PC Advisor takes an in-depth look at backups, a vital tool when preparing a laptop or desktop PC for a major repair job or upgrade. Here's how to back up your PC.

Fail to prepare; prepare to fail. So goes one of the most facile mantras ever uttered. But if you're about to make some major changes to your PC, a certain amount of preparation is in order. This is particularly true if you're about to wipe the hard drive in the course of an upgrade or repair.

Backing up your whole PC can take an entire day, but it's worth doing so thoroughly. Here, we outline three scenarios in which you might want to back up your PC and suggest the best approach for each. We'll cover why it's important to maintain a backup, what to back up and how to manage your backups. We also explain how to create a drive image in preparation for porting everything over to a new PC, reinstalling Windows or reformatting the drive.

Backup basics

Backing up usually involves making duplicate copies of your files so you can call on them should the originals become damaged, deleted or otherwise inaccessible. Since the most common reason for recourse to a backup copy is that the drive on which the original has failed, it makes sense to store the duplicate elsewhere.

Windows has built-in tools to enable you to make backup copies of the most obvious items: documents, photos, music and video. Right-click on a file or photo and you get options to Copy it or 'Send To' an external device. Copying to an external drive is the best bet, particularly if you've got many gigabytes of files to back up.
Don't forget to look in folders created by the program associated with your camcorder or for the music you've bought from iTunes and so on. If you need nothing but the actual files stored on your PC, you can get away with simply dragging-and-dropping everything in your username account folder to a backup drive. If you also need to back up settings for the programs you use, the applications themselves and the latest updates and licences, you need a more complex backup.

The easiest option is to use the Backup and Restore Wizard, which Windows XP users will find under Control Panel, Performance and Maintenance; Windows Vista and Windows 7 users can invoke it by typing backup into the Start, Search menu. Allow the wizard to run, choosing 'Backup' rather than 'Restore' and selecting a documents-only or full backup or opting to create a system restore disc. For the latter, you'll need a blank DVD to hand. Name the backup when prompted so you can find it easily later. As you'll have seen at the start of the wizard, the same tool can be launched to restore files at a later date.

Automated backups

Although it's a great idea to have a backup of all your data, the exact contents of your PC are constantly changing. Even so, for most users it's enough to back up documents and folders on a weekly basis.

Windows likes to schedule backups weekly anyway. If you're storing a lot of photos and other files on your PC and routinely download and install programs, we recommend this plan. You can set Windows to perform its backups when the computer isn't being used. That way it won't interfere with your important iTunes download or BBC iPlayer enjoyment, but you'll have the reassurance of a regularly backed-up PC.

To schedule backups in Windows XP, head back to the Performance and Maintenance pane and choose Scheduled Tasks. In Vista and Windows 7, this option is offered in the Backup and Restore wizard.

For business users in particular, having a backup routine in place is critical. Automated backups via Windows are unlikely to suffice. Instead, we recommend using a networked hard drive or Raid device that backs up all the computers on the network at a set time each evening or overnight, and from which any necessary restores can be performed. Software such as EMC Retrospect often comes with external backup drives; other drives may include encryption software or even hard-disk encryption to prevent rogue access to your files. At the consumer end, a locally attached external hard drive with backup-scheduling software will provide peace of mind. See Top 5 Portable hard drives for recommendations.

NEXT: online backups, moving DATA to a new hard drive, create a clone >>

See also: How to back up to an online vault

Click here for the best Microsoft voucher codes.