Sunday, 6 January 2008

Backing Up Personal Data

Computers currently fulfil many diverse roles, and consequently the data we store on our hard drives is very varied, in content, size and in purpose. Backup options - once a simple issue - have become increasing complex as the technologies involved have become cheaper, faster and available in larger capacities.

This article is aimed at Microsoft Windows users, although the general discussion is applicable to anyone who stores personal data on a computer.

Backing up: why should you care?

Backing up involves keeping a copy of your computer's data in a different, physically separate place. This is usually to guard against hardware failure; if the hard drive fails or if the computer is damaged or stolen, and if you have a recent backup, it's a relatively straightforward task in most cases to have the computer repaired and the data restored, with no real loss apart from the time and money involved.

Quite often the data we store is increasingly fragile; photos, for example, can never be re-created. Therefore, the only way to preserve this information is by keeping another copy, known as a backup.

Also, a backup is useful when data is accidentally deleted or erased, or when you need to keep a sequential or chronological history of your files. Sometimes it's not useful to restore the most recent backup; you might need a backup of a file from two months ago if changes have been made many times since.

Where is my data actually stored?

If you have Windows Vista, Windows XP or any of the predecessors, almost everything is stored in the My Documents folder. This includes all photos, music, videos and other documents. Having said that, it's possible to store data wherever you want to on the computer, and you may have chosen an alternative location.

Items on the desktop, internet bookmarks in the Favorites or Bookmarks menu of the web browser are stored as files elsewhere, as are emails and email addresses. These files can be backed up in the same way as your personal data.

Any configuration settings you've made for any other applications you use (for example: Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Adobe Photoshop) are stored in a fundamentally different way, and cannot usually be backed up.

What should I backup?

"It depends" is the answer to this. It's possible to take a snapshot of the entire hard drive of the computer, which preserves everything at a particular moment in time. However, not only is this method of backing up very time consuming, it also requires very large external storage capacity.

Most importantly, it's probably unnecessary because (a) Windows and other software can usually be re-installed from CDs or DVDs, and (b) the only thing which changes regularly is the personal data that you hold. Having said that, some computers are used in circumstances where they must be available all the time, and any disruption is unacceptable. In this case, regular snapshots are often the only solution, albeit very costly.

Generally speaking, it's only necessary to backup personal data, which probably consists of the following:
  • Documents (the My Documents folder)
  • Desktop (the Desktop folder)
  • Internet Explorer Favorites (The Favorites folder). If you use an alternative web browser (e.g. Firefox or Opera) you should consult the product documentation to find out where bookmarks are stored
  • Outlook Express emails and Address book (The Application Data folder inside Local Settings). If you use an alternative email application you should consult the product documentation to find out where emails and the address book are stored
These folders are all contained inside your profile, which is a particular folder on the hard drive where each user's documents and settings are stored. When backing up, it's simply a case of opening the profile folder and choosing the folders above to be included.

Backup Technologies

As backing up involves keeping a copy of the computer's data in a physically separate place, we'll need some physical device on which to store the data. The choice of device depends very much on the data involved; there's no single solution for everyone, although I'm sure I'll regret saying this in five years time.

1. Removable USB Flash Drive (also known as a pen drive, memory stick or thumb drive)

These drives are small plastic sticks which plug into a USB socket. They come in different sizes, and typically a 2 Gigabyte drive (2,000 megabytes, or about 2,000 digital photos) will cost around £10. The largest size is currently about 8 Gigabytes.

These are a good all-round solution for many people who have small to medium-sized files. The benefits are that they're fast, they can easily be removed to use with someone else's computer, and they're easy to grab if you need to leave the house in an emergency.

2. Optical Media (CD, DVD and HD-DVD/Blu-Ray Disc)

This is possibly the simplest and cheapest method. Buy a re-writable CD or DVD, then every week erase whatever's on the disc and burn all your personal data onto it. Most CD or DVD burning software (pre-installed on your computer) has a specific backup option to help with this.

The main drawbacks with this method are the slow speed and small capacities, although the very low cost of the discs makes it a convenient method of mailing your files to other people.

3. External Hard Drive

This is a small box containing a hard disk drive, which plugs into a USB socket. It operates in exactly the same way as a USB Flash Drive, except that very large-sized drives are available. For people with large amounts of data (usually lots of photos, music or video) this is often the only option.

A 500GB external hard drive currently costs around £88, and would be large enough to back up the entire hard drive for most people.

4. Backing up files over the internet

This is only practical for those with a broadband internet connection. For a monthly subscription, usually around £10 per month, your computer's personal data is stored online, and is synchronised regularly.

This can be expensive and is slow to use, but does guarentee a safe location for your personal data away from your computer.


Ultimately your choice of solution is dependent on the amount of data you store, but in most cases a USB Flash Drive (option 1) will suffice. Note that in each case you'll need to perform the actual backup manually, by copying files onto the device.

This process can easily be streamlined, and can be scheduled to happen automatically. Alternatively, commercial software for around £30 can make the process even simpler; just search for "backup software" on the internet.

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