Chris Bigelow

Disparate thoughts and musings…

Do You Back Up Your PC Data?

Backing up the data on your PC ranks right up there with getting a root canal.  Or so you’d think based upon how few people have a good backup system in place for their irreplaceable data.  Yet today, with so much of our lives in digital form, it’s more important than ever.

312621611_3799208e09This issue was brought sharply into focus for me on 15 October when I returned home from a meeting to find the screen of my eight week old laptop black with the ominous message: “No OS found”.  I tried numerous times to get it to boot but to no avail.  Diagnostics confirmed that the hard disk had failed.  I guess I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was, as electronics typically will fail in the first 90 days or they’re good for years.  But my heart fell when I saw that message.  Why?  Because I had not yet backed up any of the data on my “new” laptop – I figured I had time to do that later.

Fortunately for me, I was able to start the laptop using a bootable Linux CD (from Knoppix).  And, though the laptop’s HD would no longer boot, it spun up and I was able to copy all of my data off onto another network computer (“and there was much rejoicing”).

I got lucky.  This time.  I should have had a backup system in place.  I do on my other PCs but had not yet set something up on the laptop.  Valuable life lesson learned.

Backing up data is not unlike saving for retirement: both are most successful if automated.  I use a simple system to do this: I have each PC on the network copy any new files to a different PC on the network every night using one of two free utilities: Abakt and Cobian Backup.  It’s simple and automatic.  Large media files I back up manually every so often to writeable CDs or DVDs.  I do the same with any downloaded software I wish to back up.

But what if you don’t have multiple computers or, even if you do, they are not networked together?  As I see it you have two decent options: utilize an online/internet backup service (PC Mag has a review of several here) or a removable external drive.  Several of the former services offer a free option with 5GB of storage; cost of the latter option has plummeted to where you can now pick up 640GB of external USB storage for about $70.  Spending a little more will typically buy you a drive with included, automatic backup software.  Trust me – automatic is good.

raid1One final backup option I’m partial to is a network attached storage (NAS) solution employing either RAID 1 or X-RAID® (to be fair, there are RAID solutions available for inside your PC but that gets much more complicated).  These RAID configurations write your data to two physical hard drives which are mirror images of each other.  When one of the drives fail (which it will do – drives are electromechanical devices with a lifespan of 3-5 years) you just replace the failed drive with a new one and the RAID software will mirror the data on the good drive onto the new one and you are back in business.  To insure the safety of your data if you go this route, you must either save all of your critical info only on this drive array OR you must use one of the previously discussed back up software programs to copy key data to the RAID system on a daily/nightly basis.

It has gotten so easy and inexpensive to automatically back up your data that there is no excuse to not have a system in place.  Don’t wait until it is too late.


  Karl Heinz Kremer wrote @

I’ve been using an online service for a couple of years, and as long as you don’t change anything dramatic on your filesystem (moving an important folder to an area that does not get backed up – e.g. a second hard disk), it’s automatic and very reliable. I try to restore a few files every few months, just to make sure that I still have access to the data, and so far I’ve never encountered problems – and I also have never actually needed the service. Knock on wood. Because I take a lot of digital pictures, backing up gigabytes of data is not as straight forward as it should be – DVDs are just too small – so having a fully automated system take care of it is definitely worth a few bucks a month.

I’m using Mozy – they also have a free option: Mozy Online Backup – 2GB Free
Or, if you want to sign up for their unlimited plan: Mozy Unlimited Backup.

  Scott Robinson wrote @

Hi Chris,
I’m a fan of copywipe. CopyWipe for Dos creates a bootable CD used inconjunction with an external backup HDD to create a true mirror image of your main hard drive.
This in combination with a second external hard drive used to backup just “data” files is a good combination.
But I wanted to know what you thought of the new Backup functionality provided by Windows 7 and its ability to create “images” and boot disks (like Mac’s TimeMachine). Do you have any opinion on this and if you consider it worthy?

  Chris Bigelow wrote @

Hi, Scott.

I like your two-tiered approach. My copy of Win7 is in transit. Once I do a clean install and get my core s/w installed I plan to create a drive image. I’m not yet familiar with the new tools in Win7 – I have a couple of bootable linux imaging programs (PING and Digital Dolly) that I have used in the past. I’ll definitely check out whatever is built in as well as CopyWipe.

This initial image can be used to (relatively) quickly set your system back up in the event of an HD failure. Then, on an ongoing (ideally daily) basis, you need to back up your data. As you noted, an external HD works well for that – – if you have it automated. Even so called “one touch” buttons require you to remember to push them and thus are, in my book, unreliable.

Let’s continue this discussion in a few weeks after I’ve got Win7 installed and have had a chance to play with it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  Michele Heine wrote @


Thanks for the reminder. I need to do a backup, it’s been too long. I have an external 500Gb hard drive I use to backup data. For important files, like Quicken data files, I backup to another PC on my network.


  David Damico wrote @

Good article Chris. I am a Mac user and relay on “Carbon Copy Cloner” for my backups. I use and older desktop and do not want to share my CPU with an automated backup system so I simply have another drive equivalent in size to my internal SATA drive where I back up on a regular basis. Too many HD failures have taught me to be proactive.

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