Data is a precious thing. Whether it be personal files, photos, music, or a large download of an operating system, it’s always wise to create secure backups of your files to avoid disaster. Over the past few years we’ve seen an increase in ransomware such as Cryptolocker, which can have devastating effects on your PCs, plus the simple everyday hazards of spilling water on a laptop or suffering a hard drive failure. Backups are essential to protect against these - and more - risks. Here we’ll show you how to protect against data loss by using the built-in tools that come with Windows 10, as well as other options, including cloud storage services. Here's how to back up Windows 10.

Note that much of this article also applies to WIndows 8 and Windows 7.

How to back up Windows 10: What is a backup?

File backup

You often hear people warning you to ‘back up your PC’, but this isn’t just a single task. There are two main types of backup that you can use to keep your important data safe. The first is ‘file backup’, which allows you to make copies of individual - and groups of - files that you have stored on your PC. These might be important files that you need for work, or your personal collection of photos, music and videos. Everyone that owns a PC should buy an external hard disk drive to store copies of these files in case you accidentally delete or lose some of them.

System backup

The other type of backup is known as ‘system backup’ or a 'system image'. This is a bit more complicated as it involves making a backup copy of the entire Windows operating system that is running on your PC, as well as all your programs, files and settings. You can then use this backup to fix your PC if it is behaving erratically, or if it stops working altogether.

A system backup can run into hundreds of gigabytes, but some backup software can also perform 'incremental' backups, which save only the data that has changed since the last backup, which saves both time and storage space.

How can Windows help me make a backup?

The good news is that Windows 10 – like all previous versions of Windows – has a number of features built into it that allow you to perform both simple file backups and more comprehensive system backups. These features can be a bit confusing, though, so we’ll now walk you through the key backup features that you need to know about, as well as looking at some of the other backup options that are available, such as cloud storage (specifically cloud backup), and specialised backup software from companies other than Microsoft. We’ll start with the straightforward file backup features that you can use to make copies of your important personal files.

How to backup Windows 10: Using File History

There are a few different ways to create backups in Windows 10. One of the easiest is a feature called File History, which will allow you to make regular, scheduled copies of the personal data on your PC and store it on an external drive. It is possible to store your backups on your PC’s internal hard drive – but that’s a bit risky because anything that goes wrong with your PC or your hard drive will take that backup with it too. Always ensure you have at least one external backup for your important files – in fact, many business users will even have two or three backups, with one being kept in a separate location to all the others.

To set up File History you’ll first need to open the Start Menu and click on Settings.  In the menu that appears select Update & Security and then click on the Backup section to view the relevant options.

How to backup Windows 10

In the right hand panel you’ll see a Section entitled Back Up Using File History, and beneath this is an option to Add A Drive. Click on the Plus (+) symbol next to this and you’ll see a list of any external hard drives that are connected to your PC. If you don't have a drive connected you'll find that you can't do anything.

If you have multiple drives connected then you can just click on the one that you want to use. When you return to the Backup section now you’ll see that the option has changed from Add A Drive to Automatically Back Up My Files, and that this option is switched on by default.

How to backup Windows 10

You can turn this option off or on whenever you want to, but it’s best to leave it on so that future backups automatically take place at regular intervals. You can also specify how often your File History backups take place, and which specific files and folders are included in your backups. Click the heading labeled More Options and you’ll be taken into a new window that contains several useful features.

By default, File History creates backups of your files once an hour, but if you want it to start straight away then you can just click the button marked Back Up Now to make your first backup. Right below that is a pull-down menu that allows you to specify how often your backups take place. This can range from every 10 minutes to just once a day, but the default hourly backups are probably fine for most people. Making regular backups of all your files can take up a lot of space on your external hard drive so there’s a second pull-down menu that tells File History how long it should keep all those backups. The default option is to keep them forever – better safe than sorry, after all – but you can vary this from one month to two years if you want. You can also tell Windows 10 to delete older backups automatically if your external hard drive gets full and you need to free up some space for newer backups.

When it’s creating a backup, File History automatically copies all the folders that are part of your main User Account on your PC, such as Music, Photos and Videos (to view the folders in your User Account just go to the Users folder on your main C: drive and click the folder that has your personal account name – ie C:/Users/Pete). However, you can also make backups of files that are stored in other folders too. Just click 'Add A Folder' to open a file browser window that allows you to select the folders you want. There’s also an Exclude button that lets you remove folders from your backup schedule – such as the Saved Games folder, which probably isn’t essential unless you’re about 50 hours into Dragon Age: Inquisition.

