What invaluable data is on your hard drive? Wedding photos? Financial records? Your saved games from Oblivion? Here’s how to preserve and recover those files in the wake of a disaster.
Backing up the ol’ hard drives belongs on that mental checklist we all maintain—the one titled “You Know You Should….” For most of us, data backup falls somewhere between “Floss Your Teeth” and “Call Your Mother.” These are the things you know you need to do, but that you just keep putting off ‘til maÃ±ana. You also know that it’s inevitable that your procrastination will eventually bite you in the rump.
Before it gets to that point, download the free edition of 2BrightSparks’ SyncBack software from www.2brightsparks.com, take 35 minutes, and follow this guide to backing up your hard drive. Floss your teeth while you’re waiting for the backup to finish; and when it does, call your mother. She worries.
1. Decide What to Back Up
There are two complementary approaches to backing up your hard drive: One is to create an “image” of the disk, and the other is to copy only selected files and folders. A disk image is a snapshot of an entire hard drive partition, less any empty sectors, and it includes the operating system, all your programs, and all your data. This can be useful, but it takes a lot of time and consumes an enormous amount of storage space. And if you’re moving to a new PC, the image from your old one is likely to be useless because it will contain device drivers for hardware that might not exist on your new machine.
Disk images can be a life saver, though, if you experience a catastrophic failure and you don’t want to go through the tedium of reinstalling and reconfiguring your operating system, application software, and all the device drivers your hardware requires onto a new hard drive. We recommend creating occasional disk images, using a program such as Symantec’s Norton Ghost.
But it’s even more important that you copy your data files—frequently—because you never know when disaster will strike. That’s the approach we’ll discuss here: using special software to make backups of all your documents, email, music, spreadsheets, videos, and so on; plus, any programs you’ve downloaded from the Internet.
Our backup method won’t restore any apps you’ve already installed, so make sure you save your original discs, as well as any patches and updates that you downloaded. It’s also important to store copies of all your licenses and serial numbers, should it ever be necessary to reinstall any of those programs. And don’t forget to back up your backup software; you won’t be able to restore without it!
2. Choose a Backup Destination
Once you’ve identified what you want to back up, you need to decide where you’re going to back it up to. Avoid using media, such as CD-R discs, that will require you to span your backup (spread it across more than one piece of media). Spanned backups take much more time because they require your intervention—to swap discs—during both the backup and the restore processes. Instead, use media that can accommodate your entire backup without spanning. An external hard drive that can be stored off site—in a different building or in a safe deposit box—is an ideal choice; another alternative is to copy the files to another computer on the Internet using FTP.
It pays to be paranoid: Creating more than one backup and storing each of them in different locations will provide added insurance in the event that both your original and your primary backups turn up missing, corrupted, or destroyed.
3. Create a Profile
The first time you run SyncBack, the software will ask if you wish to create a profile, which will appear in a toolbar the next time you run the software. Profiles give you one-click access to any customized backup and restore tasks you’ve created.
The freeware version of SyncBack offers two basic categories of profiles: Backup and Synchronization. A Backup profile does just what you’d think: It copies your files from one place to another. (Note: The freeware version of SyncBack does not perform incremental backups, a time-saving scenario in which only those files that have changed since the last backup are copied.) A Synchronization profile is useful if you regularly work on two PCs—a desktop and a notebook, for instance—and you want the data stored on each machine to mirror that which is stored on the other. For now, let’s set up a Backup profile and assign it a name.
The next step is to choose source and destination directories. The source will contain the files you wish to copy, and the destination is where you want those copies stored. We recommend that you back up everything in your profile directory under C:/Documents and Settings, except the Local Settings folder. SyncBack defaults to backing up any and all sub-directories within the selected folder; click the Sub-dirs drop-down menu for other choices. If you’d rather back up to another computer on the Internet using FTP, click on the Expert Mode button and then the FTP tab. (Expert mode will reveal a host of other options, too).
4. Run Your Backup
Click the OK button and SyncBack will ask if you’d like to perform a simulated run for this new profile. Click No to skip this step this time (you might want to explore this feature later). Select your newly created profile and click the Run button. SyncBack will now present a listing of all the files that are about to be backed up. Click the Continue Run button to start your backup. Hover your mouse over the profile name and a pop-up window will display your progress. When the program is finished, a success message will appear in the Result column. Congratulations! You’ve just backed up your hard drive!
For your next trick, consider using SyncBack to schedule automatic backups; that way, you won’t have to think twice about backing up your crucial data. Just remember to store your backups someplace other than your main drive, so you won’t lose both your original files and your copies should your drive die.
Recovering From a Disaster
Let’s say you fire up your PC one morning and the only noise you hear besides the fans whirring inside is an ominous clicking sound emanating from your hard drive. Your heart sinks into your stomach because you know your hard drive is toast. No worries, right? You backed up everything before you went to bed last night. You’ll just fire up SyncBack and…. Oh, that’s right, SyncBack requires Windows to run. Now what?
Assuming the rest of your PC isn’t affected by whatever calamity has befallen your hard drive, you can replace the drive. If you’ve created an image of the old drive using a program like Norton Ghost, use that software to copy the image (and the working copy of Windows) onto the new drive, and then use SyncBack to restore the most current versions of your data files.
If you don’t have a drive image, and you bought your PC preassembled, the manufacturer might have included a bootable recovery disc that can help restore even a new hard drive to your machine’s initial configuration. If you built your own PC and you don’t have a drive image, you’ll need to reinstall Windows from scratch. In either case, you’ll need to reinstall whatever other programs you’ve acquired in the interim—including, of course—SyncBack.
Restoring Your Files: Option One
After you’ve launched SyncBack there are two approaches to restoring your backed-up data. You could simply open the same profile you used to create your backup and click the Restore button, but this is risky and not always possible, especially if your hard drive was totally wiped out. A Restore operation swaps the source and destination directories: Your backup becomes your source, and the hard drive you’re restoring to becomes the destination. If there are versions of any files on your hard drive that are newer than those in your backup, it’s easy to overwrite those newer files by mistake.
Restoring Your Files: Option Two
We recommend creating a new profile to use when restoring files, to ensure that only the latest versions of files are copied to your destination folder. Click the New button, choose Backup, and click OK. Give the new profile a name and click OK. This time, your Source directory will be the folder containing your backup, and your Destination directory will be the folder you’re restoring to.
Choose the same primary option as your backup file, but click the Advanced tab. Under the heading “What to do if the same file has been changed in the source and destination,” click the button labeled “New file overwrites older file,” and click OK. Ignore the warning message and click OK. Click the Run button and your restore will execute.