The Computer Guy Mantra...Back it up baby!

posted Nov 3, 2010, 7:15 AM by Brandon Dodds

Even computer novices know that files should be saved to help prevent them from being lost and so that they can easily be found when needed. But if you don't also back up your files, all that time you spent saving them isn't going to help you find anything if—and when—your computer decides to go on strike.

Picture of a man who looks worried

In this article, I'll explain the basics of backups and show you how to use the Backup and Restore feature in Windows 7 and in Windows Vista. You'll also learn how to back up Microsoft Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2010 email so that even if your hard drive crashes suddenly, you've still got access to the email you need. Creating and implementing a backup plan now can save a lot of frustration in the future.

Why backups are important

Files can be lost from your computer in any number of ways—you might accidentally delete a file, or a virus might wipe one out. You can also have a complete hard drive failure. When a hard drive dies an untimely death, it's kind of like having your house burn down. Important personal items are usually gone forever—family photos, significant documents, downloaded music, and more.

Thankfully it's a really simple process these days to back up your content to a second, separate location. By doing so, your files can be protected against viruses or complete computer failure. This makes it easy to retrieve and place them on a new hard drive and get going again.

Today, there are many options for backing up your content. You don't need any sophisticated equipment—you can use CDs, DVDs, external hard drives, flash drives, network drives, or even online storage like Windows Live SkyDrive. It might be a good idea to back up your data to multiple places. For example, you might choose to back up your content onto both an external hard drive and to an online storage site.

Back up files to the cloud

Windows Live SkyDrive is only one option available if you choose to back up your data to an online storage space. A couple of additional storage options from Microsoft include Hotmail, which offers enough storage for you to store your email, calendar, and contacts, and Windows Live Mesh, which lets you sync all your files and folders across your PCs and devices and provides enough cloud storage for your most important files. Other places online will offer you unlimited storage for a price. Do a little research, and choose the online storage spot that best fits your needs.

It really depends on what works best for your lifestyle. The most important thing is to perform backups on a regular basis so that the most current files are always available, should you need them.

Windows Backup and Restore

Windows comes with a very cool feature called Backup and Restore, which has been improved for Windows 7. To open Backup and Restore in Windows 7, in the Search box, type Backup, and then click the item in the results list. In Windows Vista, click the Start button, and you should see Backup and Restore Center in the menu. Or just type the phrase into the Search box, and click the item from the results to open it.

What makes the Backup and Restore feature so cool is that it simplifies the entire backup process for you. With easy-to-follow steps and prompts, you can decide whether to back up specific files or your entire computer.

It's a good idea to back up your entire computer when you first set it up. This option captures everything from files to software programs to system settings. If your computer ever stops working completely, you can potentially restore it using the initial entire computer backup.

Back up your files

The first time you create a backup, it might take a while, depending on the number of items you need to back up. After that, backups should be quicker.

Restore your files

After you’ve completed your first backup, it’s a good idea to set up an automatic backup schedule so that you don’t have to remember to back things up manually.

Set up or change automatic backup settings

Note: The ability to set up automatic backups is not included in Windows Vista Starter or Windows Vista Home Basic.

Back up email in Microsoft Outlook

Most people don't realize that email isn't necessarily saved in backups the same way that other files are. That's because Outlook saves your emails in a Personal Folder file with a .pst extension that doesn't automatically get caught in normal backups. Unless you're using a Microsoft Exchange Server email account or a third-party HTTP account (like Windows Live Hotmail), you'll need to perform a few extra steps to make sure Outlook emails aren't lost forever if your computer goes belly up.

.Pst files can be quite large, so it's a good idea to make sure your backup location has plenty of room—and that you allow lots of time for an email backup to occur. After you've done that, just follow these steps to back up your Outlook content:

  1. Open Outlook.

  2. In Outlook 2010:
    Click the File tab, and in Backstage view, click Open, and then click Import.

    File tab in Outlook 2010, with Open options listed

    In Outlook 2007:
    Click File, and then click Import and Export.

  3. In the Choose an action to perform list, click Export to a File, and then click Next.

  4. In the Create a file of type list, click Outlook Data File (.pst) in Outlook 2010 or Personal Folder (.pst) in Outlook 2007, and then click Next.

    Picture of Export to a File dialog box, with Personal Folder Files (.pst) selected.
  5. In the Select the folder to export from list, click the folder you want to export from, such as Inbox or Sent Items, and then click Next.

  6. Browse to and select the location where you want to save the file. Remember, backups should be placed somewhere other than the original location of the source file. For example, if your source file is on your computer’s hard drive, you’ll want to save your backup file to an external source, like a CD or an external hard drive.

  7. Choose the default setting Replace Duplicates with Items Exported.

  8. Click Finish.

  9. At any time, you can restore your file by importing it into Outlook.

    Note: If you want to just view or access something in your exported .pst file without importing it back into Outlook, you can simply open the .pst file.

    In Outlook 2010:
    Click the File tab and, in Backstage view, click Open, and then click Open Outlook Data File.

    In Outlook 2007:
    Click File, point to Open, and then click Outlook Data File.

In closing
See how quick and easy it is to protect yourself and your data from permanent loss? Backing up your data might take you a couple of extra minutes a few times a month, but you'll be glad you took that time if an emergency ever happens.
S.E. Slack is a lifestyle and technology writer with more than 10 books to her credit. She co-authored Breakthrough Windows Vista and Office 2007 Solutions to help you easily use Windows Vista and Office 2007.