Should I Backup ALL of My files?

Category: Backup

Every so often I backup my documents to a CD, but I worry about losing my programs and carefully tweaked system settings, in the event of a hard drive crash. Should I backup my entire hard drive, or is it sufficient to keep copies of just certain important files?

Backup Strategies: Which Files Should I Back Up?

You've heard a million times how important it is to keep current backup copies of your files. But does that mean you have to back up every file on your computer every day, or week, or month? The question of which files need to be included in a backup schedule is answered by a little common sense.

A full system image backup makes an exact copy of everything on your computer: the operating system, boot record, settings, application programs, data, etc. A system image takes up a lot of disk space and takes a lot of time to back up or restore. So one option is to make a full system image backup when your system is running exactly the way you want it to. Then it can be restored that way in case of a total disaster. Along with this, you'll need to make regular backups of files that are important to you.

The My Documents folder of Windows systems is where most people store most of their data. If you've been storing documents, images, videos, spreadsheets, etc., in My Documents exclusively it's generally sufficient to include that folder in your backup routine. But there are exceptions.
Backup Storage Devices

The Microsoft Outlook and Thunderbird email programs, for example, do not store data in My Documents. Instead, they use a folder buried deep in your hard drive's folder tree. Both Thunderbird and Outlook have a built-in export/import feature that will let you make backup copies of your email, contacts, calendar, etc., to offline media. You can also use this feature to restore data files if necessary.

Other Files to Consider, And An Alternative Strategy

Application settings are stored in the Windows folder C:\Users\(YourUserName)\AppData. Browsing the subfolders in under AppData, you may find app settings you'd like to include in your backups. Web browser bookmarks are often stored in AppData, for instance.

Application software typically comes on CD, DVD, or in a zip file that was downloaded from the Web. The CD or DVD can be your backup copy; just re-install the software if you have to. Downloaded zip files containing installation files should be backed up once to offline media.

If you're worried that your backup will be missing some important file, go ahead and make a full system image backup once a week. Then supplement that with daily incremental backups to catch any new or changed files. This is my personal preference, and I implement it with the Acronis True Image software and an external hard drive. Everything happens on an automated schedule so I never have to worry about making backups, or which files to save.

Where should you store your backup copies? Many people keep backup discs right next to their computer systems. That's fine if your only problem is a hard drive crash, but if there's a fire or other disaster that strikes the whole house then your backup data is gone, too. I like to store my backups on TWO external drives, which are rotated between active duty and a fireproof safe. Businesses may transport highly critical data backups to an off-site storage location, but for most consumers it's too much trouble to stash backup copies in a fire safe or bank safety deposit box.

Online backup services, such as, automatically transfer your backup data to a remote, secure server over the Internet. The backup process happens in background and pauses if you begin using the Internet for something else, so it hardly slows down your Internet speed. But keep in mind, if you need to restore data from an online backup it can take a long time. Several dozen gigabytes of data may need to be transferred over the Internet. The speed of your Internet connection, and the number of files you've backed up determines how long this will take.

What's your preferred backup strategy? Post a comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Should I Backup ALL of My files?"

Posted by:

20 Apr 2011

Hi Bob,

Interesting article about what to back up.

I've two points to make. You can tell both Outlook and Thunderbird to store their mail folders in a different location if you wish. My last computer had two hard disks in it, having outgrown the first one, and I stored all my data on the second hard disk, leaving the first one for Windows and program files. It was quite straightforward to tell my mail program to store its data in a specific folder on the second hard disk.

Secondly, you can back up your browser bookmarks or favourites using Xmarks. It's a free add-on developed for Firefox (it was called Foxmarks then) but it's available for IE as well now.



Posted by:

20 Apr 2011

At work we use 3 portable hard drives, 1 for each management type. After back up we take them home and bring them with us the next time we work. Each backup replaces the last one done on the same day of the week. We back up data & document files, programs all came on CD. We have used the back up to replace a corrput file and it worked.
At home I'm not so diligent, my wife uses the clickfree system with an external drive and when we had to reinstall Windows 7 in her computer every all data/document files restored perfectly. Her computer is backed up when she thinks of it - oops. My laptop uses Windows back up on a similar basis with an external hard drive - another oops.
So far - so good.

Posted by:

Art Hunter
21 Apr 2011

The native Windows 7 backup is excellent and with cheap 2 Terabyte hard drives, desktop backups are made easy. A recovery CD is also part of Windows 7. Couple this with Restore Points and one has a no additional cost backup suite. However, experience has shown me that this is insufficient as attempts at recovery, under stress, have let me down.

Now I have the above and use the free Easeus Todo Backup Home to automate a second backup. This weekly image I stagger by 3.5 days from the Windows 7 which gives me two full images twice a week. A recovery CD can be made for TODO as well.

A plan to delete old images was conceived which can be simple or more complex. The simple one is to save the last five while a more complex one would be to save the last 5 and every six months put one in long term storage. Many options are possible.

Posted by:

Digital Artist
21 Apr 2011

Dear Bob,
A fireproof safe would not protect a hard drive from the heat of a fire. The safe is nothing but an insulated box with a tight-fitting door, but insulation only slows the transfer of heat, it doesn't stop it. The temperature inside the safe is going to rise, and the highest temperature that a hard drive can endure is probably quite a bit lower than what paper documents could survive. A nice dog house in a far corner of the back yard would be a safer storage place for your second hard drive. I hope you never need the protection you are striving for, but I seriously don't think a safe is going to give it to you.

Posted by:

Y. Meizel
21 Apr 2011

On my home computer I used Clonezilla (open source s/w) to make a complete copy of the hard disks (on another hard disk attached via USB device). Then if my HDD dies, I can replace it with the clone and don't need to hassle with reinstalling all the programs. If I install new programs, I update the clone.

Of course, I also backup data files regularly.

Posted by:

22 Apr 2011

Hi Bob - Your site has been a great help over the years
On a previous project we ran a mirror drive on the server.
Is there software available to run a mirror on an external hard drive from a laptop?

Posted by:

22 Apr 2011

Bob, I have made a full system image of my computer using Windows 7, and I have it stored on an external hard drive. However, that system image was made several months ago, and I would like to make another system image of my hard drive. Do I delete the old system image off the external drive,or will the new system image "save over" the old one? I was also able to make a recovery disk along with the first system image. I assume that the recovery disk does not have to be made again. Thanks much. I love your emails and have learned a lot from you.

EDITOR'S NOTE: You only have to make one recovery disk. I'm not sure if the system image will write over the previous one. Try it and then examine the files on the target drive.

Posted by:

29 May 2011

You've raised a good point about having a second copy of your backup. I prefer to keep mine in a desk drawer at my office. If there's damage to the machine itself, or to the backup drive I keep at home, I know I'm covered. Two 2TB drives are cheap insurance.

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