Never lose a file again

Never lose a file again
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Stuart Andrews shows you how to set up and maintain the perfect backup routine.

Really, there’s no excuse these days. External hard drives are pitifully cheap, online backup services are free, and Windows Vista even has a half-decent backup utility built in.

Yet most of us will still lose files because of malware attacks, thoughtless deletion, hard-disk failure or some other PC-ravaging catastrophe.

Part of the problem is that so few of us think through our backup regimes properly – if at all. Either we take a sledgehammer to crack a walnut, initiating layers of complex routines that we never perform, or we simply don’t back up the right files and folders to the right places.

This feature is all about creating a backup routine that works efficiently, keeping each and every vital file safe, while not making your life any more complicated than it has to be.

There are several options available for backup, but here we’re going to look at using a combination. Both local, hardware-based systems and online services have their place, but they also each have weaknesses. The trick is to use the strengths of one to cover the weaknesses of the other, and keep your files protected.

Part 1 : Local backup

This is where some people immediately go wrong: a local, hardware-based backup should be the backbone of your safekeeping measures, not the sum total. It gives you a main file archive and a first port of call when trouble occurs.

An external hard disk drive, home server or NAS device gives you the speed and capacity you need to back up all your documents, digital media files and application data, and – if you’re smart – your operating system and applications.

Does optical media such as DVD-R/W or Blu-ray have a place? They’re of limited use for full backups, but they can still be employed if you want to maintain a more permanent data archive.

For example, if you’re a keen digital photographer or you prepare accounts or publications on a regular basis – or even if you download lots of MP3 tracks – then making periodic backups of documents, photos or new additions to your media library makes sense. That way, should something happen to your system and your external hard disk, NAS or home server, you haven’t lost that once-in-a-lifetime picture.

For added security, keep a copy away from your PC at home or at the office.
Your external drive may have come with backup software supplied, but if not there’s no desperate need to spend money.

Vista has its own Backup and Restore Center that not only backs up individual files and folders, but also a working image of your system – complete with applications – that you can restore from the recovery console if necessary.

This is a wise move if you have a drive with available space, as reinstalling your operating system and applications after a hard-disk failure can take several hours – and that’s assuming you have all your installation disks to hand.

click to view full size image
You can choose what sort of file you want to back up, but not exact file types or locations (click on image for full size)

The image will be compressed, so you don’t actually need 500GB of hard disk space to image a 500GB drive, and this one simple precaution can save a lot of misery.

While Backup and Restore Center is a good catch-all for the average user, power users will find it a blunt tool. It allows you to choose which categories of file (music, documents, images) you want to back up, but not the exact file types or locations, and it just isn’t set up to cope with more obscure applications or file types.

For this reason, we’d recommend doing a little work yourself, either with a dedicated backup application or a file-synchronisation tool such as Microsoft’s SyncToy.

The latter is free, and will synchronise pairs of folders – one on your system drive and one on your external hard disk. It’s easy to use, and the advantage is you have complete control over what’s backed up and when.

The main downside is that you can’t schedule backups with SyncToy without using the Windows Task Scheduler. That’s why you still can’t beat investing in a proper backup package such as the A-Listed Acronis True Image, which offers excellent, highly customisable backup and disk-imaging features, and intelligent system-protection features, too. As a one-off expense, it’s worth it.

The trick with using an external hard disk for backup is to divide it into two partitions: one for saving a drive image, and the other to back up documents and media. There’s no need to constantly refresh your drive image; in fact, it’s safer if you don’t.

Instead, create new images only when you know your system is stable, and if you’ve installed a major new application. The idea is to make sure you have a safe working copy of Windows, complete with applications, at your fingertips.

Use the second partition to maintain a copy of documents, image files, music and videos, saved games and anything else you want to safeguard, either using Windows Backup and Restore Center, a dedicated backup application, or a synchronisation tool such as SyncToy.

You need to keep this updated on a weekly or even daily basis. The big question is whether to sync or to archive.

Synchronisation ensures that you have the most up-to-date version of a file on both your system and backup disks, but there’s a risk that if you corrupt or accidentally delete a file on your system disk, it will also be corrupted or deleted on the backup. One way around this in SyncToy is to use the option to Contribute, instead of Synchronise or Echo, when you create a new folder pair. This ensures that files aren’t deleted from your backup when you sync.

However, if file integrity is a matter of critical importance to you or your business, it might be better to use a package that archives your files, keeping versions that you can return to later if need be.

If you corrupt a file on Friday but don’t find out until Monday, you can go back to Thursday’s archive and grab the working version.

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This feature appeared in the February, 2009 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine
Copyright © Alphr, Dennis Publishing

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