External Hard Drive For Backups

Category: Backup , Hard-Drives

I'm planning to buy an external hard drive to use for backups. What hardware and software do you recommend for reliable and simple backups?

Use an External Hard Drive For Your Backups

Making frequent backups of your critical data is important, everyone agrees. But often it doesn't get done regularly because "it's a hassle." The easier you make backing up data, the more reliably you will do it. When it comes to backups, the easiest way is often an external hard drive.

External drives make backups easy and fast because they're just like internal drives. Data doesn't have to be reformatted, compressed, sorted, etc. You can just make a mirror copy of your internal hard drive onto the external one. Connecting external drives with a USB or Firewire cable couldn't be easier, and because data isn't traveling over a network, files are copied at maximum speed.

It's a good idea to keep multiple historical copies of your internal hard drive on an external drive in case the most recent copy is corrupted or infected with malware. You can keep restoring earlier copies until you find a "clean" one. So an external drive used for backup should be large - the larger, the better, within reason and budget.
external hard drive for backups

It's one thing to copy data files to an external drive so you can restore them if they are damaged on your internal drive. It is quite another thing to clone your internal drive so that, if it ceases to work, you can just plug the backup drive into your computer and get right back to work. Another advantage of cloning a hard drive is that it's simple. You don't have to pick and specify which files you want to back up, just choose a drive letter and let it be cloned exactly, with everything included.

Paragon Hard Disk Manager, Acronis True Image, Terabyte Unlimited's Image for Windows, and Drive Snapshot are popular (and pricey) drive imaging/cloning programs.

External Drives Bundled with Backup Software

Even if you have the best intentions and the right hardware, there's no guarantee you'll remember to do backups when needed. Fortunately, many external hard drives come with free software that makes setting up automatic backups as simple as a few clicks.

Seagate, a leading name in hard drives, offers the Replica line of external drives specifically designed for backup/restore operations. What I like about Replica is that you get a continuous, automatic backup of your hard drive. That's different than other systems that make a backup only on a certain schedule. If you change a file on your hard drive, it will be backed up by Replica in real time. Another great feature is that there's nothing to configure. Just plug it in, click OK, and you're done. The software loads automatically from the drive, and your backups start immediately. The 250GB Replica is PC-only and has an MSRP of $129, but I found it for $79 at TigerDirect.

Western Digital recently launched their new Passport line of external hard drives, which also come with no-fuss automatic backup software. The My Passport Essential and My Passport for Mac come with SmartWare, which does automatic backups and offers password protection on the backup drive.

Other products such as the CMS Automatic Backup System and the Clickfree Automatic Back-Up External Hard Drive offer simple automated solutions that combine an external hard drive with backup software.

Have you used an external hard drive to back up your files? Post a comment below and tell me your experience…

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Most recent comments on "External Hard Drive For Backups"

(See all 33 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

20 Nov 2009

I have a seagate 1 ter. Came with great backup software and also does Sync.
Careful with sync. For obvious reasons.
I never rely on one backup media for my important stuff.
I use flash drives, cd and dvd disks also.
I do drag and drop backups to other drives.
I have copies of everything everywhere.

Posted by:

20 Nov 2009

I have a MyBook Mirror edition, in which a second drive is automatically mirrored from the first. Essentially, you have two identical backups.

But I worry that in case of, say, a power spike both drives would fry anyway -- still leaving me without a suitable backup.

Should external drives be unplugged after use?

Posted by:

20 Nov 2009

@Phil: All image-based backups should be okay for "bare-metal" restores. I recently had to do exactly that (for my Vista system) from a backup image stored on my external, USB, drive (admittedly built myself from a 250Gb 3.5" EIDE device and a cheap USB enclosure I bought from Amazon) and it worked fine -- certainly Vista was apparently unaware of the restore. Backup software from companies like Paragon and Acronis do this sort of thing, and as long as you build the recovery CD (so you can boot from CD into an environment that can restore the backup for you) you'll be fine.

