The rule of thumb for PC backup is simple: just do it. If you've ever lost data as a result of a computer crash, you know what a long, expensive process recovery can be. It's far easier just to restore data from a backup, whether that's the cloud, network-attached storage, or a USB device. Here's an overview of your backup options and a step-by-step guide to backing up your Windows PC.

Built-in Windows backup

Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 contain their own backup and recovery services.

Windows 7

In Windows Backup and File Recovery, you can recover from file changes or make an entire image backup. For file recovery, go to Control Panel, System and Security, Backup and Restore, and then File Recovery. You can either let Windows choose which files to back up (not recommended) or specify the libraries and folders yourself. A nice feature of File Recovery is that you can designate any folder or files on your hard drive -- even program and system files.

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Take the extra step to create a full system image with Windows Backup, accessible from the same panel on the left-hand side. System image backup lets you create a copy of the drive Windows is installed on so that you can recover from hard-drive failure. Backup lets you place the spare image on a DVD (good), USB (better), or network drive (best). Remember to create a system repair disc as well, if you don't have a Windows installation CD on hand.

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Windows 8.1

Windows 8.1's File History can regularly back up files in any libraries you choose -- Documents, Music, Videos, custom folders, and so on -- as well as OneDrive files. This modern approach makes it easier to back up and recover personal files, much as Time Machine does for Mac OS X. Find File History under the System and Security section of the Control Panel. The best way to reach it is do a Windows Search for File History.

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Windows 8 lacked the System Image Backup feature, but due to popular demand, the tool made a comeback in Windows 8.1. The option to create an entire image copy is hidden at the bottom left pane of the File History, and it works similarly to its Windows 7 counterpart.

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The downside to Windows Backup in Windows 7 is you still need an actual CD (no native USB support) to create a repair disc. Windows 8.1 remedies this frustration by letting you create a bootable repair USB, a perfect option for users whose PCs no longer have an optical drive.

Cloud backup

Online storage is the best way to ensure instant file access in an emergency. In choosing a cloud service, look at two main factors: the type of files you're uploading and the OSs that you rely on.

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Services like Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, and OneDrive are free and let you synchronize data directly from your PC. These services usually provide support applications for all your other devices, including Mac, tablets, and phones, so you can reach your information even when your main PC is on the fritz. The downside to these free options is that they lack basic security measures: either your files are not encrypted or they're open to examination by the hosting service. We recommend uploading important but nonsensitive data like family photos to these popular storage services. In the event of a hack or a data leak, your critical files will still be safe elsewhere.

If keeping information confidential is your priority, then check out secure storage services like SpiderOak, SOS Online Backup, and Wuala. These companies either encrypt or anonymize your files to prevent snooping eyes from viewing them. However, you'll have to pay for privacy: SpiderOak is the only service to offer a free trial, with 2GB of storage for 60 days.

The biggest drawback to an all-online storage approach is that you must have steady Internet access. If you go out of cellular or Wi-Fi range, then you're out of luck.

Premium backup software

With Windows' built-in backup features and an online storage service, your PC will survive the majority of system-wide emergencies. But if you want a premium backup experience, look to suites like Acronis True Image, Paragon, EaseUS Todo Backup, and NovaBackUp.

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(Credit: Acronis)

These services typically include local backup options, the ability to access your files via the Web, and cloud storage (Acronis, NovaBackUp) in one package. Third-party tools are often easier to use, complete with a guided interface, a helpful tutorial, and technical support. Some apps feature even more advanced options (Paragon, Acronis), such as disk cloning, incremental copies, backup scheduling, and partition managers.

How to back up with software

  1. Launch your backup application, such as Acronis or Paragon.
  2. Set your destination, either an external disk, a network drive, or online storage. Make sure this is not the same as the backup disk, unless you're planning to relocate later.
  3. Select the disk/partition you want to back up, usually the main disk that contains the OS.
  4. Let the backup program do its thing.
  5. After the copying is complete, create your recovery media or USB drive. If your hard drive ever fails, you'll need this media backup to boot and recover.
  6. If your software supports it, schedule incremental backups. This will save you time updating your backup, while also allowing you to recover faster in an emergency.

Bonus steps

  1. Create a second backup, preferably a clone drive instead of a traditional image. The benefits: zero downtime after a crash and an extra backup.
  2. Test your backups by performing a recovery. The only thing worse than a system crash is discovering your backup is corrupted.

Local and remote backups are always a good idea. They protect your work and put you in full control of your data.

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Raised in the Bay Area but educated on the sandy beaches of San Diego, Tuong writes for Download.com specializing in Windows Security and Mobile Apps.