Update: 3/2017. I forgot to mention that your backup HD can be installed in your computer and you can just change the boot order when prompted at boot in case of a HD failure.
Most folks buy an external hard drive from the local big box store near them and back up their files, some even make a bootable drive from it. Nothing wrong with that but it’s probably not the best choice.
If all you’re doing is backing up your stuff how long will it take you to get your computer back to where it was if your HD crashes? Are you really ready? Do you like stress? If you’re not doing any backing up then your really in for some fun when your drive crashes. In some cases your data may not be retrievable without considerable costs if retrievable at all.
1. You will still have to purchase a new drive, do you know which one to get? Once you get it you will have to do a complete re-install plus all those updates and re-install all that software and set it up all over again, then you can install your back up files. That’s a lot of work and time. How quick can you get can this done and can you afford the downtime? How much is your time worth? Even if you’re the type that would just take your computer to the local repair man you still loose a couple of days and the time and gas to deliver and pickup your computer, plus the fees.
2. lets say you have a bootable external drive, have you actually ever tried it? is it fast enough to be useful until you get a replacement drive? The drive in your typical external enclosure is NOT the same as in your desktop and most you can’t take apart to use anyway. You still have to go though all in step 1 except you will use the external hard drive to transfer your computer over. Do you actually know how to do that? Are you sure it will work properly afterwards? Yes you will save a lot of hassle from re-installing all the software. How long before you get your computer back online?
How about doing this instead. When you computer crashes you simply take the cover off your computer pull out your hard drive and slide in the new one which might actually be an upgrade and your good to go in about 5-10 minutes. This is basically what techs and professionals in the know do once they have determined it’s not fixable in a reasonable amount of time. There are other more complex back up systems but this IMO is the most basic. So this is what you need to do and save money at the same time because you buy once not twice. Not to mention the stress you avoid.
1. Get a replacement hard drive. Do the research now not when your stressed for time.
2. Get a nice metal or plastic external enclosure for that dive, Easy to get. NewEgg makes it easy to figure out. Or you can install it in your tower’s case instead as a second drive. If your more sophisticated you can set up a RAID system.
3. Get professional back up software. There are many to choose from. Some basic cloning software is even free. Make a completely swappable replacement drive. Guess what? I paid the same for this setup as I did for the cheap lightweight plastic one at Costco, my new external drive is a heavy solid Desktop hard drive in a nice aluminum case that makes the others I own look and feel like toys in comparison. And the replacement is an upgrade in capacity and quality (but not faster) from the stock drive that came with my computer. Now you only need to make incremental backups for your files either to the same drive or another one, even a flash drive can do. I do a complete backup every few months. I back up important files to a CD or flash drive or I email them to myself and save in a folder. Swapping drives works because I have done it before and it took about 5 minutes with my laptop.
Can you see the logic in spending a little of your time and preparing in such a way that will save you a lot of time and stress. The cost is about the same as you would do anyway, there’s no down side only relief when that day comes as it eventually will with every hard drive at some point in time. If you have a lot of valuable information that you could not do without consider also backing up online or having another complete copy of your drive /data at another location in case of a disaster or fire. Also your back up drive can develop problems as well, you can get a device that holds two drives so your back up is on 2 drives for even more protection.
This is what I use for backing up, mostly because that is what I purchased a few years back. I might buy something different today or even just use free software if I was starting from scratch. Now days most external drives come with the software for making a mirror image drive that you can swap or back up / restore from.
There are so many products out there now. Even Windows has a built-in back up solution. Windows 7 & 8 have a built-in System Image tool that can copy your HD to an external USB connected Drive. That may be your best bet. W8 also has a continuous file back up ability. See this link: http://www.zdnet.com/microsoft-details-windows-8-backup-system-hoping-people-will-use-it-this-time-7000000689/ And http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2012/12/using-windows-8s-hidden-backup-to-clone-and-recover-your-whole-pc/
What you need to understand is that a System Image is not bootable you have to use the software that created it to do the restore. In windows you first create the restore CD which you use as an interface to restore from the System Image you have on an external drive. If you buy a new drive you would boot up from that disc then restore the System Image from the external drive, you can not just swap drives, to do that you need a Cloned drive. Make sure you know what is what when setting this up. Aconis lets you choose Cloning or System Image. Why do one or the other?. To do a swap you need a compatible HD in hand for each computer. With Images you can store images for all your computers on one drive then when a HD crashes you can restore the image to a newly installed HD. This takes a bit more time but allows you have less hardware on hand (and expense) until you actually need the new HD. If you just have one computer it probably makes more since to have a Clone handy unless you don’t want to spend the money on a new HD and you already have the media to store a System Image on for now. Either way you should have one or the other done.
Probably the best all around Cloning & System Image software is Acronis, but it will cost you around $50 unless its on sale: http://www.acronis.com/homecomputing/products/trueimage/?source_detail=NA-US-EN-SEM-branded-ati&gclid=CNXs0efuwLUCFQYGnQodC2UAyg#overview
Another brand that seems to be well liked.
Here is what I use for cloning a WD hard drives to another WD hard drive (Western Digital brand only).
A list of free cloning software here. There are many more out there. Many include backing up options as well.
Cloning is probably the easiest way to make a bootable copy of your HD. then you can just back up your data if you just want to keep it simple.
