Before you jump into this task, it’d be a good idea to stop and think about a couple of important points. First, consider that making a backup can take quite a bit of time. During this process, no programs should interact with the files being backed up. This is the only way to be completely sure that no program will open any files for exclusive access during this time, thereby denying access to those files to the backup program you’re using (and potentially causing errors or failures).
Second, you’ll want to create a schedule that defines the intervals at which backups will be made. If your files don’t change very much over time, you can choose a longer interval between backups. If you create, modify, or delete files on a daily basis, you’ll want to create backups more often, if not daily.
Backup Types: Complete (Full) Backups
The simplest backup is to copy all files manually from a drive or directory using drag and drop. If you use this technique, you must copy everything to make a complete backup. While simple, drag-and-drop backups are subject to several disadvantages. First, you must literally copy everything to create a backup, which can take hours to complete for large file collections. Second, it's manual so you must remember to do this on your own. But if your files don't change much and you do this several times a week, this type of backup won't kill you.
Using a differential backup approach is best done with software that supports both differential and incremental backups. But there are some important distinctions to consider. When performing a differential backup, only files that have changed or have been added since the previous complete or full backup are included in the current backup file set. This means that each differential backup is larger than the one that preceded it, which can consume excessive storage space on the external disk drive.
In an incremental backup, all files that have been changed or added since the previous backup are backed up. The most recent backup might be a complete backup, or another incremental one, depending on what kind of backup immediately precedes the current incremental backup pass. This approach makes more efficient use of storage resources because it guarantees that no files are duplicated across multiple backup file sets.
For both of these backup types (differential and incremental), the starting point must always be a recent complete backup. Likewise, it’s also essential to configure the backup software to check backed-up files after copies are made in both instances. Otherwise, errors could lead to an unusable backup file set, or more problematically, an unrestorable backup file set.
Restoring a Backup
Should some kind of error or other incident require restoring a backup file set, your restore method depends on what kinds of backups you have. For any restore, you’ll always start by restoring your most recent complete backup. If you have also created incremental backups, you’ll have to next restore all of them in chronological order. If your other backups are differential, you must next restore only the most recent differential one (differential backups are cumulative, so only one must be restored).
Which Files Should Be Backed Up?
Answering the question “which files should you back up?” is relatively simple: Back up all files you can’t afford to lose in the event of a disk or system failure. Along with your videos, pictures, and music files, this includes text documents and, of course, your e-mail messages and address book or contacts information. If you’ve been diligent and have stored all of these files in the C:\Users\<username> folder associated with your login account and its user profile, all of these folders (Pictures, Videos, Music, and so forth) must most definitely be backed up.
In addition, many programs that run on Windows Vista also save files and settings in the C:\Users\<Username>\AppData folder. Thus, you’ll find your personal Outlook files in this folder: C:\Users\<Username>\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Outlook. Likewise, e-mails that you retrieve using Windows mail will reside in the folder named C:\Users\<Username>\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows Mail. Even saved games and related statistics reside inside this AppData folder hierarchy. To avoid missing anything important in here, we strongly urge you to include the entire C:\Users\<Username>\ hierarchy in any backup you might save.