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Community Newsletter: Q&A forum: 10/13/06 Getting serious about backing up your data

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) October 12, 2006 2:15 PM PDT

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10/13/06 Getting serious about backing up your data

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 10/12/06 2:15 PM


Hi, CNET, I need to get serious about doing backups. I don't currently back up any of my data, mostly because I don't know where to start. My system has a 160GB HD, so I'm storing a lot of files. It would be awful to lose them, and I'd be pretty embarrassed as well. So where do I start? What's the best method and best practices? Which files need to be backed up, and which can be ignored? Are there some common pitfalls to avoid? I'm running Windows XP (SP2), and I have a DVD burner and USB ports. Thanks!

Submitted by: Natalie L. of Madison, Wisconsin



Hi, Natalie, I feel for you. I named my hard disk the Garage because it's chock-full of files I'll never use again, mainly because I've forgotten they're there.

When contemplating backup, there are two things to consider. First is the system files. Over time, some of these files will become corrupted, so it's good to have a pure backup to replace the bad file. (I not only include the operating system files here, but program files as well.) Second, there's your personal data.

Many programs will back up system files. I personally use Powerquest's data keeper. It's primarily designed to back up specified files automatically as I use them. This is particularly important to me as I'm a writer, and when I lost an entire book a few years ago, that was almost a year's worth of work down the drain. Better programs are out there that will automatically back up your system files, identifying
what's important and what's not. Most major players, such as Symantec and McAfee, offer them.

The problem with these programs is they often make a mirror image when they back up your files. Consequently, if you're forced to hit Restore, you've taken a giant step backward, and programs you've loaded in the interim may be lost. I personally just reload Windows or other programs that have developed a problem. I don't back up system files.

Your first step is preparation. Allow yourself a day or two and an adequate supply of coffee and tranquilizers. You need to go through your drive and determine what's needed and what's not. (I think you'll be surprised at the large amount of garbage.) Your first step is to delete programs you never use.

You can use Windows to remove programs. But I've found it leaves many extraneous files lying about. I delete programs using Tweak Now Powerpack, though there are many programs out there that are designed to remove programs and clean up the registry as they do it.

After you're done with this, empty your recycle bin and clean your registry. Again, I use Tweak Now to clean the registry, but there are many programs that will do this for you.

Now go through the files and determine priorities. I recommend three: 1) Must keep, 2) should keep, and 3) can be deleted. Go through your drive and delete all those that you determined can be deleted.

Now it's not a question of what to back up, it's a question of where. You really have four choices: 1) a hard drive, 2) a CD-R/DVD-R, 3) an online storage site, or 4) an external device, either a RAM stick, an external hard drive, or a floppy disk if your computer comes with a floppy disk drive.

The hard drive can be local--resident in your computer--or a network hard drive, if you're on a LAN. I personally partitioned my hard drive and have one of the partitioned drives strictly for backup. This, however, is risky as I'd lose the data if the hard drive failed.

For the "must save" files, I back up on my hard drive, a network drive and a CD-R/DVD-R. I do this because backing up on a CD-R/DVD-R, though ideal, is something that I should do more often. Businesses do it daily. I'm lucky if I do it weekly. This, of course, causes a different organizational problem in that my "office" is cluttered with backup CD-R/DVD-Rs.

The "nice to keep files" go directly to CD-R/DVD-R. I generally try to arrange them with one CD-R/DVD-R for pictures, another for music, A CD-R/DVD-R for data files and text files, and another to copy program installation files. I don't generally leave them on my computer as they're just clutter. The exception is files I access frequently, such as music.

That's where an external hard drive comes into play. The advantage is you can store files on the external hard drive and not locally. The less files you have cluttering your main computer hard drive, the better it works. (If nothing more, spyware and virus checks don't take nearly as long.) You have the additional advantage of being able to move your external hard drive between computers, such as the one at work and the one at home. External hard drive used to be quite pricey, but those times are past. Now, you can pick up a 160GB external for under $100.

There are several online storage sites. I use Xdrive. I rarely use them to back up data, however, preferring to use a CD-R/DVD-R or network drive. I do use them for files I want to share with others. My books run around 2GB and larger, depending on the number of comments and editing involved. That's a huge chunk to attach to an email. By putting them in online storage, my editor can access the file, make her corrections, and then post the file online for me to pick up. Online storage is also great for pictures you want to share.

Many sites offer online storage free, as long as you don't have much to store. Even Yahoo! offers free storage. If you want to back up larger chunks of your data, however, there is a small monthly charge.

The real key to backups is forcing yourself to do it on a regular basis. I'm very good about backing up important files frequently, relying on Datakeeper to do it daily, while I burn a CD-R/DVD-R weekly. For the rest, I'm too lax and on January 1, when I usually clean out my drive, I find a staggering number of files for which I have no need.

One final note. After you have waded through your drive and deleted files, or backed them up, it's time to defragment your disk. If you do, I think you'll find that after the coffee and tranquilizers run out, your computer will run much faster, almost as fast as the day you bought it.

Good luck!

Submitted by: Wayne A.

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