Why should we bother with backups?
Think of all the information stored on your computers & phones - photos, email addresses, work files, financial records, correspondence with friends & family. What would happen if you lost these? What memories & other practical information would be gone forever?
Until we experience a loss of files then backups are not something we tend to think about. It's important that we do though, as there's many ways in which files might become lost forever:
- Viruses: Ransomware is particularly cruel for destroying files;
- System error: Software errors can sometimes corrupt or erase files;
- Fire: A fire or other disaster might destroy your computer;
- Theft: Burglaries can result in your computer being stolen;
- Lost: Have you ever lost a phone or laptop, or left it on a bus or train?
- Hardware fault: Computers don't last forever - they all eventually stop working someday.
Even any files that we have stored in the cloud (ie where another company stores them on the internet) are not immune and can be lost:
- Business failure: The company storing your files might simply go bust;
- Company error: A software fault or engineer may accidentally erase all files (this is not unheard of!);
- Hacked: Criminals may hack the site and destroy all files;
- End of subscription: What happens if your subscription finishes - will your files be deleted before you've had the chance to download them?
- Lost access: You might lose your password & your account recovery attempts fail.
Despite the long list above, losing files is actually rare - but when we lose any that are important to us, it can hurt. Below we discuss some of the different methods you can use to back your files up, including a few issues to think about & where to find more help.
How can I back my files up?
Phones (and tablets) contain a lot of data that you might want to be backed up. There's two broad data types to consider:
- The data on the phone itself (such as your phone contacts, photos, and SMS mesages);
- The content within any apps you've installed (such as your chat history on WhatsApp).
Often the data from your apps is already stored in 'the cloud' - if you login to Facebook Messenger from any phone then you'll have access to all your chat history again. This isn't universal with all apps though (such as WhatsApp) so do check the online help pages of your favourite apps to see how they handle backups.
This leaves the data on your phone. Making copies of this is normally straightforward, since modern phones are designed with taking back ups in mind. With most phones you'll have the choice of backing up to either your computer or to the cloud:
- Backing up to your computer puts you in complete control of your data - it's not available to anyone else and you can make many copies if you want. The downsides are that it's a manual process, and you need to look after this backup copy.
- Backing up to the cloud can be set to be automatic and happen continuously - it also doesn't need any input from you. The downside though is whether you trust your data with someone else, and it relies on you remembering your account details!
For instructions on how to backup your phone - whether to your computer or to the cloud - see the relevant help page for your device:
Note that for some of the links above, you may first need to select the country you're in & then search for "Android backup".
A word on security....
If you do choose to let your phone back up your files (such as photos) to the cloud then just be mindful about how secure your account with your phone manufacturer may - or may not - be.
Whilst the majority of us don't need to worry too much, some celebrities have had their online accounts targetted to get access to intimate photos that they or a partner had taken. Check out our section on account security for more advice.
Computers aren't always as easy to backup as phones, although they can still be fairly straightforward. And with a couple of the methods below, once they're set up, you don't need to touch anything again.
There are several options you have, each with pros and cons. For really important files you may even wish to use a couple of these together:
Arguably the most convenient backup option is to use one of the many "cloud" storage services that exist, such as DropBox, Box.com, Microsoft's OneDrive, or Apple's iCloud. These are essentially external websites that store copies of your files.
One great advantage of these services is that they can be set up to copy your files automatically so you don't have to do much work - it just happens continuously in the background.
There's also the added benefit of being able to access & view your files remotely from any computer.
External hard disk drives
External hard drives can also be one of the easiest backup methods to use - they simply plug into your computer's USB port and appear in your computer as a second hard disk drive, allowing you to easily copy files over.
Removable hard disk drives - whether a large high capacity device, or a small USB 'dongle' - are available from many shops and online retailers, and can be quite cheap.
There are also software programs available to continuously copy everything from your PC, meaning that once it's set up you can forget about backups as it's all handled automatically.
DVDs & CDs
A more traditional backup method is to "burn" (ie, copy) your files to a CD or DVD. These aren't able to store as much data as an external hard drive or an online service, and can be slow, but they're still a popular method for creating permanent copies of really critical files.
Having your files in a physical form can be an attractive option - CDs and DVDs are easily portable (and can be labelled as to what it is) and so for added protection can be stored well away from your computer such as at a friend's or relative's house.
Files don't need to stay in an electronic format - you could think about printing some out to keep. This may be practical for precious emails, for important business documents or letters, or for contact lists. You might also consider printing off your most precious photos (and maybe even proudly display them on your wall?!)
For added protection (such as against a house fire) you could store these copies with friends, family, or even a solicitor.
What should I backup?
Backing up your entire digital history might not always be practical - the more you backup the more it costs (whether in time or money), so you may want to be more selective.
What you choose to backup will essentially come down to deciding which of your files you would be the most upset to lose. These might be files with:
- Sentimental value - such as photos, videos, letters, and text messages;
- Practical value - such as contact details, password lists, business documents, or files related to your hobbies;
- Financial value - such as mortgage documents, bank statements, tax returns, or expense tracking spreadsheets;
- Legal value - such as letters from your solicitor, employment contracts, or government documents.
We can't list all the files you'll want to back up - it's entirely up to you to decide - but it's worth spending some time thinking about it. You may also want to do backups as part of planning your will.
Don't just think about files on your computer - consider your phones & tablets too. Email is also something to consider; some emails are so precious or important that it's not wise to rely on a single copy being held by your email provider.
Common issues to think about
In choosing how to back your files up there's several important considerations that may influence your choices. Over the years many people (and businesses) have learnt a few mistakes the hard way.
Cost - both financial and the time taken - can be a big consideration in backing files up. Online cloud services might charge you a monthly fee, but they can save a lot of time by automating the backup process. Conversly, saving to DVD can be cheap, but will take time and need doing regularly as your files change.
Are you prepared to pay a little more for extra convenience?
Location of the backup
The purpose of taking backups is to ensure you have a copy of your critical files should the main copy on your computer somehow get destroyed.
If your backups are physically stored next to your computer (such as on a DVD or an external hard drive) then this is fine if your computer were to stop working, but it's not so good if your house is burgled or burns down and your backup is also stolen or destroyed.
When thinking about what backup method to use, always consider the most likely ways in which you might lose your files. If you're worried about a house fire then choose a method that keeps your backups well away from your computer - such as stored with friends or family, or by using an online backup service.
Similar to keeping your files physically separated from your computer, there's reasons to keep them technically separated too. By this we mean no permanent electronic connection, such as if you use an always-connected external hard disk drive.
This is because if your files are destroyed by a virus (such as ransomware), then the virus may hunt for and destroy your backups as well. This isn't an issue for backups to DVD (which, once your files are copied, are physically separate to your computer), or obviously if you print files out. Viruses also shouldn't affect any cloud backups.
When you take a backup do you simply overwrite your older backups, or do you make sure to keep a few previous versions too?
It's always a good idea to retain several older copies of each file you backup in case your files have become corrupted without you realising it. If you've just overwritten the one good working copy of your file then you won't be too happy!