Regular backups are often the only thing that can save your bacon when a hard drive failure or otherwise catastrophic PC meltdown occurs. If your files go poof, they're gone forever unless you've safely stashed copies elsewhere.
You would ideally have at least two back-ups: one kept at home and one stored off-site--a feat that's easily done with cloud solutions like Backblaze or CrashPlan. There are also various kinds of back-ups you can do like system images that include your files and an OS backup.
But today we're going to focus on a trio of free, automated tools to back up just your personal files to an external hard drive or other PC--because that's really the most critical stuff you want to save. PCs and their operating systems can be replaced, but treasured photos of your kids or accounting documents? Not so much.
For all of these tools we're going to assume your PC is connected to an external hard drive.
Built-in and dead easy
The most obvious choice is to use File History, a tool that comes built-in to Windows 8 and 8.1. File History is very much like Time Machine for the Mac, just without all the space traveler graphics. It saves chronological versions of your Windows libraries (documents, music, pictures, and videos), allowing you to go back in time and retrieve specific versions of a file--a handy feature if you want to retrieve a long-deleted section of a document.
By default, File History backs up your documents every hour, but you can change that under Advanced settings.
To get started with File History in Windows 8.1, connect your external drive, then open the Control Panel by right-clicking the Start button and selecting Control Panel.
Make sure the drop down menu in the upper right corner says View by: Large icons. Then just choose File History in the main Control Panel window.
On the next page, click the button labeled Turn on and you're good to go. If you need to configure File History, look at the links on the left side of the Control Panel screen to specify folders to exclude, select a specific attached drive, and so on.
The only thing with File History is that it won't grab anything outside your libraries, such as Outlook data files. Here's how to add new folders to your Windows libraries.
A solid third-party option is the free version of SyncBack from 2BrightSparks. With this desktop app all you do is create a new backup, give it a profile name, decide on the type of back-up you want, choose your source and destination folders, and away you go.
For a more detailed look check out PCWorld's tutorial of SyncBack Free.
SyncBack Free lets you schedule times to run your backups via the built-in Task Scheduler in Windows.
Digging into the command line
If you're not afraid of getting your hands dirty on the command line then try the Rsync utility via Cygwin, a Linux-style command line for Windows.
Rsync is a do-it-yourself option since you'll have to decide on the commands you use. But the appeal of Rsync is that it's been around for years, is very solid, and isn't subject to radical change. In other words, it's really boring and does its job--which is exactly what you want in a backup utility.
Truth be told, using Rsync isn't that hard. In fact, you can get it working with just one line of code. I use Rsync for my own backups with this simple instruction on the Cygwin command line:
rsync -auv "/cygdrive/c/Users/[user folder name]/" "/cygdrive/d/Rsync"
Basically, what this says is start Rsync, copy my entire user folder but only new files or files that have changed, and don't erase anything. The last little bits that start with "cygdrive" tell Cygwin and Rsync which drives to copy (my entire user folder) and where to copy it to (Drive D:/).
That's it. Rysnc's nothing fancy but it works very well. For a more complete tutorial on using Rsync with Windows check out this tutorial on YouTube.
Backing up can be a pain, but with the right tools you can set it up once, forget about it, and rest easy that your files are protected from the dreaded darkness of oblivion.