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Your guide to choosing PC backup software

Protect your files, documents and data from computer failure by backing them up.

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Back it up. Always.

If you've ever lost important files during a computer crisis, then turned to an IT expert for help, the resulting conversation will usually sound something like this.

IT: Did you backup your files?

You: No.

IT: You should have.

This is usually the last thing you want to hear, but the experts do have a point. Regular backups can keep your data safe from harm, and  keep personal documents or family photos safe. The three functions essential to any good backup program are:

  • Image backup and restore
  • Files and folders backup and restore
  • Disaster recovery

The software should also be flexible and easy to use, so you can create a backup procedure designed to fit your needs. Our buying guide details everything you need to know so you can find the ideal program.

Looking for the best backup software?

See our expert product reviews.

The benefits of a good backup

Typically you will use backup software to:

  1. Restore files/folders following accidental deletion or corruption.
  2. Restore to a previous state, a working system that's infected by a virus causing data loss.
  3. Repair problems caused by operating system (OS) failure.
  4. Restore a PC's entire hard drive contents to a new hard drive when the old one, or part of the hardware, has failed, or when the system will not boot to the desktop (disaster recovery).

The first and second examples will usually let you access your desktop so you can recover lost files or roll the operating system back to an earlier state. Three and four are typically used when your PC cannot start, which means rebuilding the operating system, programs and files on the same computer. This is often referred to as disaster recovery.

But did you know you can also use backup software to more easily upgrade your PC? A full backup lets you restore everything to a new hard drive in the same computer, even if the original is still working. Say you're using a 500GB drive, for example, and you want to upgrade to a 2TB drive. Most backup programs will let you create an exact duplicate or "clone" your system, so you can copy it onto the larger drive.

Things get a bit trickier however, when you want to restore your data to an entirely different computer, because you're working with different components (eg CPU, motherboard) and system drivers. In this case, you'll need to find a program that can 'clone' your drive and restore it to a different computer.

Different protection procedures

Most backup programs will duplicate your data in one of two ways:

  1. File/folder backup. Here individual files and folders are duplicated. Sometimes they are stored in a package that can only be read or unpacked by the backup software in question.
  2. Disk image. Essentially a screenshot in time of your entire system. You can use a disk image to restore your computer to the state it was in when the image was created, with all programs, files, folders and preferences in place.

They can do this using a variety of methods depending on the program:

  • Full backup: As the name suggests, this will duplicate all of the files and folders on your computer. A full backup is time consuming, but it's the required first step, even if subsequent backups only add the new or different files added to the hard drive since the full backup. 
  • Incremental backup: This backs up files that have changed or been added since the previous backup, while leaving unchanged files untouched. It requires less time and space than doing a full backup each time, and also gives you the option to roll back to earlier versions of files.
  • Differential backup: This duplicates all files since the full backup, with the differential backup file growing each time. Restoring only requires the full backup plus the differentiated backup file.
  • Clone backup (disk image): Creates an exact virtual copy of the drive being backed up, including all files, settings and drive structure.

In most cases, programs will not continually backup your data. Instead they work on regularly timed intervals, while some perform near-continuous backups, with incremental updates on an hourly basis or even more often. Those with a continuous backup will back up as files are changed, keeping your backup always up to date.

Where to store?

Store it on the ground...

These programs usually let you copy your data to CD/DVD or an external thumb/hard drive (local media). Some can also backup to NAS (network attached storage), FTP (external file server storage) and even tape.

...or send it to the cloud

Cloud storage is becoming an increasingly common alternative to local media, and while it offers advantages such as offsite backup, increased security and the freedom to access your data anywhere, services usually have subscription fees. These increase as you add more space which, when coupled with the costs of internet access, can end up being a relatively expensive option.

Some dedicated PC desktop backup programs support cloud backup as well as local backup. There are also cloud services for online backup, some of which can also back up to a local drive.

Looking for the best backup software?

See our expert product reviews.

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