Most people don’t backup their home computers. We didn’t for the longest time, at least not in any real sense. Yes, I would occasionally burn a CD with the things on our computer that I wanted to make sure we kept, but it wasn’t anything we were doing regularly. It would be a about six months before I remembered to do it again.

That changed once we got a digital camera. Before we got a digital camera, we never really took many pictures. Agnes and I would go to weddings or on vacation and sometime while we were there we would say “you know, we should have brought a
camera.” We did eventually get a nice portable digital camera, and we started taking lots of pictures. We took quite a few pictures, and put them all on our home computer. After a while, we realized that it would be bad if we lost all of our photos because the computer died. That’s when we decided that we needed to start backing up our computer more seriously.

What to Backup

When we started giving more thought to how we would do our backups, we started to pay more attention to what we backed up.

Here’s what we chose:

  • The “My Documents” folder for both Agnes and me
  • The “Favorites” folder for both Agnes and me
  • The “Desktop” folder for both Agnes and me
  • The folder containing data synchronized from Agnes’ Palm
  • The folder containing all our photos
  • The folder containing a duplicate copy of this website
  • The folder containing music we purchased online
  • The “Archive” folder where we know to store anything else we want to make sure is backed up
  • My Firefox bookmark file

Notice that with the exception of the Firefox bookmark file, everything is a folder. This is important. By backing up folders instead of individual files we make sure that our backups pick up anything that has been added to the folder since the last time we did a backup.

Another important point is that we had to make sure we didn’t have anything in those folders that we would prefer to not back up. Originally we had a music folder that contained both the music we ripped from our CDs as well as music that we purchased online. The stuff we purchased online (from the iTunes Music Store) can’t be downloaded again, but the music on our CDs can easily be ripped again. We separated the two into different folders and chose to back up only the music purchased online. This saved us from backing up gigs of music that we also have on CD.

Full and Incremental Backups

Ideally, you would create a full copy of everything you backed up each and every time you ran a backup. This isn’t very practical. Copying gigs of data every time you do a backup can be time consuming. Instead, people do two basic types of backups: Full and Incremental. A full backup creates a complete copy of everything you want to back up. An incremental backup copies only those things that have changed since the last time you did a backup. The advantage of an incremental backup is that it is usually much faster than doing a full backup, and it saves a lot of space. Since the files on our computer don’t change very often, we found that a monthly full backup and a weekly incremental backup was fine.

Backup Media

We considered a number of places to store our backups:

A folder on the computer

Backing up to a folder on the computer isn’t a great idea. Yes, it does save a separate copy of the files in case something is accidentally deleted, but it doesn’t protect against hard drive failure.

A backup hard drive in the computer

A backup hard drive is not a bad idea, but if the backup hard drive is in the same computer as the one containing the original files, the backup could be lost if the entire computer is stolen. It’s also likely that the backup would be lost if the computer got fried in some electrical accident — what destroys one hard drive often destroys all of the hard drives in the same computer.

Another computer

If you have multiple computers and they each have space to store each other’s backup, this is a good option. It wasn’t practical for us.


DVDs can store about 4.5 gigs of data, which is plenty for all of the data on our home computer. I didn’t feel like using up a DVD with each backup though. Consider rewriteable DVDs if you choose this option.

An external backup hard drive

One can easily and cheaply buy an external hard drive for doing backups. They seem a little safer than an internal backup hard drive because they’re less likely to be fried due to a power surge in the computer as they’re only connected via USB or Firewire. This is the option that we went with, except that instead of buying an external hard drive, we bought a regular bare hard drive and an external enclosure to put it in. You end up with the same thing, but it can be quite a bit cheaper.


We came across four options for doing our backups:


Windows XP comes with a built-in backup tool called NTBackup. It’s actually pretty decent. There is a whole wizard you can walk through to pick what you want to back up and when you want your backup to be scheduled. If you choose to use NTBackup, you will want to use the option that says “Let me choose what to backup”.

