[ANSWERS] Should You Backup EVERYTHING? (must read...)

Category: Backup

I can only say THANK YOU... and Wow! Since my Wednesday post laying out Nine Good Reasons for Backups, I have received so much positive feedback about my upcoming ebook 'Everything You Need to Know About Backups'. Since we've covered the WHY, today I'm going to talk about WHAT you need to back up. (Do YOU have all the bases covered?) Read on...

What Files and Data MUST Be Backed Up?

Before I begin, I want to share something that happened to me. The doorbell rang, the dog barked, and I could see the mailman waiting there, with two packages and a stack of letters. One in particular caught my attention. It was a handwritten letter from James, one of my AskBob readers.

The final paragraph of his letter absolutely made my day: "I love what you are doing in providing so much information about computers and internet... There is no one like you. You are an answer to the prayers of all of the computer-internet technology ignorant people like me. Thanks, and keep it up, please!"

I hope you don't mind me sharing that. I've been writing about computers and the Internet since 1994, answering questions, and as another reader put it, "translating for the technology impaired." Feedback that like really inspires me to keep pressing on.

Backup Everything

So let's get down to business. One of the most common things I've heard from readers when discussing backups is confusion (or strong opinions) about what really needs to be backed up. Some say they occasionally copy their documents to a CD or flash drive. Others have a list of folders that they routinely back up to an external hard drive. A few mentioned that they use Google Drive or Dropbox to keep files or folders synced to online storage. Some prefer the simplicity of online backups with iDrive or Carbonite, which attempt to guess identify and back up your "important" files.

Others make a clean distinction between "system files", "program files" and "user files". Some create partitions on their hard drive to separate each type of data. They do backups for all files and folders that are created by them or the software they use. But they don't back up the operating system and installed software, because they think it can be easily re-downloaded or re-installed from CDs in the event of a hard drive crash.

Did you miss the previous article on this topic? See Back It Up? Here Are NINE Good Reasons (and ANSWERS to YOUR backup questions). I'll bet some of those reasons will surprise you...

Theory and Practice

In theory, there's nothing wrong with any of those ideas. But in practice, it's not the best approach, unless you're (A) a bit geeky, (B) you feel lucky, and (C) you have lots of time on your hands. If your hard drive fails, you'll need to re-install the operating system, apply any needed security patches and updates, reconfigure all your customizations and personal settings, then install all your programs. Locating the software installation media (CDs or downloaded files) and license keys for paid software can be a big hassle. Only then can you restore your user files from backup.

That whole process can take MANY hours, requires a bit of technical know-how, and you're never quite sure that everthing is put back the way it was. Quite often, people find that they forgot something. A critical file, folder, program, or device driver is missing from the backup.

A Better Way (and my success story)...

By contrast, I recently had a hard drive go bad. It took me just 27 minutes to restore 80+ gigabytes of data, and I was back up and running like nothing happened. I was able to recover so quickly and easily because I do full system backups (also called "image backups") every Sunday, and incremental backups every weekday at 3AM.

An image backup rolls EVERYTHING on your hard drive into a single file that can be stored on a flash drive or external hard drive. It can be used to restore the entire hard drive, or just selected files and folders. All that happens automatically with my favorite free backup software, so I never have to worry about remembering to do it.

There's a chapter in my ebook with step-by-step instructions and screen grabs for doing exactly that. When my hard drive refused to boot up, and I couldn't even detect a single file on it, I didn't panic because I knew that every single file was safely backed up. As I mentioned in my last posting, CONFIDENCE beats HOPE every time! (I actually take my backups 2 or 3 steps further, but I'll discuss my personal backup strategy in a posting next Monday.)

To those who say "I don't need to do backups" let me point out that I've had TWO instances in the recent past where a NEW HARD DRIVE went on the fritz, and it seemed like a total loss. Stuff happens... hardware failure, viruses, power surges, data breaches and natural disasters. Things can get lost, stolen, wet or broken. And there's always human error and those annoying "senior moments".

So YES! Everyone who uses a computer needs a backup. And ideally, you should backup everything, automatically, and often.

Hard Drive, CHECK. What Else?

Any backup is better than nothing, but hopefully I've convinced you that it's a good idea to make full system (image) backups. Free software is available to make it a simple and automatic process. All you need is an inexpensive USB flash drive or an external hard drive. In my book, you'll learn about free online backup options, and where to find a good deal on an external drive.

So that covers the hard drive on your desktop or laptop. Have you thought about the data on your mobile gadgets? If your phone was stolen, or went through the wash, just imagine losing your address book, photos, apps and text messages. And here's something else to consider. More and more, our lives are moving online. What would you do if your webmail, your Facebook account, or online files got hacked, wiped out, or your password was lost?

