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June 25, 2012

PC Backup: If You Do Nothing Else For Security, Do This

Some people are vigilant about PC security. Others choose to be lax. While I can see the argument for eschewing antivirus programs, firewalls and other standard security installations, I can’t get behind anyone who bypasses backing up. For most people, in fact, dropping all other security is fine, as long as you backup properly.

I’m not telling anyone to stop installing antiviruses and activating firewalls. However, if you’re careful enough and you know what you’re doing around the computer, there is a good likelihood you won’t need them. That is, if you don’t open suspect files, don’t visit known malicious websites and don’t keep sensitive data hooked up to the internet 24/7, you’ll probably be fine even without security software. However, all of those precautions won’t help you when something does happen to compromise your machine.

Backups Fix Almost Everything

Hard drive crashed? Turn to your backup. Lost files? Turn to your backup. Virus epidemic in your entire hard drive? Nuke all that and restore from backup. As long as you keep regular, current backups, most any problems you’ll encounter can be remedied by turning to your stored files.

Full Disk Backups

Ideally, you’d want to mirror your entire hard drive to get yourself a complete copy of the entire thing. That way, if anything goes wrong, you can just restore completely from backup and get started working as if nothing happened.

There are a couple of ways to do this:

1. Make a mirror image. An image is an exact replica of a hard drive — every file, folder and all the hidden elements in between at that exact moment of time. Plenty of programs will do this, including expensive ones like Norton Ghost and free ones like DriveImage. When you need to restore the complete mirror, all you have to do is fire up the same software you used to store the backup and overwrite the existing contents of the drive.
2. Copy the source drive to a target drive. Here, you basically copy an entire drive to another drive (e.g. drive C: to an external hard disk), copying all files and folders, but not the hidden content (e.g. registries, settings, and all that). This method offers an easy way to have full backups of everything in your computer.

What To Include In Your Backups

If you have the resources for it, always do full mirror backups, preferably complete hard drive images using a cloning software. However, maintaining full mirrors isn’t only time-intensive, it can be quite expensive, too.

If that’s out of the option for now, here are some areas you might want to focus your backup settings on:

1. Windows settings. If you need to nuke Windows, you can always install from your recovery disk (or installation disks). However, all changes you made will likely be gone by then. Backing up your Windows settings will allow you to give a fresh installation of Windows all the custom updates and settings you’ve previously done.
2. Drivers. While you don’t see them, you’re always running plenty of drivers in your computer and they’re an integral part of why your machine runs as seamlessly as it does. Don’t forget to keep a backup of all your driver installers — you’ll need to run them all to get your PC and all its components running well. The good news is, there are plenty of driver update software (like Driver Genius and Driver Detective) out there that will not just back up your installers — they’ll find newer versions and download them, too.
3. Media. Documents, pictures, videos, music and ebooks probably make up a good chunk of your hard drive, just like everyone else. And you’ll need to back those up if you want to hold on to them. It’s the main reason why Windows creates designated areas for them — so you can simply back those folders up and not worry about scouring your hard drive. In practice, though, most people save their files all over the place, so you’ll need to run a check for all the files you want to make sure don’t get lost.
4. Installers. If you buy all your software in optical media, then this isn’t an issue. With a lot of paid software now sold via downloads, though, you’ll likely have a lot of installers saved on your hard drives. Make a habit of backing up downloaded installers as soon as you get them, either burning them to optical media or copying them to an external drive (personally, I keep different installers in labeled SD cards).
5. Email. If you’re using a web service like Gmail for email, then you can just rely on the provider’s archives for your backup. In case you’re not, though, you will want to make sure you have your inbox and sent folders copied somewhere. Most email clients come with built-in backup options, although a separate backup software will most likely work better in the long run.
6. Browsers. If you use a vanilla browser, then you don’t need this. But how many people actually do? Within a week of using a browser, in fact, you’ve likely customized it not just with a theme, but with bookmarks, add-ons, plug-ins, saved passwords and all sorts of other information. Unless you’re willing to start off with a fresh browser every time you encounter problems, you’ll need to back your browser data up.
7. Social networks. I know, this sounds ridiculous. But if you value the stuff in your social network accounts (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and so on), you wouldn’t just put faith in those services to never suffer a data loss — crap like that happens all the time, after all. Your best bet is to use a service like Backupify to keep an online copy of your social network data. Some services, like Facebook, also allows users to download a copy of their entire Facebook history in one large archive.

Backup Options

Fortunately for us, storage is no longer as expensive as it was ten or twenty years ago. As such, buying external hard drives, thumb drives, SD cards, DVDs and other storage media won’t take a lot of toll on your budget, making it a lot easier to invest in hardware to serve your backup needs. Personally, I keep one set of backups on external hard drives and another set on cloud storage — that way, I’m protected whether something happens to the physical stuff or if the cloud service encounters an unexpected loss.


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