Backing Up Data On Windows

I am on “light duties” at the moment due to an argument with a piece of furniture (it won). So I have time to write, and, prompted by the recent “Ransomware” attacks that hit the headlines, I thought I might do a post on data backups.

If you have valuable photos or documents on a Windows PC or laptop, then you really should back them up occasionally – because losing irreplaceable memories is a painful experience, and Windows machines are particularly vulnerable to worms and viruses.

If you are anything like me, you are finding that you own an increasing amount of “stuff” on your home PC/laptop. I just recently discovered that I had outgrown the capacity of my portable backup device – I now have more files, pictures, music etc. than the device could store – so I was forced to make some decisions about upgrading.

Many people choose to backup to the Cloud these days, but I am old-fashioned and I like to have my data in my own possession on a physical device.

So – for what it worth – I thought I would share my experience, in case it is useful to someone else.

(1) What To Back Up?

My choice here was whether to backup everything (data, software, operating system…) or just backup my own personal data (letters, documents, photos, etc.).

I chose to backup just my data. I argue that if my PC were to become totally messed up, I would probably want to take the opportunity to have a good “clear out” – i.e. only re-install the stuff I really need. So my practice has always been to make sure that I have a Windows 10 Recovery Disk (if you haven’t created one yet, you should – here’s how: http://www.techrepublic.com/article/be-prepared-create-a-windows-10-recovery-drive/ .

I also make sure that I have kept safe all installation disks, download page addresses, product keys, user accounts, passwords etc – everything needed to re-install from scratch all my favourite software apps – should the disaster scenario happen.

I have tried in the past to go with the “backup everything” (or, as it is known “disk imaging“) route, which – in theory – can recreate the PC exactly as it was before the disaster. However – believe me – it is not easy, and what’s worse, in my experience it doesn’t always work either. My advice (based on many weeks of testing various imaging software packages) is simply this :

If you choose to go the imaging route, be prepared to properly test it by wiping your hard drive completely and recreating it from the copy. If you are not comfortable doing something so drastic (and let’s face it, not many people would be comfortable with that !!), then don’t bother with imaging – because common sense says that if you have not fully tested it, you will never really know whether you can rely on it to work in an actual disaster scenario. It’s OK to do imaging in addition to data backup, but I would not rely on imaging alone unless I had thoroughly tested it. That is my opinion, and that’s why I only backup my data – in a form that can be copied back onto any Windows PC.

(2) How Much Data Do I Have?

Once I had decided what to back up, I could size it up. This is easy in Windows:

  • In the “Type here to search” box at lower left, I enter “This PC”.
  • I find and select in turn each folder that I want to include in the backup (“Documents”, “Pictures”, “Music”,…etc) , and for each folder, right-click and select “Properties”.
  • Windows reports the total size of stuff in that folder (usually in Gb or Gigabytes) – I make a note.
  • I add the Gb sizes together and that is the minimum capacity portable device that I will need to hold my backup data.

(3) Which Type of Storage Device?

Network Attached Storage is a type of drive that is designed to be permanently connected to your home network. I don’t use this type of drive for backup, because of risks from Ransomware. Anything attached to your network is vulnerable. I want to plug in a portable device, quickly do the backup, then unplug it and take it away to be stored offline, in a different location. This both minimizes the risk of infection, and ensures that even if my equipment were to set on fire or something, there is a chance that the backup device stored in a different room might survive.

Detachable USB “sticks” are a popular choice for those who don’t have a huge amount of personal data. The small capacity ones are really cheap, so you could buy two and alternate between them, so that even if one failed or got eaten by the dog, you would still have one to recover data from. USB sticks (or “flash drives”) can also be an option for those with more data to backup – 128 Gb sticks can be had from PC World.

Detachable Portable Drives are often used by people with large amounts of personal data. They come in basically three flavours:

  • SSDs have no moving parts, and they are fast – but many times more expensive that the traditional motorised spinning drives.
  • 2.5″ Drives are physically small and both connected and powered via the USB connector. That makes them very convenient.
  • 3.5″ Drives are physically bulkier and also connected via USB socket, but powered by a mains plug/adapter. Being mains powered, they can spin faster and therefore write data a bit faster than the USB powered ones.

Portable drives come in various storage capacities, from 128 Gb up to 4,000 Gb and more.

I worked out that I have 150 Gb of personal data. I chose a 1,000 Gb (or 1 Terabyte as it usually called) 2.5″ portable drive. This capacity should be more than sufficient for me – for some years to come. The specific make/model I chose was the Transcend StoreJet.

One of the weaknesses of motorised portable drives is that if you accidentally drop one onto a hard surface, you can easily knacker it and be unable to retrieve the data. The StoreJet comes in a silicone cover, with shock-resistant mountings inside, so I hope it should survive a fall to the floor if that ever happens. It cost £58 – but – when I consider that I hope it will look after my data for at least 3 years, that works out at around 5 pence a day for my peace of mind!

(4) How To Do The Backup?

If you have few folders and not much data, then you can just use Windows’ built-in “copy & paste” for the folders you select.

If – like me – you have a lot of data that is constantly changing (being added to and occasionally deleted) then you may prefer to acquire a dedicated software application to manage the backup. There are many free options available – just search for “free windows backup software”. Here is one option: http://www.todo-backup.com/products/home/free-backup-software.htm

The main advantage of dedicated backup software is that after the first backup, the second and future backups can be much more efficient – by only writing those files that have changed since the previous backup. Backups after the first one take much less time, using this “synchronisation” method.

I use a paid-for backup software called SmartSync Pro – but only because in my case it happened to be bundled free with one of the drives I bought some time ago. If it hadn’t been free to me, I would probably be using something like the free EaseUS Todo Backup tool linked above.

(5) How Is It Going?

So far so good! The drive came well packaged. I unpacked it and attached the USB cable to it. I then switched my Broadband Router off, and did an anti-virus scan to ensure my PC was clean. I then connected the portable drive to a USB socket on the front of my PC. The Windows 10 operating system immediately recognized it, and made it available as Drive “G:”

Accessing drive G: using File Explorer, I got a pleasant surprise. It comes pre-loaded with software that you can install (if you wish) – including some backup management software. In the event, I intend to stick with my SmartSync app – because I am familiar with it, and it is reliable –  but it is was nice to know that other purchasers get a free app.

I set SmartSync to backup my main folders: Documents, Music, Pictures and Videos to Drive G:, and then at 9 o’clock in the evening, I hit the “Run Now” – and left it running.

The following morning, I pulled up SmartSync’s log window, and read that it had finished at 01:58 am, having copied 229,161 files. So, about 5 hours to do the first backup. I unplugged the backup drive and switched my Broadband Router back on.

The next afternoon (having done very little with the PC in the mean time), I did the backup procedure again:

  • Switch Router off.
  • Run anti-virus scan.
  • Plug the backup drive in.
  • Run SmartSync.
  • Unplug the drive.
  • Switch Router back on.

The log reported 3 files copied, backup commenced 16:34 hrs, completed 16:37 hrs. So 3 minutes to check all my important files and do the synchronisation. I am very pleased with that!

If you have stayed with me this far, I am guessing you may have one question, namely “What’s all this switching the Router on and off ?

The explanation is that my backup drive will never be attached to my PC while the PC is connected to the Internet. This won’t prevent infection – but it does help to minimise the risk of anything nasty transferring itself from the ‘net while my backup drive is attached.

Well that’s it – I hope this post may be informative/useful.

Cheers, Pete.

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