How to Backup Files On Your Computer - Part 1: The Basics

The best home backup plan options: Part 1


Nobody enjoys backing up their computers, but the pain of losing years of photos, documents, music, and whatever else is far worse. Many of those items will be irreplaceable. It usually takes getting burned once to be prodded into a backup strategy. Being prepared before that first disaster is a much saner option. If you've yet to experience a major data loss, consider yourself lucky. Try to scare yourself into it by imagining losing every picture of your children, every vacation, graduation, birthday, wedding - the list goes on.

There are three primary methods of home backup:

  • Same machine backup

  • External drive backup

  • Cloud based backup

Each of these methods have their Pros and Cons.

Same Machine Backup

This is the practice of making copies of files on the same computer and even the same hard drive to help you recover from an accidental deletion or irreparable change. WIndows (since XP SP 2) and Mac OS X (since 10.7 Lion - Time Machine) both have a feature that can create automatic shadow copies of files which let you revert to a previous point in time or recover a deleted file.


  • Helpful for accidental deletion of documents

  • Useful for reverting unwanted changes or comparing changes

  • Useful for shared directories

  • Better than nothing

  • Transparent

  • Cheap


  • Single point of failure, if your hard drive dies it's gone

  • Reliant on operating system, if it becomes corrupted the copies may be lost

  • Single location, if there is a disaster (fire,flood,etc.) it's gone

  • High rate of device failure

  • Not easily expandable

External Drive Backup

Typically backup software is used in conjunction with a separate hard drive that is not the same drive which holds your operating system. This can be an attached USB drive, Networked Attached Storage (NAS), or even a separate hard drive inside your computer.


  • Dedicated drive independant from your main hard drive, if your operating system crashes your data is safe.

  • Backup software will handle the backups automatically, including the option of a full system image backup.

  • Fast backups

  • Potentially Expandable*

  • Potentially portable*

  • Potentially redundant*


  • Device failure

  • Potential single location problem

  • Can be expensive

  • Can be complex

  • Can limit expansion

* Depending on the type of external backup system chosen

Cloud Based Backup

Backing up to the cloud can be a fantastic option for those with a manageable amount of data and a solid internet connection. File changes and system snapshots are either periodically uploaded to a remote backup server or done in real-time. Backups can then be downloaded back to your machine for recovery. These services generally carry a monthly subscription fee to keep you protected.


  • Off-site backup means you're protected from disaster

  • Backups are independent to your system / hardware

  • Backup software will automatically handle the process (usually)

  • No worry of hardware failure

  • Easily expandable storage


  • Uploading can take a lot of time and bandwidth

  • Service plans tend to get more costly as your data grows

  • Reliance on an outside company to secure your data

  • Potential for the chosen company to go out of business

There are many variations to each of these types of backup plans. Over the next few posts in this series I'll discuss each of these types in more detail, followed by how they can be used in combination to create a robust home backup strategy.

Next: Part 2: Same machine backup

And remember...

Other posts in this series

This story, "How to Backup Files On Your Computer - Part 1: The Basics" was originally published by ITworld.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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