What to Include in a Backup, and How to Do It

Backing up your hard drive is one of those fundamental principles of smart computer use. You never know when your PC is going to suddenly grind (literally) to a halt. Hard drives, even solid-state ones, are all prone to failure. It’s not a matter of if a drive will fail, but when. For many people, that answer comes within the first five years of use.

According to a study conducted by Google in 2007, even new hard drives are susceptible to failure. In fact, the failure rate of a brand new hard drive is higher in the first three months than it is for the following year. It isn’t until the second year that the average failure rate (AFR) jumps to about 7%, followed by a rolling average of over 5% each year thereafter. Solid-state drive technology has improved where moving parts present in traditional hard disks are prone to failure, but they are born with a limited amount of read/write processes and experience a comparable amount of early failure, as well.

With that in mind, we decided to bring this question to our community, which comprises of IT professionals and technology enthusiasts alike. We asked what type of files should be backed up in case hard drive failure may actually occur.

Kenny Hopkins, a member of the LockerGnome community, is no stranger to the woes of a failing hard drive. A technical project manager himself, he suggests: “Back up overnight, everything — why not? Storage is cheap. Getting something off a crashed hard drive will probably cost you more to retrieve than the extra storage space and will be a lot more convenient to you as well.”

It would be very bandwidth and disk space intensive to constantly back up your entire drive from stem to stern, and there’s a good chance the majority of that data can be easily replaced. So, what do you save?

What Should You Save?

Another member of the community, William R. Reynolds Young, offered his opinion on what the most important files to back up would be. He stated, “Pictures are number one by far.” Your personal photo collection should be kept safe. A virtual shoebox tucked away somewhere will make sure your children (and their children) have a better chance of being able to see your important photos. The same can be said for other important files on your drive.

Dave Sousa, an experienced technician, recommends: “I think user profiles [are] the most important. You can reinstall Windows, but not user data.” On Windows machines, this includes the users directory found here:

c:/users/%usersname%

Here are some specific files you should consider saving.

  • Pictures
  • Home and purchased videos
  • Music collection
  • iTunes media purchases
  • Important documents (tax PDFs, scanned copies of birth certificates, etc.)
  • Text files that contain important data (software keys)
  • Contacts
  • Important business and personal chat logs
  • Irreplaceable software
  • Saved game files
  • Video editing project files
  • Browser bookmarks and settings
  • Hard-to-find drivers (including ones you need to connect to the Web)
  • Locally saved email
  • Any file or application that takes a considerable time and/or effort to replace

What Shouldn’t You Save?

There are some things that just aren’t worth saving. If you use online backups (a preferred method among professionals who don’t want to risk losing everything at once due to theft, fire, etc.), having your entire drive stored in the cloud can be a nightmare. Imagine how long it takes you to upload a video to YouTube, and multiply that by the contents of your entire drive while continuously updating files as they are changed.

Local backup solutions such as Time Machine, Norton Ghost, Crash Plan, and Acronis TrueImage may make it easier to do either full imaging or partial file backups. In reality, there are only a few important files for every hundred easily replaced system or application file on your drive.

Here are some things you probably shouldn’t back up.

  • Operating systems (except for maybe Linux)
  • Downloadable free applications
  • Downloadable paid applications
  • Pre-installed bloatware
  • Programs you really don’t use
  • Easily replaced drivers and programs

How Do You Back Up?

There are many methods out there for backing up files on Windows, OS X, and Linux. While a few names may be more well-known than others, a quality backup service depends greatly on how well it meets the personal needs of its client. Do you prefer local or offsite backups? Are you limited on bandwidth? How does the solution in question impact system performance?

As before, we took this question to our community to find out what these tech-minded individuals are actually using.

Carbonite
PJ Hanna from Graemouse Technologies suggested, “Carbonite.com [offers] unlimited data storage for $59 a year [and] has saved a lot of my clients.”

This suggestion was echoed by Seth David, the founder of Nerd Enterprises, Inc.: “Carbonite also has an enterprise plan that allows you to back up external HD data.”

Carbonite itself is a very well-known and trusted Web-based backup provider. Essentially, you load a client on your system and it sends a copy of your local files to Carbonite’s secured data center where it is stored in the event that the unfortunate happens. Losing files to accidental deletion, theft, fire, hard drive failure, and malicious scripting can be a real pain. Carbonite makes it possible to keep all this data safely tucked away in the cloud where local nightmares don’t put it at risk. When you’re ready to restore the old data, simply pull it down from the cloud.

