Sorting out the revolution in PC backups: Part 1

Fred Langa

Over the past few years, backup technology has improved so much that you’re virtually guaranteed you’ll never lose important files or other data.

But with so many good options available, it can be difficult to settle on the backup method — or methods — exactly right for you.

Today’s mainstream backup options range from Windows’ built-in tools and an internal hard drive to automated applications that archive files to the cloud. In between are old-school backups on optical discs and new-school network-attached drives that let you access your data from anywhere — locally and over the Web.

Each backup option brings its own particular mix of strengths and weaknesses. In this two-part series, I’ll sort out the differences — in both use and speed.

In Part 1, I give an overview of the five leading types of backup technology available today for Windows users. These capsule summaries should help you quickly sort through the benefits and limitations of each option.

In an upcoming issue, Part 2 will provide additional details — plus a Windows Secrets exclusive: real-world timing tests that show how long it takes to back up file sets of various sizes using each of the five backup types.

Combined, Parts 1 and 2 will help you decide the type of backup technology that best fits your needs.

Five ways to archive Windows and your data

Personal-computer backups are best grouped by where the backup files are stored. The five mainstream options I’ll review are these:

  • Internal drives
  • Optical discs (typically DVDs and CDs)
  • USB-connected external drives
  • Networked drives (such as in another PC or a standalone, network-attached storage device)
  • Cloud-based data-storage services

There are, of course, variations of each type. For example, networked drives can be accessed either via Wi-Fi or by hard-wired Ethernet. Wi-Fi can be more convenient, especially in the home, but a wired connection is typically about 10 times faster than wireless, so there’s a huge speed difference.

Some other forms of backup don’t warrant coverage here. For example, USB flash drives might be fine for backing up selected files and folders, but most commonly used flash drives are too small to hold a complete, whole-PC backup.

It might be hard to believe, but tape drives and floppies — about as old school as it gets — are still in use. But they’re far, far out of the mainstream and are typically not up to the needs of modern personal computers. Optical networks and gigabit Wi-Fi will become more widespread in coming years, but they’re still minor players, today.

So, now that we have the context of this backup discussion, here are my capsule summaries of the five commonly used options.

Back up to a secondary, internal hard drive

In this setup, your system files and data reside on the primary (typically, C:) drive; your backups live on a second, physically-separate drive inside the PC.

  • Pro: Fast, easy, and inexpensive. A secondary internal drive offers the fastest form of backup — and restoration. The backup process is easy to set up; all standard backup programs can read and write to a secondary hard drive. A second internal disk drive is relatively cheap. A 1TB desktop-class drive costs as little as U.S. $60.
  • Con: Low data security. Secondary drives share the same physical, electrical, and operating system environment as the primary drive, so anything that compromises the primary drive (malware, mechanical or electrical malfunction, fire, flood, theft, and so on) might also compromise the secondary drive.

    Storing backups on a secondary internal drive is a better-than-nothing approach.

Back up to optical discs (DVDs and CDs)

Most desktops and laptops still have optical drives. PCs without an optical drive can be connected to an external DVD/CD drive, but there are few viable reasons to bother.

  • Pro: Can be highly secure. Once written, optical discs are immune to new malware infections. Optical discs can also be very long lived. If you store optical-disc backups away from the main PC, in a climate-controlled location that’s fire- and theft-proof, your backups can last for decades — safe from just about all the misfortunes that can affect a PC and its data. (For more on accessing files over decades, see the Feb. 21, 2013, Best Practices story “Preserving files for the generations.”)
  • Con: Slow, labor intensive, expensive, bulky, and requires careful handling. Backing up files to optical discs is an inherently slow process, often requiring disc changes, labeling, and careful storage, which makes automated backups effectively impossible. A single full-system backup could span large numbers of discs, adding to the cost and complicating the task of storage and eventual disposal.

    Without good climate control (i.e., constantly cool, dark, dry storage), optical discs can degrade fairly quickly (see these National Institute of Standards and Technology publications). Also, to protect them from unintended destruction, such as fire or theft, the discs need to be stored in a fire-proof safe or at another site.

Back up to a USB-connected external drive

The explosive growth of space-consuming media such as digital music, videos, and digital photos has made one or more external drives a must-have addition for many (if not most) Windows PCs.

  • Pro: Easy to use, good speed, and low to moderate cost. Installing an external, USB-attached drive is usually just a matter of plugging it in. It’s hard to imagine a backup medium that’s easier to set up.