Only thing is: image backups take time and should not really be performed when you're using the computer for other things. So for best security, do an image-based backup once a week or so, and backup your documents daily with something that can do file-based incremental backups -- there's an open source package called Toucan I quite like for this, which has a potential advantage of being installed portably -- on a thumbdrive, say (see www.portableapps.com for more on this.)

Posted by:

20 Nov 2009

I use Acronis. I recently paid for the 2009 version had difficulty and was told 2010 had less problems. I purchased the 2010 version had difficulty and asked for help. WARNING: Acronis has the most incredibly terrible customer service! It took 8 days for them to respond. Their one month free customer service is worthless in my eyes. In the meantime I had to spend $125 for a tech to come out an help. Acronis is good, but don't expect any help from them if you run into problems. I would never recommend it to the person who is not computer savy.

Posted by:

Big Mike
20 Nov 2009

Bob, I have been using a "Clickfree transformer" device to help me back up my files to a external hard drive. It is simple and easy to use. Now I backup regularly because it is no longer a hassle

Posted by:

20 Nov 2009

There are free backup software solutions available for download. Cobian is one. (the latest is not free, but one version back is free, and it's more than adequate for a home user) There are others, Google will find them and the best ones will be mentioned in the better tech forums.

As for externals, I honestly would suggest putting your own together. Buy a good case (I like the Venus cases) with a FAN for ventilation, and the ports that you need, then buy an OEM hard drive. It takes 10 minutes to put the drive in the case and you're ready to go. The advantage? The drive dies, you can still use the case, and you're in no danger of being trapped by a vendor's proprietary software. You want to upgrade the drive? Just do it yourself. You want to archive the drive? Pull it out and put it on the shelf, and install another.

Posted by:

20 Nov 2009

In the article you said, "Paragon Hard Disk Manager, Acronis True Image, Terabyte Unlimited's Image for Windows, and Drive Snapshot are popular (and pricey) drive imaging/cloning programs." Usually you follow such a comment with recommendations for the best freeware solutions out there. Are there none for this process?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yes, I should have mentioned Macrium Reflect - http://www.macrium.com/reflectfree.asp

Posted by:

20 Nov 2009

Bob I picked up a Seagate Freeagent Go 320Gb at Staples for $69 Canadian. Ok it was a Demo and scratched but, who cares. When in stalled it copies my critical files automatically and also Syncs my laptop. No Brainer, and easy.

Posted by:

20 Nov 2009

Bob and Don, The only problem is "Macrium Reflect" which Bob writes as being "free" is anything but....$39.95. You can have a "free download" for a "free trial". Big difference.

EDITOR'S NOTE: That's incorrect. The Free Edition is, as the referenced page states "Absolutely free! No strings!" You must be referring to the Full Edition.

Posted by:

21 Nov 2009

I have a Seagate Free Agent and it is always Red - back up failed. When I look at the logs, it is because it won't back up thumbnails, and other files with odd extensions (that are normal to PC geeks, but not to me). Since it won't back up those types of files, it's always telling me the back up failed.

Posted by:

22 Nov 2009

Bob, I bought a Simpletech Signature Mini and it used to back up my drive with no problem. Now whenever I try to back up again, I get the 'blue screen of death' I have to reboot my PC. Can you tell what is wrong?

Posted by:

22 Nov 2009

My concern with external drives is that they are always "ON". Reports of units with "Auto Shutoff" state that this function could be flaky. I currently use a 250Gb unit which is manually shutoff after use to prevent heat buildup. I wonder when 500Gb or 1Tb SSD will be available and at what price.

Posted by:

23 Nov 2009

I have a 1TB Seagate FreeAgent Pro, and apart from its sexy looks, the most important feature is by far the built-in eSATA connection. When used in conjunction with an eSATA cable and PC Card/ExpressCard (which can be plugged into most laptops i think), it provides a MUCH faster data transfer speed than USB.

The speed difference is almost like switching from a 56k dial-up connection to broadband, and with ever-growing hard drive capacities available, the USB bottleneck is increasingly apparent.

