Computer backup 101: Start with a method that you’ll actually use

This week I got an email from a reader asking for the best and most economical way to back up his computer.

That’s a very good question.

The best way to back up your computer is to choose a method that’s easy enough that you’ll actually use it.

My advice for the most economical way to back up is to buy an external hard drive that’s the same size (or bigger) than your PC’s internal drive and to use the free backup software that is built into the Windows or Macintosh operating system.

I wandered over to Amazon.com and priced external hard drives. The way drives are priced these days, it’s hard to find one that’s smaller than 1 terabyte, but that’s OK.

A Western Digital 1TB Elements portable external hard drive will set you back $52.99 (that was the price on the day I checked, but your price may vary).

I think $52.99 is cheap for keeping your data safe, but you’re welcome to buy the drive of your choice. You can also use a flash drive, if you have one that’s big enough.

Don’t try to use these backup programs with a drive that’s not at least as big as your internal drive. You may be only using 80 gigabytes of a 500-gigabyte hard drive, but the software will choke if you give it a 32-gigabyte flash drive to use for a backup.

Once you plug it in to your computer, follow these instructions to get a backup started.

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive backup tutorial, just a quick way to get started with simple backups.

— Windows 10

From the Windows search bar (next to the start button), type Backup and then choose Backup Settings.

At the top of the settings screen, you’ll see “Back Up Using File History” and a big “+” icon to add a drive.

Click the “+” and you’ll see a list of available hard drives to back up your files. Choose the hard drive you just connected and then you’ll see an on/off switch for the file history backup.

There’s also a link there to customize the backup, which can be done as often as you like, from every 15 minutes to once a day.

— Mac OS

On the Mac, open System Preferences from the Apple menu and then open Time Machine.

You’ll see a button to select a backup disk. Click it and you’ll see a list of the available volumes your Mac can use for the backup.

Choose your drive and then select “use disk,” and you’re all set.

Now you can relax a little knowing your files will be copied to another drive.

This method is easy, but it is not as safe as it could be. If your only backup is a foot from your computer, it could easily be stolen along with your computer. It could also burn up in a fire, along with your computer.

Best practice would be to make a backup of your files and then make another backup to keep offsite in case anything happens to your computer.

Both Windows and Mac OS will let you back up your files to multiple disks. Simply connect another drive and follow the same directions. If you have two drives selected, you’ll get backups on both.

Also, you don’t have to keep the backup drives connected all the time. I have one that I connect about once a month and then I disconnect it and keep it away from the house. I have a similar drive for my wife’s laptop. The backup might not be the absolute latest, but at worst it is only a few weeks old, and it will save us a lot of headaches if her laptop drive ever dies.

Also, consider buying an external drive or a large flash drive just to keep a backup copy of your digital photos.



Jim Rossman writes for The Dallas Morning News. He may be reached at jrossman@dallasnews.com.