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:
Here are some specific files you should consider saving.
- 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)
- 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.
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 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 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 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.
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.
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 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.