If you have questions about backups, you'll find practical help and answers in my ebook Everything You Need to Know About BACKUPS (7th Edition) which will be released in just a few days! Keep an eye on your inbox for further news.

Continuing the Conversation...

I want to hear YOUR backup success stories! Have you had a hard drive failure or data loss, and then recovered with a backup? Tell your fellow readers about it here, by posting in the comment section below. Next Monday, I'll share your stories, talk about what else needs to be backed up, and answer more of the questions you submitted in my ebook survey. See you then! -- Bob

P.S. -- If you're a fan of the "Seinfeld" show, you'll get a kick out of the clip I'm sending next week. George Costanza didn't know it at the time, but he had some great advice for computer owners. :-)

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Most recent comments on "[ANSWERS] Should You Backup EVERYTHING? (must read...)"

Posted by:

Walter T
11 Mar 2022

I think that the "full system image backup taken automatically one a week" is a great idea. But what about the practical details? Is your backup device (network drive? USB external drive?) connected and running 24-7, or do you manually connect it to do the backup, and then disconnect it for the rest of the week? And how many previous weeks of system images do you keep? Does your backup software automatically purge the oldest system image if there is insufficient room on the backup drive? We have several computers "on the go" in our household, some laptops, some desktops. I do take system image backups every so often (not as often as I should!), and use the free version of EaseUS Backup, which works well. But, it is still a chore to take my external 2 Tbyte backup drive to each computer that needs to be backed up, and then run the backup software, which I think makes the computer unusable for an hour or two. I guess I need to explore some ways of making the process more automatic...

Posted by:

11 Mar 2022

For my computer I am using the Idrive service that Bob has recommended over the years. I have it set to automatically do a backup in the early morning hours. I back up my data files, not the whole hard drive. Maybe I should change that. So far I haven't had the need to use it.

My phones on the other hand I have not been so fortunate with. In 2019 my phone fell off of my “secure” motorcycle mount and disappeared. I never did find it. In 2021 almost two years to the week I lost the first one, the replacement phone got wet and stopped working when I waded into the water to guide a boat off a trailer at the dock and forgot my phone was in my pocket.

Fortunately everything is backed up by Google. I'm sure Apple has something similar. The point is that EVERYTHING is backed up routinely! I started the phone, put in my email address and password and the phone asked if I wanted to restore everything from the last backup, which in both cases was less than 24 hours old. Yes please! Twenty minutes later it's like nothing had happened. The sites that require log ins have to be logged into again but that's not an issue because I use a password manager. Another great tip from Bob!

The takeaway that I should learn from my phone experiences and apply them to my computer is this. Regularly done, remotely stored backups managed by professionals who are the ones who worry about security breaches and patches etc. are the way to go for not having to worry about data loss.

I think I'm going to change the settings on my computer for full hard drive backups!

Posted by:

Thomas Plain
11 Mar 2022

Oh, so this is where I’m supposed to post comments. 🤦🏻‍♂️
I look forward to buying your book. Thank you! I’ve been using Macrium Reflect on my Dell desktop. I am confused by all the partitions and terminology. I have little confidence in my back ups.

Posted by:

Brent T
11 Mar 2022

Like others, I use Macrium Free to auto create weekly images of the C drive on my laptop and the same for my "backup" desktop PC, each with daily incrementals - in both cases to locally attached USB drives. I also use IDrive to backup my laptop documents (including Music, Photos, etc), and have scheduled copying of the same to my a local USB drive and to my "backup" desktop PC (which also has its own scheduled backup to a local USB drive). So plentiful copies onsite and off. BUT - how may full images to keep!?.

For our phones, I also rely on Google backups to ensure photos, contacts, etc and, perhaps more importantly, I have also checked on my Google accounts that this stuff is being backed up - unlike my sister in law who thought everything was being backed up and then, when her phone went "belly-up" recently (twice!), found it wasn't!!

Posted by:

Ron Pollitt
11 Mar 2022

I'm kind of a geek, but I clone the hard drive maybe quarterly and backup the documents, mail, bookmarks etc biweekly. I think I'll make a system image. That should cover everything. Great article, thanks!

Posted by:

Peter Oh
11 Mar 2022

Lets face it Bobs advice may be suitable for the more expert user. It's clear however from the comments here that almost everyone is doing something different & as one said: " I have little confidence in my back ups".
Also what are we guarding against - restoring froma Ransm Attack or merely a hard drive failure?
"Everything" sounds simple but I have 5 hard drives on my PC with around 10 Tb of data & OS. It would take a full day I suspect to back up that amount.
Bob has addressed only some of the issues. I have no confidence in his book & won't buy it.

