How to Completely Backup Your Data, Programs, and Operating System Files

I have a confession to make: I've never been very good at backing up my important system files (or any files in fact). I was one of those guys who literally never backed up their hard drives in over 10 years.

That all changed a few months ago when the motherboard died on my wife's laptop, and I lost a year's worth of family photos after re-installing Windows and accidentally deleting all the pictures out along the way.

Fortunately, that story had a somewhat-happy ending to it, since I was able to retrieve the files with the help of a professional data recovery service. Since then, I realized I needed to get serious about backing up my home computers.

Here are three options for backing up your system (hint: the last one is the best).

Manual Backups

This is where you manually open Windows Explorer, select the files you want to back up, copy them and paste them onto another drive or burn them to a CD/DVD.

It's better than nothing, but it's VERY easy to to forget important files that are stored in various places on your system. Take email messages: they're stored several layers deep under the Document and Settings folder, and it's easy to forget to back them up.

And even if you remember, there are numerous files that make up an email inbox, and piecing them back together again is a task reserved for serious propeller heads.

Windows Backup

Windows XP Professional comes with a built-in backup utility that will backup all the files in your My Documents folder, along with any other files you choose. It will let you schedule backup operations to occur at convenient times during the day or night, and it works fairly well for basic backup operations.

It's very slow however (several times longer than other solutions I tested) and on Windows XP it doesn't back up operating system files, software program files, registry settings, security updates, or patches. That's changed for Windows Vista, which does allow you to do a full system backup, but ONLY if you bought the more expensive Business, Ultimate, or Enterprise edition:

To run Windows Backup on Windows XP Professional, click your Start button and select All Programs --> Accessories --> System Utilities --> Backup. You won't see this option on Windows XP Home though - it only comes with the professional version.

Windows Backup is poorly named in my opinion, because it really only backs up your DATA and not any actual parts of Windows. If your system dies or your hard drive bites the dust, you'll have to spend hours re-installing Windows, re-applying security patches and service packs, re-installing your software programs like Microsoft Office, and then hope you backed up all of your data files.

Disk Imaging (Full System Backups)

This solution makes a copy of your entire hard drive, including the operating system, installed programs, registry settings, email, contacts... the whole works. It's the most comprehensive type of backup.

There are several disk imaging programs you can choose from, but be sure to choose one that lets you set up scheduled backup tasks to protect your valuable data. That way you can set it to run every day, week, or month so you don't forget to do it.

Acronis True Image lets you do just that, and also includes 5 GB of cloud storage that you can upgrade to 250 gigs - plenty of space to back up most systems.

This disk imaging program provides reliable image backup and recovery of your entire system – email, music, photos, videos, documents, personal settings, bookmarks, and all your applications.


Acronis True Image 2014

For a limited time, Acronis True Image comes bundled with a free copy of Acronis Disk Director - a utility that optimizes your hard drive and let's you resize partitions without losing any data.

You can learn more about Acronis True Image and Disk Director on the Acronis website.

I'm one of those who never backups either...but I needed to read up on the pros/cons and types of backups. Thanks for this post!

Thanks, Ricky for the Great Post. I purchased Geni-soft. Problem is that it's not intuitive at all. You really do have to have a mid level technical background to know what you're doing. And, the worst thing is that there is no phone support. Only email service tags. I sent in a help request and the tech didn't even answer my question. He replied with a question instead: "Did you purchase this product on-line?". Umm... this was not helpful to say the least. I'm sure this is a great product but if you don't have any experience with back up programs be cautious. And, don't expect to get your money back unless you put in a dispute with your credit card company because this company is located offshore with absolutely no phone or any English speaking help: Geni-Soft Rania St Abut Hajj Complex suit 112 Amman, AM 1803 JO Good Luck!

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