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Backing up the data (files and folders) on your PC - why and how

The short answer(s) for those who know the basics of computing...

If you want an even more basic introduction to the topic, please click here.

There are lots of tools, some of them free - all claiming that they have a great solution for backing up data (files, folders - some even offering to backup settings too!) but none that make it easy, simple and relevant to the different types of data you are backing up.

Media files - pictures, music and video in particular

Anyone who has a modern camera may know that a weekend vacation can generate a bigger need for storage (even with 20 pictures!) than the entire sum of the spreadsheets and word documents that they have created over the past decade!

Music is similar - 20 tracks is typically 100 units of storage (Megabytes or MB if you want to know)... A short video of an episode of a series will take 3-4 times that - 3-400MB. This is why you should backup these files separately from the rest of your files because:

  1. They don't change - so once (or twice!) backed-up they are preserved
  2. Some may have already been backed up because it is common for these types of file to be copied onto read-only storage (CDs and DVDs) and for there to be more than one recipient and therefore multiple copies
  3. They are already as small as they can be - already compressed (almost) as well as the backup program might claim it can do
  4. They are well-suited to read-only storage because of the items above
  5. By backing up these very, very large files separately you can make backups of the data that is really important much more frequently and easily - as described in the following section, i.e. later.

Backing up these files is also not a regular, repetitive chore - it should coincide with the addition of significant new files that have not already been backed-up because you know that the other's have not changed since your last backup! Whenever you have added around 2000 Megabytes (500 Pictures from an 8 Megapixel camera or 500 Music tracks or six episodes of a TV series or two movies) you should take a backup of (only numbered for reference if needed):

  1. Firstly - all of the recently added material but ommitting anything which:
    1. has been backed-up for other reasons - wedding pictures or videos that have been distributed to more than two "reliable" family members for instance or music that has been copied to a CD for the house, car and a spare.
    2. is easily reproducable / retrievable from other sources for the foreseeable future

    Note that as well as the folders: "My Pictures", "My Videos", "My Music" you MAY want to backup recent files in "My Downloads" because although the material MAY be available for download at some later date there is a good chance that it will have been updated and MAY no longer meet your needs. As an example - an older version of a program called a firewall may have been free but the latest version may not! So you MAY want to retain copies of files in "My Downloads" too

  2. After that you should add the same material that you last backed-up because you want to have at least two copies of everything and ideally three!:
  3. After that you should add the same material that you backed-up the time before if it will fit. Do not attempt to copy more than 4000 MB - if there is a choice then add the most important to retain.
  4. After you have burnt and verified the DVD then you should always burn a second copy which is kept in a dark, cool place which is as free from the risk of fire, flood, theft etc. as you feel is appropriate to the value of what you have backed-up

Why use DVDs and other minor technicalities:

  • CDs are much less reliable and robust than DVDs as well as storing a sixth; the latter also making DVDs more cost-effective and easier to store in bulk
  • What you add first should be added to the DVD first which is closer to the middle of the DVD and less prone to corruption - hence the order above
  • Whatever you do with DVDs and CDs they have to be kept away from heat and sunlight and as free of scratches as possible - hence the best practice of a second copy in case of failure.
  • Writing backup files to a DVD will depend on what version of Windows you have and more importantly if you have software installed which manages your DVD writer. If you are a customer, please call our usual number or the one below if you do not have it to hand.

Backing up your files that are NOT Multimedia format - i.e. not Music, Video, Pictures

For the vast majority of PC users the amount of data to be backed-up when Multimedia files are excluded will be measure in hundreds of Megabytes at the most. Because these files can typically be compressed into a quarter or a tenth of their original space they can be stored, often with individual versions on devices that are fast, cheap and without moving parts - flash memory stickS! note plural because there are other good reasons to have more than one copy - a classic case is when the owner of a document makes major changes to a document and unintentionally deletes several sections and saves the result - if you only have a single backup then the backup of the document will ALSO be overwritten during the next backup.

If I backup the data do I need to worry about anything else?

Sadly yes... Data can only be used by programs and they are stored on your PC too. The bad news is that programs are normally deliberately NOT PORTABLE because the author (inc. Microsoft!) typically wants you to go through an installation process as it is an opportunity for them to charge you for a license to run it. See System backup - changing software for a guide to backing up your system - the why, when and HOW is even more important with this type of backup than what is described above.

Introduction to backing up files on your PC

How valuable are the files on your PC to you? - it depends...

Files (sometimes referred-to as data) are stored in your PC on devices called hard drives. Hard drives contain intricate mechanisms operating at nano-heights over hundreds of thin platters which rotate a hundred times per second - it goes without saying that these can and will fail after a period of time even IF you treat them really, really carefully.

On the whole - anything that YOU have spent time and effort creating that is not already permanently accessible elsewhere should be considered "at risk" and your investment of your time and money in preserving that data should simply reflect the value to you. Bear in mind that you may be REQUIRED TO KEEP some DATA - for instance if it is part of the accounts of a company.

Backing-up data isn't usually difficult but knowing what, when and how to do it is not trivial because it depends on many factors but especially (a) what value you associate with being able to recover it in (b) what timescale, and, (c) what risks are you wanting to avoid - e.g. fire, flood, theft, computer failures of various types, accidental damage, viruses etc..

As well as the data within it, your system (often Windows but there are many alternatives) is something that you probably want to be able to recover although many people and small businesses do not invest the effort in anticipating that as a problem and have the challenge of re-creating their "system" with all of the programs and hidden data which they accumulate from your input over the months and years - again numbered only for easy reference in case of discussion:

  1. Programs have to be installed - typically a dozen but many people have fifty! Some will require a re-boot of your system so installations can take anything from ten minutes to half an hour even assuming there are no snags!
  2. Customisation of each program, it's settings and restoration of any data that it was keeping hidden. Note that products such as e-mail (e.g. Outlook / Express) MAY only be able to transfer data between the same version of that program AND Outlook Express isn't even available on the Vista platform and the choices on Windows7 are different again! Transferring SETTINGS from one version / release to another is also risky.
  3. Customisation of Windows (or Mac OS etc.) and it's settings! - not trivial
  4. Passwords and sometimes just as bad:
  5. Account / login user names
  6. License and registration keys for software - NB they are only likely to work for the version of software that you installed at the time - newer versions will probably not accept old keys!
  7. Bookmarks or Favourites
  8. Address book or other contact lists
  9. Saved form information held in your browser - also known as autocomplete
  10. History data information held in your browser - what sites / pages have you visited
  11. Browser plug-ins - essentially programs as per the first two items
  12. Templates for use in Word and/or Excel but also in other programs
    And IF relevant, these files and settings if stored on your PC
  13. Diary (Calendar) and/or Tasklists / Notes
  14. Faxes - Incoming and Outgoing
  15. RSS feeds
  16. Network settings (ADSL / Dial-up?!) and WiFi - inc. passwords
  17. Device drivers for your hardware inc. printers, phones, scanners, cards, etc. etc.. This can be a substantial amount of effort even for an expert

Even if you use "the Cloud" for a lot of web applications such as your e-mail (Googlemail, Yahoo, MSN etc.) and web-based office tools such as GoogleDocs there will be enough customisation to cause you pain and effort if you have to replace your PC.


I hope the information above has been useful, let me know if not! Any Comments, suggestions or corrections to: Contact us please. This would be especially useful if the software environment you have is different to mine and the headings, text or prompts are different.


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