Nowadays, most data is digital. It's such a convenience, because it means you don't need to store and file endless papers or documents. Digital data is so easy to search for and find quickly too. However, just like the physical, digital data is vulnerable to damage or loss, something that's often easy to ignore or forget. To prevent this, it's worth investing in a backup regime - you won't regret it.
The reliability of modern systems is far better than those that preceded them. But we’ve not yet reached the point where having a backup isn’t a measure you can safely ignore.
What to look for in backup software
Backup software falls into one of two basic categories; imaging or file-based. If you want to secure a computer so that it can be entirely rebuilt, with the OS and applications all installed, then you’ll need an imaging tool.
Alternatively, if all that concerns you is the data then a backup facility that targets files you create or modify is the perfect weapon of choice.
Imaging tools have to back up the entire hard drive of a system, every byte, and so you’ll need either a hard drive (internal or external) or a network drive - a NAS - with enough space to make a complete copy, and then hold any subsequent changes.
Conversely, file backups tend to be much smaller and require less additional storage. And with that reduced scale they can also be more easily backed up to cloud storage. Remember, though, that many cloud 'drives' - Dropbox, Google Drive and OneDrive - are not for backups. They're more like a central place to store files which can be accessed from any device. If you delete a file from any device, it's then deleted from the cloud and all your other devices. Instead consider cloud backup services such as LiveDrive and Carbonite.
Also, some software is designed to back up cloud-stored data, allowing new files to be copied down to a PC or mobile device once they’re available online.
Choosing the right software is a process of deciding what type of backup you are interested in having and then making sure that you have a tool provides the right functionality.
Some of the better applications offer both imagining and file backups, should you prefer a belt-and-braces approach.
What’s especially important is that the backup happens when it is appropriate. That it doesn’t interfere with you using your laptop or PC, and that in the event of a disaster the files are readily accessible.
You might also want to consider if you wish to secure more than one device the licensing scenario to achieve that. And, if files backed up are sensitive what encryption options are available to secure them from prying eyes.
Armed with this information you can choose the right strategy for you, and the appropriate backup application to execute that plan.
If you're looking for backup software for Mac, you'll find that on our sister site Macworld.
What's the best backup software for PC?
Acronis True Image
Powerful, feature-rich and easy to use, Acronis True Image drive partitioning and backup software for Windows is a truly comprehensive solution.
You can pick and choose the files and folders you want to backup if you don't need to back up the whole computer, and recovery options let you hand pick files if you don't need to recover everything too.
Customisable backup plans let you choose how often you want to back up fully, and let you backup the most important files more regularly.
Plus, the backup will run in the background to make sure that you're not disturbed while you're working.
The backup features end-to-end encryption to keep it safe and secure, and you can search for backed up files both on your machine and in the cloud to recover them at any time and any place.
Recent updates include notifications of backup status, only backing-up on selected WiFi connections, ransomware protection, active disk cloning, along with Backup Statistics, Activity logs and the all-in-one recovery tool called Survival Kit.
The £34.99/US$49.99 Standard Package, which is a one-time purchase rather than a subscription you'll need to renew, includes backup and recovery to a local drive, external USB, shared folder or NAS device for one computer. You'll also get Parallel's Toolbox included for free.
If you'd like cloud backup options, or want to protect Office365 data online, you'll need the Advanced or Premium packages, which cost £34.99/$49.99 or £69.99/$99.99 respectively for a year.
These solutions all cover a single computer, and with Advanced and Premium including 250GB and 1TB of Cloud storage as part of these deals. Additional storage and additional computers are available to add to your package at an extra cost.
EaseUS Todo Backup Free
EaseUS Todo Backup Free is (as you may have guessed) a free backup service that offers step-by-step instructions to help you quickly and easily backup and recover your files.
You'll be able to carry out a full system backup, or file-level backup if you'd prefer. There are also options that allow you to secure only changes made since the last backup to save time and space, and there's a back-up scheduler that can be tailored to suit you.
Above the Free version are the Home and Workstation versions that cost £29.99/$29.95 and £39.99/$39 respectively, and you can get a lifetime of upgrades on those products for £59.99/$59 and £79.99/$79. The major difference between each of these releases is not the backup functionality, but the speed at which it secures and recovers your files.
However, the Home release adds the technology to transfer a system to a different PC hardware and has special tools for Outlook email backup & recovery. Where the Workstation release can be run via command line scripts and also includes a centralised backup management tool to handle multiple licensed computers.
You can find out more and download the software from the EaseUS website.
