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How to back up your PC and laptop - the ultimate guide to backup

The ultimate guide to backup

The world is divided into two types of people: those who have suffered a hard disk failure and those who are about to. Perhaps you think that’s a bit melodramatic but figures suggest that disk crashes are more common than you might think.

According to a recent study by Google, once a disk reaches a couple of years old, there’s an 8 percent chance that it’ll fail within the next year. This means that if there’s a desktop and three laptops in your household, the likelihood of suffering data loss in the coming 12 months could be worryingly high.

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It’s not just a disk crash that you have to worry about either. As soon as a laptop is taken out of the house it’s at risk from accidental damage, loss or theft and while the hardware can be replaced, the same can’t necessarily be said for the data on its disk.

Adding to the list of worries is accidental deletion. Statistics here are hard to come by because nobody wants to admit to being so careless but let’s admit it, we’ve all lost data this way. The sad fact is that, for a variety of reasons, your valuable data isn’t nearly as secure as you probably expect and hope.

All of this would just be a minor inconvenience if our data was properly backed up but if figures are to be believed, 35 percent of computer users have never backed up their PC and 51 per cent do so less often than once a year. What’s more, if your data isn’t backed up when you suffer that disk crash or theft, it’s gone for good.

Talking about data is rather impersonal, so let’s bring it closer to home. Without a proper back strategy you risk losing all your digital photos, your music collection, work and personal documents, emails, passwords, and so much more.

If you’re in the majority of PC users who don’t give backup the priority it deserves, it's probably because you think it's too much of a hassle to set up. Our aim here is to change that perception by providing practical guidance that will make backup less arduous, less expensive, and more effective.

If you follow our advice, you’ll spend just a few minutes each time you carry out a backup and all it need cost you is the price of a few optical disks or from £5 per month for an online service. With figures like these you’ll really have no excuse.

Backup to a NAS

Backup basics

Right at the outset we need spell out the difference between backups and archives since the two are often confused. A backup is a copy of files that you are actively working on whereas an archive is a copy of files which are largely static but to which you still want to refer.

By recognising the difference, the amount of time you spend carrying out regular backups – and the amount of media you need – can be very much reduced. For example, you’ll need to backup files that you’re editing on a daily or weekly basis: spreadsheets of household expenses or company accounts, folders containing emails and correspondence, presentations, company or club newsletters and the like.

Since these files are constantly changing, you’ll need to back them up regularly so that if you do suffer a loss, the amount of information you lose is limited. Exactly how regularly you schedule backups, though, is for you to decide.

The interval will vary from perhaps once a day for businesses, to once a week for individuals. Static but important data – your digital photographs from 2011, for example – can be archived. There’s no need to regularly rewrite that archive because the data won’t have changed.

Another vitally important consideration is that of 'generations'. Put simply, using just one backup media isn’t safe enough. Let’s assume that you use an external disk drive as backup media and that you suffer a hard disk crash while you’re performing a backup. Because the state of the media is unknown while a backup is being written, such a crash might leave you without a full backup. As a very minimum, therefore, you need to use two generations of backup, alternating between the two sets of media.

Of course, this applies to local backup only. It isn’t a consideration for a properly implemented online backup service. However, there’s another reason for maintaining multiple generations that applies irrespective of whether you backup locally or online.

If you want to provide protection against accidental file deletion or file corruption you might choose to maintain more than two generations. For example, if you back up once a week and you don’t notice a loss for four weeks, that file would only be available if you cycled between four sets of media or maintained four generations online.

 Next page: local backup

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