Backing up your data is essential: the information contained in a document on a hard drive can be nearly impossible to replicate or replace. Here, we walk you through scheduling backups in Vista and Windows 7.

There's a school of thought that says PCs and laptops themselves aren't important, and that their contents are what gives them their value. After all, information is power, and the information contained in a document on a hard drive can be nearly impossible to replicate or replace. The hardware on which it's stored is almost immaterial.

What's indisputable is that a lost set of photos is a good way to ruin a weekend. When some of my cherished holiday snaps went missing, gentle admonitions were swiftly followed by more panicked pleas to check that everything on the PC had been safely copied across when it got its Windows 7 upgrade. Such a reassurance was not forthcoming, and we were getting perilously close to war of the Rosies territory.

Thankfully, my habit of copying files on to any USB drive, laptop or desktop PC with the space to take it has since proved its worth, and the photos in question are safe and well. But it certainly made me pull up my storage socks. I've started scheduling regular backups, and now store things in a far more orderly fashion.

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For the average home PC user, misplacing or deleting files is likely to be at least as much of a concern as the ever-present threat of hackers and data thieves. Yes, you want to be sure your painstaking research remains yours and yours alone until you choose to share it, but it's just as vital to have a copy in case the original gets corrupted.

A set of USB drives might do the trick, but these aren't designed for permanent storage and go wrong fairly frequently. It's more reliable - as well as cheaper and more convenient - to back up your files regularly to an established location. This way, you'll know at once where to turn should you need to call on that ‘spare' copy of your annual report, tax spreadsheet or, even more valuable, the photos from your once-in-a-lifetime holiday.

None of this is difficult: external hard drives cost around £50 per 500GB, while online archiving can be free.

Schedule backups in Vista and Windows 7

Step 1. With Vista, Microsoft introduced a dedicated backup module: the Backup and Restore Center. It's included in Windows 7 too. Go to Control Panel, choose System and Security, Backup and Restore. XP users will find similar tools under Control Panel, Performance and Maintenance.

Schedule backups step 1

Step 2. Let's back up the PC for the first time. Click the option to back up your PC and you'll be taken to the Backup and Restore Center. You need a suitable device to back up to; unless you're on a network, a USB hard drive is the best bet. Browse for a backup device and you'll see how much space is available on your chosen drive.

Schedule backups step 2

Also see: How to: Restore data from a backup