Computer Backups are Worthless

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January 6, 2010

by Chris Guld

Has this ever happened to you?

Your computer crashes and you take it to a techie who gets it working again but needs to reformat (erase) the hard drive.  You get your computer back with nothing on it.  No problem you think, you have a backup of your important data on Disk, either CD/DVDs or a USB hard drive.  But when you try to restore you find:

  1. there is something wrong with the backup disks, either the data is corrupted or there simply is no data on the disk(s)
  2. the backup was made with software that you don’t remember or don’t have.  You need that software in order to restore.

If you can’t restore … your backups are worthless.

To prevent this happening to you, here are a few suggestions.

  1. When you do your backups, *always* check the results.
    If you backup to CD/DVD, take that disk to another computer, put it in the drive and see what happens.  Does it come up to a ‘Do you want to restore’ prompt?  Are the files on the disk that you expect?  If you backup to a USB external hard drive, explore the results.  Are the files where you expect them to be?  Do you know how to restore them?
  2. Periodically test your restore capability.
    Pretend to lose a file that you want to recover from your backups.  The easiest way to do this is to rename it.  For example, let’s say you have an Excel spreadsheet called TaxRecords.xls.  Rename that file to zzzTaxRecords.xls.  That way you still have the file, but your computer sees that the file TaxRecords.xls is gone.  Now try to restore that file from your backups.  For an example of this, see the Geeks on Tour Show Me Video on Backup to an External Hard Drive.
  3. Use a backup procedure that creates file by file copies of your data rather than backup ‘packages.’
    There are dozens, maybe even hundreds of different ways to make backups.  Every USB hard drive comes with software to make backups, there are lots of free backup programs you can download, and there are many backup programs you can buy. They all work a little differently.  I like the ones that result in file copies rather than backup ‘packages.’  If I can see a file, I can copy it.  If I only see a backup ‘package’ I need the original software to restore it.

I am currently using Windows 7 backup utility to backup my entire computer to a USB hard drive.  When I look a the USB drive, I see a folder labeled with the name of my computer.  When I click, I get options to Restore (and it works just fine), but I can’t look inside and see all the files.  All I see is this one ‘package’ that somehow contains all my files.  What if I changed computers and no longer had Windows 7?  How would I get my files?  I don’t know.

I am also trying out the online backup service called Carbonite.  If I want to restore a file, I can browse all my online backed up files and pick the one I want.  True, this is using the Carbonite software, but it’s a service … with support … that I’m paying $50/year for.  I can trust that when I want to restore files to any computer in the future – I can.

My favorite backup program is still a freeware package called Karen’s Replicator.  You can set it up to copy whatever folders/files you want on any schedule you want, and you can see the results.  You will see the actual files – not a backup ‘package.’  For more information on this program see this past Geeks on Tour Newsletter.

Use Picasa to backup your photos.
Picasa gives you the best of both worlds.  First of all, it is SO simple to make backups of your pictures to CD/DVD – Picasa even burns the disk.  It will backup all the special Picasa features (edits, albums, face recognition) along with your pictures so you can restore to another computer, but it also is making file by file copies of your photos.  You don’t have to use the Picasa restore process to get your pictures back.  I have 10 years worth of photos backed up with Picasa.  I have no intention of using the restore feature to put all those on another computer.  But I know that, if I want a particular picture from 2002, I can find it on my backup CD.


A Happy computer user has good backups that they know how to restore.


Happy Computing!
Chris Guld
Computer Education for Travelers

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  465. To say that computer backups are worthless is irresponsible and inane just because you had a bad experience. It’s like saying automobiles are worthless because you had an accident. If you had done the proper research and made your backups correctly you would have had no problem and easily restored your computer. Programs like SuperDuper (for the Mac) and others allow you to make your backup drive bootable with the backup/restore software included. Also, as mentioned above, Mac offers “Time Machine” that continuously backs up your system and is available to restore independently of your computer.

  466. I’m with Jim Lair and Miles.

    Mac people don’t struggle with this.