How to backup Windows 10

How to backup Windows 10: Restore your backed up files

If you ever need to locate a file from your backup drive then you can just click on the Start Menu in the Windows 10 taskbar and type ‘File History’ into the Search bar. In the list of search results you’ll see an option labeled ‘Restore Your Files With File History’, and when you click on this you’ll open a window that displays all the folders that are backed-up onto your external hard drive.

The thing to note here, though, is that there’s a set of Forward and Back controls at the bottom of this window, similar to the playback controls that you’ll find on any music or video player. These allow you to step backwards and forwards through all the backups you’ve made in recent weeks and months. This means that you can go right back and locate files that you might have deleted many months ago. You can also use it to recover and compare different versions of a file that you may have worked on and edited over a period of time, which is really useful.

There are, of course, dozens of backup programs and software – both free and paid-for – that can help with file backups, but these options that are built into File History in Windows 10 should be perfectly adequate for general day-today use. Most hard drives also come with their own backup software that is included in the price of the drive, so you generally don’t need to worry about finding or buying any other backup software for this type of simple file backup. If you’d still like to check out some alternative backup options, then we’ve reviewed several of the most popular programs in our Best backup software roundup.

How To Backup Windows 10: Cloud Storage Services

There’s another way to ensure that you never lose any important files or data, and that’s to transfer or sync it to the cloud. There are so many excellent cloud storage services now available – all for free, or at least a low monthly cost – that you should really already be doing this even if you’re already using File History or any other backup software.

Dropbox is perhaps the most well-known cloud storage service but, of course, Microsoft has its own OneDrive service which is already built right into Windows 10 for you. There are many other services that provide online storage too, such as Google Drive, and there’s even a Windows version of Apple’s iCloud, which will be useful for snap-happy iPhone users Most of these services provide between 2GB and 5GB of online storage completely free of charge, and it doesn’t cost anything to sign up for one or more of these services so you can look around and see which one suits you best (and we’ve covered these services in more detail in our recent guide to Cloud Storage Services).

It’s worth pointing out, though, that these most of these cloud storage services are actually designed for ‘file synchronisation’ rather than simple file backups. When you sign up for one of these cloud storage services you are prompted to create a special upload folder on your PC – and in Windows 10 the OneDrive folder is already there in the Windows file browser ready for you to use. Any files that you place in that folder are automatically uploaded to your online cloud storage, and then ‘synced’ – copied across to any other computer or mobile device that is also logged into your account on that service.

That’s really handy, of course, and millions of people use these file syncing features every day. But syncing files across devices means that if you accidentally delete a file from one device then that file will also be deleted from your online cloud storage, and from all your other devices too, so there are no old backups kept safe for you in case of an emergency. Dropbox and many of its rivals do have an ‘undelete’ option that might help in a pinch, but it’s important to realise this distinction between synching and backup, and you should still keep your main file backups stored on an external hard drive as your first line of defense.

There are, of course, cloud backup services which specialise not in synching, but actual backup. Options include SugarSync and the UK-based Mozy.

How To Backup Windows 10: Using A Restore Point

File backups are relatively straightforward, but system backups are a different kettle of fish altogether. An operating system such as Windows isn’t a single piece of software that you can quickly copy onto an external hard drive or upload into the cloud. It consists of hundreds of inter-related pieces of software that perform many different tasks, so making a backup of the entire operating system is much more complicated than just backing up a folder full of your holiday snaps.

Windows 10 includes a number of features for creating system backups, and perhaps the most well-known option here is System Restore, which has been a part of Windows going right back to Windows ME. 

The System Restore tool is buried deep within the Windows Control Panel – and, confusingly, is also referred to as System Protection in some places - but the quickest way to find it in Windows 10 is simply to click on the Start Menu again and type ‘restore point’.

Microsoft has kind of downgraded System Restore in Windows 10 and, in truth, this feature is really more of a troubleshooting tool than anything else. Even so, it’s still really useful to know about, and is often the quickest way of fixing problems with Windows and other apps on your PC.