In NTBackup, a full backup is called a Normal backup. NTBackup comes with two variations of an incremental backup: Differential or Incremental. A Differential backup copies everything that has changed since the last time you did a Normal backup. An Incremental backup copies everything that has changed since a Normal backup or another Incremental backup. Incremental backups will be smaller, but you need the last Normal backup and all of the subsequent Incremental backups to fully restore the data on your computer. With Differential backups, you just need the last Normal backup and the most recent Differential backup.

We found a couple of drawbacks to NTBackup. It would not back up directly to CD or DVD. It wouldn’t split the backup file into chunks appropriate for burning to CD or DVD. It barely compresses any of the data being backed up. It only restores to the same location where the original file was found. And it was unreliable backing up to another computer over our wireless network. While we used NTBackup for a couple of months, we eventually stopped using it in favor of a different option. It is still a decent option if you are backing up on a wired network or if you have an external hard drive connected to the computer.


WinRAR is an archiving and compression utility like WinZip. It has a number of benefits over WinZip and I found a nice guide for doing backups with WinRAR here. It supports full and incremental backups like NTBackup. It can split the backup file into chunks that can be written to CD or DVD. It can create extra files called parity files that can help recover a partially corrupted archive. It can be configured to compress either all or some of the files that go into the archive. We tried out this approach, but the “incremental” part of the backup didn’t work reliably for us and we didn’t pursue it further.

Backup Software Bundled with an External Hard Drive

Most external hard drives come with backup software bundled with it. The best software package out there right now seems to be Dantz Retrospective. It allows for scheduled full and incremental backups. It might do backups directly to DVD though we haven’t looked into it. It intelligently compresses the data being backed up. The only reason we didn’t choose this option is that we didn’t buy an external hard drive. We bought a regular hard drive and put it into an enclosure. Buying the software separately would have cost us an additional $100. Since we found a different means of doing backups, this bundled software didn’t sway us into buying a pre-built external hard drive. This is probably the best option for most people out there.


Within unix/linux there is a tool called rsync. It is used for synchronizing two sets of files between different computers on the network, and it does it very efficiently, sending over only the files and parts of files which have changed. This tool is available to Windows users as part of the Cygwin environment. Cygwin is a collection of unix/linux tools that has been ported to work with Windows.

We chose rsync and set it up to back up our computers to an external hard drive hosted on a Linux machine. We followed these instructions on using rsync.

Rsync may seem like a pretty esoteric option to choose, especially since NTBackup would have worked just fine. There’s one big reason we chose it. Rsync is built to be able to synchronize files successfully over the Internet. It communicate securely over the Internet by using SSH, and if the synchronization is interrupted, it can easily pick up where it left off. With this feature, we found that we could do our backups from anywhere we had Internet connectivity. When I’m on the road with my laptop and I’ve made some significant changes to the data on my computer, I can securely back it up to our home network. We also use this same capability to make a second backup on a friend’s computer who lives hundreds of miles away. When people talk about doing backups, they advise you to send your backup to some other geographic location so that you don’t lose everything if your house burns down/floods/gets robbed/etc. This was the only option that easily enabled offsite backups for us.


We ended up with a system where we can reliably back up everything on our computers to a single external hard drive using rsync. Our backup solution also gives us offsite backups. While our solution works and is automated, it’s probably more complicated than most people out there need.

We recommend backing up to an external hard drive. If you can afford it, buy a pre-built hard drive such as those sold as Maxtor One-Touch drives. These come with Dantz Retrospective and once you set it up, you either let it run when it’s scheduled, or you press the button on the drive and it does a backup for you. These generally run a little less than $1 per gig of backup space.

If you want to save a bit of money, buy a bare hard drive and put it in an enclosure. We got a Seagate 200 gig hard drive from Frys and a USB enclosure from CompUSA. The two together were under $100, after rebate. Use NTBackup and schedule a monthly Normal backup and weekly Differential backups.

If you’re willing to spend a little time and want offsite backups in addition to backing up to your external hard drive, contact us and we can talk about how to get rsync set up to back up to some extra space we have here on our drive.

Don’t delay — start backing up!