    Backup (via Time Machine or Time Capsule) is BUILT-IN to the computer. It is a 4 click setup. It just works.

  467. DG

    I vote for Acronis and use it also. This business of saving files is OK for a second backup, but not much of a time saver when it comes to reinstalling the OS and then having to reinstall all this stuff.
    With this you can backup your entire system to an external hard drive (I recommend the 1TB Western Digital thats available at Walmart for 99 bucks) and restore everything as it was while you’re getting a good nights sleep. Now, how hard can that be? Just remember to backup often and you’ll lessen your chances of losing recent changes.
    If it turns out that the hard drive is shot, then you can still recover your files or maybe try another poster’s recommendation of a registry backup for the new hard drive to make things even simpler.

  468. Jim Ansley

    Dave, RE: Microsoft backup. I use Acronis True Image. It makes an image of your Hard Drive that you can restore to your hard drive or to a new Drive. It is software that you have to purchase.

  469. Dave Planitzer

    Microsoft – Grrrrr.
    Their backup software only backs up data. I does not back up any exe files or anything from “Program Files” or the registry. So if you have a serious crash you still need all of your software on disks and all of the security keys to go with them, even shareware or free programs.
    Does anyone know of a good program to copy/backup everything?

  470. Miles

    Apple has a good backup program called Time Machine that runs every hour. The target drive can be firewire, USB or a network drive. I’ve had to use the backup once when the HD failed in my powerbook. It was easy to rebuild and everything was restored, just as it was before the crash. Everything… OS, apps, data, preferences, networking setup… I haven’t seen a Windows app that comes close. I use various MS OS at work and we back up with Altiris, but it causes just about as many problems as it solves.

    Time Machine makes it easy to restore a previous version of a file or one that was accidentally erased. The backups are incremental, so you can go back a day or a month to get the version you need.

    If you have a Mac and aren’t using Time Machine, check it out.

  471. Ham Radio

    Here’s another vote for Acronis. Very simple to use and it saved my bacon.

  472. Fred Klusmann

    Any backup kept with your computer may be lost in the same fire of tornado as your machine.

    I do not feel comfortable with on-line backups as there is no way of knowing who else may see my data. On-line file sharing is fine. One can get at data from almost anywhere.

    IMHO one of the best methods is:
    (a) Know where your data is stored. “My Documents” is in a different location for each person who signs on to a computer.
    (b) Copy the data you want to save (drag and drop a high level folder which has your other folders in it) onto CD’s or DVD’s.
    (c) Drill down into the CD to find some of your files. Open them from there to verify the backup worked as expected.
    (d) Give, or mail the CD to your son or daughter or better yet a trusted friend.

    This method will allow access to your data from another computer while giving you almost full control over it.

    This works for us – and four other families.

  473. Roland Johnson

    In todays world of dirt cheap hard drives, the best way is: Full file backups using an external drive and software like Karen’s Replicator or Synch Toy. A tech who erases your hard drive without attempting to save your files is an incompetent moron who shouldn’t be working on anyone’s PC.

  474. Brian Benson

    No one seems to recomend using edit, copy and paste to save files from the PC hard drive to an external hard drive. This is simple and folders and files are displayed the same on both drives. You can copy all of the external folders and files back to the PC or pick and choose the individaul files and folders you want to copy back to the PC.

  475. Michael Teti

    THE BEST THING TO DO IS GAT A SEPARATE EXTERNAL HARD DRIVE. I have never had a problem unless i used discs. Get any program, i use Norton a lot but you can use the utility that comes with windows — bur BACK-UP BACK UP- BACK UP. Dont listen to people that try to convince you they know more than you. This stuff isnt that complicated if you follow the instructions.

  476. Apples

    Computer backups are wise. Microsoft is worthless.

  477. Bill Littell

    It wasn’t mentioned that Acronis can resotre individual files and folders as well as a complete disk or partition. I have used disk imaging software like Drive Image and Ghost for a number of years. It is a lot easier to restore an image and do a few updates than “cold start” the system and have to reinstall all of the software as well as getting the correct peripherial drivers so that all of the devices work.

