How to back up and protect all your precious data

No excuses.

This story has been updated. It was originally published on June 2, 2017.

When you sit down at the computer, you probably don’t want to spend your time backing up your files and data. It may not be as entertaining as Netflix or Facebook, but it just might be the most important job you can do on your desktop or laptop.

Having a comprehensive backup scheme in place doesn’t only protect you against the trauma of accidentally deleting your files. It also gives you a safety net if a virus hits your PC, hackers hold your information hostage, or your kids tip a glass of water over your MacBook. After an error like this, backups might be your only option for retrieving your files, so you shouldn’t delay putting a system in place. Thanks to the wealth of available, easy-to-use tools, you’ve got no excuse for keeping only a single copy of your data.

For almost as long as digital data has existed, users have worried about keeping their information safe. At the simplest level, a backup is simply an extra copy of all your files. Ideally, you want to keep the original versions and two copies. Then, if something should happen to one set of files, you still have a replacement set plus a backup to call on.

Does that seem too excessive? Consider what would happen if a burglar hit your home: If thieves swipe both your laptop and your backup hard drive, you’ll really need that third set of files.

[Related: Rip out your computer’s guts and craft an external hard drive]

Over the years, all kinds of backup solutions have appeared, and the whole process is now much more straightforward than it used to be. Automated tools can identify which files to transfer and how often to transfer them without forcing you to keep track. In addition, increasing internet speeds have made backing up to the cloud much more viable, reducing our reliance on plugging in external drives or burning piles of DVDs.

Options built into Windows and macOS

Time Machine on an Apple macOS computer.
Time Machine comes built right into macOS. David Nield

Even operating system manufacturers recognize the importance of backing up your data. In fact, the latest versions of both Windows and macOS come with built-in programs that can back up your information to an external hard drive.

On a Windows machine, you’ve got File History. To find it, open up Settings, select Update & Security, then click Backup. Once you specify an external drive to hold your backups, you can pick the folders you want to include and configure other aspects of the backup process.

For macOS, you have Time Machine, which is located in System Preferences. All you need to supply is an external drive—the application automatically creates hourly, daily, and weekly backups as required. The process is also fairly quick, because, with each backup, it only transfers files you’ve altered or added. Everything you need to fully restore your system, including applications, files, and settings, is saved to a Time Machine backup by default.

Two people using Microsoft OneDrive on a laptop, a phone, and a tablet, while sitting at a wooden table.
OneDrive is integrated into Windows 10 and is available for macOS, iOS, and Android as well. Microsoft

Both File History and Time Machine use external drives or networked drives. In recent years, Microsoft and Apple have embraced cloud-based backups as well. Microsoft’s built-in solution is called OneDrive, which shows up pretty prominently when you set up Windows 10 on a new computer. Essentially, everything saved to the OneDrive folder will automatically back up to the web, as well as to any other computers where you’ve got OneDrive installed. You get 5GB of space for free, and upgraded plans start at $1.99 a month for 100GB of space.

[Related: The best ways to back up all your photos to the cloud]

Apple’s version, iCloud, works along similar lines, but functions a bit more behind the scenes. A lot of applications use it invisibly, so your data is automatically saved without any manual configuration. To set it up, sign into your Apple ID from System Preferences on macOS. You can configure which folders are synced to the web by clicking on the Options button next to iCloud Drive. Like Microsoft, Apple gives you 5GB of room for free, and upgrade prices begin at $0.99 a month for 50GB.

Third-party options

The Dropbox user interface on the web.
All the files you add to your local Dropbox folder will also be available on the web. David Nield

If, for whatever reason, you don’t want to use the tools that come with your computer’s operating system, you’ve still got lots of backup options. Of course, you could always manually copy your most important files over to an external drive yourself, as long as you remember to do it regularly. But as we mentioned above, you really need three copies of all the files that you want to keep completely safe from harm.

Dropbox was doing the cloud syncing trick long before OneDrive and iCloud existed, and remains a quality solution that works across all kinds of operating systems. It’s a good option for those who use any combination of Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS, and it’s very simple to use. Like OneDrive, you get a designated folder on your main disk, and everything saved there is uploaded to the web and synced to your other computers. Unfortunately, space is at a premium: You only get 2GB for free, and the only paid option for individuals is $9.99 a month for 2TB of room.

Google Drive works similarly to Dropbox, with desktop clients that can sync all kinds of files from a computer to the cloud—though it does come with the benefit of a built-in online office suite. Google’s offering doesn’t have as much slickness and polish as Dropbox, though it obviously works very well with other Google products like Gmail. Google gives its users 15GB of cloud storage space (spread across all its services) for free through Google One, and you can upgrade that starting from $1.99 a month for 100GB of space.

The user interface for EaseUS ToDo Backup Free.
EaseUS ToDo Backup Free is one of the free options available for Windows. It can back up an entire system, or stick to individual files and folders. David Nield

You can also find free, basic backup programs for your desktop, such as EaseUS ToDo Backup Free for Windows and SuperDuper for macOS. Many external hard drives also come with their own backup software. Together with the tools built into Windows and macOS, you can mix and match to update all of your backups for free. However, if you’re not going to pay for some cloud storage, you’ll need to ensure that at least one of your backups stays off-site and away from your main computer. That way, fire, flood, or theft won’t be able to take out all your backups at once.

By now, you should have a good idea about your backup options. Which ones are best for you really depends on how many files you want to back up, the platforms you’re using, how much you’re willing to spend, and the software you’re already comfortable with. Whichever method you pick, don’t put off backing up your data any longer.

David Nield
David Nield

David Nield is a tech journalist from the UK who has been writing about gadgets and apps since way before the iPhone and Twitter were invented. When he's not busy doing that, he usually takes breaks from all things tech with long walks in the countryside.