The How-To Geek Forums Have Migrated to Discourse

How-To Geek Forums / Tutorials

How to set up a good backup system :)

(44 posts)
  • Started 4 years ago by SarahJames
  • Latest reply from SarahJames
  • Topic Viewed 29419 times


Recommended: Clean Your Mac the Easy Way with CleanMyMac 3

If you want to clean up your Mac the easy way, CleanMyMac is a great tool to get the job done easily, and it will even keep your computer clean automatically.

Unlike the competition, it also includes great tools like a Clean Uninstaller, to get rid of applications and clean up the junk that they leave behind. All with the click of a button.

Download CleanMyMac 3 for Free Today

Posted yesterday 
Posts: 6581

Quite often we get questions about making backups.
So nudged by LH I decided to write a little tutorial on backup possibilities.

There are several things we want to backup and of course we all want to do it as effortlessly as possible ánd preferably have backups that are easy to use (i.e. easy to restore and easy to find individual files back).


First of all we want system backups, so in case of a mayor mishap we can always go back to an earlier 'clean' state. Windows offers a first step in this direction with systemrestore, but that one is far from foolproof. Not only does it refuse to work at times, but because it is located on the same drive as your OS you're still fried if your drive dies or you're hit hard by a virus.
So imaging is the first step.

Macrium Reflect is a free imaging software and it does a great job.
There are others, paid for, but I don't use them, simply because Macrium does all I need (and what most people will need :D)

Macrium will create a complete copy of your drive or partition.
Make sure it saves to another drive or partition, otherwise you can't restore the image.
A nice extra of macrium is that you can access the image as a virtual drive and so browse through it to find individual files and folders.

So in theory you can create an image every day (Macrium is fast, so that's no problem) and always have a recent copy of your files at hand.
Make sure to keep a reasonably amount of backups, so you can always go back to a secure point if something has changed which you didn't notice at once.
I generally keep one very clean image from when I just installed my system and everything was working perfectly fine - that is my base-image.
Secondly I make regular images (in my case normally once a week - I'll explain why not daily later on) and keep them for a month or two and then start to throw out the eldest, apart from the ones just before I made a mayor change and the one just after making the mayor change.

If you have the luxury of doing a clean install I have some more tips :)
But now we're getting to the second part ...


If you don't make many changes to your system (i.e. you don't install and uninstall apps on a daily basis, don't make changes to the registry etc.), but only change the files in the documentfolders, but you have a lot of files in there, making an image with Macrium might seem superfluous. I mean - you only need to keep the new and changed documents, right? The system hasn't altered.

In that case I still recommend you use Macrium on a regular basis. If not daily, do it weekly or even monthly, but in any case do it when you make changes to your system, like installing new apps or tweaking the settings of your programs.

If you're doing a clean install you might want to follow this routine:
Split your main hard drive into two partitions ...
"C:" for your system and "D:" (or another letter) for your 'special folders'.
Minitool Partition Wizard is a great app to help you do that.

Go to the folder 'documents' and click on properties. There you can select the location of this special folder. Change it from the default to D:\Documents (or whatever suits you).
For a visual tutorial, take a look here:
(yep, I'm not going to reinvent the wheel ;))

Do this with all the special folders.

I moved:
and Dropbox :)

Now you can image your C (which will be nice and lean) once in a while and image D on daily basis to keep your personal files safe :)

You can also move your Windows Mail and Windows Live Mail to another partition. See this tutorial.


If you're afraid you might forget to regularly backup your special folders with Macrium, there are some alternative programs that will help you automate tasks.

First of all there is .....
Cobian Backup.
You can set it up to make an exact copy of a folder (and subfolders) to another folder (preferably on another drive or an USB stick).
You can set up the schedule to back the folders up every minute or every couple of days and all the options in between.
Unlike the other options mentioned below this one also copies desktop.ini files (so if you have changed your icons they will appear perfectly fine on the copies).
One thing to keep in mind: in the program folder there is a subfolder DB (something like C:\Program Files\Cobian\DB) and in it Cobian stores history files with the extension *.cbu
After a while (it took about a year in my case) Cobian get's slowed down when you open it, because it first reads those history files.
You can just delete the *.cbu files and then Cobian is as fast as when it was first installed.