IDrive
What to Include in a Backup, and How to Do ItIDrive is one of the most interesting backup solutions out there. Not only will it back up your Windows or OS X system, but it can also back up your iPhone, iPad, and Android device. A WordPress plug-in will also keep your blog safe from malicious attacks or accidental loss. If ever there was a well-rounded solution for the modern user, this might be it. Keep in mind, though, that this is a cloud-based solution, so it could chew away at any monthly bandwidth cap your ISP imposes.

IDrive is free to try with 5 GB of online storage, though less than $50/year will bump that amount up to 150 GB. Right now, if you sign up for a subscription to LockerGnome’s Gnomies community, you can bump the free 5 GB/month up to 25 GB at no additional charge.

Dropbox
Dropbox has quickly become a favorite among the technology crowds as it becomes one of the easiest methods of creating a shared drive between local and remote systems. Dropbox itself stores a copy of your files for safe keeping in its servers, though this storage isn’t exactly intended for the long-term. Simply put, Dropbox is a data sync service rather than a dedicated backup platform.

That said, Dropbox works very well at getting important files synced to multiple devices. I use it as a form of a backup in that it allows me to save important documents on more than one machine without adding extra steps to my routine. In that sense, it’s a great solution.

YouSendIt
YouSendIt is a lot like Dropbox in how it works, though it does provide unlimited storage where Dropbox is hampered by limitations. If you have a lot of stuff to store across multiple machines and devices, YouSendIt might be worth checking out. It seems to be more targeted toward the business world than Dropbox, and the addition of a document signing feature is all the more reason to give it a try.

CrashPlan
Craighton Miller, a writer for LockerGnome, suggested: “CrashPlan is fast, and has more options than just backing up to the cloud. It’s a multi-use tool that anyone, regardless of if they want to pay for the service or not, should consider.”

CrashPlan has a fairly interesting setup. In addition to backing up data to an online storage drive in the cloud, you can have it also send backups to external drives and other computers on your network for a local+cloud solution. This a great way to increase redundancy without having to put in extra effort.

CrashPlan is free to try, though you may want to opt for CrashPlan+ Unlimited, which offers unlimited online storage for $50/year or $3.00/month for one computer. You can also set up 2-10 machines on the unlimited plan for $120/year or $6.00/month.

Acronis True Image
This solution was suggested by LockerGnome’s own Jake Ludington. Acronis True Image is a local backup solution that does a lot more than just save your files. It allows you to mirror folders across multiple computers, test-drive software in a sandbox environment where any harm it does to your computer can be quickly and easily reversed, and create a full image of your drive, which updates on a schedule.

Because it doesn’t require a subscription, you can purchase it for use on a single machine for $50.

Oh, and just in case you do want cloud-based backup, Acronis offers a service for that, too.

Windows Backup

If you’re running Microsoft Windows 7, you may have a decent enough utility already installed. Windows Backup is available through the System and Security section of the Control Panel and offers a simple solution for backing up your important data to an external or separate internal drive. You can even store your personal files on DVD.

Here’s the rub: Because Windows Backup is a very simple solution, it doesn’t include a lot of the bells and whistles of third-party software and you need Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate to take advantage of network backups. Still, if you’re looking for a quick and dirty simple way of backing up your stuff, this is available to you.

Time Machine

Time Machine is Apple’s backup solution that’s baked-in to OS X. Time Machine is a favorite because it saves versions of your files so you can go back to various points in time, restoring your files as they were when they existed days, weeks, or even months ago.

Time Machine works via network or locally, and does the job pretty well. If you’re looking for a local storage solution for the Mac, this may well be the first one you should consider.

20 comments On What to Include in a Backup, and How to Do It

  • /very good article. I keep telling people to back up, and none of them seem to listen to me. this article should help. 

    Thanks.

  • /very good article. I keep telling people to back up, and none of them seem to listen to me. this article should help. 

    Thanks.

  • I have great news for you I.T. Guy’s in your offices, schools, government and etc. Let’s say you need to re-install Windows? Well, don’t download any programs, use your Microsoft Windows to assist you!

    Wait, but I need my drivers that are on my computer and don’t have the disk(s) anymore! That’s OK! How Lance? Simple, “Re-Imaging” :). How do you do it, exactly? Before I continue, you need a technician computer (this machine has the windows OEM preinstallation kit (OPK) or windows automated install Kit (windows AIK). Not sure what these are? Don’t continue reading as this will be useless to you.

