Best Way To Backup Files On A Hard Drive

We show you the best way to backup files and documents from a hard drive. We always advise people to backup their documents on a regular basis so they are not lost if disaster strikes e.g. the hard drive dies or you can’t log into Windows. There are several different ways to save your files and the best option depends on what state your computer is in:

1. Computer Starts Up – can log into Windows, all is working ok.

Backing up from within Windows is the normal (and easiest) way and should be done on a regular basis. Skip to the ‘Backup Files On A Working Computer’ section below.

2. Computer Starts Up – can log into Windows but virus infection or software problems prevent you backing up your data.

In this situation you can’t backup from within Windows so you need an alternative method. The best way is to use a Linux boot CD (like Knoppix) – see our article on backing up files with Knoppix. This method is also recommended if your hard drive is faulty/dying – the Windows file system is likely to be damaged which can freeze your computer or prevent you copying files from within Windows whereas Knoppix uses its own undamaged file system, making it far less prone to file transfer errors.

3. Computer Starts Up – Can’t log into Windows

In this situation you can’t log into Windows so you need an alternative method. The best way is again to use a Linux boot CD (like Knoppix) – see our article on backing up files with Knoppix.

4. Computer Does Not Start Up

Your computer is dead due to a problem with the power supply or motherboard etc but hopefully the hard drive itself is still ok. If you are not able to repair the computer but still want to save data from the working hard drive, see our article on copying files from a dead computer.

Backup Files On A Working Computer

The safest and easiest way to save your data is whilst the computer is working fine – we recommend backing up on a weekly basis but you can do it more or less frequently depending how often you save new files and how important they are to you.

What Files To Backup?

You should copy anything that you would not want to lose in the event of disaster e.g. the hard drive dies. For most people this would mean backing up the contents of all personal folders e.g. Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos, Downloads, Received Files, Contacts, Desktop and Favorites. Remember to do this for each user account on your computer if you have more than one user – log on as each user and copy their data then log off and log on as another user and copy theirs (repeat as required).

Note: If you download email onto your computer via an email program like Outlook Express, Windows Mail or Windows Live Mail you should also backup your email folders and address book/contact list – again, these will be unique for each user account.

What To Backup To? You can save data to various devices but the most common are to CD/DVD, USB Flash Drive and USB External Hard Drive.

  • Backing up to CD/DVD is time consuming, prone to errors (faulty discs) and even a DVD can only store about 4.5GB of data which is not much nowadays.
  • Backing up to USB Flash Drive is easier and faster but they are also limited in storage capacity – 4GB and 8GB are common sizes. Flash Drives should be regarded as ‘cheap and cheerful’ temporary storage as they are designed for portability rather than longevity (especially the cheaper none branded ones which don’t tend to last very long).
  • Backing up to USB external hard drive is the recommended solution. These are as easy and quick to use as a Flash Drive but typically last much longer and have much larger storage capacities of 250GB to 1000GB+ making them ideal to store multiple backups and images – from more than one computer if required.

How To Backup

  • Many external USB hard drives come with their own software that can automate the process for you. However, this depends on making the right choices as to what to save – you may not find out until it’s too late if the backups worked and included everything you need.
  • For this reason we suggest backing up manually – select what is to be backed up (e.g. all of Pictures folder), right click and choose ‘Copy’ then open (My) Computer, go into the external drive, create a new Backup folder in it if required and go into it then right click and choose ‘Paste’ to copy all the pictures across. Repeat for the other folders containing things you want to store.
  • Finally, in case of hard drive/computer failure, consider creating a backup image of your main Windows partition (usually the C Drive) to give you the ability to restore the whole of the Windows partition to exactly as it was at the time you created the image.

Even if you can’t log into Windows, you can still use an image to restore your Windows partition – see our article on creating a backup image of Windows. If you only have a single partition on your hard drive you can store the backup image straight onto an external USB hard drive.