  478. Bill Mann

    Chris, I’m an engineer and when I travel I don’t want to carry dozens of rolls of engineering drawings, or lots of file folders. I save everything to my hard disk at the office on my pc and use Mozy to back up all my pc files as many times per day as I want. When I travel I can go to the Mozy web site on any computer and download only the files I need, or all of them if needed. These off site storage plans only backup files, not entire hard drives with all of your software. So, you’re right, you will need to have the original software to reload programs if your hard drive dies, then download the files for the programs. Acronis, and others like it, can create a mirror image of your entire hard drive and restore all without the hassle of re-installing software.

  479. Stan Zawrotny

    I use Norton 360 for security and they offer on-line back-up. It runs in the background, constantly backing-up your files. It allows you to secure up to 3 PCs and you can transfer it easily to a replacement PC if you buy a new one, I had a major PC crash while on a 7-week RV trip. I restored my files. without a problem.

  480. Bill Mickelson

    If you want to backup your system and data use Acronis True Image Home 2010. Once you try it you will not use anything else. Tested and I would give it 10 **** on a scale of 1-10.

  481. Carbonite rocks. My LT’s HHD crashed and I got everything back with no hassle at all. Other things work IF you are disciplined enough to DO the backup. I’m not. Carbonite does it every night, at the least.

  482. There are only two kinds of data on a computer – data that you’ve lost, and data that you haven’t lost yet. One very important point to make is the fact that some form of offsite storage is absolutely necessary, regardless of how you back up. Online backup services, or even simply storing your DVDs or external backup drive in a separate location give you the protection of major disaster recovery. All the backups in the world don’t help if they’re all stored in your RV and that burns down. Store the most important data in a second place. Data that you don’t have at least 2 copies of is data you don’t care about.

  483. I use a free MS utility called SyncToy 2.1 to backup/copy data files.

    I use two computers, a desktop RAID system and a laptop. I copy data files from the laptop to the desktop RAID system, this system is backed up by Carbonite. I also backup/copy data files from both machines to an external HD.

    Carbonite costs $50.00 per year and SyncToy is free from MS.

  484. Get a MAC. It is so simple to backup and retrieve!

  485. Monroe Ruda

    Your answer to backing up is not complete – I use a program called Acronis. After installing I made a backup to an external Esata drive (1 terragig). Then I made an emergency CD that is used to work when the computer will not boot. To use this you change the boot procedure to boot from the CD. It will then give the choice of opening Acronis or booting into windows. Boot to Acronis and then restore to the C drive. This works perfectly. If the computer boots but will not go to windows pressing F11 will boot to the restore device (external drive). When I was on the road for an extended time I had to buy an new notebook. it came with ” VISTA” and I installed all my programs which took almost 8 hours (87 updates from Microsoft plus updates from other programs) and then restored my data which took about half an hour. Used the computer for a short time and it crashed again. Same procedure. Then I purchased Acronis and installed it and did the backup . The wonderful Vista crashed again. Booted to the emergency CD and restoration of 87 Gigs took only 17 minutes and everything worked. Since then I got the system 7 disk (free with my original purchase of the notebook) and updating took about three hours. Immediately made a backup to the external disk. Have not had a problem. I now do a series of backups of the entire computer and a separate one called “system state” (which backs up the registry.) I am in no way connected to the Acronis company but am a retired dentist that is a half timer in my 06 HR Endeavor. I belive that you should try thsi program and if it works as I described write about it in the blog.

  486. Drives are CHEAP.. the trick is to SYNC all ones documents to another hard drive…. Syncing “MY DOCUMENTS” .. assuming this is a PC, and one puts all their folders there, is the simplest method. I use “Karen’s Replicator’ which is free. Once can also image their main drive to DVD’s to ensure they can get back to a starting point as well.

    That other drive can be a second internally , or a USB or SATA attached external drive

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