    All major Windows-based backup programs can write to USB-attached storage, and Win8′s built-in File History can automatically use external drives for near-continuous archiving. (See the July 11, 2013, Top Story, “Understanding Windows 8′s File History.”)

    USB 3.0 drives usually give excellent high-speed data transfers; USB 2.0 drives are slower, but still acceptable for most backup needs. A good 1TB external drive currently costs about $80 and up).

  • Con: Mixed data security. Backups to a USB-connected external drive should be highly secure — if, after a backup is made, the drive is disconnected from the PC and stored in a safe location. But USB drives are rarely used that way, and Win8′s File History requires that the drive be more or less permanently attached.

    When a USB drive is left attached, it’s vulnerable to many of the same events that can take down the primary drive, including malware, mechanical or electrical malfunctions, theft, and other disasters.

Back up to a networked drive or second PC

Storage sitting on the local network can make backing up multiple PCs easier. The newest network-attached drives, such as the Western Digital My Book Live (more info) also let you share media and access their contents from the Web.

  • Pro: Generally easy to set up, acceptable to good speed, moderate cost and complexity, and some resistance to simple malware. Nearly all Windows PCs have networking abilities built in, and almost all homes with PCs have networks with Wi-Fi and/or hard-wired Ethernet. So it’s usually not hard to back up files over the network to an attached storage device or a second PC’s hard drive. (You can, for example, put an old PC back to use as a sort of poor man’s file server.)

    Backup speeds over a network can be good — especially with 100Mbps Ethernet, which often yields real-world throughputs about 10 times faster than 802.11g Wi-Fi. If used properly, network backups can also be resistant to some forms of spreading malware (more in the Con, below).

  • Con: Requires extra steps for good security. Ideally, a networked drive should be far away from the system being backed up. It should have separate physical security and be powered by a separate electrical circuit. Otherwise, the networked drive might be lost along with the backed-up (client) PC, in the event of some accident, theft, or disaster.

    Networked drives are usually accessed two ways: drive mapping — assigning a drive letter such as Z: — and Uniform Naming Convention (UNC; more info) — assigning a network name such as \\{name of drive or PC}. Drive mapping is less secure because relatively simple malware on the client PC can access the mapped, networked drive as easily as a local drive. To help thwart such malware, it’s better to use UNC for accessing networked drives.

Back up to a subscription-based cloud service

Cloud-storage/backup services are now extremely common. Depending on your computing needs, they can be either the primary backup system or supplementary backup.

  • Pro: High security, low to moderate cost, and easy to set up and use. The primary benefit of cloud backup is offsite storage. Even if your PC and all local backups are lost, you’ll still have copies of your files in the cloud.

    Most cloud services use reasonable safeguards (password protection and encryption) to prevent unauthorized access to your stored files. But you can make your cloud-storage virtually hack-proof through the use of free or low-cost third-party tools. (See the Dec. 12, 2013, Top Story, “Pre-encryption makes cloud-based storage safer.”)

    Cloud-storage costs are low to moderate, depending on the size of your data sets. (Most general cloud services offer some small amount of free storage, typically 2–15GBs.) Microsoft’s SkyDrive (soon to be renamed OneDrive; site) costs about $0.50 per gigabyte, annually, above its free 7GB. So 107GB of storage will run $50 per year.) Google Drive (site) gives you the first 15GB free, then charges about $0.60 per GB per year (115GB for $60/yr). Fees for backup-specific services such as Mozy (site) and Carbonite (site) are in the same general ballpark.

    Setting up cloud-based backup is usually easy. For example, Microsoft’s OneDrive/SkyDrive is built into Win8. Third-party apps such as Mozy and Carbonite install easily and offer a high degree of automation.

  • Con: Slow, could incur significant secondary costs, and depends on middleman services. As you might expect, cloud backup can be extremely slow — especially when moving large numbers of files. It can take literally days to fully restore a PC from cloud-based backups. Moving large amounts of data via the Web also can choke your local Internet connection. Moreover, if your ISP or cloud-service provider imposes data-transfer limits, backing up your entire system to the cloud can lead to substantial surcharges.

    Using a cloud-based service also makes you dependent on middlemen. If your ISP or cloud-service provider goes down for any reason (technical, criminal, financial, or some other cause), you’ll lose access to your cloud-stored backups.

Next up: Real-world timing tests — and more

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series. In that article, you’ll see how the above five major backup types compare in live timing tests using small, medium, and large file sets. You’ll also receive advice on the types of backups to use for different file types (multimedia, images, documents, and so forth) and under different circumstances. Stay tuned!

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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.