Posted by:

Wayne Lindsay
11 Mar 2022

I use Easus Todo Backup and carry out a full backup every 7 days with daily incrementals.
I also clone my hard drive to an external SSD monthly.
Having used the professional version of Todo for a number of years,. I have had several instances where I have had to restore everything from my backups (4 Tb external drive)
My advice is that you can't survive without a comprehensive backup system. Without, you will eventually l;ose everything.

Posted by:

12 Mar 2022

My workplace uses Crashplan, a cloud-based backup service, for file backups. It has saved my bacon multiple times when I've had "senior moments" and accidentally erased a critical file or the file has gotten corrupted.

For system files, our organization's IT group maintains images of operating system configurations. And I keep my installation media for applications along with license information on a secure Box cloud storage folder. So, I should be able to restore from a bad HD or other disaster with reasonably speed and simplicity, though not as easily as from a full local image, apparently. I should look into that. I liked the post above that asked for more details about making and managing image backups - one thing I wonder about is if recent backups can contain damaged files or viruses and so how many backups do you keep and for how long?

Posted by:

12 Mar 2022

It is often overlooked that viruses and ransomware can affect not just your hard drive but also any drives connected to your system. So if you count on software that does backups automatically, it seems likely that whatever drive is used for that will itself be encrypted and inaccessible, if it had been left connected when a ransomware attack occurred. While you could prevent this by always being physically present to manually connect your external drive when starting a backup (and remembering to promptly disconnect it afterwards, there really should be a more reliable way way to prevent the backup source from being at risk itself. Does anyone know if there is software that includes automatic connection (and subsequent disconnection) of an external drive, so that is might still be left physically connected but not logically connected (no drive letter) or disabled in some other way, such as unpowered?

Posted by:

Walter T
12 Mar 2022

Further to the topic of fully-automatic, scheduled backups, this would normally require you to have your backup device (external USB hard drive or networked hard drive?) always physically connected and always "turned on". But, this would seem to work against the objective of keeping the data on the backup device safe. Ideally, you would only connect and power up the backup device for the duration of the backup process. When done, power down the backup drive, and physically disconnect it from the USB or network port, and also disconnect from AC power. This would minimize wear-and-tear on an always-spinning hard drive, and also protects it from power line "malfunctions".

Posted by:

12 Mar 2022

My hope was that these comments were being answered What does someone do when they have a question? Just hope that Bob will answer? I see the link below but have never received an answer from that manner either.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I do my best to answer reader questions, and comment here as well. Only so many hours in the day, and over 40,000 readers. :-)

Posted by:

Ernest N. Wilcox Jr.
12 Mar 2022

I'll start this with some background about myself. I'm a retiree. My first experience with a PC was on an IBM-compatible desktop with 640KB RAM and a 100MB MFM Hard Drive, powered by an 8088 CPU complete with Turbo-Boost which accelerated it to run at (IIRC) nearly 5Mhz (4.7?). That machine contracted a virus from file I downloaded from a BBS site using a 96 Baud phone modem. I was alerted to the virus by Norton Antivirus, but it was not able to completely remove the virus. That event led me to learn what a partition is, and how to manage them. I don't recall the name of the disk partitioner that came on the MS-DOS installation disk, but I think it was F-Disk. I learned to remove the partition, create a new one, then install MS-DOS. My wife was taking a business machines course at a local commercial college, and she had a few files for her classes on the hard drive, so I copied them to a floppy disk before re-creating the partition and re-installing MS-DOS. All this took me several hours, but I got it done, and after I could boot the computer, I re-installed Norton, then used it to scan my wife's files to make sure they were not infected. Fortunately, they weren't, so I re-installed all the programs she needed for school and copied her files back to the hard drive. The post-install operation took several more hours, so by the time I got everything back to normal, I had spent the better part of a day restoring the computer to its pre-infected state.

My wife got Norton Antivirus from her teacher at school along with Word Perfect, Lotus 123, and a database program (I don't recall its name). Her teacher told her that she should have Norton because she would be getting floppies from school with her assignments and homework, and that it was always possible that a virus could find its way onto one of the disks.

I learned two important lessons that day. The first was to always have a good antivirus program (antimalware suite) running and protecting my computer in real time. The second was how useful a backup program could be. If I had had a good backup of the hard drive that day, that full day system recovery session could have been completed in (probably) less than an hour or two. I searched a few BBSs and found a free disk imaging utility (I don't recall its name - image magic, maybe?), and started imaging the hard drive once a week, and my wife started copying any files she generated for school to floppies, just in case.

