Nerdism at its best

March 20, 2014

Protecting your Data

Imagine your home goes up in flames and all those memories and important moments are suddenly gone. You may mourn the loss of your house’s actual physical structure, but it’s the stuff that was inside of it that really mattered.

Similarly, if your computer gets hosed or stolen, you will definitely feel the sting of not having your computer for a certain term, i.e. until you can replace it, but what’s really going to sting and continue to haunt you for long after will be all those personal files you lost.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are really simple ways to easily backup your data quickly and painlessly, often with little to zero interaction from you (once you set everything up). These solutions range from full system to incremental backups, using a variety of mediums. Out of all the things you put into your computer, no matter how expensive the components, peripherals, and accessories, you cannot put a price on your data. The time you put into your documents, photos, music collection, and everything else is invaluable and irreplaceable.

Different backup mediums, pros and cons

The type of medium you back your stuff up to will depend largely upon your means, what you’re protecting, and how much you want to spend. Some storage mediums are clearly better than others so it’s important you spend a little time considering all your options.

Hard drive

Hard drives remain the cheapest and most generous backup option. Today you can easily buy a 1 terabyte external hard drive for under $100 and that is usually way more than enough to back up all your files and entire system. Of course, if you have even more data to protect, larger hard drive sizes are also very affordable.

The downside to hard drives is that they’re still doomed to fail at some point in the future. They’re also comparatively slow and consume more power than thumbdrives or SSDs.

Flash drives and SSDs

Flash drives and their hard drive brethren SSDs are the most efficient and fastest way to do backups. The ability of flash to provide very fast write and read speeds, means that you can use them to quickly archive your data.

That said, it’s hard to imagine flash technology as a good long-term storage medium. In most cases, such as with thumb drives and SD cards, the purpose is to simply carry files from one place to another, while SSDs are better intended as system or gaming drives owning to their performance rather than longevity.

And while the cost of SSDs has fallen greatly in recent years, they still pale in comparison to HDDs in terms of price and capacity.


Most readers should be intimately familiar with storing files on CD/DVD. Obviously, both are limited in size, a CD has a 700 MB capacity, while a DVD is usually 4.7 GB or 8.5 GB.

I will be completely blunt about this, CDs and DVDs are a dying medium. Most of the laptops, particularly ultrabooks, produced today are eschewing optical drives, and it’s just easier and cheaper at this point to leave an optical drive out of the mix when building a new computer.

Moreover, a lot of software is only distributed online, OS X for example, and even Microsoft is moving more and more towards the Internet to distribute Windows.

Finally, recordable CDs and DVDs simply don’t last – think years not decades – so if you are going to use optical media to archive your files, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Use high quality, “archival quality” discs
  • Use a jewel box instead of a paper sleeve to store them
  • Keep your discs clean, hold them by the edges and wipe fingerprints off with clean, soft cloth
  • Store them in a dark, dry, cool place
  • Mark your discs with a non-solvent based felt-tip marker
  • Write discs at a slow speeds to better ensure write integrity and minimize rewrites

If you really must use optical media for your backups, you should take precautions to preserve them.

Cloud storage

Cloud storage is such a new trend that a lot of people still don’t immediately consider it, but it is quickly becoming a de-facto place to back up stuff. The great thing about cloud storage is that as long as you have an Internet connection, it’s always on and present so it’s especially good for incremental backups.

There are a few obvious drawbacks to cloud storage. For one, you have to have to be connected for it to work, otherwise you’re just saving everything locally. Also, meaningful cloud storage space (more than what is typically offered for free), is a recurring cost versus buying an external hard drive once. Finally, unless you’re connected to the Internet via a fat data pipe, like fiber, uploading is a pain, especially if you have gigabytes of stuff to back up, were talking days to upload everything.

Your best bet for backups is a combination of external hard drive(s) for archiving purposes, and cloud storage for incremental stuff.

That said, the single coolest feature of cloud storage is the fact that if you store your documents or pictures from one location, wherever you go, to whatever computer or device, if you have an Internet connection, your stuff is always there.

Using the myriad cloud services out there is an effective way to keep your stuff constantly backed up but if you have meaningful amounts of data then you will obviously need lots of space. That means paying for it since most of the freely allotted space is only a fraction of what you’d want.

Cloud Service Comparison

Here’s a quick comparison chart of some of the more popular cloud services out there. Keep in mind that today basically everyone has some kind of cloud storage service so there’s a lot more than appears here.

