Backing up isn't hard to do, but it's definitely a chore. PC Advisor explains the methods most suited to various computing scenarios, and review a range of  backup services that make the whole process run like clockwork.

A corrupted Outlook database trashes your email archive and contact list. An accidentally deleted folder wipes out your most important business documents. A sudden hard-drive failure destroys your MP3 and photo libraries. The list of potential catastrophes goes on. For most of us, it's the loss of a critical document or access to our favourite photos that causes us to do something about our lack of a backup plan.

Losing access to an entire archive due to sudden and total hard-drive failure is not an unheard of scenario, but it's far more likely that an individual file will become corrupt or a  USB drive containing your only copy of a presentation will go astray.

Most of us tend to implement a backup plan only retrospectively, when we discover there's a problem or the amount of data we've created or accrued has stacked up so much that we need to do something with it. But it's no use getting into the backup habit only after you've run out of disk space and need to start archiving.

From a certain point of view, data is a little like money. Financial advisors always recommend maintaining a diversified portfolio, with the idea being that if one stock falls, you won't go broke. The same concept applies to backups: by diversifying your approach and archiving your data in multiple places using various methods, you're safe even if disaster strikes one location or collection of data.

Over the following pages we look at ways to expand your backup portfolio to protect against the inevitable data catastrophe. To ensure the safety of your important files, we recommend using at least a few of the following methods in unison.

Choose your backup type

Full system backup

A drive-cloning program such as Casper makes simple work of duplicating your entire hard drive, but it's only the first step in a diversified backup plan. With external one-terabyte (1TB) hard drives available for around £100, there's no reason not to keep one plugged into your PC and paired with Casper, which can perform scheduled, incremental backups, with or without compression. A full-system backup to an attached drive is your best line of defence against data loss: in the event of total failure, it's a simple matter to restore every bit and byte to a replacement drive.

Remote, data-only backup

Don't overlook the benefits of backing up just your critical data: documents, bookmarks, financial records, email, contacts and so on. Sometimes you just want to restore a handful of files or a particular item of data. These backups also take less time to complete.

Spare PC backup

Use Microsoft SyncToy 2.1 [64-bit] or Microsoft SyncToy 2.1 [32-bit] to back up files and folders to other PCs on your home or office network. You could also create a home backup network that makes uses of all their hard drives. SyncToy lets you create ‘folder pairs' between PCs, copying files between them with a single click. This is a great way to sync disparate photo libraries between your PC and your better half's, and to create a backup of both in the process.

If your PCs aren't on the same network, try Microsoft's Windows Live FolderShare. This automatically syncs files across the web.

Document backup

Using Google's Docs tools you can create, access and synchronise your Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents on and over the web. The result is an online backup that's accessible from any browser. Although it's not a ‘proper' backup tool, it's a more reliable method of sending yourself in-progress documents than emailing them to yourself, as Google automatically saves a copy for you to access.

See also: Google Docs review

Bookmarks backup

Foxmarks was designed to sync your Firefox bookmarks between multiple PCs, but it also creates an online backup of those bookmarks. If you're like most users, you've probably accumulated years' worth of bookmarks in your browser – a collection you don't want to lose. Firefox users should install the free Foxmarks plug-in, while Internet Explorer users can accomplish the same thing using the free BookmarkSync. Both tools keep your bookmarks in sync across multiple PCs, and let you access them from any browser.

Email backup

MailStore Home archives your email messages to disc and creates a local duplicate of the database that you can search with ease. Another useful tool, Amic Email Backup, copies everything – including your address book, account settings and message rules – to a single compressed file.

Amic Email Backup supports email clients including Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express and Eudora. Mailstore Home works with Windows Mail, Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird and Seamonkey.

Of course, unless you put those discs in a safe or upload them to the web, these backups are still vulnerable to fires and other local disasters. That's one reason to consider routing your email through Gmail Imap, which creates a web-based archive by synching mail between Google's servers and your PC.

Start by signing up for a free Gmail account, then enabling Imap and following the configuration instructions for your mail client. You can then either configure your mail account to forward all messages to your Gmail account, or set up Gmail's Mail Fetcher to retrieve messages from your ISP's POP3 server. From then on, all your mail will go through Gmail, giving you more than 6GB of storage space for your email messages and attachments, and some excellent spam-filtering in the bargain.

Once you have everything set up, you'll forever have copies of your messages available in your web-accessible Gmail account. That's not only an ideal email backup, but handy too.

The pocket backup

Finally, we come to the backups you already have but don't know you do. If you carry a smartphone that syncs with your PC, it's like having a mobile backup of your contacts, calendar, memos and tasks. The latest Windows phone 7 devices have automatic over-the-air synchronisation when you're within range of your home Wi-Fi network. Similar auto-synchronisation is offered for some Google Android phones, too.
 
