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13 Dec 2021

Three easy ways to back up important files on your PC

Backing up your data on a regular basis can feel like a chore, but putting it off risks losing precious files forever

If you own a laptop or a desktop PC, you're probably using your device to store important files. The average hard drive, or solid-state drive (SSD) on more modern devices, is home to thousands of photos, emails, letters, documents and other files.

There's no escaping that backing up your files is among the drearier things you can do with your computer. But backing up is a lot simpler than it might seem - you don't need to worry about getting the right software, since most computers come with all the tools you need.

Below, we explain how to painlessly back up files on your computer, whether you're using a plug-in hard drive or a cloud storage service.


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How to back up files on Windows

For the most balanced and safest level of protection, it's a good idea to use three types of backup in combination - local file backup (using an external drive), cloud backup and system backup (using pre-installed tools on your computer).

1. Use an external drive

This straightforward method is best for backing up your personal files (documents, photos and music) rather than system files. If you accidentally delete a file, it's easy to retrieve it from your plug-in drive without having to restore your entire PC.

You'll need a large external drive to store your backup. Any drive will do, but it's a good idea to opt for an SSD over a traditional hard drive. SSDs are more expensive, but they're less prone to mechanical failure. In terms of capacity, your backup drive should be at least as large as your system drive. If you're also using it for system backups, you might want to go even bigger.

Expect to spend around £120 for a 1TB SSD or around £50 for a hard drive of the same size.

To back up your files using an external drive, follow these steps:

  1. Connect your external drive.
  2. Click Start > Settings > Update & Security > Backup.
  3. Select the plus sign (+) next to Add a drive.
  4. Click on your drive in the Select a drive panel, then choose More options.
  5. Leave the Back up my files setting as Every hour (default) and Keep my backups as Forever (default).

Under Backup these folders, you'll see Windows has automatically selected your most important folders, which includes documents and pictures. You can tell Windows to backup files in other locations by clicking the plus sign (+) next to Add a folder.


If you're considering upgrading your computer, check in with our expert laptop reviews and desktop PC reviews.


2. Store your files in the cloud

This backs up your files to online storage - servers hosted by a cloud storage provider. It usually works by synchronising a folder on your computer with one online, so that anything you store in that folder is copied to the cloud. Everything happens in the background and any changes you make to your files are reflected online. You'll need a decent broadband connection to upload files in the background at speed.

Windows 10 comes with 5GB of cloud storage through OneDrive - the only requirement is a free Microsoft account. If you only have a few files to back up, 5GB could be all you need. Increasing your allowance to 100GB is relatively cheap at £1.99 a month. If you subscribe to Microsoft 365 (£60 a year) for access to Office apps like Word, your OneDrive capacity gets a big bump to 1TB (1000GB).

To back up your files using OneDrive, follow these steps:

  1. Click Start > OneDrive and follow the steps, signing in with the same Microsoft account you log into your PC with.
  2. You can store files to the cloud by placing them in your OneDrive folder. Find this by opening File Explorer and clicking OneDrive in the left-hand panel.
  3. To configure OneDrive to back up folders automatically, click the OneDrive cloud icon on your taskbar, then Help & Settings > Settings. Click the Back up tab, then click Manage back up to configure the tool.

The faster your broadband, the faster your files will be uploaded to the cloud. If you're struggling with bad broadband, it might be time to upgrade - see our guide on the best and worst broadband providers 2021.


3. Take a snapshot of your entire PC using system backup

This method captures your files, programs and the operating system - and stores it as a single file. If your PC won't start, you'll be able to restore it from your system backup.

Restoring a system image should be considered a last resort if you can't get your PC working. The process will erase the contents of your PC's system drive and replace it with the backup image. Once the system restore is complete, you'll need to use File History to restore any individual files or folders that you created or changed since your last system image backup was made.

Windows comes with everything you need to make system backups, thanks to the Backup and Restore tool. You'll need an external drive with a generous capacity - potentially up to double the size of your PC's internal drive.

To back up your system using Backup and Restore, follow these steps:

  1. Connect your external drive.
  2. Click Start > Settings > Update & Security > Backup.
  3. Select Go to Backup and Restore.
  4. Click Create a system image.
  5. Select On a hard disk, choose your external drive and click Next > Start backup.

If you don't want to manually work through this process every month or so, you can create system backups on an automatic schedule. Follow the instructions above until you get to step four, then click Set up back-up on the right. Select your external drive and choose Next > Change schedule, then Run backup on a schedule.

How to back up files on Mac

Apple computers come with a built-in backup tool called Time Machine, which automatically saves snapshots of your system at hourly intervals for up to 24 hours, as well as daily backups for the past month and weekly backups for previous months. You'll need a good-sized external drive - 1TB or 2TB should be enough.

To back up your Mac, follow these steps:

  1. Plug in your external drive, then click the Apple icon in your menu bar.
  2. Select System Preferences > Time Machine > Select Backup Disk.
  3. Browse for your external drive and chooseOptionsto exclude specific folders.

To restore a particular file, open Finder, then click the Time Machine menu bar icon and select Enter Time Machine. You can browse back through your backup history by date to find the file you need.

Like Windows, macOS has a small amount (5GB) of free cloud storage - any files you store in your iCloud Drive folder will be backed up to Apple's online servers. You can increase your iCloud Drive storage if needs be - prices start at 79p a month for 50GB.


Is it worth paying for cloud storage? Our expert guide explains how to choose the best cloud storage service.


How to back up files on Windows 11

The latest version of Microsoft's operating system has landed. If you've already upgraded to Windows 11, you'll find File History, OneDrive and system backup are all included, but accessing some of them works a little differently in the new OS.

To enable and configure File History in Windows 11, follow these steps:

  1. Plug in your external drive.
  2. Click Start, type File History and click the File History icon.
  3. Select your external drive, then click the Turn on button. Click Exclude folders or Advanced settings on the left if you need to configure any of these settings.

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Additional reporting by Tom Morgan.