System Restore is turned off by default in Windows 10, so you’ll need to click on your main C: drive in the list of drives that you’ll see here, and then click Create to get started. This feature works by creating a series of ‘restore points’, each of which is a kind of snapshot of the way you have Windows set up on your PC on a specific date and time. And, along with Windows itself, each restore point also includes all your apps, such as Microsoft Office, as well as the driver software for devices such as a printer or graphics card.

Windows automatically creates a Restore Point whenever you install a new program or driver onto your PC, or download any important Windows updates. You can also use that Create button to make your own restore points whenever you want. If you subsequently find that your PC is behaving erratically, or a particular program isn’t working properly, then you can choose one of the restore points saved on your PC and revert your PC back to the state it was in on that particular date.

The app that I use to play DVDs on my desktop PC is a bit flakey and stops working every now and then, but I have a Restore Point that I made when I first installed the app, so whenever the app goes wrong I just use System Restore to roll back to the original working version of the app.

Just remember that although it will restore Windows and other apps on your PC, System Restore leaves your ordinary files, photos and other documents alone. That limitation means that System Restore isn’t a complete solution for regular file backups, even though it’s still really useful for fixing other types of problems that affect Windows and other apps.

To set this up follow our guide on How to use System Restore in Windows 10.

How to backup Windows 10: Creating a System Image

The main option for backing up Windows 10 itself is called System Image. Using System Image can be a bit confusing, not least because it’s quite hard to find. You’ll need to right-click on the Start button, then from the menu select Control Panel and look under System and Security for Back Up And Restore (Windows 7). That reference to Windows 7 is there as some of the System Image options are carried over from Windows 7, and Windows 10 still allows you to use old backups from Windows 7 (which is useful for the many people who just ignored Windows 8 altogether and may have jumped straight from Windows 7 to Windows 10 in recent months).

How to backup Windows 10

When you open the Backup And Restore window you’ll see the option to Create A System Image in the panel on the left-hand side of the Window. This option creates an exact duplicate of your PC’s hard drive – sometimes referred to as a ‘disk clone’ – including Windows 10 itself, along with any other programs and all the personal files you have stored on your PC. The system image is stored on your external hard drive, so if you have any problems with your PC then you can simply copy the system image back onto your PC’s own internal hard drive in order to restore a fully working copy of Windows 10 onto your PC, along with all your other programs and files. You can do this by going to Start Menu – Settings – Update And Security, and then clicking on Recovery in the left-hand panel (alternatively, if your PC isn’t working normally, you can restart your PC using the recovery partition found on most PCs that use Windows 10, and this will ask you if you want to restore your PC using a system image).

That’s a really useful tool for solving problems with your PC, but the one drawback with using System Image is that’s it’s very much an all-or-nothing option. The entire system image is copied back onto your PC all at once, and it doesn’t allow you to selectively locate individual files or other data that you might have lost – as you can do with File History. So, if you need to fix your PC by using a system image file that you made last week, you’ll find that any new files or any other changes that you made to your PC in the last week will have been lost. We’d definitely recommend that you continue to use File History to make regular backups of your important files, and then use System Image as a last-resort option for real emergencies.

 If you delve a little deeper into Windows you’ll see that you can create different types of system images, which can store either files or Windows itself. But, of course, that just makes things even more complicated, and the all-or-nothing nature of the System Image backups means that it’s not the best way to try and recover specific files or data in an emergency.

How To Backup Windows 10: Other backup software

Because of those limitations, many people prefer to use third-party apps to help with full system backups for their PC. There are dozens of free backup programs available, including old favourites such as EaseUS Todo Backup Free and Paragon’s Backup And Recovery Free. Both these programs work well, although they might be a little intimidating for less experienced users. And although they have the word ‘free’ in the title these programs are really designed to tempt you into upgrading to the full paid-for version of the program.

EaseUS supports full system backups, incremental and differential backups, and also backing up to popular cloud services. 

If you’re going to pay for commercial backup software then the tried-and-tested Acronis TrueImage has been getting rave reviews for years. Its £35 price isn’t too bad but, again, this is an option for people with a bit more technical know-how. Sadly, Norton Ghost, which was very popular with many people in the past, has gone upmarket and now mainly caters to large business organisations. But at the other end of the spectrum there’s AOMEI Backupper, which has an attractive graphical interface that's fairly easy for beginners to cope with. There’s a free version of the program that provides basic features for both file backup and system backup, and there’s a more advanced paid-for version too.