Backups revisited

You may be advised to back up your PC / computer / device on a regular basis but what is a “backup”?

With regards to computers (electronic devices), a “backup” can be a copy of everything on your HDD (Hard Disk Drive) / SSD (Solid State Drive) or it can be a copy of just the “user data”. There are different backup solutions / options to suit different needs.

Why do you need a “backup” ?

With regards to mobile (cell) phones Most of us now use “Smartphones” and these contain pretty much everything about our personal lives, contacts, photos etc. Imagine that disastrous moment when you lose your phone or it suddenly stops working. Most of us would go into panic mode 🙂 For those that have enabled “backup” (to the cloud), it’s more of an inconvenience and isn’t  the disaster it could be. See more about backing up mobile phones and tablets below.

With regards to computers (desktops  / laptops). Computer HDDs & SSDs occasionally fail and you lose your data. Occasionally things go wrong and the data becomes corrupt. Occasionally you delete stuff accidentally. So having a “recent” backup will help stop these problems being a disaster but there will still be a little inconvenience 🙂

So “backups” basically give you “peace of mind” and will hopefully make life easier when things go wrong!

Lets look at the basics :-

Your “electronic device” may be a desktop PC, a Laptop, a Tablet PC or even a mobile Phone! All of these “devices” are just a box of electronic bits and circuits that need something called an “Operating System” a.k.a OS to make them a usable tool.

The OS on Desktop PCs and laptops will be either be Microsoft (MS) Windows or a “Linux” offering e.g. Ubuntu, SUSE or Android or may even be an “Apple” OS, e.g. MacOS

The OS on a Tablet PC will often be (Linux) Android or Apple IOS but could be Windows.

The OS on your mobile (cell) phone will be either Android or (Apple) IOS but could be something else.

When you power up your “device”, it will load / start the OS, you will now have a usable device so that you can do things 🙂 To do anything useful you need to use “Programs” (now called Applications / Apps). Programs / Apps are basically “static” in that they don’t change, once installed. Progs / Apps allow you to do certain tasks and they run on top of the OS.

Running a Prog or App may produce “data” but generally “data” is what you input in to your device. Data is generally “Dynamic” (changes) and could be anything like “text” (as in a letter to aunt Maud or some numbers in a “spreadsheet” or even a photo). So from a “Backup” point of view, backing up your data is probably the most important thing, maybe!

So we now have the OS, Progs / Apps and Data!

“Backups” are basically “copies of” and the minimum backup would be a “backup of your data” so that if there are problems, you will have a copy / backup of your data. Having a backup (copy) of your (user) data is brilliant but how are you going to access this user data?  You could use a “spare” PC / device to access your data but generally it would be better to get your “device” back to where it was before it failed. See backup images below.

“Backups” should be saved to either a USB HDD or a “Network share”,(see below) ideally permanently connected to your PC.

Note. Phones and Tablets usually have a “cloud based” backup arrangement but read on.

That should have the basics covered 🙂

Back up options :- Starting with the simplest with regards to desktops / laptops.

If you are running MS Windows, your back up options are basically built-in by way of MS Backup / File History.

MSBackup is pretty good but not perfect. Basically you just need to connect a USB HDD or a “Network Share” and then activate MS Backup, it backs up your data and your OS system files on a daily basis. You can select the “period” it will keep backups and each daily backup will be added separately from the previous day so you can restore the backup from a given date. This means that if you have been working on a document and have messed it up, you can retrieve the document that you backed up a few days ago!

Note. MS Backup / File History doesn’t seem to take any notice of the period you select to keep backups e.g. 1 Month, 3 Months etc and you will likely need to do a manual “File History Clean up” or your backups will consume a lot of space on your USB HDD.

Note.  You will NEED a USB HDD permanently connected or a “Network share”. Unless you run the backup manually.

An alternative to MS Backup / File History is the built-in “Robocopy“. The main difference is that “Robocopy” will only copy new files or files that have changed, this means you will only be able to restore files that were backed when ever! Robocopy won’t be able to copy files that are in use, e.g. system files.

Robocopy is normally a “command line” tool but most people create a “bat” file a.k.a.a “batch file”. You open “notepad” and then type in the instructions that you want Robocopy to execute and then save the file with a “bat” extension instead of a “txt” extension. e.g mydocs.bat. Here’s an example of the “mydocs.bat”

robocopy source_folder \\\destination_folder /NDL /MIR /Z /W:5 /LOG:folder_where_you_want_the_log

In the above example, the “source_folder” is anything you want copying on your PC.

