Skip to main content

How to properly back up your computer

How to properly back up your computer

Share this story

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that you don’t regularly back up your computer. And why should you? After all, getting a laptop stolen or having a hard drive crash is the sort of thing that only happens to other people. Your files are fine, right?

Accidents happen, and if they do, you’ll want to be ready

But accidents happen, and if they do, you’ll want to make sure that you’re ready. That means routinely backing up your computer. After all, you really don’t want to be the person who loses their entire thesis a month before it’s due because their computer got stolen in the library, or has to say goodbye to years of family pictures that were all stored on that old computer in the basement that got fried in a power outage or flood.

Fortunately, backing up your computer is easier than ever with the advances in cloud storage and local software. No backup system is ever going to be perfect, and there’s always the chance that something may go wrong, but you should still consider it a critical necessity.

Local Backup

Whether you’re on a Mac or a PC, both major operating systems include pretty robust backup systems built into your computer already, both for a couple folders or your entire computer.

But first, you’ll need an external hard drive. Generally, you want your backup drive to be (at the bare minimum) as big as your internal hard drive, and ideally around one and a half to two times as large. Seagate’s Backup Plus or Western Digital’s My Passport are pretty reliable options that won’t break your budget. And remember, a $70 hard drive now could save priceless files and memories later.

Mac OS X: Time Machine

If you’re on a Mac, then you already have a great backup tool at your fingertips called Time Machine. In fact, there’s probably an icon for it that’s been waiting at the top of your menu bar. Simply take an external drive (see above), plug it into your computer, and open up Time Machine to configure it as a backup drive. Time Machine will more or less handle the rest, backing up individual files, folders, and apps. And if you get a new machine or need to reset your computer completely, OS X will prompt you to provide a Time Machine backup to restore from. Just make sure to be good about plugging in your drive regularly to actually do the backups; a backup that’s three years old is better than nothing, but the more often you back up, the better covered you’ll be in case of an emergency.

Windows 10: File History / Backup and Restore

Microsoft has added integrated backups to Windows 10, and it works pretty much the same way as on a Mac. Plug in your external drive, and navigate over to File History. (You can either search for this in the Start menu, or find it in the Settings app in the “Backups” portion.) There, you’ll be able to select specific folders to back up, and how often you’d like Windows to back things up. Just like on a Mac, though, you’ll need to actually plug in your drive for your files to actually get backed up.

Cloud Storage:


Local backups are good, but much like your actual hard drive, they’re also prone to getting lost, damaged, or stolen. So it’s probably worth investing in some cloud storage options as a backup backup, just in case.

For individual files — like, say, an important copy of a presentation, or your big lab report that’s due next week — the simplest way to back up to the cloud is with providers like Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive, or iCloud. All of them allow you to install an app that scans a local folder and keeps everything in it uploaded to the cloud. That way, even if your whole computer gets hosed, you’ll still be able to log in and access it from anywhere.

But if you want the extra level of protection, then it’s worth investing in a subscription to a service like Backblaze, which costs $60 / year (or $6 / month) for unlimited storage of all your files online. It’s not quite as versatile as Dropbox when it comes to just pulling a couple files down from the cloud, but if you need a full-service cloud backup service, it’s hard to beat.

Update May 21st, 2020, 9:30AM ET: This article was edited to update the prices for Backblaze cloud storage.