How to back up data in Windows

There’s lots of different ways to back up important data on your computer, but we wanted to give you some guidance in how to use the local backup utilities that are built into your Windows computer.  We’ll also fill you in on cloud backup services that are super reliable.

For a local backup, you’ll need an external hard drive.  1 terabyte models are about 55 bucks these days, and we’ve seen 5-terabyte models for as low as $120.  Larger drives sometimes need an external power supply, whereas smaller drives are usually compact and run off the computer’s power.

While following the guides below, please be aware that, due to regular updates to the operating system, things may not appear quite as they do in the screenshots we’ve provided.


Windows 10

Windows 10 LOCAL backup: System Image Backup

Let’s start with Windows 10, since it’s fast becoming the most popular operating system on PCs. The information for Windows 8.1, 8, and 7 will be based on the principles explored here, but will also be somewhat simplified, so you may want to read this section first regardless of what OS you currently use.

There’s three types of backup that can be done in Windows 10.  The first, and most important, is called a System Image Backup.  A system image backup creates an “image” of the whole computer, as it is at that point in time, and allows you or a technician to restore that image to your hard drive (or a new one), leaving things exactly as they were when you made that image.  You can make these images in Windows 10, Windows 8, and Windows 7. These are particularly useful if there is catastrophic damage or corruption to your drive.

In Windows 10, you’ll want to open the Start menu by either clicking the Start button or pressing the Windows Logo key on your keyboard.  Then type the word “backup”.  An item should appear in the search box labeled “Backup and Restore (Windows 7)” [see figure 1; it may appear differently on your computer].  Click that item.  A control panel window should open and you should see an option on the top left that reads “Create a system image”.  Make sure that your external drive is plugged in and detected, then click that option.

[If you are using the Windows 10 “Creators Update” (version 1703), see figures 1A, 1B – your method is slightly different!]

A window will open that will indicate that it is “Looking for backup devices” [see figure 2].  This could take a couple of minutes.  Once it finishes, Windows will ask you to choose a backup location.  Select “On a hard disk”, then select the letter of your external drive.  Be careful, don’t select any of your computer’s internal drives or partitions – it doesn’t do any good to backup your computer to itself!  Once you’ve selected a disk, click Next.

A window will open confirming which drives/partitions will be backed up [see figure 3].  If you have more than one internal drive, you will have the option to include or exclude it here.  Then click “Start backup”.  The backup will take a while to complete, so go grab some coffee.


figure 1


figure 1a – click “Backup settings”


figure 1b – click “Go to Backup and Restore (Windows 7)”


figure 2


figure 3


Windows 10 LOCAL backup: File History

Windows 10 (and Windows 8) features an iterative backup system called File History.  File History backs up specific folders on your computer, and also watches for changes – so if you edit a document multiple times, File History will store backup copies of each version to an external drive of your choosing.  Should you need to, you can go back to an older version – much like in Apple’s Time Machine.

To enable File History in Windows 10, open the Start menu by either clicking the Start button or pressing the Windows Logo key on your keyboard.  Then type the phrase “file history”.  An item should appear in the search box labeled “File History settings” [see figure 4; it may appear differently on your computer].  Click that item.  A Settings app window should open and you should see an option labeled “+ Add a drive” [see figure 5].  Click that, and then select your backup drive [see figure 6].  File History will immediately switch itself on and begin backing up your data! [see figure 7]

Be warned, though, that by default File History only copies the contents of your primary user folders – Desktop, Documents, Music, Pictures, Videos, and a few others.  If you use programs like Microsoft Outlook, Intuit Quickbooks, or other programs, their database files may not be backed up by File History.  If you click “More options” [see figures 8 + 9; it may appear differently on your computer], you will find an array of clearly labeled options where you can:

  • Change the backup frequency
  • Change how long backed up data is kept
  • Include or exclude specific folders for backup
  • Change the selected drive being used for backup

You may need to look up exactly where programs like Outlook or Quickbooks are saving your data in the specific version that you are using, and then you can tell File History to back up those folders as well!

figure 4


figure 5 (click to enlarge)


figure 6 (click to enlarge)


figure 7


figure 8


figure 9


Windows 8/8.1

Windows 8/8.1 LOCAL backup: System Image Backup

Windows 8 and 8.1 have the same backup features as Windows 10, but getting to them is a little different.  For a System Image Backup, first make sure you’re on your Start Screen (the menu with all the square tiles on it).  Type the phrase “file history”.  A search box will pop open and list a couple of options.  One is labeled “File History settings” and has a cog icon next to it.  Ignore that one and look below it for one that simply reads “File History” and has a folder icon with a clock and a green arrow [see figure 10; it may appear differently on your computer].  Click that one.

The File History control panel will appear and it will check for drives.  When it finishes, you’ll see the option for “System Image Backup” in the lower right corner.  From here on in, you can follow the steps outlined for Windows 10 above.

figure 10


Windows 8/8.1 LOCAL backup: File History

First make sure you’re on your Start Screen (the menu with all the square tiles on it).  Type the phrase “file history”.  A search box will pop open and list a couple of options.  Click the one labeled “File History settings”, which has a cog icon next to it [see figure 11; it may appear differently on your computer].

Connect your backup drive, and make sure that the selected drive to backup to is the one you have connected.  Click the switch next to “File History – Off” so that it turns “On” [see figure 12].

Unfortunately, in Windows 8/8.1, you can’t specify what folders are backed up by File History.  By default, it backs up the contents of your user folder – Documents, Downloads, Pictures, etc.  More details about File History’s iterative backup feature, and how to configure it to back up additional folders, are above in the Windows 10 section.

figure 11


figure 12 (click to enlarge)


Windows 7

In Windows 7, the process to create a system image is very similar to that in Windows 10 and Windows 8: press the Windows key on your keyboard, and type “backup”. Click the item that appears called “Backup and Restore” [see figure 13].

The option to create a system image is on the left side of the window that opens, and the instructions are the same as for Windows 10 above.

The other option is to create a regular incremental backup. This option is on the right side of the same window [see figure 14]and the process is self-explanatory. While this backup and its resulting file structure are not nearly as simple to navigate as File History, it’s the simplest consistently useful option available.

figure 13


figure 14

Cloud backup services for all OSes

If you have a reliable, relatively fast internet connection and a few bucks a month to spend on peace of mind, a cloud backup service provides a nice fail-safe.  These services backup your data to “the cloud”, which means data storage centers off on the internet somewhere.  Most secure services will actually make multiple copies of your data to multiple data centers, just in case a server fails or a data center has a catastrophe.  That’s not to say that any of these services are 100% foolproof, but they’re pretty reliable.  Still, we recommend at least making a local system image backup, and if your data is of the utmost importance, we’d say it’s best for you to make both a local backup on an external hard drive, and use a cloud backup service as well.

Popular cloud backup services include Carbonite, CrashPlan, BackBlaze, and and IDrive.  Prices are generally roughly $50-$75/year.  Some services charge by month. There are many cloud backup options available. This online review of popular backup providers may help you make a decision.