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.

That story had a somewhat-happy ending to it though, since I was able to retrieve the files with the help of a $300 professional data recovery service. Since then, I realized I needed to get serious about backing up my home computers.

After researching several ways to back up data files, and evaluating a few backup and disk imaging programs, I've come up with a pretty solid disaster recovery plan that includes regular backups of my whole system.

My backup plan includes data files, email messages, contacts, browser favorites, registry settings, software programs, and the entire operating system. My goal is to never loose important files again, to minimize the amount of time it takes to backup these files, and to never be dependent on the operating system (which can sometimes get into a non-bootable state, which was the case with my wife's laptop).

I'll discuss the programs I use to implement my backup recovery plan later on in this article, but first let's talk about a few types of typical backup plans:

  1. Manual Backups
  2. 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. 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.

  3. Windows Backup
  4. 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.

  5. Disk Imaging (Full System Backups)
  6. Most backup software programs worth their salt will let you choose which files you want to back up, and will even let you backup only files that have changed since the last backup - also known as an Incremental backup.

    That still only addresses data files, and not the operating system or software programs that are installed. In my opinion, the software programs I've installed and the security patches I've download are just as important as the data files on my system (they certainly take a long time to re-install, and time is money).

    Fortunately there's a backup method called Disk Imaging that makes an exact copy of your entire hard drive, including the operating system, installed software programs, registry settings, email messages, contacts - the works. That's the kind of backup I used, because it lets me reload a repaired system in a matter of just a few minutes.

I evaluated two well-known disk imaging backup programs: Genie Soft Backup Manager Home 8.0 and Acronis True Image 11 Home. I backed up my entire system to a 250MB external Seagate FreeAgent USB hard drive using both programs.

Both of them provide the ability to create a full system backup, with step-by-step wizards to virtually any storage destination including: CD/DVD, Removable Media Devices (USB flash drives, external hard drives... even REV drives in the case of Genie), and network folders.

They both let you burn a bootable recovery CD or DVD that will let you restore your system even if Windows won't start. However, the recovery CD creation was easier with Genie because it was the first step of the backup wizard. With Acronis True Image I had to search around to find the menu for creating a bootable recovery CD, and finally discovered it buried under the Tools menu.

Acronis True Image performed better for the remainder of the backup process however, with backup speeds that were more than twice as fast as Genie Backup Manager for the 34 GB of data I have on my Windows XP system.

Acronis also comes with some useful disk utilities like File Shredder that ensures your deleted files are fully deleted, and Disk Cloner that makes it easy to copy partitions to another hard drive or system.

Both Genie and Acronis let you schedule backup tasks to run during convenient times, such as at night or after hours. That way you can set up your backup plan to run monthly, weekly, or even daily and never have to worry again about losing important files in the case of a system failure.

Genie Soft Backup Manager Home 8.0 is priced at $49.95 per license and offers lower priced licenses when you purchase 10 or more licenses. Acronis True Image 11 is also priced about the same at $49.99 per license, but does not offer group discounts like Genie does.

Both programs are award winning in their category, but Genie's list of awards was impressively long, with literally close to 120 awards from popular web sites and magazines. That combined with an impressive list of testimonials and positive customer review comments from sites like Personal Computing World Magazine, Tucows, and The Washington Post have made it my backup program of choice.

Genie also wins high marks for extremely responsive technical support. I sent an email to their customer support department and received a helpful response in less than 2 hours! Very impressive in my opinion.

I sent a similar email to Acronis, and have still not received a reply several days later.

Whatever program you choose to use for your backup and disaster recovery plan, be sure to choose one and set up regular backup tasks to protect your valuable data. I use Genie Backup Manager myself and am getting better at backing up my system on a regular basis.

You'll also be protecting your personal time, because you'll end up spending a lot less time restoring from a full system backup then you will trying to individually install your operating system files, software application files, and data files with a manual backup plan.

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:

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Good Luck!


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