Making backups is boring, but the alternative—losing your data—is the kind of excitement no one wants. I once lost 80 pages of a novel to a bad hard drive. I had no backups. While most of the world is thankful to have been spared those 80 pages, if that hard drive had lived, who knows? I might be sipping a mai tai on a Maine beach with Stephen King right now.
Nowadays I back up my data at least three times, in three physically separate places. I know what you’re thinking—wow, he is really bummed about missing out on that mai tai. It may sound excessive, but it costs next to nothing and happens without me lifting a finger, so why not?
If the perfect backup existed, then sure, three would be overkill, but there is no perfect backup. Things go wrong with backups too. You need to hedge your bets. At the very least, you should have two backups, one local and one remote. For most people, this strikes the best balance between safety, cost, and effort.
Updated March 2023: We’ve added a new section on checking the health of your current drives, and updated prices throughout.
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Start With Your PC Drive
The best kind of backup is the one you never need because your main PC never fails. Good luck achieving that. However, while the PC that never fails may be unlikely, there are things you can do to head off potential problems.
My advice is, if you tend to keep your PC for a long time like I do, keep an eye on that drive. If you're using Windows there are some built-in tools, but they're overly complicated. I recommend CrystalDiskInfo for checking the health of your drives. If you have a Mac, the built-in Disk Utility app does a good job of scanning your drive to let you know if there are any potential issues. Linux users: GSmartControl is a good GUI app, and command-line options abound.
Using these tools can help you avoid some disasters, but the unfortunate truth is that drives will fail with no warning. That's why we need to make backups. Let's start with the simplest: another hard drive.
The first backup is the simplest—buy an external hard drive and regularly copy your data to it.
The hardest thing about this step is figuring out which hard drive to buy. If you want something small, see our guide to portable hard drives (which don’t require external power). Backblaze, a backup company that currently stores more than 1 exabyte of data, and therefore has considerable experience with hard drives, periodically publishes its drive statistics, which have some helpful numbers to consider.
Unfortunately, what really jumps out of that data is that longevity varies more by model than by manufacturer. That said, I suggest sticking with known names like Seagate, Western Digital, and Hitachi. Still, even brand-name drives fail. I had a big brand-name drive fail on me recently, and it was only four months old. What you get by sticking with the brand names is good customer service. In my case, the company replaced the drive without question.
Even within brand names, though, some drives are better than others. Several of us here on the Gear team have had good luck with Western Digital hard drives. I like this 5-terabyte model ($110 at Amazon, $108 at Best Buy), which will back up this very article later tonight (it’s backed up to the cloud as I type, more on that in a minute). If you don’t mind a larger form factor, there’s a Western Digital 8-terabyte “desktop” version that’s not much more ($155 at Amazon).
One nice thing about buying a drive for backing up your data is that you don’t need to worry about drive speed. Even a slow 5,400-rpm drive is fine. These slower drives are cheaper, and since the backup software runs in the background, you probably won’t notice the slower speed.
Get the largest backup drive you can afford. Incremental backups—which is how all good backup software works—save disk space by backing up only the files that have changed since the last backup. But even so, you need a larger drive for backups than whatever is on your PC. A good rule of thumb is to get a backup drive that’s two, or even three, times the size of the drive in your computer.
Set It and Forget It
A good backup system runs without you needing to do a thing. If you have to make a backup, you probably won’t. These days there is software that can automate all of your backup tasks.
Mac users should use Time Machine. It’s a wonderfully simple piece of software and possibly the best reason to buy a Mac. Apple has good instructions on how to set up Time Machine so it will make daily backups to your external hard drive. Time Machine is smart too; it will only back up files that have changed, so it won’t eat up all your disk space.
Windows 11 offers Windows backup, which will back up most of your personal data to your Microsoft account, but it isn’t intended to fully restore your system, should a hard drive fail. A WIRED reader tipped me off to the File History features in Windows, which performs automatic incremental backups on any folder you designate. While File History works quite well in my testing, and can take the place of something like Time Machine if you go through and set it up for every folder you need to back up, Windows still doesn’t really have a utility like Time Machine.
To get Time Machine-level simplicity in Windows, you’ll need to turn to third-party software. I’ve had good luck with Macrium Reflect, which has a free option that does most of what you need.