The destination_folder would normally be your USB HDD but in the above example, the destination_folder is on a “network_share” (using the IP address tends to be more reliable than say a “drive letter”.

The “/NDL /MIR /Z /W:5 ” bit are options / switches that tell Robocopy what you want it to do. In this case the “/mir” bit creates a “mirror image” in that the destination folder will be an exact copy of the source folder. NOTE this does exactly that, any files in the destination folder that are not in the source folder, will be deleted. Any files in the source folder and not in the destination folder, will be copied.

You can do so much with Robocopy, it is worth reading the documentation and getting to know it. it does have a GUI version.

The Linux equivalent to Robocopy is “rsync” and both can be run as a “scheduled task”.

A step up from simple!

Backing up the OS and Progs / Apps and data To back these up, you will need to use something like “Macrium Reflect” or “Acronis”. Both of these will allow you to create a “Live Disk Image*“! There is also an option in MS Backup to do a “disk Image”. A “Disk Image” is a copy (snapshot) of your HDD in it’s entirety, the OS, Progs / Apps and data. This means that if your HDD fails (and it will), you can insert a new HDD and “restore” the Image so that your PC is back to where it was before the HDD failed or to where it was when the image was created. The more often you do a disk image will help reduce the loss of data. Generally, a weekly disk image along with daily “data” backup will be fine for most people.

A “Live Disk Image” is one that is created while the OS is up and running. This means that even system files that are in use will still be backed up.

Macrium Reflect and Acronis both have free versions for home users and are really easy to use. Again you will need a USB HDD or “Network share” to store the backup image. There are other backup software that you can use on Linux devices.

Not so simple but not difficult:-

“Network Shares” If you have a laptop, it is difficult to keep a USB HDD permanently connected so a solution is to use “Network shares”. You will need another PC that has “sharing” enabled and ideally on the same LAN  (see lets network) or you could use NAS (Network Attached Storage). Either will give you a “home” to store your backups. You could use an old PC with Windows installed or (Linux) CentOS installed (or Ubuntu, SUSE etc) along with Samba*. This enables you to create shared “folders” (Network shares) that can be accessed by any device on the network (LAN). This means that you don’t need to use a USB HDD on any of your devices, you just point to the “Network share” to store your  backups.

*Samba (used on Linux) allows you to share files between different “platforms” e.g. Windows, Linux etc. Samba basically acts as a “Universal translator” and it works by magic, Well it seems that way 🙂

Back up you must, now you know how easy it is. #peaceofmind

Tablets and phones :-

These days, everything seems to be “cloud” based so there seems to be little cause for carrying out back ups of your data. Mobile phones do tend to back up the contents of your phone to either iCloud or Google Drive, this is extended to Tablets running Android or IOS but your PC (desktop / laptop ) running Windows can use MS “Onedrive”. Unfortunately Onedrive only give you 5GB of free storage.

Cloud storage needs a decent (fast) broadband connection so it’s OK for “data” back ups e.g. documents but if you want to back up your Windows PC, the size of the backup file would be several GBs and even with a fast Broadband, it would take for ever to upload.

Backing up “data”. Data is stuff like photos & documents. Your phone probably squirts any photos on your phone up to the cloud. If you use the cloud for storing / creating documents (letters etc), they will be backed up by the cloud storage provider.

What about the OS (Operating System). With regards to tablets and phone, it’s likely that this will be backed up to to the “cloud” along with user data but only if you activate it.

This means that if you get a new phone or tablet, you can restore from the latest backup

The OS makes the box of electronic bits (the computer) a useful tool, without an OS the computer is just a box of electronic bits. The OS e.g. Windows, Linux, Android, IOS etc. Doing a regular “disk image” will help having to re-install the OS from scratch.


“Backups” are your friend! Backups are easy to do and give you #peaceofmind

If you only have one desktop PC / Laptop, invest in a USB HDD to store your backups.

If you have 2 or more desktops / Laptops consider using an old PC as a “file server” with a Linux OS and Samba installed.

If you are only using a Tablet and / or a mobile phone, make sure you have enabled “Backup”, this will backup your photos, documents etc to the “Cloud”. If you then get new Tablet or phone, you just “restore” the latest backup to your new device and you’re good to go!

The most important backup is the one you didn’t do!.

NOTE. Don’t forget to test you backup occasionally to make sure that you can restore other wise backups are a waste of time”


Further reading. Checkout “take control of backing up your data