    We’ll, you may know what I am about to say, it is WINDOWS RE, you do need the windows DVD however. I don’t have the room to explain exactly how to do it, but you should go look up on how to build a technician computer and once you’ve done it (if this applies) you do need to mount the DVD and go and launch OPK or AIK to then click the Deployment Tools Command prompt and you’ll need to use ImageX to mount/unmount the RE as you can then edit it to customize to what you need to do…So, say you need those drivers! Use Dism and how exactly? Something similar to: Dism /image:X:winremount /Add-Driver:. Yes, you need to know where the .INF file aka the 3rd party driver you wish to copy over. Now, you can do much more to ensure everything you need on this disc will ensure a successful re-install but before you CLOSE or do anything… You need to apply the changes, just cause you added lines to tell the disc, doesn’t meant it saved it and ready to go… Continue using the PE tools, ImageX with applying a command like: ImageX.exe /unmount /commit X:winremount.I know seems funny to have to do that but that’s how it goes. Also, the letter X will usually be your C: drive (wherever windows folder is). Some of us actually have multiple windows installs on one hard drive or have windows install in one partition and installed programs in another and files in another partition. So, that is why I mention it as this whole process is NOT for the adverage joe as the above is and should be only available to geeks who have the availability of the solutions and usually not many… So go talk to your schools head geek or your works geek who is in charge of the I.T. Dept., he/she could assist you.Thanks for reading this…

  • I would like to know if any of these cloud options are truly unlimited and if they are, do they greatly slow your upload speed at a certain point? I am considering going with CrashPlan because I need lots of space. I am a videographer and would love to not fill up my hard drive with HD video anymore.

    I have backup drives, but an accessible cloud service would be much better for me. Also, would I have to download files to view them?

    • Before signing up with any service like that, read the big long TOS as that usually kind of will have the words your looking for.

      Remember, UNLIMITED is impossible, it’s not air but even that has limitations. Normally you’ll get to about 4-5GB but will be inspected, I promise. Normally these guys run nice websites that look pro looking but usually they are all TURNKEY or RESELLER accounts. I actually own physical servers and pay wattage, a/c, floor/cabinet space, backup generator gas/power, ISP Fee’s and Backbone licensing but the list goes on and we can’t offer UNLIMITED but we sure can say it as most never clear 2GB, though someone will. Too many someones will make one of these places a fly by night operation.

      Don’t go UNLIMITED, buy what you know your going to 100% need and get.

  • Two other ideas to consider:
    1. Partition your hard drive(s) according to backup needs. I use C: for Windows system plus installed programs that don’t install well on another drive (anything from Microsoft), D: for all other installed software, E: for data that needs backing up, F: for data that can be recovered by other means.

    (The C:/D: split originated years ago partly to have two smaller images rather than one giany one, when I was using CDs. In the future probably won’t do this.) F:, the largest partition, is for files that don’t need to be backed up except for convenience, because they can be recovered from original sources (assuming you have a record of what files were there and where they came from. These include downloads, files loaded from CDs (music, documentation), and if there is room, the most recent image files for the other partitions (handy for selective file restore). The images, of course, are also burned to optical media. E: partition (or the files in it) is (or ought to be) backed up frequently. Save files here rather than in My Documents and other such places so all your data files are in one partition and backed up together, and to reduce drastically the size of your system partition (and its image backups). You could boot a different operating system and still have access to all your documents if they aren’t on the C: drive. I have a removable drive bay with one drive for WinXP and one for Win7, and can work in either environment with all my data available on E: and F:. For critical directories I use Cobian Backup to make compressed archives written to a network server (at work) or external hard drive (at home). Cobian supports scheduled backups and can shut down the computer when the last one is done. It also keeps the desired number of backups from each defined job, deleting the oldest when the new one has been created.

    There’s plenty of bulk in Documents and Settings or Users that you don’t need, and even if you do have a complete backup, you cannot just restore the entire thing, whether onto a rebuilt system or even onto a system recovered from a backup image (unless the Documents and Settings backup is from about the same time). Take the time to

    What’s not in Documents and Settings probably is in the registry. Search through that for keys that hold software registration and user preferences settings, and back up each one using the Export function. Start with HKLMSoftware and HKCUSoftware.

    You maintain a log of your system maintenance, right? You started it when you installed Windows or acquired your prebuilt machine, and record installs and uninstalls, items installed by Windows [Microsoft] Update and by products that auto-update themselves (missing those rascals that do so without notice), and configuration procedures you couldn’t possibly reproduce from memory. Back up that log file. You record the filenames of the setup programs, zip files or other downloads that were used, and those files rest in a downloads directory, available for reuse or replacement by updated revisions as they become available.

    When you downloaded all those setup files you recorded in a file or a links manager or something what each one was, its version/date, and its url (or the url of the page from which the download could be initiated), and any license keys, decryption keys or whatever is needed to reinstall later. While backing up your gigabytes of downloads isn’t something you need to do every day (but maybe refresh to an external hard drive a few times a year), you can easily afford to back up the files in which you recorded the facts about these downloads. With that information you can quickly retrieve most of them again.