In the event of desktop data loss, just sync your device to restore everything to Outlook or the file manager associated with your smartphone. Make a one-time adjustment to the sync settings so everything is copied from the device to the PC, not vice versa.

Your iPod doubles as a portable backup of your music library. Use a tool such as Bootstrap MediaWidget to copy the contents back to your PC.

Likewise, you can use a media player to restore a music library. Any MP3 player that appears as a removable hard drive when you plug it into your PC will let you can drag-and-drop songs from device to desktop.

NEXT: choose a suitable service >>

Backing up isn't hard to do, but it's definitely a chore. PC Advisor explains the methods most suited to various computing scenarios, and review a range of  backup services that make the whole process run like clockwork.

Choose a suitable service

Choosing a suitable backup service isn't as simple as finding the cheapest. Most online backup services offer a modicum of storage space for free, and then have a sliding scale of costs depending on the amount of space you need and what type of backup and access to your files you require.

Physical storage of hard drives and discs should be considered if your data is particularly sensitive. In this case, you'll want to know where it's stored and to thoroughly check the company handling its security.

Due to differing legal regulations in Europe and the US, encryption levels vary – as do the terms for recovering your files should the need arise. This should definitely be borne in mind if you intend to entrust large amounts of business data to an external storage service. As with access to your bank savings, you may have to wait several days or longer to access a full disk backup or pay more for the privilege of its early release.

Most of us, though, will be looking to storage larger amounts of data on external media that we then keep offsite or in another room. Online storage tends to be more of a convenience service, allowing access from anywhere and at any time, simply by entering the secure password that's used to safeguard it. Small amounts of data storage – up to 5GB – may even be offered for free.

For example, if the archive is to be just that – somewhere to file documents you no longer need but daren't delete – it's probably best stored on physical media. Bear in mind the shelf life of a CD or DVD is just 20 years, though; Blu-ray Disc lasts somewhat longer.

Another option, of course, is a portable hard drives. These offer good value in terms of cost per gigabyte of storage, but you'll pay for the convenience of a faster interface. Mac users should look for a FireWire 400 or 800 connection, while USB 2.0 offers the best value for the Windows users. USB 3.0 drives are available, but are also more expensive – and you'll need a PC or laptop with a corresponding USB 3.0 connection to make use of this faster transfer technology.

The best compromise the 1.5TB Seagate FreeAgent drive, which can be upgraded to USB 3.0 for an extra £25.

Bear in mind that security isn't always that great on these drives and the encryption and password-protection doesn't always work in a Mac environment. In a Windows-only setup, such utilities are a must for storage of all but the most anodyne of content. Ideally, fingerprint or other additional authentication is desirable.

Finally, don't forget the peace of mind that a Raid setup offers. If your computer supports several hard drives, it's worth investigating this as a day-to-day failover measure. Alternatively, look to the NAS drives chart on page 141 for guidance on a suitable backup drive that can also be used for media streaming and sharing, and for backing up all the PCs and laptops on your home or small-office network.

BT Digital Vault
digitalvault.bt.com

BT Digital Vault is part of BT Broadband, but there's no need to be an existing customer to use the service; you can enjoy 5GB of free online storage. A £4.99-per-month Vault Plus subscription (free for BT Broadband customers) offers 50GB of online storage, and includes an Auto Backup applet.

Another useful feature is the photo- and video-sharing element, which works by inviting people to view specific content. It's great for sharing holiday snaps, for example. Usefully, the site outlines approximately how many photos, music tracks and video clips your digital vault can hold. Logging in allows you to play your music collection from afar, or scroll through your photo collection.

Although it isn't really a business tool, the generous storage allowance and access anywhere, anytime elements could appeal if you often need to pull down large files for marketing or sales pitches, for example.

Nearest in concept to either Mozy or Windows Live accounts, this user-friendly option is one of the simplest and most approachable, if not the outright best value.

Carbonite
carbonite.co.uk

Carbonite is one of those unflashy but admirably effective services we can only admire. It has just about the best pricing around for an online archive – unlimited backups cost £41 per year and are comparatively cheaper if you buy a two- or three-year plan. Unlike the other services here, there's no monthly subscription.

A 15-day trial is available.

Carbonite offers a great deal of control over what gets backed up and how. Certain file types and sizes are automatically and routinely backed up – your Word and Excel documents will fit into this category. Larger files can either be backed up on a manual basis – do you really want to back up every video clip or photo set time and time again? If you do, just add the relevant folder to the Carbonite backup box on your desktop and this will happen as a matter of course.

Content stored on a Carbonite server is protected by the sort of cast-iron encryption you'd expect any such service to offer. There's a Raid 6 failover and CCTV hard-drive monitoring. Pretty serious security, in other words. It's also UK-hosted, which some users will find important.

