Windows Backup Options

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, backing up your computer is very important. This time around, I want to talk about the various types of backups you can do on a Windows-based PC, with a few specific examples of related software and services. These ideas may be more broadly applicable on Mac and Linux computers too, but I don’t have much experience with them myself so I am sticking with what I know.

Types of Backup

The simplest form of backup is just having a copy of your important files. Such a backup can easily be made manually, but doing so on a frequent basis is an easy thing to forget. As such, many programs are available that can copy files and folders from one drive to another on a schedule. Some also incorporate compression, to minimize space taken up by the backup files.

Another option for basic file backups is a program that monitors a specific folder or drive and synchronizes everything on that drive as it is changed. These avoid the need to have a specific schedule, but because they are almost instantaneous they can lead to situations where a change is mistakenly made to a file and then propagated to the backup before it can be corrected. As such, this is not good to rely on as a sole backup – but can be a great option to supplement periodic backups. A lot online backup and file synchronization services use technology like this.

Going beyond just backing up files, a great option is to make an image of a complete drive. This is the best way to backup the primary drive in a computer, since there are often hidden files and special settings related to booting up an operating system which might not be caught by a file / folder style backup. You can back up non-system drives in this manner as well, but there is not really any advantage to that compared to using a simpler file-based system.

No discussion of backup methods would be complete without a mention of RAID as well. That stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks (or Drives), and covers several different approaches to providing drive redundancy – so that if one drive in a computer fails you don’t lose any data. This can be beneficial, and is especially valuable in servers where you want to minimize downtime if hardware fails, but it is *not* a backup! It only protects against an actual drive failure, while proper backups will also guard against file corruption, viruses / malware, and more. With RAID, any changes happen instantly across all drives in the array – so much like a synchronized backup you are still at risk from some threats. Whether you use RAID or not, a standard backup of some kind is still critical!

Locations for Backup

Once you have decided what sort of backup to use, the next step is deciding where to store the backup. There are lots of options for this, with varying degrees of convenience, protection, and capacity:

  • Secondary drive – Another drive inside the computer is probably the most convenient option, and fastest for transferring data, but doesn’t do much to isolate your backup. It does protect against a physical failure of the main drive / data location, or the original data being corrupted or deleted, but it doesn’t give you protection against anything affecting the computer as a whole. A power surge could take out both your original and backup, for example, as could a nasty bit of malware. If you use a location like this as your regular backup, I recommend also having another backup that is done more infrequently.
  • External drive – This gives you a little more isolation, as when the drive is not plugged in it would be immune to things like a power surge or virus. It also makes it easy to transport data from one computer to another, in case you need to access your backup quickly if the main computer is out of commission. Speed is still pretty decent, at least with modern connections like USB 3.0 / 3.1, but convenience is a little worse: the drive has to be plugged in and powered on in order for a backup to take place, but leaving it that way all the time makes it no safer than another drive inside the computer.
  • Single-use media – Writeable CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs are another option for backing up data, but because they cannot be changed they are best used when you want to keep a long-term copy of something. They also have limited capacity, so they aren’t well suited to system image backups (except maybe when a computer is brand-new and there is little data on it). There are also re-writable discs, but you have to erase them fully before re-using… so they aren’t very convenient for making regular backups.
  • Network attached storage – This takes the idea of an external drive and moves it to your network. That can be convenient in a multi-computer network, since more than one system could use the same NAS as a backup. They can also be used for other things, like file sharing or hosting media, and many allow for multiple physical drives to be installed. That can potentially allow for redundancy within the NAS, making it a more secure backup location. The downside with NAS units is that they tend to be slower than a directly-attached external drive. To get reasonable speeds requires a Gb network infrastructure (or faster) and a NAS box that is able to provide good read and write speeds.
  • Online storage – The newest location for backups is online, or as commonly referred to these days: ‘the cloud’. Despite the funny name, this just means that your data is being kept on one or more servers that are connected to the internet. This means your backup is stored a long way away from your computer, so that even in the case of something like a natural disaster it should be safe. Of course you have to trust the company that is providing the storage, both to keep it safe and not to tamper with it / try to look at it. If that worries you, there are some services that encrypt your data, and you could even do that before backing it up. There are also some programs that let you and a friend act as online backups for each other, or for you to be your own backup by installing the software on multiple computers you have (in the same or different locations) and synchronizing between them. 

Software for Backup

For several generations of the Windows operating system, some sort of backup has been built in. It was not until Vista that the included backup capabilities were really strong enough to use on their own, though. Starting with that version, Microsoft has offered two main types of backup: ‘File and Folder’ backup and ‘System Image’ backup. Those correspond directly to the two types of backups discussed at the beginning of this post, and can be done as a one-time backup or set to run on a schedule. Professional versions of Windows can be set to save the backup locally or to a network location, while the Home versions are limited to local backup locations only. This article covers how to set them up in Windows 7, and while Windows 8 removed those options they are back in Windows 10. To find them in the new OS, just search for "backup" from the task bar / Start menu.

Windows also has had other backup options featured in some recent versions. The latest incarnation of that is called File History and is found in Windows 8 and 10. It is a form of file based backup, but limited in scope to the contents of the User folders. In trade, though, it allows not only restoration of lost files but also the option to roll back to older versions of files.

Besides what is built into Windows, there are many other great third-party backup programs. Here are a few, with a brief description and link:

  • Acronis – Image based backup to local storage or their cloud service; multiple price options based on features
  • Bvckup 2 – Scheduled file synchronization across local drives or network locations; one-time license purchase with free trial
  • Carbonite – File synchronization to online / cloud-based backup for a yearly fee
  • Crashplan – File based backup to local drives, other trusted computers, or their cloud service; cloud storage involves subscription fees
  • Google Drive – File based synchronization to Google’s servers plus any other computers you install the software on; free limited capacity, with options to subscribe for more space (Microsoft has a similar service called OneDrive, which is integrated into Windows 10)
  • Macrium Reflect – File and image based backup software; limited image-only free version available as well as multiple price options based on features

Those are just a few of the many backup programs out there. If you purchase a computer from us, with an external hard drive, we can set up the default Windows backup options for you. In the end, though, it is best to go with something that fits your needs and works well – and to test to make sure it will work as you expect, before you actually need it.