Drive imaging tools enable you to back up your entire Windows installation
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acking up should be compulsory. It doesn't matter how many times it's featured in magazines, who even go as far as to provide free, full software on the cover disc to help you back up your precious, irreplaceable files, email messages and more besides, we still find ourselves inundated with comments like "My mail folder has vanished with important work email in it, how do I get it back" or "I've lost a folder full of holiday snaps and my wife will kill me after 40 years of marriage if I don't find it".
If you think it couldn't possibly happen to you, think again. Your data and settings are incredibly fragile - unlike a Windows installation that can be recreated from your recovery disc or a program that can be reinstalled, there's no product disc that contains your documents, pictures or emails. Sure, you could venture into the world of data recovery, but you'll be taking a huge risk with your data if you've reached that point in the road, and it could end up being a very expensive step.
Backing up is easy
Have we scared you enough yet? Good. In this feature, and armed with the right software (including tools built into Windows 7 and Vista), you're going to rectify the situation immediately. You'll discover how easy it is to back up everything from documents, emails and program preferences to your entire Windows installation. What's more, once set up, you can leave the back-up tool to get on with the job of updating your backup at a regular interval, so you're always protected.
The most important thing you'll need to provide yourself is a suitable back-up device. Although you can back up to CD or DVD, this can result in a large number of discs being used and is not cost-effective in the long term. A better bet is some form of removable device that has enough capacity to store your backups on - an external hard drive is the obvious choice here. Prices start from as little as £35 for 160GB external drives from stores such as Amazon, which compares favourably to the hundreds of pounds you might find yourself spending on data recovery if you continue to live dangerously.
Sadly, even your backup isn't immune to failure - thankfully the tools in this feature can verify your backup's integrity so you know it should work, but it pays to be extra careful and create a second backup to a different device or location. You could, for example, archive documents and files that won't be edited like photos and correspondence to CD or DVD, or you could investigate an online back-up service - the box below reveals more.
Now you've come to your senses and made the decision to back up your data use the links on the left to navigate the rest of the feature and find out how.
Back up online
It's always a good idea to house one of your backups in a different location to the original files. Chances are your back-up device resides in the same room as the original data, so what happens if a fire breaks out or a thief breaks in?
You could store CD or DVD archives of your data at a friend or family's house, but that can be inconvenient. Instead, why not invest in online backup? Your data is encrypted for security and transferred over the internet to a secure remote server, which itself is usually backed up for greater reliability. If anything happens to your PC, you know the data itself is stored safely somewhere else.
Some back-up tools, like Genie over the page, allow you to back up to a FTP server, so if you lots of web space, you could use that, but if you want security, reliability and convenience, take a look at one of a growing number of online back-up services. These let you pick which folders and settings to back up, and then back them up in the background as new files are created and existing files are amended - some even store multiple versions of the same file, enabling you to roll back to an earlier version.
We cover online backups in more detail later on in this feature, so keep reading to find out more.