We weren't keen on the website's outright dismissal of other backup options. A combination of backup options is likely to suit most users, so helpful advice on how to combine Carbonite's cloud storage with other types of backup would have been welcome.

Restoring files when required is a matter of logging into the Carbonite site, clicking on the Restore tab at the top right and browsing to the files you need. Apple iPhone and Android access is also supported. Fancy media sharing isn't supported, however, and there's a single price plan regardless of whether you want to back up files from your home or business computers.

CrashPlan
code42.com

There are a couple of innovative solutions in our round-up, of which CrashPlan is the first. Rather than operating on a pay to back up to a remote server basis, CrashPlan backs up your files to a friend's hard drive. It sounds like an odd thing to do, but makes a lot of sense. In fact, we like the concept so much we awarded CrashPlan our Best PC Utility Award 2011.

You can also pay CrashPlan for online archiving – but if your favourite price is free, the mates' rate option is likely to appeal.

As with Wuala Sync (next page), CrashPlan works by making use of the ‘spare' hard-disk space on a friend's PC. This will work best if you have a fast upload connection for your broadband: on a Be Broadband, Virgin Media or ADSL2+ or BT Infinity connection, you'll at least have more than a 1MB upload over which to send files for backup. Depending on your friend's location you might consider transferring a USB hard drive's worth of content to their PC to kick things off.

You can also back up to an external hard drive if you're confident this will be sufficiently secure for your data archiving and subsequent retrieval needs.

As with Carbonite, you get granular control over the file types that are backed up and the archive sizes you create.

The standard version of CrashPlan offers 128bit Blowfish encryption for a competitive £39 per year, and covers unlimited archiving. Note that this is ad-supported, however, and a cleaner, 448bit-encryption version costs £10 more.

NEXT: Wuala Sync, Fasthosts, Strato, iDrive, Mozy, and Windows Live >>

Backing up isn't hard to do, but it's definitely a chore. PC Advisor explains the methods most suited to various computing scenarios, and review a range of  backup services that make the whole process run like clockwork.

Wuala Sync
wuala.com

Wuala Sync is a similar service to CrashPlan and is operated by hard drive and flat-panel maker LaCie. Buy a LaCie drive and Wuala (pronounced similarly to the French word ‘voila') online storage will be offered as an additional backup option.

We really like the Wuala approach: you can buy or trade storage space to augment the initial 1GB the service provides. As with CrashPlan, hosting other people's files on your PC allows them access only to their own content – there's no danger of them browsing to other parts of your PC. Sharing your hard-drive space involves certifying that your PC is switched on for at least four hours each day. The amount of free space you get on someone else's hard drive is dependent on how much of yours you allow other people to use. A 10GB slice will get you 10GB of storage on a remote PC.

If you prefer, you can simply buy online backup space. A 10GB archive costs €19 (£16) per year; a 25GB allocation is €39 (£34). Pro features include mobile access, so you can send items from a smartphone or tablet PC, plus version control.

Wuala also supports drag-and-drop file uploads, and has a very simple interface that makes the whole process pain-free. Like some of the other services here, you can also use your online archive as a media-sharing hub. As with an FTP server, you can have private and shared folders and files, then adjust access to it as needs be.

It's a bit like someone viewing your Facebook profile and being able to view some of what's there, but not everything. You can email links to friends and family to invite them to view or download items.

Fasthosts Online Backup
fasthosts.co.uk

Webhosts may not seem the most obvious choice for an online-backup service, but they have a surprising amount to offer. The bread and butter of their business is ensuring customers have constant access to the files and resources they need to run their commercial or non-profit websites, and this often includes large databases and other hefty files. Impenetrable security and multiple backups across several servers are a given, while the sheer size of the data farms such organisations command means they tend to be competitive.

Two of the best-known webhosts in the UK are Strato and FastHosts. The latter offers a 30-day trial of its Online Backup service and provides a useful ready reckoner for costs on its home page. Slide along and you'll find a hefty 250GB online archive costs a fairly modest £45 a month on a year-long contract, or £49.50 for a single month's storage. You get a good deal of control over what's uploaded to the archive too.

Automatic synchronisation of complete PC hard drives is possible, but you can also back up specific batches or individual folders and files. Server backup is supported.

To restore your files you need merely call on the files you require. There's no need to download and install the entire archive.

Although it isn't as pretty as some of the other services we've looked at here – think Windows XP menu structure – the console approach of the FastHosts service will appeal to plenty of business users looking for a good-value and flexible archiving option.

You can buy different amounts of storage per month to reflect your burgeoning archive needs, and switch to the better-value annual plans as and when you wish.
 
A particularly compelling feature is the ability to restore a whole PC. If you lose access to an server or desktop computer, a fresh version of Windows, Linux or Mac can be installed, and its contents reinstated.

Remote access and rigorous security precautions make FastHosts' offering a strong business contender.

