When was the last time you backed up your computer? If you answered "never", you are not alone. A recent survey found that "39 percent of respondents admit they have never backed up their computers, or haven't done so in more than a year". And yet, a similar proportion of respondents felt that the documents and files that they will lose in the event of a crash would be irreplaceable.
We get it--backing up your computer can seem like a hassle. But that's because many users are unaware of how easy it really is in Windows 7. All you need is an external hard drive and the ability to follow simple instructions. Here are some tips to get you started.
Tip 1: Create a system image
The first step toward backing up your system is to create a system image. This is basically a 'snapshot' of your computer's hard drive partition at that moment in time. With this image, you can restore your computer as it is, including the operating system, installed programs, drivers and even your personal files.
Now, we know that many PC vendors now partition off a small portion of the hard drive to store a system image of the operating system and other installed applications for recovery purposes. This means users can actually restore the PC to its pristine, factory settings when necessary. You will however lose all your personal files.
However, even with such recovery partitions already in place, it doesn't mean you shouldn't create your own. A good reason is bloatware. Many PC vendors add numerous programs that are basically free trials that expire after a short period of time. Antivirus and casual games are the common examples. Then there are the proprietary applications from the manufacturer that may not be useful for everyone.
Hence, we recommend that you create a clean system image after you uninstall these bloatware applications. This will mean a smaller, custom system image that will save you disk space on your external backup and also avoid the hassle of uninstalling these applications again should you need to recover your system. There are some applications out there that can help you uninstall these unwanted programs quickly, such as PC Decrapifier.
A clean system image is very handy if you intend to do a clean install of your operating system regularly. (Credit: Screenshot by CNET Asia)
To create a system image, go to Control Panel, click on Backup and Restore. On the left sidebar, click Create a system image.
You can choose to save the system image on an external hard drive or optical media (only the Professional and Ultimate Editions of Windows 7 allow users to backup to a network location). You will likely need more than one DVD if you're going for the optical media route (this depends on the amount of content on your hard drive partition). Once the image is created, you can use it to restore your computer. Of course, the PC would need to be able to start up and have a working hard drive. This brings us to the next part of the process.
Tip 2: Create a system repair disc
A system image by itself won't be able to boot up your computer if something goes wrong. You'll need a system repair disc that has the necessary files to boot up the PC and also have options for you to restore the system from your image backup. It's a fairly straightforward procedure. From the Control Panel, go to Backup and Restore and on the left sidebar, click on Create a system repair disc.
Insert a blank writable DVD and create the repair disc.
You'll need a system repair disc if your computer cannot boot up by itself. (Credit: Screenshot by CNET Asia)
Now, if your system is unable to boot into Windows properly, pop in the system repair disc and follow the instructions. We recommend that you allow it to do a startup repair before proceeding to the more drastic measures. With this disc, you can do a System Restore provided that a restore point had been created initially (see Tip 4 below) or you can use it to restore the system image you created earlier.
Tip 3: Automate your backup
The system image created earlier is a "clean" version of your PC without any bloatware. It's suitable for those who intend to reinstall a clean version of the operating system on a regular basis. However, most users would prefer a system backup that keeps their most recent changes, so that they won't lose any data in the event of hardware failure.
In this case, you'll need to set up a scheduled backup of your system. Again, open Backup and Restore from the Control Panel. This time, select Set up backup. You will then select the location where you wish to save your backup--an external hard drive or optical media. If you're doing this regularly (as you should), we recommend that you choose the external hard drive option.
Connect an external hard drive (with sufficient disk space for future expansion) and click on Refresh if the drive isn't detected initially. Then select the hard drive and continue with the backup process. You can set up a schedule for the backup to take place--do note that your external hard drive should be connected to your computer during these scheduled backup sessions.
Once you have such an active backup in place, you can use the system repair disc created earlier together with the external backup to recover your system when necessary.
An external hard drive is the way to go, as they are likely to have enough storage. (Credit: Screenshot by CNET Asia)
You can change when the system does the automated backup. (Credit: Screenshot by CNET Asia)
Tip 4: Using System Restore
So far, we have discussed how you can go about backing up your system and personal data. But what if a rogue program corrupts your applications before you have backed up your data?
Well, Windows 7 does have a fallback option: System Restore. However, this feature only restores system files and settings, which means that you may get your corrupted application working again, but any personal files changed since the last restore point will not be restored.
By default, Windows 7 will create restore points automatically, especially before a major change in the system, such as a Windows Update or the installation of a new driver. You can see the restore points already created by opening Control Panel, clicking on Recovery and selecting Open System Restore. So if you feel that a recently installed driver or application may be adversely affecting your system, you can rely on this feature to roll back the changes.
We don't recommend using System Restore as a substitute for a proper backup, because you will lose personal files such as photos and emails. System Restore also depends on the fact that your hard drive is still accessible. Unlike an external backup, it won't save your system in the event of a disk failure.
As you can see, Windows created these restore points before a major update. (Credit: Screenshot by CNET Asia)
You can also create a restore point manually. (Credit: Screenshot by CNET Asia)
Tip 5: Use the cloud
An alternative to backing up your data on external hard drives and optical media is to make use of online storage services. Some PC vendors now bundle such services with their computers, though they only offer a limited amount of storage space. Examples include Dell's DataSafe Online and Asus WebStorage, which are both capped at 2GB of online storage.
There are also quite a number of free online storage solutions, from Dropbox to Ubuntu One. One of the more generous services is Microsoft's SkyDrive, which gives users up to 25GB of online storage. All you need is to sign up for a free Windows Live account and you can start uploading your files to the online servers.
While online storage is another useful tool in your backup arsenal, it really shines when it comes to sharing your files with others. It's also convenient to aggregate all your data in one common repository, especially when we all have multiple devices nowadays.