    2. To complement your selective backups, save a simple DIR listing of each partition regularly:
    C:> dir /a-d /one /s >f:Cyyyymmdd.dir
    D:> dir /a-d /one /s >f:Dyyyymmdd.dir
    . . .
    If you do lose everything, knowing what you lost is a valuable asset in recovery. You can search these files to locate files with recent dates, files with particular extensions of interest, very large files, files deep in Documents and Settings that may have some value. Once you know what you are looking for you can search for them among your backup files or on your other computers, if you installed the same software in multiple places.

    Remember, if you only have one copy of something then you don’t have a backup – regardless of what medium is in use (internal/external hard drive, DVD, cloud). You can be pretty confident about files you have copied to locations that are being backed up regularly (network servers at work, cloud services), once you have waited for the backup cycle to occur. Don’t image your hard drive to DVDs then wipe the hard drive then restore from the DVDs. At least don’t assume that’s going to be successful.

    Do let your imaging software validate your image files, if that feature is available.

    Do disk cleanup you’re comfortable with (and maintain a document listing all the places you find junk and where it came from so each time you do this it takes less time and is more thorough than the time before), and do defrag your partitions before making your images. Do set the registry to clear the paging file before shutdown (you’ll have to reboot once to put that change into effect, then reboot again) if booting from a CD to run an imaging program outside Windows. Your paging file will compress to nothing if it’s all zeroes, saving you a DVD.

    Running a registry cleaner or doing other high risk maintenance? Do it after you’ve made a fresh image of your system partition, not before.

    External hard drive enclosures are very cheap. Upgrading to a bigger internal hard drive? Stuff the old one into a $25 enclosure, reformat it (after the new drive is proven and backed up), and you have a cheap and trustworthy target that is plenty big to hold compressed images of the files on your new hard drive.

    Is this post too big? Anyone want a copy of my program that reformats a dir listing into one-liners that include the drive and directory on the line with the file info? (Much easier to search for files with find or grep.)

  • Do not forget about Cobian, add it does is copy files.

  • Do not forget about Cobian, add it does is copy files.

  • (username – first.last, xyz_user, or custom names)

     
    Windows XP
    If you have Firefox, also:
    Bookmarks > Organize Bookmarks -> Import & Backup – Export HTML… – to  C:Documents and SettingsusernameMy Documents
    (For different version could be different path)

    Close all programs
    Right click on “Start” button -> choose Explore all users, ->
    navigate and copy the following folders and files to an external media:
    C:Documents and SettingsusernameLocal SettingsApplication DataMicrosoftOutlook*.pst
    C:Documents and SettingsusernameDesktop
    C:Documents and SettingsusernameFavorites
    C:Documents and SettingsusernameMy Documents

    Windows 7
    If you have Firefox, also:
    Bookmarks > Organize Bookmarks -> Import & Backup – Export HTML… – to C:UsersusernameDocuments
    (For different version could be different path)
     
    Close all programs
    Open Windows Explorer
    Navigate and copy the following folders and files to an external media:
    C:UsersusernameDesktop
    C:UsersusernameFavorites
    C:UsersusernameDocuments
    C:UsersusernameAppDataLocalMicrosoftOutlook*.pst

  • Matt,

    Enjoyed the article. Yours are always helpful. I was curious though why you excluded SugarSync from the list. It is one I recommend a lot for online backup. I prefer it over Dropbox for BACKUP. I primarily use Dropbox for file sharing and synchronization.

    Just curious if you had a bad experience with them or if there was some reason you intentionally left them out. If so I’d like to know! If not, I might recommend you look into them.

    Thanks again for the advice.

    • Thanks. The trick to this article is that a complete list would be a very long piece. I opted to give a little of a lot rather than a lot of a little. Dropbox is different then the rest, making it potentially a better option for users that want the kind of file security Dropbox can deliver. I haven’t tried SugarSync myself, so it would be hard for me to recommend it. Thanks again.

  • This was a good article, thanks for the advice! I think that common sense is a must when you back up. Like, don’t back up pointless and/or extremely huge files that would take up most of the memory.

  • This was a good article, thanks for the advice! I think that common sense is a must when you back up. Like, don’t back up pointless and/or extremely huge files that would take up most of the memory.

  • i would either go one of two ways for any of my computers over here. Go with a tape backup system for the important computers. Or get a secondary hard drive and have it inside the computer in question. If they can hold a secondary drive. The third is either an external hard drive via usb and do it to an individual computer that has a single hard drive or go the route to a networked drive and back it up to that. Also any software that I need to pull from that drive to reinstall on that particular computer to install it on there. 

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