Strato HiDrive
strato-hosting.co.uk

Another business webhost, Strato is taking the opposite tack to FastHosts and has just introduced a new online backup service with a more consumer-friendly focus. You can get a trial archive of up to 500GB, and there's currently a special deal to celebrate the company's fifth anniversary. This involves a £5 monthly discount for the next 12 months, making the entry-level 100GB monthly service a bargain at just £4.

The service runs on all versions of Windows, Mac and Linux. Although the sheer quantities of storage offered mark this out as a good-value option for business users, and security is as stringent as that for banks, there's more than a nod to home users. You get a copy of Paragon Backup and Recovery 10.0 software to help you make a local backup of your files for easy retrieval, and there's the option of sharing media files.

As with the FastHosts offering, multiple PCs are supported, along with remote access and complete reinstallation and restoration.

iDrive
idrive.com

iDrive takes a slightly different approach to online backup. For a start, it's actually a hybrid of web archiving and a recovery drive. Bought direct from iDrive (but delivered for free only to US customers), the iDrive Rapid Serve allows the reinstallation of several gigabytes of critical data. The idea here is that should something dreadful happen to your business files – theft, unlawful access or loss due to a fire, for example – you won't be left without copies of the documents for long.

iDrive boldly claims that once an account has been set up, just two clicks are needed in order to initiate a backup or file recovery.

For business owners with a database-driven webstore at stake – or other constantly changing information sources such as email servers and day ledgers – there's a ‘hot backup' option, too.

iDrive offers a Windows-like interface, whereas the likes of BT and Mozy offer far friendlier faces. As a result, the service isn't immediately obvious as a home user option, but the pricing is good. A 30-day free trial allows the backup of unlimited quantities of data, then segues into a $49 (£30)-per-year business-grade service. However, there's also a free 5GB archive, and a choice of 150GB of storage per month per PC for $4.95 (£3) or a Family Pack that offers 500GB split across multiple PCs for £14.95 (£9) per month.

Mozy
mozy.co.uk

Mozy is one of the most established online backup services, and has offered cloud-based file archiving for more than six years. It has more than a million customers, so it must have been doing something right. Parent company EMC also puts out the Retrospect drive-backup software. In April, VMware took over responsibility for its EMC stablemate, but the service should continue as planned for existing Mozy customers.

Home, Pro and free versions of Mozy exist. There's a free version for home users that includes 2GB of data backup in return for no more than an email address and you setting up a free account to log into. The current MozyHome deal costs £4.99 a month for an ‘unlimited' amount of storage. However, Mozy is currently looking at its pricing structure and is likely to curtail this offer to new UK users. Although this won't affect existing customers with a subscription to the service, it does mean the service won't offer as much value as it once did.

The other aspect of note is that Mozy uses servers based in the US, which has implications in terms of privacy should the Feds fancy a nose. This may affect your decision to use the 448bit Mozy Blowfish encryption or the 256bit encryption you control yourself.

The Pro version of Mozy, designed for business use, is an altogether more corporate affair, with the ability to schedule backups from multiple users on multiple platforms in multiple locations, and access it all via a web admin console. A truly scalable solution, it can be bought on a pay-as-you-go basis, offering flexibility over the number of gigabytes of storage your business ends up paying for each month.

As with iDrive, there's additional security and the option to simultaneously back up to an external drive or USB device from which data can be more swiftly restored. Apps for Android and iPhone are available.

Windows Live SkyDrive
live.windows.com

Don't discount Windows in your shortlist of ways to back up. We're not referring to the Backup utility built into some versions of the operating system; Microsoft has got some compelling cloud-based tools, of which its SkyDrive is a beacon. For starters, it offers 25GB of free web storage. And Microsoft has made SkyDrive very easy to use.

As with the BT approach, Microsoft assumes the drive will be used for photos, video and other items you cherish, rather than dull documents. A useful aspect is the excellent integration with Windows Phone 7.

Over-the-air, painless backups of even the dull Microsoft Excel and Outlook archives on your smartphone get done, as do OneNote collaborative documents.

A further plus point – other than the fact it's platform-agnostic and doesn't require a copy of Microsoft Office or the use of Internet Explorer (we tested it under Firefox 4.0) – is that it's a pretty good remote document-viewing tool for PC or Mac. Link and email sharing is also supported. As with BT's Digital Vault, you can share media files that are stored in your SkyDrive. We tried it from an Apple iPad and found it was easy to share photos using our SkyDrive account.

SkyDrive is ideal if a chunk of your hard drive is taken up by photos that could just as easily be stored elsewhere but accessible whenever you feel like it. SkyDrive is the simplest and best-priced option for home users. Should you come close to your 25GB allocation of free storage, though, there's no option to increase your online allocation.

See also: Group test: what's the best backup software?