Off-Site Backups: All-in-One
The second backup I suggest is off-site, or in “the cloud,” as marketing departments call it. Of course, that is just another way of saying “on someone else’s computer.” In this case, I mean a server in a data center far from your home. This is a backup that covers that awful scenario of physical destruction. For example, I once lost a laptop to a lightning strike. (Yes I had a surge protector; it pretty much liquefied.) But since my data was backed up to the cloud, I was able to get everything back.
What you don’t want is something like Dropbox, Google Drive, or Sync.com. Those are all great ways to share and sync documents, but they aren’t good for backups. When you change a file on your computer, those changes are then synced to Dropbox. That means if a file becomes corrupted, the corruption is then sent to Dropbox and cascades through all your backups. That’s not what you want. A good backup never changes. You copy the file to the backup and then it’s never touched again.
Fortunately, there are plenty of cloud backup solutions available. Some are all-in-one: You sign up, download the service’s app, and you’re done. This is what we suggest for newcomers.
After testing a dozen backup services like this, I found Backblaze offers the best all-in-one backup—a good combination of features, price, and reliability. For $70 a year you can get unlimited storage for one machine. If you don’t want to pay the $70 upfront, you can pay $7 a month. Backblaze works on both Windows and macOS, and the default settings will do a good job of backing up your data. The company retains each version of your file for 30 days, though you can increase that if you pay a little more.
Other options include iDrive, which offers 5 terabytes of storage at $59 for the first year, $70 per year after that. The iDrive software isn’t quite as simple as Backblaze, but it offers additional features—like keeping deleted files indefinitely—that more advanced users might like. Another option I tested is Acronis True Image, which is not as cheap and is Windows-only but does a great job of automating your backups.
Off-Site Backups: Separate App and Storage Provider
Another way you can back up to the cloud is by using an app that connects to multiple online storage services. This requires a little extra effort up front, but this method makes it easy to back up your data at multiple online services from a single app. In fact, our top pick, Duplicati, can handle everything from an external hard drive to cloud services like Amazon’s AWS.
This is why I recommend Duplicati for more advanced users. It’s a free, open source backup tool that connects to just about every cloud-based backup service around.
Duplicati uses a web-based interface (running locally on your computer) and offers very fine-grained control over your backups. You can set backups to run however you’d like, from yearly to hourly, and you can tell Duplicati to back up or ignore any folder or file you want.
To get started, click Add backup, and Duplicati will take you through the process of setting up an account at a cloud storage provider and entering your login credentials. Then you pick which files you want to back up. A word of caution about something that bit me once during testing: When Duplicati can’t find a file—for example, if you’re having it back up data that’s on an external drive you sometimes don’t plug in—it will halt the entire backup until that drive is available. You can change this behavior in the settings, but by default, this is how it works.
If Duplicati isn’t quite what you want, another option is MSP360 (formerly Cloudberry). It’s $30, but there is a free version with limited features. MSP360 worked well in my testing, but I did not find anything about it that convinced me it was better than Duplicati. Another possibility is Arq, which will set you back $50. Again, Arq worked well in my testing—in fact, I used Arq to make backups for years and never had any problems with it—but it’s hard to justify the price when Duplicati is free.
Tips and Suggestions
One important caveat is that you can’t really trust any backup system until you’ve actually restored from it. It sounds silly, but I strongly suggest you practice restoring your data before you actually need to. If there are any problems in your system, you want to find them before disaster strikes.
The last thing to consider when putting your backup system together is what you want to back up. For most of us, that’s a mix of personal data—photos of the kids, videos, important documents—as well as less personal things, like downloaded media and all the system files that keep our PCs running the way we want them to.
There are other folders worth considering, depending on your habits. For example, I never used to back up my Downloads folder because I’m probably going to move downloaded files somewhere else. However, when my drive recently died, this was exactly what I lost: my Downloads folder. Fortunately, there was only one document in it that really mattered, but I’ve added Downloads to my backup system to make sure nothing slips through the cracks again.
That’s really the most important part of making backups—ensuring you have a system that works the way you do. For that reason, I suggest experimenting with several of the options above until you find what’s right for you. With hard drives and online storage space so cheap these days, there’s really no excuse for not having at least two backups of your data.