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How do I use hardware to back up my computer?

Laptop with CD drive

If your hard drive fails, it’s easy to lose precious photos, videos and emails. But there is a way of preventing this from happening to you – by making sure you have backed them up elsewhere. Therefore if the worst happens, you have copies of the lost files safely stored away.

WebWise Team | 10th October 2012

Hard drives fail. If that happens, it’s usually expensive and sometimes impossible to recover all the lost files. But there are several ways to ensure that your precious photos, videos, emails and other files survive a computer disaster. You can back them up to CD or DVD discs, to external hard drives, and even to online services.

There are two main approaches to backing up your computer. The first, and possibly the most common, is to make copies of important files. The second is to back up your whole PC hard drive. This makes it easier to recover from a disaster, but uses more space.

Backing up files

It never hurts to take security copies of important files, such as photos and financial data. One cheap and easy way to do this is to ’burn’ folders full of these files to blank CD-R or DVD discs.

Backups need to be reliable so don’t buy the cheapest discs, and don’t use rewritable ones (eg CD-RW). Also, always use the ’write at once’ option and burn a whole disc, even if it’s not full. When you are saving data, it is not the time to save pennies. Label the CDs or DVDs and store them safely.

There are some drawbacks to using these kinds of discs – the main one being that you need a lot of them to back up a big hard drive. A CD-R, for instance, only holds 700 megabytes of data. Another option is a Blu-ray disc which holds up to 25GB on a single layer and 50GB on a double layer disc.

External hard drives

An external hard drive (EHD) is exactly the same as an internal hard drive, except it’s packed in a separate box. It’s very easy to copy files from your internal drive to an external one, although it can take a while. (If you have Microsoft Windows 7 or Vista, try using the built-in Robocopy, which is short for ’Robust copy’.) Usually, copying is done via a USB 2.0 cable, since most PCs now have at least one USB 2.0 port.

Remember that external hard drives can also fail and that having backups means having at least two copies of everything. If you move files from your PC to an external hard drive to free up space, you still only have one copy. That’s not a backup.

If you buy a big external hard drive, you can have it ’mirror’ directories on your PC so that they are always backed up. Centred System's Second Copy is a sound option, and one of the simplest to use is Microsoft’s free SyncToy.

An alternative to backing up selected files is to take a ’snapshot’ of the whole hard drive. Many programs can do this, though the current favourite is Acronis True Image. Free alternative disk imaging programs include Runtime’s DriveImage XML (free for personal use), EaseUS Todo Backup and Paragon Backup & Recovery.

Network storage servers

Today, many homes have several computers, so people are starting to move to the sort of systems used in businesses. The leading example is NAS (Network Attached Storage), which allows people with different computers to save files on a shared stack of hard drives. You can now buy NAS drives for not much more than the cost of an external hard drive.

Apple offers its own NAS drives under the Time Capsule label. They are expensive in terms of the storage they provide, but are very easy to use and have a strong appeal to Mac users.

Portable media

Other more portable options are available to store data and move it easily and conveniently between different computers and other devices. Memory cards are small data storage devices which are commonly used in digital cameras and cell phones. Laptop computers will often include slots for them but this is less common for desktop computers.

Flash drives plug into USB ports, drawing power from the computer’s own supply. They can also be plugged into other devices that have USB ports such as the PS3, Xbox and many DVD players. Both memory cards and flash drives are capable of holding many gigabytes of data. Top of the range devices hold up to 256GB and are expensive, but they offer a lot of data storage in a small package.

People generally seem reluctant to spend money on backing up their files because - as with insurance - there’s no real benefit unless something goes wrong. But think how much you’d pay to get your photos back if you lost them all in a hard drive crash. That might encourage you to spend a bit more.

The WebWise 'W'

WebWise Team

WebWise was first launched in 1998 and since then has helped people of all ages to learn about and love the internet.