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How to Back Up Your Computer – A Beginner’s Guide

Did you know there’s a 1 in 8 chance that your computer will crash? The odds aren’t on your side! Unlike being struck by lightning, a 1 in 600,000 chance, you are almost guaranteed to have a computer crash sooner or later!

In this tutorial, you’ll discover everything you need to know about backing up your computer.

Computer Backup Options

You’ll need one or more of these products or services:

  • Storage Media
  • Backup Software
  • Network Attached Storage (NAS)
  • Remote Backup (aka Online backup or Cloud backup)

I’ll explain each option and their pros and cons; you can choose which option is best for your needs.

Storage Media

You have probably used a variety of storage media in the past. This includes items such as external hard drives, USB flash drives, CD-Rs, and DVD-Rs.

In my early days, all my backups consisted of my important files copied onto an external hard drive and a bunch of burnt CDs filled with digital photos. Today, I include flash drives and blank DVDs because the prices have come down quite a bit, making them a viable storage option.

This is a great way to get started because it’s so simple. All you have to do is plug in your external drive to a USB port and copy files over to it or burn a CD (your computer probably includes a CD burner and the matching software already.)

It’s relatively inexpensive, too. A huge external hard drive (500GB-1TB) can be found for under $100, a 16GB flash drive for under $10, and CD-R’s cost pennies.

The problem is, if you have a computer crash, you’ll still have to restore your computer’s operating system and any programs you had installed.

Backup Software

More advanced users will want to use some sort of backup software in conjunction with their storage media. This type of software allows you to do so much more than you can when simply copying data back and forth.

One of these advanced features is the ability to backup an image of your entire hard drive. This means instead of just backing up certain files, you backup everything. With this type of backup, it takes care of restoring your operating system, programs, and system settings – think of it like cloning your computer!

This software can also run scheduled backups so that you don’t have to manually do the backup. And even if you forget, the software remembers to run the backup as scheduled!

This type of software typically costs about $50. Three of the best-rated programs are Acronis True Image, NovaBACKUP, and Genie Backup Manager. You can’t go wrong with any of those.

If you don’t need such advanced features, look at the free backup software already built into your computer – Windows Backup and Restore and Apple Time Machine.

Whatever you choose, these programs will help you back up to your external hard drive.

Network Attached Storage (NAS)

If your computer is on a home network, you might want to set up what is called Network Attached Storage, or NAS. You can think of this like having an external drive, but instead of plugging it in via USB port, it is always connected to your home network.

Generally this is used to keep a mirror image of your main hard drive. So if your hard drive ever fails, you can simply replace it with the backup drive and be good as new!

You will need a special drive for this situation, generally called an NAS Server or Personal Cloud drive. Expect to pay about $150-200 for a 1TB drive ready to connect to your network. You also need to understand how to set up a home network.

Remote Backup

Remote backup? Is that a remote with a “backup” button on it?!

Nope, it’s not that simple, but it’s better! Remote backup in this instance refers to storing your backups in a remote location. (It’s also called “online backup” and “cloud backup.”)

The problem you run into with external drives is that they give you local backups. Local backups are convenient, but they are also susceptible to risk. Just think if a fire or flood damaged your home and you lost all your electronics. One disaster like that could wipe out your computer and your backups.

Had you used a remote backup service, all your backups would still be available.

Some of the top-rated online backup services include Carbonite, BackBlaze, and CrashPlan. Each service costs about $50-60 per year.

All you have to do with these services is install a small piece of software, tell it what files you want backed up, and click the backup button. The services work in the background to backup all your important files to a remote location over your internet connection. Whenever a file on your computer is changed, the service will backup that file again.

When you need to recover one of these files, you can simply download it from their servers to restore it onto your computer (whether that’s your current computer or a new one.) It almost sounds too good to be true, but it actually works!

How to Get Started

After getting most of my friends and family to back up their data, I developed a simple formula that will work for the average computer user. It is designed to be simple enough for a beginner yet still protect your data securely!

Step 1: Get an External Hard Drive

Head over to Best Buy or log on to Amazon.com and pick up a SeaGate FreeAgent GoFlex 1TB portable hard drive for about $115 (or less if it’s on sale.)

Plug this in to your computer, then drag and drop all your important files onto it. Generally, you can just copy your entire “My Documents” folder.

Step 2: Sign Up for Carbonite Online Backup

To make sure you are fully protected, you need online backup. Carbonite is so simple that anyone can use it, so head to www.Carbonite.com and sign-up for a free trial (no credit card required.)

You should be able to get that up and running, so once you know it’s working, I urge you to pay the $59 to get a year of backups.

Then your data will be secure and you can sleep soundly at night.

How to Restore Your Backups

Setting up your backups isn’t the end. You need to learn how to restore your backups and test out your system to be absolutely sure your backups are working as intended. (Think of it like a fire drill.)

Here’s a look at the file restore process for the previously discussed backup methods:

Restoring from an External Hard Drive

Plug in your drive to a USB port. Copy the files from the external drive onto your internal drive.

Restoring through Backup Software

Let’s take Acronis for example. If you have a fresh hard drive, just load your backup image. You don’t even need to reinstall Acronis. All the functionality is built into the backup file.

Restoring from an Online Backup Service

Good online backup companies give you two restore options.

The first is to access your online control panel or download the software and access your files through there. Then you just click the restore button and your files will be downloaded to your computer over your internet connection.

The second option, which is great if you have lots of data and no time to wait for the download, is to have a hard drive shipped to you overnight. This drive will contain all your backups, and this bonus service costs little more than the cost of a hard drive.

Backup Restore Drill

Like I said, once everything is set up and running, run through a test scenario to make sure it’s working. Pretend you have to restore lost data and go through the process.

Quick Summary and Action Plan

Back up your computer because you will lose data (it’s a matter of when, not if.)

The best plan of attack is a combination of local and remote backups.

For your online backup, I highly recommend a service like CrashPlan or Carbonite – you can test out both of these for free to see which works for your needs.

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