You have lots of options in backing up: you can backup with or without compression, you can make exact copies (be careful with that one! If the original folder get's deleted so will the backup be. I only set up a task to 'mirror' to run manually, not in a schedule, as a cleanup task to run once in a while), do incremental and differential backups etc. and best of all this little gem is free!

I ran into this one quite a while after I originally wrote this article, so in fact I recommend Cobian above all the others mentioned below :)

Secondly there is .....
Karen's Replicator.
You can set it up to make an exact copy of a folder (and subfolders) to another folder (preferably on another drive or an USB stick).
You can set up the schedule to back the folders up every minute or every couple of days and all the options in between.

It can keep all the files you've had in the original folder or you can set it up to delete files that have been deleted in the original folder too.

Great advantage of Replicator is that the files don't get zipped up or anything. You just get a folder with the exact same contents as your original folder.

Another little free app I like is ....
Yadis! Backup.
Yadis backups up in realtime. Which means it saves every version of a file. Very convenient for backing up word docs and other files that are 'work in progress'.
I don't like to use Yadis for backing up all my personal files, since it adds a datestamp to the name, so you have to rename it all if you want to get a lost file back, but for safekeeping against loss of doc files etc. it is superbe :)

Another little gem is ...
Double Safety.
I got it free as giveawayoftheday, but in fact it is shareware.
There is a freeware alternative, that got more positive reviews, but unfortunately it won't install for me :( That alternative is ...
GFI Backup.

In DS or GFI you can set up jobs to backup specific folders or files at a scheduled time (much like Karen's Replicator). Difference is, it can backup using timestamps as names for folders ánd delete those backups after a preset amount of time.

I'm sure there are lot's of other apps people like to use.
Looking forward to those :)

Edit: just as an afterthought, I like DoubleSafety / GFI so you always have a backup of an earlier time
(for when you've made a mistake or deleted a file you find out you should have saved).
I like Karen's Replicator, because it can give you an exact copy of your current files
(for when your hard drive has crashed and you want the exact files back you had when it happened).
And I like Yadis for when I'm working on large and important word files
(I generally don't have it running when I'm not working on a project).

For more info on how to work with partitions, take a look here.

Prefered partition setup:

I prefer this partition setup:
First HDD:
- C for the OS
- D recovery partition (often hidden)
- E for personal files (so you have to move your special folders 'Documents, Pictures, Downloads etc. there and preferably your mail etc. Anything that can change on a daily basis).

Second HDD:
- F for backups of your personal files (using Karen's Replicator for instance)
- G for images of C ( base image + new onces added after making system changes), of D (once) and of E (very, very often, like weekly or even better daily) (using Macrium Reflect for instance)
You can also leave this a single partition with seperate folders for Macrium and your data.

External HDD:
where you regularly make a copy of all that is on your second HDD. Preferably once a month or more often.
You can use Cobian's backup to do that fast and easy.

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 3135

Good stuff.
Thanks! SarahJames !!

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 279

Vistual! Watch out! SaraJames' avatar might just think yours will make a good snack!

I vote that this tut be made a sticky. Although I don't follow these steps as often as suggested, I do use Macrium on about a monthly basis and keep my files and portable apps (the greater percentage of my software) on a D: partition, an E: physical second drive and an external HDD.
Nice work Sara, think I'll also check out some of your alternative suggestions.

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 10945

Nicely written up Sarah. If every one imaged the forum would be nigh on empty!
Have made it a sticky.


Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 6581

Thanks guys :)

@ Mike - more time for us to spend on OT then ;)))

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 2045

@Sarah excellent....
Just wondered for a complete newbie, could you clarify...
"Make sure it saves to another drive or partition, otherwise you can't restore the image."
I feel this is the reason that some don't do back ups, and are confused at the first hurdle.

