Important backup measures

  • If you’re using the Internet, which you obviously are, you must install, update, and run antivirus and anti-spyware software. Much more about that here and the best antivirus programs here.
  • There are regular housekeeping tasks required if you’re to keep Windows running smoothly which you should schedule.
  • Protection against electrical power loss or power surges.
  • But first, on this page, we’ll deal with the much neglected backups:

Definition of a Backup

“The duplicate copy of crucial data that no one bothered to make. Used only in the abstract.”

Why back up?

Error message

Hard disks contain your data. Hard disks are reliable, but now and again, because of wear and tear, bad luck, lightning strikes, power surges, virus attacks, user mistakes, stray cosmic rays, and who knows what all, your precious photos, your correspondence with the tax man, your first draft best-seller and your schedule for the next six months can suddenly become irretrievable.

Unless you have a really big mortgage, how would you feel if your bank didn’t back up all your account information? Would you be happy if they only had one back-up copy and it was held in the same location as the original? What if they only backed up once a month, the day before your salary cheque was deposited? It’s almost all digital and it’s all vulnerable.

Some banks have recently proven to be a bunch of grasping leeches, but they’re more responsible with backups than they are with being community minded – just in case you’re wondering.

  • You need copies of your stuff!
  • Several of them.
  • Done often.
  • Yes, really!!

You can make backup copies by going into Windows Explorer and dragging the icons of your valuable stuff onto another drive. One file at a time or whole folders and all their subfolders.

Dying floppy
Floppy discs, CDs, hard drives - they all die eventually. Back up your data. Today!

There’s a backup program which comes with Windows; it’s not very flexible, but has its uses; it’s here: Start/All Programs/Accessories/System Tools/Backup.

Synchronising utilities

There are special programs which streamline the backup process. The programs listed here can be used to backup or to synchronise your data on another drive or another PC. The subtle difference between backing up and synchronising is explained in the programs.


Microsoft have released a free one called SyncToy. You can get it here: Microsoft SyncToy. It’s a very good program.

Allway Sync

Another good one supposedly available free for personal use is Allway Sync but I found that after a few weeks it shut me out because of excessive use. I’m providing a free service and have to watch my pennies, so I changed to:


2 Brightspark’s SyncBack is available as a commercial version or as a free-for-personal-use version at right here. It’s an excellent program.

All these programs work well for me but, being paranoid, I still regularly back up everything manually every now and then.

These programs are particularly time saving if you’re synchronising data between two PCs as opposed to simply saving an emergency backup.

Where should I back this stuff up to?

In the bad old days everyone backed up on floppy disks or related media such as tapes and Zip drives. Nowadays your files are so big that most single files wouldn’t fit on a floppy. You need at least one—preferably more than one—of the following:

  • A CD RW or CD/DVD RW drive, RW means that it writes to rewritable disks. In order to use this drive successfully you may need to — quelle horreur! — read the instructions. You can get away with a CD R drive, which writes to a non-reusable disk once only, but you’ll use a lot of blank disks if you back up changing data as often as you should.

    Hard disk enclosure
    Hard disk enclosure
  • A second hard disk, this can be either internal (easily installed inside your computer) or external (connected when needed by USB or FireWire cable). External is better — remember lightning strikes — and for extra insurance can be stored at a different location to your computer when not in use. That’s an external HDD enclosure on the right.
    • There’s more information about external drives on the Storage page.
  • A flash drive.
  • Arrange a Yahoo or GMail email address for yourself, and send copies of really important stuff to yourself as email attachments. The nice people at Yahoo or Google will store 2 or 3 Gigabytes of data for you for free.
  • One or more other computers on a network.
  • Cloud storage There are myriad options for saving and even synchronising your data to other people’s servers on the Web. Some of these services provide reasonable amounts of free storage. See Dropbox and Evernote.

Using optical discs as virtual floppies

If you’re just starting out, and you have a new PC, and you weren’t badly served by the vendor, you should already have a DVD rewriteable disc drive. Buy 10 blank rewriteable DVDs. Set two of them up to work as virtual floppy discs using the program that came with the drive. Usually the CD writing program is Nero, and the virtual floppy part of Nero is called InCD. You can drag and drop files on or off an InCD disk easily. The next most common program is Roxio, it has a similar virtual floppy facility.

If you have data which you know you’re going to keep forever, for instance, your best quality photos, put it on CD-R or DVD-R disks. They’re cheaper than RW, can’t be accidentally erased and are less likely to become corrupt.