Over the years my system security paradigm has evolved and so has my backup strategy. Today, I use Microsoft Defender for system security, and I have enabled Ransomware protection (Controlled folder access) to help protect my system from any file-based malware. Enabling controlled folder access is a bother at first because any applications I use that do not come from Microsoft (and perhaps a few that do) must be given access permission. For example, the first time I attempted to create a new file with LibreOffice's Writer, I got a pop-up notification that an access had been blocked on my desktop, so I clicked the notification (as directed) and after checking that it was Writer that generated the event, I allowed access for it. Now that I have been working with controlled folder access enabled for several weeks, I no longer get many blocked access notifications unless I install a new app. I have had notifications resulting from executables whose names I do not recognize, but it is easy enough to copy the executable file's name to the clipboard (from the events information item) and search the Internet to get an idea what it is. One such file was related to Windows Update immediately after I upgraded to Windows 11 from 10 (I originally enabled controlled folder access in Windows 10). My experience so far leads me to me very confident that controlled folder access will block any hard drive access unless the app has been whitelisted by me, and I am very careful about granting permission (I take the time to know what the app being blocked is before granting it permission). So far, I only have to grant access permission to any given app one time, then I am not bothered again for that app.

Controlled folder access seems to employ a zero-trust paradigm because it blocks everything that is not whitelisted. I use a similar paradigm (which I call Cognitive Security) to protect myself (and my computer) on the Internet. When I was little, my mom taught me "Don't trust strangers!" That lesson kept me safe throughout my childhood, and I use it today when I'm on the Internet. Everyone on the Internet is a stranger unless I can confirm their identity (perhaps with something only the two of us know), and everything on the Internet is created by strangers, so I start with a zero-trust attitude regarding everything and everyone I encounter on the Internet, until experience informs me that it/they are trustworthy. Bob Rankin has earned my trust over the years as have a few other 'pundits' whose newsletters I read. A few retail websites have also earned my trust over time as well. Keep in mind that all email messages come from the Internet too, I don't trust them either, no matter where the purport to come from. Before clicking any link in an email or on a webpage (even one I have been to many times before), I hover my mouse over it to see what the URL is. If (for example) a link labeled 'Best Buy' contains any URL other than one that starts with "https://bestbuy.com/...", I know it's a fraud and I don't click it. If I cannot confirm the legitimacy of a link to my satisfaction, or I don't already know what the URL should start with, and I want to go there, I open my web browser and search for the site, then use the link from my web browser. I trust Google and Bing search because I know the companies that created them. Google makes the OS for my smart phone and Microsoft makes the OS I use on my PCs. If I can trust them to provide my OSs, I may as well also trust their Internet search engines too.

As for my backup strategy, I use Macrium Reflect Free. I backup all partitions on my desktop system except the one to which image files are written. I get a full system image generated on the first day of each month prior to the start of the day, and a differential system image daily (also prior to the start of the day). I retain two monthly full system images and thirty differential system images. Using this strategy, I can restore my system to the state it was in at the start of the day on any of the past thirty days. Any malware that finds its way onto my computer (by circumventing controlled folder access) should be detected well within that time frame and in the event that I need to recover a previous version of a file, that need should arise well within thirty days. If not, oh well :)

Incremental backups are not available in Macrium Reflect Free, although they are in the paid version. I am happy enough (and perhaps happier) with differential images.

A full system Image copies everything on the selected partitions (I suggest you select all partitions except the one to which you will store the generated images).

A differential image copies everything that has changed since the creation of most recent full system image.

An incremental image copies everything that has changed since the creation of either the last incremental or full image, whichever is most recent.

I'm sorry this got so long but I have a lot to say about computer security and backups :)

Well, I guess, 'nuff said,


Posted by:

Brian B
12 Mar 2022

Two apps I find absolutely essential for maintaining security. Macrium Reflect (paid version) and PC-Matic's Super shield. I make a full disk image once a week, and incremental images each day. The images are stored on a 12TB external HDD and are initiated on demand at my bedtime, when I plug the external drive into the USB port. Macrium Reflect will shut down the computer when downloaded and verified. so, the external HDD is only powered up and connected to the web while backing up, minimizing the possibility of malware downloading. I disconnect the HDD next morning before I power up the computer. To minimize that possibility further, Super Shield is blocking all downloads that are not on my whitelist.
To reduce the times taken for the image to download, I periodically back up my Downloads/Documents/Picture/Music/video folders to 100GB millennium disks which are supposed to be good for 1,000 years plus, then empty those mentioned folders. I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to computers, but I can't see any faults with a backup system such as this. Anyone having a different opinion, I would welcome the critique.

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