Things like partition are usually a 'what'?
Another ? so do you image on the same computer or do you save externally??
Then next ? is but if everything is gone on my computer,how do I retrieve the saved info....

Newbies just beginning to take care, might just find this sort of info helpful.

Just keeping you bussseeee LOL!!!
Many thanks.

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 6581

Good point, Kate!
I'll write one up for partitioning too :)
Have to do some groceryshopping to do first though <LOL>.

Edit: haven't forgotten, just haven't had time yet - maybe tomorrow :P

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 5

This is interesting. You know what I have wanted to try -since I don't have enough space on my hard drive to save a copy of the hd (and a second external hard drive died) is see if there is a way to use something like Macrium Reflect and save it to my DropBox (I set up my dropbox folder so I don't retain a local copy of my hard drive). You can limit upload/download bandwidth with dropbox so if Macrium does incremental backups I guess this could work okay - is anyone backing up using dropbox? I have some images and files there but do dread trying to find all the serial numbers and reinstalling apps of every program I have on this 11 year old xp system if it should fail -in fact I doubt I could get everything without weeks of work as some of them would have to be pulled off old hard drives I've had to change over the years.

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 6581

I don't think that will work.
Macrium free doesn't do incremental backups, but you can set the size of the image, so it will backup in little chunks (I have mine set to 2GB chunks, so I can always burn the image to dvd if necessary). But even though that will allow you to upload it to dropbox, dropbox will be too small (unless you have a paid for account). It will be a lot easier to create the image on a new external HDD or burn it to dvd. when burning it to dvd, make sure you number the dvd's and put the last one in first when restoring.

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 17584

Very useful Sarah. Let me add a couple of Macrium tutorials:

1. The HTG version:

2. My own version which is a video:

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 6259

I'd like to 'add' for the truly fanatic that is worried about actually having something to restore that they occasionally TEST a back-up that it WILL restore. I do that on occasion but putting an old drive in and trying it out, a boot of the program may not be enough.

Another 'option' is to actually have a 'disaster recovery plan'. A back-up is no good if it gets damaged. I'm thinking fire, flood, or even theft. One could use one or more USB External drivers or even DVD's and swap them out and put the swapped ones in a safe place, a friends or relatives house, fireproof box or even a banks save deposit box. Rotate them every month or time period you are comfortable with.

Many people I know use a 'cloud' solution. Carbonite seems to be popular here. Drawback of course is if they get hacked or go out of business. Internet congestion too. Also some ISP's are imposing traffic limits, and moving GB's of data per month could cause problems or extra costs.

Irv S.

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 6581

Thanks, whs, nice additions :)

Very good point, Irv, I do place a copy off location myself, but I never thought about mentioning it here :P
I prefer off location storage of an extra external drive to the cloud, not only for privacy reasons, but also because systemimages are large and uploading often takes too long to do it on a regular basis and like you say it will be costly.

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 1288

Well written and easy to understand. This should be helpful for everyone.

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 6581

Thanks Santo :)

And I added a tutorial on partitioning here :)
And one on Windows Mail and Windows Live Mail here.

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 6581

And one more thing: for those who want to take their digital housekeeping to the next level there is Digital Janitor to simplify sorting out your files :)
(The site offers clear instructions, so I'm not going in to that :D)

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 1

yadis seems good

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 1

This article and the one on creating partitions is exceptional. Being a newbie it was hard to believe that I could complete both actions so quickly and without problems. Glad I happen on how to geek which now will be my first and most likely adviser. This the first post I've ever made. You have a fan for life

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 6581

@panacake - Welcome to HTG and glad to be of service!

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 6581

Some more on how to keep your system safe in this tutorial :)

Posted 4 years ago
Posts: 17584

Sarah, you make very nice and useful tutorials. From my own experience I know that you must have invested a lot of time. It is only too bad that the HTG tutorial section is so badly organized which makes it quasi impossible to easily find relevant tutorials. That is one reason I stopped posting any tutorials here.

Posted 4 years ago

Topic Closed

This topic has been closed to new replies.