Even better, use a flash drive

2GB and 4GB USB flash drives, a.k.a. memory sticks or thumb drives, are really inexpensive now. Buy three or four for rotating backups.

If you don’t have a rewriteable CD or DVD drive, buy one. They’re cheap. If you’re mildly technical they’re easy to install but the vendor or a technician will install one for you in about 15 minutes.

Best free CD/DVD burning program

CDBurnerXP Pro is a very good free CD/DVD burning solution. Get it here:

How often?

Depends. Make backup copies of your data as often as you think is necessary. How much of a particular file are you prepared to lose? If you’ve been writing away on the great 21st Century novel how much work are you prepared to lose? A week’s? An hour’s?

Don’t confuse saving with backing up

Saving is writing your current work onto your disk or rewriting it to its original location. Backing up is copying that file from the hard drive to another location.

When you’re writing your novel or creating a breathtaking graphic, how often do you save the file? Everything you’ve done since your last Save is in volatile [../hardware/memory.htm RAM] awaiting oblivion in the event of a power failure, a Windows freeze, or a mistake on your part. If you have a problem you’ve lost it forever.

Whilst working on this website, I Save (CTRL + S in Windows programs) every time I think about it — roughly every 5 minutes. I back it up at least once a day. I back up to three different places on consecutive days.

Saving Automatically

Some programs (Word and Excel are two) can be set up to save automatically at user defined intervals. Usually via the Tools ›› Options Dialogue Box.

There’s a potential problem here. If you’re in the habit of opening a saved document and using it as the basis for a new document, you must File/Save As… under a new name immediately. Otherwise the old file will be automatically overwritten by the new one.

Of course that wouldn’t matter too much if it had been backed up previously, would it?

The way to avoid this happening in many programs is to create a template based on the original file and use the template as a basis for new files.

Microsoft Word shortcut for Save As… is F12.

Saving to a Partition

Often computer hard drives, especially big ones, are divided into partitions. This means that one or more “virtual” hard drives are created on your main drive.

Even though you may have only one physical hard disk drive, when you look under My Computer you’ll see two – C: and probably D:. You can save copies of data to D:, it’s particularly useful when doing a re-installation. After the new installation is completed on the C: drive, everything that you’ve copied to the D: drive is still there. But there are potential problems with single drive partitions.

  • If your hard drive is toasted, partitions are dog tucker too. Forgive the partially mixed metaphors.
  • Be wary when doing a reinstallation, particularly when using [../windows/operating-system.htm#restoration_discs restoration] disks, because if you don’t pay close attention with your selections it’s possible to wipe out virtual partitions during this process.

Never rely solely on backups to partitions.

What should I save?

Back up all your important stuff! You need to keep 2 or more copies of the following:

  • My Documents files. Keep one directory here for documents which you modify often and back that up more frequently.
  • Your photographs, digital videos and graphics.
  • Emails. See [../email/email-backup.htm here].
  • If you use MS Outlook: the outlook.pst file. See [../email/email-backup.htm here].
  • Internet Explorer Favorites or, if you use a different browser, Bookmarks.
  • Saved Downloaded files from the Internet.
  • Your templates.
  • Your MS Office dictionary.
  • Anything else that you know about and I don’t.

Creating backups manually

Open Windows Explorer: Start ›› All Programs ›› Accessories ›› Windows Explorer, or preferably, use the keyboard shortcut: Windows Key + E.

My Documents

Windows Explorer My Documents folder in Windows XP
Windows Explorer My Documents folder in Windows XP

To back up My Documents, Click and drag the My Documents folder to the destination drive. In the window shown I would drag the folder Alan’s Documents and drop it onto, for instance, the 80 GB FireWire hard drive H: or the DVD-RW drive E: having first inserted an InCD formatted CD or DVD in drive E:

Don’t try to drag the My Documents icon near the top of the pane, that’s just a shortcut.


Windows Explorer Favorites folder in Windows XP
Windows Explorer Favorites folder in Windows XP

As you can see, in XP your Favorites folder is buried 3 levels down. Substitute your own log-on name for Alan and you’ll track it down. Drag and drop to another drive as for My Documents.

In Windows 98 the Favorites folder is a subfolder of the Windows folder.

More important backup information

Check the imaging page to learn how to make your whole computer bullet-proof.

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