When Apple released its Time Machine backup tool in Mac OS X 10.5 last year, many hailed its convenience and simplicity. But your Windows PC comes with all of Time Machine's slick backup tricks built-in.
The backup utility built into Vista and XP doesn't have a catchy name (it's called Backup Status and Configuration), but it's a powerful tool that gets far less attention than it deserves — and it costs nothing extra. Perhaps it should have a name like "Super-Better Backup," or "Burger, Fries, and a Milk Shake Backup."
Apple's Time Machine makes backups on an automated schedule and allows incremental updates. So does Windows' backup app. Your PC can even match Time Machine's most interesting feature, rolling back any given file to an earlier version. I'll explain how to use all of these tools, and I'll provide tips along the way to protect your data from disaster.
Pick the Destination
The most secure backup solution is one that stores your data far, far away from your PC — like, across town in a bank safe. Second best: an Internet-based storage service. Third: a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device.
An external, USB-, FireWire-, or eSATA-connected backup drive such one of the models on our Top 10 External Hard Drives chart is a good choice, especially if you store it somewhere other than on top of the PC it's backing up. As our lab tests have shown, eSATA and FireWire 800 drives are faster than USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 drives (though few PCs come standard with the faster interfaces).
Try to set up a routine of taking the drive with you when you go to work, and bring it home once a week for the backup operation. An even better strategy: Use two external drives, making two sets of backups. With this alternating pattern, you can keep one of the drives at work, or in a fireproof safe, a bank deposit box, a friend's house, or other off-site location to protect your data from a home-office catastrophe.
A network backup offers a great way to store files, and the LaCie Ethernet Disk Mini Home Edition is a good option for the home office, especially if you have more than one PC to back up. But network-attached storage drives are substantially slower than drives that use eSATA, FireWire, or USB connections, and because they're often shared among multiple PCs, they usually stay in once place, greatly diminishing their disaster protection.
Online storage protects you from a fire or other catastrophe, and it allows retrieval from anywhere. Internet backups move slowly, however, because they are limited by your broadband provider's maximum upload rate. Because of the pace, such backups are usually best for saving just individual documents or small folders, not for backing up an entire system.
If your PC has only a single hard drive and you can't (or don't want to) find an external solution, you can use Windows to make a second partition, and save the backup data there. Your PC will treat the second partition as a second drive, which can protect it from some simple types of data corruption. But if the drive mechanism physically fails, you'll lose access to the backup too, of course.
To set up a second partition, in Windows Vista, click Control Panel, System and Maintenance, and under Administrative Tools,choose Create and format hard disk partitions to open the Disk Management utility. Right-click your current disk, and pick Shrink Volume. Enter how much space you want to recover. When the action is complete, right-click the Unallocated space, and click New Simple Volume.
Note: Windows XP won't repartition a disk that's in use, so you'll need to employ a utility like the free Partition Logic instead.
Because the Windows backup tools have changed quite a bit with the release of Vista, the next step in creating your backup plan depends on which version of Windows you're running.
Schedule Automated Backups in XP
Windows XP includes built-in, automated backup tools that can save a copy of all your data. From Programs, Accessories, System Tools, choose Backup. Click Advanced Mode to skip the wizard. Click the Backup tab at the top of the window.
Navigate below My Computer to check the drive you want to back up, or highlight the drive name in the left pane and click specific check boxes in the right pane to select items a la carte. Click the Browse button at the bottom of the screen to choose a place on the destination drive to store the data. Click Start Backup.
If you want a long list of redundant backups, leave the radio button set to append data. That way, you can go back to recover files in different states, if necessary. But if you're backing up most of the system, that'll use a lot of space. Choose the second option, Replace the data, if you'd rather conserve drive space when making consecutive backups. That option will provide you with only one version of each file.
Click the Advanced button, and set the Backup Type to Incremental. That setting will save only the files you've changed or added since the most recent backup. (You'll copy everything the first time.) Click OK. Click the Schedule button and save a copy of the settings when prompted. The Scheduled Job Options window will open. Click Properties, and use the Schedule Task pop-up menus to set the time and frequency of the backup. Note that your PC needs to be on to process the backup; but pick a time, such as late at night, when you won't be competing with the utility for system resources. For a primary machine, I like to run a backup every day, but you could be fine with weekly backups on a less frequently used system. Click OK. Choose Start Backup to begin the job the first time.