not already permanently accessible elsewhere should be considered
"at risk" and your investment of your time and money in preserving that
data should simply reflect the value to you.
Bear in mind that you may be REQUIRED TO KEEP some DATA - for instance if
it is part of the accounts of a company.
Backing-up data isn't usually difficult but knowing what, when and how
to do it is not trivial because it depends on many factors but especially
(a) what value you associate with being able to recover it in
(b) what timescale, and,
(c) what risks are you wanting to avoid - e.g. fire, flood, theft,
computer failures of various types,
accidental damage, viruses etc..
As well as the data within it, your system (often Windows but there are
many alternatives) is something that you probably want to be able
to recover although many people and small businesses do not invest the
effort in anticipating that as a problem and have the challenge of
re-creating their "system" with all of the programs and hidden data which
they accumulate from your input over the months and years - again numbered
only for easy reference in case of discussion:
- Programs have to be installed - typically a dozen but many people have fifty!
Some will require a re-boot of your system so installations can take anything
from ten minutes to half an hour even assuming there are no snags!
- Customisation of each program, it's settings and restoration of
any data that it was keeping hidden. Note that products such as e-mail
(e.g. Outlook / Express) MAY only be able to transfer data between the same
version of that program AND Outlook Express isn't even available on the
Vista platform and the choices on Windows7 are different again!
Transferring SETTINGS from one version / release to another is also risky.
- Customisation of Windows (or Mac OS etc.) and it's settings! - not trivial
- Passwords and sometimes just as bad:
- Account / login user names
- License and registration keys for software - NB they are only likely to
work for the version of software that you installed at the time - newer
versions will probably not accept old keys!
- Bookmarks or Favourites
- Address book or other contact lists
- Saved form information held in your browser - also known as autocomplete
- History data information held in your browser - what sites / pages have you visited
- Browser plug-ins - essentially programs as per the first two items
- Templates for use in Word and/or Excel but also in other programs
And IF relevant, these files and settings if stored on your PC
- Diary (Calendar) and/or Tasklists / Notes
- Faxes - Incoming and Outgoing
- RSS feeds
- Network settings (ADSL / Dial-up?!) and WiFi - inc. passwords
- Device drivers for your hardware inc. printers, phones, scanners, cards, etc. etc..
This can be a substantial amount of effort even for an expert
Even if you use "the Cloud" for a lot of web applications such as your
e-mail (Googlemail, Yahoo, MSN etc.) and web-based office tools such as
GoogleDocs there will be enough customisation to cause you pain and effort
if you have to replace your PC.
I hope the information above has been useful, let me know if not!
Any Comments, suggestions or corrections to: Contact us please.
This would be especially useful if the software environment you have is
different to mine and the headings, text or prompts are different.