3 great ways to back up your Windows hard drive

Which is better for backups: an online service, an external hard drive, or something else? We lay out some good options, and the pros and cons that come with each approach.

You've heard every mantra and cautionary tale a dozen times, but if you still haven't backed up that hard drive by now, the lessons haven't sunk in. It may not seem like a big deal if everything's humming along, but losing files or precious photos to malware, food spills, fire, or any other corrosive indignity brings on those twin sensations of panic and despair. This article takes you through some simple hardware and software solutions to save those files, then weighs the pros and cons of each approach.

Back up to an external hard drive

External hard drives and network-attached storage are local ways to back up your files to a physical drive that lives outside your PC. Since network-attached storage devices are typically for the home networker with multiple computers to safeguard from data loss, most people looking for a basic backup option will lean toward external hard drives, like some of these CNET favorites.

Clickfree Portable Backup Drive
The Clickfree Portable Backup Drive automatically begins backing up your drive for you. (Credit: CNET)

After purchasing an external drive, you'll just plug it into your computer to get started. Most conventional drives like the ultraportable 320GB Seagate FreeAgent Go will trigger your computer to open a separate drive folder, like "Removable Drive F:". Copying or dragging the files you'd like to save from their original folder into the external drive folder transfers them over.

The purpose-built 320GB Clickfree Portable Backup Drive provides an even simpler backup method. After plugging it in, the drive's native software automatically finds and backs up all of your computer's data. Not bad for about $200. If that's not enough storage space for you, there's also the four-bay Drobo for serious data nuts. It's not without its shortcomings, including its high price. For backups, it's best used for creating redundancy in case one of your other drives fail.

Desktop backup software

One of the primary advantages of using software to copy your files is being able to schedule backups of your data, although all programs will let you manually back up data as well. While most people will find online storage solutions the easiest to maintain, desktop backup software has its merits.

For example, for $50, the Acronis True Image Home 2009 images your hard drive, including your programs, documents, music, photos, and Outlook e-mail. In the event of a crash, you can boot it from the PC or from a CD.

BackItUp and Burn
It's incredibly easy to set up a backup schedule so you never have to worry about your data again. (Credit: CNET)

Similarly, Nero BackItUp & Burn has backup and restore controls for saved computer files. The $50 price tag also includes a burner, Nero's flagship competency, to easily create CD, DVD, or Blu-ray disks of your multimedia to have on hand. Nero also throws in one free gigabyte of online storage for a three-month trial as an introduction to its own online backup service.

Online backup software

Since Microsoft is responsible for your Windows PC, it makes sense that it should take some accountability for your data backups. With Vista, Microsoft does just that with its Windows Backup and Restore Center. Unfortunately, this is only available for Vista Business and Vista Ultimate users.

However, anyone with a Windows Live ID can take advantage of the 25 free gigabytes of storage handed out in Microsoft's Windows Live Skydrive, which also has a sharing aspect.

For total hard-drive backups, you're better off with an unlimited online backup service that encrypts your data. These have a software component that downloads a small client to your computer and uses that as the gatekeeper between your data and the Web. These typically take several hours to scan and upload your data at the first install. After that, they'll only back up changes to your files at intervals throughout the day or week; the programs run in the background.

Mozy Online Backup
Mozy Online backup lets you choose or exclude folders to backup. (Credit: CNET/Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt)

Mozy Remote Backup offers unlimited storage for $5 a month, or about $55 for the year. The free version limits you to a 2GB storage quota, which was enough to back up our Outlook in-box, but not our documents. Backblaze Online Backup also offers unlimited storage for a $5 per month subscription fee, and a 15-day trial. Carbonite Online Backup prices its competing service at $55 a year and offers a similar trial. Jungle Drive has a slightly different pricing plan. You'll pay 15 cents for every gigabyte of storage you use, plus a $2 monthly storage fee and other incremental fees for uploading, downloading, and data transfers. While each service differs slightly in its particulars, each stores and restores files in much the same way.

Hard drive versus online backup

We've looked at hardware and software backup solutions, but which is the best method? As usual, it's not that clear-cut. Convenience, price per gigabyte, and ease of use comprise the main decision-making factors. On one hand, a hard drive carries a one-time fee, usually between $80 and $200 for 350GB of storage or greater. (Last we looked, Seagate's FreeAgent Go 500GB drive sold for $120 from TigerDirect.) You own it for life. But on the other hand, you'll need to initiate backups manually as the contents of your hard drive change. Since the external hard drive is physical, if you lose your hard drive to flood, fire, or theft, you've lost your data for good. That also goes for images of your disk drive and files you've burned to CDs.

Hard drive

Online storage is dead easy and can be made automatic with scheduling or by having the desktop client back up any changes to stored files. Since the data lives online, it's always available. One thing to note about these subscription-based services, however, is that if you stop paying, the company will likely dump your data after an initial grace period. If you need it beyond that time, you're out of luck. Using an online backup service for five years means you could also be paying more for it in the long run than you would for an external drive.

Whichever way you go, it's a smart idea to keep an inexpensive secondary copy of your most important files just in case. If you have an external drive or use software like Acronis or Nero to store a local copy of your files, consider keeping a few top files in Microsoft's free SkyDrive. If you opt to safeguard your data in the cloud, you could make a backup of part of your backup by burning a CD of files you absolutely can't lose.

See CNET Executive Editor Tom Merritt's related article for more backup tips for Windows and Mac users, and as always, chip in your own opinions and experiences in the comments below.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.