Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Back Up – Foster Child of Home Computing

Please be honest, do you have a back up of your data? See, I thought so.
But finally you have bought the external disk drive for back-ups that “your” Geek always talked about. The next questions regularly asked are
-   “What do I need to back up?” and
-   ”What program should I use to make my back up?”
Here is my attempt at an answer. For simplicity’s sake I restrict myself to examples for Windows Vista and Windows 7.
Why that latter restriction? Vista was released over about three months at the end of 2006 and beginning of 2007. That in turn means if you are still using Windows XP your computer is at least four years old but very likely five years or older. After five years you should be thinking seriously about a new machine anyway.
Here is my answer to the question what to backup.

  • Documents: You should backup your entire Documents folder every time you backup.
  • The path is “C:\Users\<username>\My Documents”.
    The path is “C:\Users\<username>\App Data”.
    Actually this should be a no-brainer.

  • Music: If you’ve paid money for music or spent countless hours downloading music you probably don’t want to lose these files.
    If you use iTunes make sure to backup your iTunes folder; usually it’s inside the Music folder – but better check it, I have seen wildly different locations. 
  • The path is “C:\Users\<username>\My Music”.

  • Desktop Email: If you’re using Thunderbird you will backup everything as part of the Application Settings; see the next paragraph. Should you (against my advice) be using Outlook Express (outdated!), Outlook or Windows Live Mail, make absolutely certain that you back up their files!  Here’s how to find the files of these applications. Please don’t ask me by email about backing up email other than Thunderbird, I do not support using anything but Thunderbird.
    If you have serious reasons to stick with any MS email programs I will naturally be happy to help you on site to set up the back up of these important files.
  • Application Settings: Within every User’s folders is a normally hidden folder AppData. It’s sub folders contain the settings for each and every (well behaved!) application you have installed. These settings can be restored from a backup.
  • The path is “C:\Users\<username>\App Data”.
  • Bookmarks: If you follow my strong recommendation and use Mozilla Firefox you have done what is needed by backing up Application Settings; you can ignore this. If you insist on using Internet Explorer your Favorites are in 

    For other browsers I will naturally be happy to help you on site to set up the back up of your bookmarks.

  • Here is my answer to the question what program to use.

    I am very wary of ANY back up program that comes in a bundle from the manufacturer of your external disk drive. Too many of these programs back up in formats specific to these programs, they may compress your data in a proprietary format or even encrypt your data. All these techniques have their proponents but I prefer to simply copy your data. This way the files are accessible with normal means and on any system that can read your external disk drive. You should never require any special software to access your files in a backup.

    Likewise I am wary of using Windows Vista and Windows 7 built-in backup programs. I don’t fully trust Microsoft to keep in all future a program around that can read the back up we create today with a Vista or 7 specific program! Having said that I have to admit that especially since Windows 7 the built-in backup features seem to do their job dependably; they are fairly easy to set up and definitely better than no backup at all.

    Currently I recommend Cobian Backup, a free backup program that runs on any Windows system since XP and newer and can just copy your files in nicely named and time stamped folders. Cobian’s documentation is a good primer on the ins ad outs of backup.

    As usual I welcome comments and suggestions right here in the blog. Thank you in advance.

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