How to back up your computer (and why it's important to do so)


1st Jan 2015 Technology

How to back up your computer (and why it's important to do so)

It can be easy to take our computer’s memory for granted, but like our own, it has its limits. Whether you're running out of memory or you want peace of mind, it’s time to invest in external memory. 

Why should I backup?

Unfortunately computers do not live forever and they can sometimes go unexpectedly. And while you may have insurance or the guarantee to cover the sudden loss of a machine, the data on it may not be so easy to replace. 

For many of us that will mean saying goodbye to photographic memories, hours and hours of music libraries, and all that hard work in Microsoft office.

Once upon a time, we invested in floppy disks as a valuable back up device, but data got bigger! So then we opted for CD-ROMs but still, data got bigger and our shelves and filing systems would overflow with poorly marked (and even more poorly catalogued) discs. 

Fortunately, as data gets bigger still, technology is getting smaller, which means we can now save terabytes—1TB the equivalent of 1,500 CD-ROMs—of data in something much smaller than a CD case. Pretty impressive!


You’ll need to invest in more memory 

Either buy an external hard drive, or save space and invest in cloud storage.

External hard drives worth investing in

External hard drives

Purchase an external hard drive with a memory size at least twice that of the computer you are wanting to back up. Have a little browse online at what’s available or simply ask in store as there will usually be someone who can help you find the right one for your needs and take you through your options.

You can also purchase wireless external hard drives. Aside from the obvious benefits of not having wires everywhere and freeing up USB slots, you get the added benefit of more than one user able to use this kind of hard drive at once.

Remember that some external hard drives are only compatible with PCs, not Macs and vi-ve.

If buying in store, it is best to avoid the big brand stores as you can often find the same item cheaper in a department store or general electronic shop.


Cloud storage


Cloud storage is becoming increasingly popular. It enables you to store your data remotely via an internet connection. This means no taking up space in your home or megabytes on your computer.

You can also access your files anywhere through logging in, just like you would when starting up your computer or checking your Facebook.

 Some cloud services, like Dropbox & Asset Bank will download onto your computer's desktop and appear as your usual files, only they are stored remotely, so don't take up extra space. This is handy because it works in the same way as you would usually save documents onto your computer.

Other than that it works in a similar way to having an external hard drive.

Purchasing checklist

Have I got enough memory?

Most external hard drives come with anywhere between 250 GB to 8 TB. But the latter is overkill for most people. Look at how much your computer uses at present and consider how quickly you used that memory. Usually double is good.

How big?

You can go really small if you opt for a flash drive. Some can contain vast amounts of memory at the size of a thumbnail. These are easy to lose though so if you're prone to losing things.

How often do you want to back up?

Most hard drives are sufficient at backing up a computer once a week. However if you work with larger files such as videos,you'll need something that takes data from your computer more quickly. Look out for USB 3.0—this ensures a faster connection than it's older counterparts.

Do I need it to be portable?

If the answer is yes then you may need to go for a device that's lightweight and has enhanced data protection—which reduces risk of shock to the hard drive. You may also want to consider cloud storage as this doesn't need to be carried around and won't get damaged.

If not, opt for something heavier with a power adapter—but make sure it has a built-in fan if used regularly.

Should I opt for wireless?

The benefits of wireless means that you can hide it away and connect from afar much like cloud storage. The best wireless hard drives alos come with streaming services for  television, smartphones and devices.

What do I do once I have purchased the memory?

Once you’ve decided on your external hard drive or cloud storage, it's a matter of plugging in or logging on. 

External hard drives tend to come with a booklet which will walk you through any difficulties. Plug the hard drive into a USB slot on your computer. (USB ports are found near the power cable). After you've plugged in you can then automate the backup process.

For a Mac

A dialog box will appear asking whether you would like to use the external hard drive for use as Time Machine backup. Click on encrypted and ‘Use as Backup Disk’.

The backup process should begin automatically. If for some reason your Mac doesn’t initially recognise the hard drive, you can access it by going to System Preferences and clicking on Time Machine.

For a PC

A dialog box should appear when you plug in, asking what you would like to use the hard drive for. One of the options should be to use the device as a backup, select this option.

If you want to change how often your computer makes a backup, how long files are kept, and how much space is allowed to be taken up you can access these settings by clicking on the Control Panel and navigating to the Advanced Settings section to the left.

For Wireless hard drives follow the user manual.

Cloud storage

Similarly, you can set up your cloud storage to automatically backup your computer at selected intervals. A popular example on Macs would be iCloud, which automatically backs up images, notes, reminders, calendars, and emails.

If you just want to save a few things

You can also use your external hard drive/cloud storage to save just some of your files and folders, be it documents, mp3s or photos for example, to free up space on your computer.

When plugging the hard drive in, ignore the dialog box and click to close. An icon should then appear on your screen desktop which represents your new hard drive (usually the name of the brand). You can then proceed to click and drag the folders and files you wish to save onto.

Similarly with online cloud storage, you will be able to drag and drop your files into folders that appear as the filing system on your computer.

If you are intending to free up memory space on your computer you can then proceed to delete the original files. But with caution!

Do check that the files have definitely been saved onto your hard drive before deleting anything. To do this, wait until the files have finished copying and safely ‘eject’ the hard drive by dragging the icon into the trash bin, located at the bottom right-hand corner of your screen.

Then you can unplug manually via the USB cable. After a moment, plug the cable back into your computer and the hard drive should reappear as an icon on the desktop again.

Double click on the icon and search for the files or folders you had saved previously. If they are there, you can proceed to delete the original files and folders from your computer by dragging them into the trash bin.

Let your files be saved not sorry!

For more useful computer tips, Simple Computer Tips for Busy People is available on Amazon.

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter.

This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.


This post contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you. Read our disclaimer

Loading up next...