Service Free space Upgrade pricing Compatibility
Amazon Cloud Drive 5 GB Pricing starts at $10/year for 20 GB and tops out at 1000 GB for $500/year Kindle Fire, Android, iOS, Windows, Mac
Apple iCloud 5 GB 10 GB – $20/year, 20 GB – $40/year, 50 GB – $100/year iOS, Mac, Windows
Box 10 GB Pricing starts at $5 per user per month for up to 100 GB and can top out at $35 per user per month for unlimited storage. Android, iOS, Windows
Carbonite None Carbonite markets itself as a complete backup solution. Pricing starts at $59.99 per year per computer for unlimited storage. Windows and Mac
Dropbox 2 GB Dropbox offers incentives to gain more free space.Upgrade pricing starts at 100 GB – $8.25/month, 200 GB – $16.60/month, 500 GB – $41.60/month. All plans are billed annually. Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, Blackberry, Kindle Fire
Google Drive 15 GB Drive’s space is shared with Gmail and Google +. Upgrade pricing starts at 100 GB – $4.99/month and 200 GB – $9.99/month Windows, Mac, Android, iOS
OneDrive 7 GB Pricing starts at 50 GB – $25/year, 100 GB – $50/year, 200 GB – $100/year Windows, Windows Phone, Mac, iOS, Android
Mozy 2 GB You can get more free space by referring friends. Upgrade pricing starts at 50 GB – $5.99/month and 125 GB – $9.99/month. You can add an additional 20 GB for $2/month and additional computers for $2 per month per computer. Windows, Mac, iOS, Android
Sugarsync Plans are free to try for 30 days. Pricing begins at 60 GB – $7.49/month or $74.99/year, 100 GB – $9.99/month or $99.99/year, 250 GB – $24.99/month or $249.99/year, 1000 GB – $55/month or $550/year. Alternatively, Sugarsync will let you develop a custom tailored plan. Windows, Mac, iOS, Android

Using your back up to target specific data stores

In Windows, there’s a couple of data stores that you can safely focus on backing up, which will better ensure all your essential personal data is safe, namely “Libraries” and “Special Folders”. Libraries are basically collections of stores and you can add to them to consolidate your various data types: Documents, Music, Video, Pictures, and Downloads.

So, one way to quickly backup your music files for instance, would be to add your music folders and/or drives to the “Music” library. Then all your music is one place. Rather than having to add your music location(s) in your backups, you can simply add the library such as with our “Documents” library in the screenshot.

Here then, if you have several folders that fall under the documents category, they’re all in one designated repository.

On the other hand, while you may have all your documents consolidated in the “Documents” library, you may only want to back up the designated system folder.

Special folders

Many Windows users are familiar with their documents folder, and they know that their photos are automatically saved in the “Pictures” folder in the user folder, while videos default to the “Videos” folder, etc.

One of the cool things you can do with special folders is move them to your cloud service. This helps you create seamless roaming folders such that, when you redirect your “Documents” or “Music” folders to a cloud drive, you can quickly sync your data on every Microsoft profile you log into, simply navigate to your user folder, and move your special folders.

Let’s briefly demonstrate how you’d do this with Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive).

Moving Special Folders

So the idea here is that we’re going to take one of our special folders, in this case the “Desktop” and move it to a cloud folder, which means that it will be synchronized to the cloud every time we make a change to it. This not only backs up the special folder continuously, but you can also move your special folders to a cloud folder for seamless synchronization across all your connected Windows devices.

The following instructions are for Dropbox, however, the same instructions apply to the other cloud services too. In fact, all these cloud services install special folders in your user folder so you can also relocate them to a larger hard drive, if necessary.

To move a special folder you can either navigate to your user folder, for example, C:\Users\Matt, or you can simply right-click and select properties for many of the system’s special folders in “File Explorer”.

In the “Properties” dialog, click “Move” to relocate the folder to another location.

In the “Select Destination” window, navigate to the location where you want to move the folder and then choose “Select Folder”.

A warning dialog will appear asking you if you’re positively sure you want to move all the files from the old location to the new one. Click “Yes” to continue.

Data in the older folder will then be transferred to the new location. Note, if you want to move that particular special folder again, you will need to choose it from its new location or “File Explorer”, if applicable.

Backup Tools

There are two ways to back stuff up, archival and incremental. In Windows, this can be accomplished either through “System Image” backups or “File History”, respectively.

File History

“File History” was introduced in Windows 8 so it is not available for other Windows versions. The concept of “File History” should be very familiar to anyone who has paid attention to Apple’s “Time Machine” for OS X. “File History” like “Time Machine” works by creating incremental backups.

