Reader Mark asks: Should I make a complete backup of my hard drive to avoid the hassle and the time of reloading from OEM disks, in the event of a catastrophic failure? In addition to the obvious programs requiring reinstallation, how can I quickly reload the really technical stuff-like DSL settings and printer settings-that's been tweaked over the years to just how I like it? I am very interested to get your input as to what exactly to back up and the best way to back up that information. Thanks for your time.
That's a big question, Mark, and it requires a big answer. Looks like it's time for another primer on how to best back up your computer.
In the beginning of your question, you ask if you should back up system files and programs. All that data you didn't create takes up a lot of space, and getting it reinstalled properly can be difficult.
Ultimately, this decision comes down to personal preference. Do you feel comfortable about reinstalling Windows and your other programs on a bare hard drive? If you don't, then back up everything. Power users can forgo the full drive backup and just grab data files, typically the stuff that lives in your My Documents folder.
The easiest way to make a full backup is to "clone" your hard drive. Cloning gives you an identical copy of your drive as it exists right now. If your drive crashes, you can clone the backup drive onto a new drive, and it will be like nothing ever happened.
You'll need a drive dedicated to cloning and a little knowhow to use a cloning program, but it's a simple enough procedure for an intermediate user. If you use CloneZilla (a system I've mentioned before), you should also be able to add more backups to the clone, assuming there's enough room.
It makes sense for everyone to have a hard-drive clone, just in case. External drives are cheap, and this method is the easiest way to back up your files and get back up and running in a jiffy. Reinstalling Windows and other applications can be an all-weekend affair. After that, as Mark noted, comes the job of tweaking your system to get it just the way you like it, which can take weeks.
Let's say you've got your clone drive in hand, or you just want your data files and don't need a full backup. Now what?
Depending on the computer, I use two different approaches.
First, you can use a syncing program like GoodSync to make a daily or real-time backup. GoodSync is very fast, because it only copies new or changed files. So, you'll have an identical copy of your hard drive on the external drive, and you can update both whenever you like. You can also use GoodSync to copy files between two computers, allowing you to run two identical machines at once.
My second approach is to just use a regular backup program like Cobian Backup. It runs quickly, it doesn't require a lot of maintenance, and it's free. I use Cobian on systems that don't change a lot and when I don't need a full clone.
With a clone drive and one of the above backups, you're covered in the event of a hard-drive crash. But I also like to hedge my bets by making an online backup, in case of something catastrophic, like a fire at home. I use Mozy, and I only back up my data files. Backing up the entire hard drive online would take too long, and it wouldn't make sense, since I'd have to reinstall Windows to run the Mozy restore program, anyway.
The online backup is only a safety net. But it's a safety net I wouldn't want to go without.