Posted by:

John Steel
27 Nov 2009

I agree that ones backup strategy should be revisited from time to time mainly because new hardware and software technology can improve backup security. Having been through all the usual methods: floppy disks, magnetic tapes, CD_Rs, CD_RWs and DVDs, I have found internal and external hard drives to be the least troublesome with the internal drive for convenience and external (off-site) drive for security. As far as
software is concerned I have found Acronis True Image 10 to be convienient to install, set up and use on a regular basis though I am aware of similar and equally reliable products. I find that backing up most of the contents of "Documents and Settings/myname" on a regular basis is sufficient. This I do to a file on a second hard drive build into my desk top which is fast. I then copy that file to an external removable drive via a USB connection. I do this having had experience of loss of data when sending the backup direct to the external drive. Because the full internal backup is fast I do not have to make incremental backups to cope with daily changes. Using the search facility in Windows and copying changed files to a memory stick deals with this problem.

Posted by:

Brad Evans
03 Dec 2009

Hi Bob,

I am a moderately capable PC user at best. I discovered your site today and read this article about backing up the entire hard drive of all files and operating system. I'm doing exactly as you recommend.

I have a Dell Dimension 3000 desktop. I have been doing automatic backups using Acronis True Image 10. The backups are going to a 1 TB Fantom external green drive. The external is my "G" drive.

I'm using Windows XP and for some reason I'm having some odd problems of application errors that are popping up on my main computer now for a couple programs. It isn't malware or virus but I can't seem to find how to fix it.

The computer was functioning well on October 23rd and a total system mirror image backup was done on that day. It's stored in the external. It totals almost 30 GB. I would like to revert my computer back to exactly how it was on October 23rd.

Could you please tell me how I do that? There is still another full operating system and files on my main computer's internal drive as well. Do I have to "wipe out" those files first somehow? Or will it just overwrite? It isn't that I can't use the computer as is. I just don't like some of the anomalies I'm having.

Could you please tell me how to send that full cloned backup BACK to my main PC without having two of everything or causing problems? Thanks very much.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Brad, you should be able to use Acronis to restore the full image backup to your hard drive. That will effectively wipe the disk and restore from the backup. A less drastic (and probably quicker) approach, would be to use System Restore. See http://askbobrankin.com/carter-lego.jpg

Posted by:

John F. Prior
21 Jan 2010

What about using Windows Backup to an external drive?

Posted by:

21 Jan 2010

I have a Maxtor external 300MB HD that came with Retrospect Express. It was great until I bought a new desktop running Windows 7 (Was using XP) When I tried to install Retrospect, I got an compatability error. Version 1.1 came with the HD, and they are now up to version 9, which I am entitled to buy for $200+. The problem is that the Retrospect drivers overwrote something in Windows 7 and it wouldn't load ANY new programs. Fortunately, I had created an image before each new program install.
Dell offered to solve the problem for a $230 software service. Re-imaging was free. Good advice!! Thanks.

Posted by:

21 Jan 2010

I picked up a 1 TB Western Digital My Book External hard drive for $109 (I almost went for the 8 TB device just to say I had an 8 TB drive), it included a trial of Memeo Backup software. I now do automatic real-time backups as files are changed. I've been happy and bought the paid version of Memeo. I haven't tried recovery yet but WD claims to be a bootable copy.

Posted by:

06 Mar 2010

I bought a Western Digital Passport Essential 250GB back up drive and installed it in a friend's office. The WD is an incredible resource hog, using 90-95% of the CPU. My friend's HP Media Center desktop is about 3-4 years old. I had him increase RAM from 1GB to 4GB, the WD Passport is still hogging 90-95% of CPU. I wanted the easiest backup solution for him as they are not close to being IT Specialists. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be it. I'm going to travel there today to download some software patches from WD that allow the user to turn it off, rendering it no more a full time back up system. What is the Easiest back up solution for non-IT Specialists?

Posted by:

24 Jan 2011

I used the WD Passport to back up my documents but it has changed the format and I can't open them. Pls help

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