Sanborn's Guide to Backing up Your Computer

It is time to get organized and here is what you should do. First would be to take an inventory of what software you have and if you still have the install CDs that came with those packages. A couple of schools of thought here. One is to simply keep the original CDs in the boxes that they came in and store them all in a closet. I like this approach because you can easily see everything in one place, if you need to reinstall a product, you have everything together and can easily access it. Others prefer to remove the packaging and throw it away and just keep the CDs in a drawer. Warning... many software packages keep the installation key on the box and not on the CD. In either case, you need to keep it organized. Too often when I am trying to rebuild someone's computer, they cannot find the files, a CD that might have gotten loaned out to someone, or worse, threw away the key code for the program. And speaking of missing software, if you are going to “borrow” a program from someone else and then use it on a regular basis, then buy it. You have got to keep organized and if you decide you don’t want a program any longer, after you uninstall it, then throw away the software and the box, don't keep it around. Better yet, donate it to some worthy cause.

This also applies to the drivers discs that came with the computer. Make sure you have drivers for the video, modem, sound, CDROM, Network, and any other devices you have for your computer as well. When rebuilding a computer (assuming you still have all the components) they are essential. Don’t forget the external devices like scanners and printers.

Do you copy files or make a backup of the entire system..

A couple of things more to think about when doing the backups before we get to your important files and documents. If you do a full system backup, whether it be on dvd, a cloud, or image file, you have to remember, it is a full system backup. What that means is that it backups your full system based on your computer hardware, configuration, and anything in it. If your computer is stolen, burned, or otherwise lost, and you get a new computer, if you do a full system restore, you will have quite a few problems to deal with even if the hardware you are restoring to is nearly identical to what was lost. Devices will be in different locations, on different addresses and IRQs, and some may be missing all together. It will work but you will have some effort ahead to tell the computer that it doesn’t have all that old ghost equipment that it thought it did and in fact, the computer may not start at all if the conflicts are too great. Despite these problems, I have gone this route and can make it work, and so can you.

An alternative to backing up files would be to have a backup drive in your computer. By having two drives of the same size, you can use a program like Acronis Image to make images of your hard drive on the second drive. The drive crashes, replace the drive, restore the image and you are back in business. Of course, this doesn’t do a thing if your computer is stolen but it is a good backup alternative. Cost is the drive $100 estimate, $50 for the software, and again, you have to discipline yourself to do the backup images.

If you are going this route, a better option would be to mirror the drives. Get an identical sized drive installed in your computer and check to see if you have RAID capability built into the mainboard. If not, you can get a raid controller card installed. This allows the computer to simultaneously write to two drives as if they were one. If one dies, pull it, and the computer can still work. Install the replacement drive, let the raid controller sync things up again, and you are back to work.

Backup Drives are very popular today and for a small business, it is the way to go. I like the Seagate or Western Digital drives because they have the software that will back up your entire system automatically. Plug it in, it starts up, and will automatically backup your entire system.

Other alternatives to look at would be if you are on a network, to use a drive on a computer in another location as your backup. There are even internet backup sites available but I would strongly investigate the security and longevity of such sites before using them. Too many dot coms are failing these days and you have to be careful but a good name would be Carbonite, www.carbonite.com.

A third alternative is to use a DVD burner. What you do here is to just create a disc that contains your important files and documents. If you have to rebuild, then simply reinstall all your software and then copy back the important files you burned on the DVD. Writers are less than $50 and the discs are around ten cents each in spindles. I have talked about the problems with burners before and you need to be sure your system isn't doing anything else when you burn a disc and you should check the disc after to be sure it was successful. Sometimes the DVD drives come with backup software to allow you to backup your entire system but don’t forget, they only hold about 4.7GB of data on each disc. If your computer has 300GB of data files, this might not be a good alternative.

My choice for home users? Get a USB Drive of say 4 to 64 gigabytes in size and just copy your critical documents (or music) to it to use as a backup.

So, if we are at the point you want to do selective backups. Just back up the important files and data and reinstall the software as needed. In fact, I prefer this approach because you get to start with a fresh computer Windows system especially if you have installed and removed software or find you just don’t want certain devices in there anymore. I have discovered over the years that even if you do a good job in using the control panel to remove installed software or hardware, quite often, it doesn't clean everything up. Too often, files are left over that could cause problems with other programs or devices and in my case when I do a lot of testing of software and hardware products, my computer does get too cluttered and starts to crash on a regular basis. Time for a reformat of the hard drive and this is the approach I will use.

So, do you know where your data files are? For years, software manufacturers simply looked in the vast abyss of the hard drive and said to themselves, “this looks like a good place to stash the files and so they were all over the place. They often buried them in a folder (subdirectory to you old DOS geeks), deep in a folder of their program just installed and you really had a difficult time to figure out where they were. Fortunately, if you are a Microsoft junkie, they have cleaned up their act by placing your documents in "My Documents" but if you used anything else like Word Perfect, Lotus, Act, Quicken, Eudora, Word Star, Paradox, Ami Pro, and so on, you had to dig to see where the files are and worse of all, most people didn't have a clue as to where they were. And what about programs like AOL, Netscape, Internet Explorer, and Outlook? They make it darn near impossible to figure out where things are. How do you save them?

First start by going through the start menu and looking at all your programs and noting down which ones have information or documents that you need to backup. It could be a long list. Also check your desktop icons incase you have them there and not in your start menu. For most of the programs that create documents and the like, you can simply start the program, then click file/open and see where it is getting your documents from. Others you may have to dig a little deeper to figure out where they are. Some programs, you may have to check with the manufacturer or get creative to see where they are or even what they are. You can also use the File Find feature of Windows. For instance, Quicken saves its documents in a qdf Format, Outlook uses a pst file, and Word Perfect used to use wpd.

What you will be surprised with is that they are often stored in places you never thought of. For example, Microsoft Outlook stores your address file in:

C:\WINDOWS\Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook. Once you have found everything, I can probably still say that you will miss something. As I mentioned, don't forget your favorites, the desktop, and my briefcase for stashed files.

At this point, if you have everything, then you can use your USB Drive or DVD burner to create the backup. Be sure to save the layout of the backup so that it will remind you of where everything is.

Now, what about loosing the computer and the files on it to someone else. To that end, I am researching encryption and secure software and hope to have more news on that for you later. For now, you should be thinking about where and in what documents you have stashed things like account numbers, passwords, secret codes, and the like.

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This Page Last Updated: January 18, 2014 .