This means that at regular intervals, be they ten minutes, an hour, a week, etc., your libraries, desktop, contacts, and favorites are backed up to another drive or partition. The difference however, between simply backing things traditionally where you typically overwrite the old backup with the new one and in the case of “File History”, is that backups are saved as versions.

This means that “File History” will save every version of a file or folder structure, and any changes that take place, at the preset interval. So, if you suddenly realize that you need made changes to a source file instead of making a new copy, you can go back and retrieve that file as if it never happened.

Selecting a drive and turning file history on

“File History” is super easy to start and configure, either from the Control Panel or “PC settings”. Before you actually turn “File History” on, it is a good idea to make sure you have chosen your backup drive.

To choose a backup drive, click “Select Drive” and choose a backup drive from the “Select a File History drive” screen.

Once you’ve selected a backup drive you can turn on “File History” and it will automatically start backing up your libraries, desktop, contacts, and favorites and will continue to do so until the backup drive’s allocated space is used up, or the drive runs out of space, thereafter the oldest backups will be automatically deleted to make way for the new backups.

Excluding Folders

If you want to back up everything “File History” does by default, then you can safely leave it to its own devices. However, if you want to keep your backups small, or the sum total of your libraries exceed your available disk space, you can exclude folders.

Simply click “Exclude Folders” and on the “Exclude from File History” screen and click “Add” and choose the items you want to exclude.

Note, “File History” only backs up your Libraries (Music, Pictures, Videos, Documents, Downloads), Contacts, Desktop, and Favorites. If you want to include other files and folders in “File History”, you will first need to add them to your Libraries (detailed earlier).

Restore personal files

Should the time come when you need to retrieve a previous file or folder version, click “Restore personal files” and the file restore screen will appear. You can “rewind” and “forward” through your backups and then click the green restore button when you find the item(s) you want to restore.

Advanced settings

Finally, the “Advanced Settings” allow you to choose the frequency “File History” creates backups, and how long it keeps saved versions. You can also set the size of your offline cache, and decide how it keeps saved versions.

System Images

When you create a system image, you are taking everything that is on a drive or partition and copying it to a backup medium. Because of the way images work, when you restore one, your computer will restart and the backed up system will overwrite your current installation. When your computer reboots, your computer will be restored to the same state you imaged it to.

Therefore, before making any backup images, make sure you’ve fully updated your system and you’ve installed any main apps you normally use. This ensures your recovery time is minimized if you do ever have to reinstall the system image.

Creating a System Image

To open the “System Image” wizard in Windows 8.x, you can click the link from the “File History” screen.

In Windows 7, you can open “Backup and Restore” from the Control Panel.

If you want to “Create a System Image”, click the appropriate link.

Note, the Windows 7 “Backup” section, and specifically the “Set up backup” link. Clicking this link will trigger the old style “Windows Backup”, which no longer comes installed on Windows 8.x. You can use “Windows Backup” to back up your whole drive or just certain parts.

Since Windows 7 doesn’t come with “File History”, you can use “Windows Backup” for incremental backups, though it won’t be as simple or convenient.

Creating a system image on either Windows 7 or Windows 8.x is virtually the same so I’ll continue this discussion showing the Windows 8.x version. When the wizard first opens, you can choose to save it to a hard disk, one or more DVDs, or a network location.

After selecting your backup destination, click “Next” to move the proceeding screen.

Here, you will need to choose the source drive or partition. Note you can choose one or more sources to back up.

The next screen will ask you to “confirm your backup settings”. It will tell you approximately how much disk space it will take up, and that any existing system images could be overwritten. Click “Start backup” and your backup will begin.

Restoring a System Image

Restoring a system image is easy. In Windows 7, simply open the Control Panel and type “Recovery” in the search box. Then choose “Recovery”.

Then, choose “Advanced recovery methods” below the “System Restore” option.

Finally, choose “Use a system image you created earlier to recover your computer” to begin the recovery process.

In Windows 8.x, use the Metro “PC settings” and choose “Update and recovery” and then “Recovery” and then click “Restart now” under “Advanced startup”. When the computer restarts, you will be shown a blue “Choose an option” screen.

Click “Troubleshoot” to continue.

On the “Troubleshoot” screen, choose “Advanced options”.

Finally, on the “Advanced options” screen, choose “System image recovery” to begin the process.

And that’s it, your computer will be restored and everything will be back in place as you left it!