It’s vital to back up not only PCs, but smartphones and tablets too. We show you how to protect every device you own.
It’s perhaps the most often-repeated advice in computing: “back up your data!” Yet many of us simply don’t do it, or don’t do it as often as we should. That’s understandable, as duplicating and archiving your data is a chore – and, most of the time, a pointless one at that. But as the saying goes, there are only two types of computer user: those who have lost data due to a system crash, and those who will. In these days of iPads and smartphones, you can also lose important data by literally losing it, or having it stolen. If you haven’t kept a backup, your photos, messages, contacts and more may be gone for good.
Backing up your data will probably never be fun. With the right tools and processes it can be largely automatic, though, which means there’s no excuse for not protecting your data. Sadly, there’s no single backup system that can protect all your devices in one go. In this feature we’ll show you how to keep each of the devices in your home backed up with little or no effort, so that when a data disaster does strike you’ll be prepared.
Cloud back up for computers
For most of us, the Windows PC remains the main repository for documents and media, so if you keep only one thing backed up, it ought to be this. Probably the most fuss-free approach is to invest in a continuous cloud backup service.
Backing up to the cloud has a number of advantages over using physical media. Because your backup destination is physically remote, there’s no clutter in your home – no stacks of external hard disks or boxes full of DVDs. Your data is safe from physical hazards, such as burglary or fire, and so long as the backup service uses strong encryption and data protection practices, your personal information will be more secure, too, as thieves will be unable to read it. Best of all, you needn’t worry about running out of space; many services provide unlimited space at reasonable prices.
There are downsides, however. You need a reliable internet connection: without one, you’re unprotected. The need for connectivity may be a showstopper for laptop users who rarely go online, although we suspect those are a dying breed.
Even if you do have a constant connection, your first backup may take a very long time to complete. Domestic broadband services rarely offer more than 1Mbit/sec upload speeds, so a 100GB folder would take over three weeks to back up, tying up your connection and leaving you only partly protected in the meantime.
Upload speeds will remain a constant consideration if you work with large files, such as raw video footage. And of course if disaster does strike, then recovering your files will be slow, too: even with a fast 20Mbits/sec connection it will still take more than a day to download 100GB of data.
You should also consider the impact of uploading and downloading large amounts of data on any cap that applies to your broadband subscription. If your backup burns through your monthly data allowance in a matter of days, you could face being left hobbled on a throttled line for the remainder of the month.
For all of these reasons, you may be tempted to handle your own local backups, as an alternative or complement to an online system. This will entail a certain upfront investment in hardware, since you’ll need enough space to store your backed-up files, but in time you’ll probably end up saving money compared to using a monthly service. To put that into perspective, a 500GB USB hard disk can be bought for around $60, equivalent to less than a year’s cloud backup subscription.
Setting up local backups needn’t be a complicated business, either. In fact, in Windows 7 (and some editions of Vista) you get some protection automatically. If you need to recover a file you’ve accidentally overwritten or deleted, you can often do so using the built-in Previous Versions feature. To view older versions of a file, right-click on its icon in Explorer and select the Previous Versions option; from here, you can view, open and optionally restore old edits. To restore a deleted file, view the previous version of the containing folder.
Previous Versions isn’t a complete backup solution. It doesn’t track every change you make to a file; by default, it only updates once a day, or when a System Restore point is created, so important changes may be missed. What’s more, the old version’s data resides on the same drive as the current copy, so it provides no protection at all against disk failure, loss or theft.
Windows 7 and Vista users should therefore also consider using the built-in Backup and Restore agent to perform regular backups of data files – and indeed the whole system – to an external drive or network location. If this doesn’t suit your needs, there are plenty of alternatives out there. Backup software is a regular feature on our cover disc, and external hard disks often come with their own backup clients, many of which promise constant, automatic backup of your personal files.
For the ultimate in effortless backup, Windows 8 brings a new feature called File History. In principle this works in a similar way to Previous Versions, allowing you to rescue older versions of local files and folders. However, it uses an external or network drive for greater data security. It also makes copies much more frequently: by default, updated files are archived every hour, but you can increase frequency all the way up to every ten minutes. Accessing the old contents of a folder is as simple as clicking the History button in the Home section of the Explorer ribbon.
So far we’ve focused on keeping local backups for a single PC. If you have more than one PC to protect, it probably doesn’t make sense to invest in a separate external drive for each of your computers; it’s more efficient to set up a central backup location.
The simplest way to set this up is by sharing a drive across your network. Home editions of Windows 7 don’t allow you to back up to a network location, but there are plenty of third-party packages that will. If you’re moving up to Windows 8, its File History feature makes it easy to set a shared drive as a backup location for your entire HomeGroup.
The downside to this is that the computer hosting the shared drive must be kept switched on all the time, or backups won’t be made. This isn’t exactly energy-efficient, and it creates a central point of failure should something go wrong with the host computer. A safer approach is to invest in a dedicated low-power network storage device. Until recently we might have recommended an appliance based on the Windows Home Server operating system, but Microsoft confirmed in July that its home-oriented server OS is no longer under development, so we’d be hesitant to invest in it at this point.
Instead, we recommend taking a look at some of the simpler network-attached storage (NAS) devices that are out there. For example, the Synology DS212j offers a friendly Windows-like interface, with nice extras such as the ability to mount ISOs as network volumes and to stream audio over your local network. It also supports RAID mirroring, so you can be confident a hardware failure won’t mean losing any data – which is, after all, what it’s all about.