NewEgg. Many computer geeks buy here. http://www.newegg.com/
Why wouldn’t you do this once you know how? If you have an older computer and plan to upgrade one day soon or don’t use your computer that often it may not be that important to you to take these precautions. If you use your computer a lot or for business you really need a quick low stress way to get going again. Some folks have more than one computer in the home so they can at least keep going untill they get the other one going. Step one mentioned at the beginning is a real pain and is best avoided at all costs for most people who only have one computer.
Some other advantages are you can travel with your computer in your bag and just put it into another computer that takes a similar hard drive interface and your on your computer. With a fast interface between computers like fire wire or USB3 for example, you could even just set another computer to boot up from your drive and once again your on your computer. Want to see what one pro ( Chase Jarvis) does regarding backing up? Now he is high-tech, see the video.
If you have an older computer and have not backed it up and something happens so that you can not boot it up and a startup disk does not do the trick and you have data that you want off the HD you can usually just hook it up to an external interface (the right type like SATA or ATA / IDE) like mentioned above and get your files off of it just like you would from any external hard drive, I just did this the other day from a friends old laptop that had a power issue and would not start up. I took the HD out and hooked it up to an ATA external drive enclosure and took the needed files off of it, she had already purchased another laptop and just needed all her files. Or you can pay someone to do it for you for a lot more than the $12 or so it costs for a cheap enclosure or HD to USB adaptor. If your HD gets really damaged somehow (even in a fire), a good tech can still retrieve a certain amount of data off the HD but it may be time-consuming ( time equals money).
A few things you should know.
1. You will have to get your computer to recognize your external and internal secondary drive. There are several ways to go about that. To format a new drive just right-click the drive and select format. Or go to the my computer icon and right-click it and select manage then disk management. If a pop up window does not pop up for initializing the new disk you will have to right-click the tiny little red arrow next to the disk (whats up with that?) which had not been initialized yet. See this link if you have problems. Pick your operating system first. for reasons I don’t understand some new HDs will not initialize on their own without having to do it manually. You won’t need to use jumpers with an external enclosure. http://wdc.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/1018/session/L2F2LzEvdGltZS8xMzIzMjk2Nzc2L3NpZC8tMzczRipLaw%3D%3D
2. If you have to set the pin jumpers on the back of a new HD (if you use it internally) as a dual master or slave drive, etc. Make sure the metal internal insert does not fall out of the little plastic plug as you take it in and out or you will spend hours wondering what went wrong. This happened to me, it was so small I never noticed it until I got a loupe out and inspected it.
The Next affordable ($69) level of external data security would be to get a dual bay USB 3 external enclosure like this one which you can use as 2 HDs or Raid 0 /1, I am personally interested in trying one of these dual bay units. You will have to buy 1-2 hard drives still. I would recommend going this route for large video and photo backups / storage. Note there are dozens to choose from. Check Amazon as well. http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16817620031 Don’t expect the fastest / best data transfers and raid controllers in these budget units, most of the time you get what you pay for. Setting up your computer with internal raid controllers and HDs will usually be cheaper and better performing dollar for dollar. It take more skill to set up the computer rather than use the external units. The mid-priced units are probably the best values if you budget allows. I will try to find some good reviews of the units and post them.
If you want to take things even further ( and more expensive) you could pick up a Drobo unit at Costco which is on sale (as of August / September 2011) for $250, then just put in 2-4 HDs and you have an easy to use expandable back up device with incremental back up capabilities. If you have more than one computer you want to network to it for backing up to its own partition than get the Drobo S model. See the website and videos for more info on it. Don’t buy an older used unit as reliability seems to be spotty according to reviews I have seen. Even if you buy new make sure you get one from a place you can return it without any problems is case you have issues with the unit. All companies have failures and such, but with devices / software like this it seems more likely you will have some issue even if its you own fault / operator error.
The Drobo backs up simultaneously to two or more HDs so if one goes bad the other takes over. The basic Drobo holds 4 HDs, your computer sees it as just one drive. You can make a mirror HD like I talked about above and only update it when you have new software then use the Drobo for all your data included all you videos and photos which you don’t store on you primary HD or you can set you Drobo up anyway you like. There are other Drobo like systems out there but the prices can get pretty high. So for about $320 you can get started with Drobo. The F or the S model will cost more. See the website for current products. I expect the 4 bay model to go USB3 soon.
If your archiving your photo collection or videos your going to want to have the back up on two drives in case one goes bad. The Drobo makes it easy. You could also like me just back it all up to two separate drives and just use one to stream data off. I use a quality 3.5″ Sata 3 drive with an external enclosure that is USB3 and 5GBS data rate capable in order to take advantage of faster access, and cheaper all in one external HD alternatives for the secondary backup. Good HDs are expensive right now due to parts shortages.
Don’t forget you can just email yourself attachments and save them in folders, this is a safe and easy way to back up important data and have it off site, you can also access it from another computer if you need to. I would recommend using a new email address just for this and a very strong password particularly if you have a lot of files you want to back up. All you do is select a bunch of files and zip them together. If you backup you passwords I recommend writing it in some code or in such a way as you would know what it is but a stranger would have a very difficult time figuring it out.
Of course not every crash or non start-up is from a HD problem, it could be any number of things like you CMOS / BOIS needing resetting. Here are a few helpful links to help you determine if really is you hard drive.
If you have tried a startup or boot disk and even swapped HDs and your computer still won’t boot you most likely have a mother board or other hardware issue. My 10 yr old computer’s mother board gave out recently and I could not get it going again. If you knew what files were corrupted you could also swap files from an external backup using another computer to do it, you will need an external enclosure or adapter to USB to do though. Sometimes the mother board battery can cause problems when it gets low.
Here’s a few links on the subject.