For most home users the Free release does enough to secure their systems if they use any version of Windows from XP upwards. It even includes a specific disk closing mode for Windows 10 that's ideal if you wish to transfer from a hard drive to an SSD.
Considering it's free, the feature set is remarkably good.
Find out more and download on the EaseUS Home website.
Paragon Backup & Recovery Home
Paragon's Backup & Recovery is part of Paragon Hard Disk Manager Advanced and offers a range of features that'll help keep your files safe. It can backup individual files or the entire system, so provides the complete package rather than focusing on just one aspect.
The interface is clear and easy to understand, with step-by-step assistance for the various backup tasks you require on the schedule you set. You can perform regular or one-shot backups if that's all you need, and if there isn't enough space in your backup destination, you can even split the backups into smaller portions to solve that problem.
The combination of defined scenario and ad-hoc backups is a very flexible one that fits well with those who use their computers in an especially dynamic way, who therefore need their software to be equally adaptable.
It is also one of the few tools to support the backup of virtual disks, like those created by major hypervisor vendors VMDK, VHDX, VHD, pVHD (like VMware, Hyper-V, VirtualBox). And these backups can be mounted by virtual machines if you wish to investigate their contents quickly.
Paragon Backup & Recovery supports Windows 7, 8/8.1 and 10, and can even secure Microsoft Bitlocker encrypted volumes, should you use that technology. It's available for £44.91/$49.95.
For the full list of features and more information about the application, visit Paragon's website.
Ashampoo Backup Pro 14
Another stalwart in the backup area is Ashampoo, a German company that has steadily improved its Backup Pro suite for many years now.
The interface is clean and easy to understand, which is helpful because there are plenty of features on offer. Backup Pro 14 allows either specific files, an entire disk partition, or the whole system (Windows includes) to be backed up, so you can completely restore a PC after a crash or other catastrophic event.
Background backups mean that you don't have to pause all activity while the process is ongoing, plus there is now improved support for a wide range of destinations that can be used to store those created. These include your local drive, external storage, as well as a wide range of cloud-based solutions such as OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive, any NAS, and it also works with OneDrive Business and Office365.
Other features of note are 256 bit-AES encryption, versioning, compression (7Zip/LZMA), automatic backup verification, and a scheduler to ensure that backups run when it's most convenient for your workload.
Ashampoo Backup Pro 14 costs £39.99/$49.99 but is often on sale, with the company offering the software for £20/$25 at the time of writing. At either price it's well worth a look and there's also a free trial so you can give it a test run.
Bvckup 2 is a fast and simple Windows backup utility that focuses on the type of file backup activities that users need the most often.
It's one of those applications that you don't need to think about after it's configured: it just works. It's fast and reliable with well-thought out features to help along the way.
If Bvckup 2 can't copy a file, you are informed that the operation failed and hopefully given some indication as to why (security, etc.) it wasn't possible.
If you move from the Basic to Workstation Pro tier (which costs $49.95 or around £40) then you gain access to things like Delta copying, which speeds up the backups when compared to full file copies, and offers greater reliability thanks to intelligent error handling and detailed logging.
Another impressive Pro feature is how it utilises Windows shadow copy mode, allowing it to copy a file that's open for modification without causing a crash or exception. In theory, and it's not perfect, files that you are working on can be duplicated to a target location in real-time. That's perfect for anyone who is likely to experience a power cut or similar catastrophe.
Having live copies of recently changed files is a much better option than ones that are an hour or a day old given the amount of work that might have transpired in the meanwhile.
While it doesn't specifically support Cloud services, if those services are connected to the PC file structure (OneDrive, Google Drive, etc) then you can secure those folders locally or bakcup your working folders to the Cloud using Bvckup2.
What it doesn't do is secure a complete system so that it can be bare-metal restored, so it is best to use it in conjunction with another tool that can image your system.
Bvckup2 represents great value at $29.95 (approximately £25) for home users.
O&O AutoBackup 6
O&O offers a quick and simple AutoBackup application that will automatically sync and back up copies of your files and folders to a hard drive or USB stick.
The difference with this solution is that it is triggered by the insertion of the backup media (i.e. a disc or USB drive), although you can also define a backup schedule if you wish to secure files in a very specific time frame. There is also a real-time mode that tracks changes to files in the highlighted folders and then copies them to the backup location.
O&O AutoBackup's backup on insertion is a neat trick, but the program is otherwise a little limited. However, it's very easy to use for those who aren't technically minded, as they won't easily be confused by the small number of options available.
For someone who captures data each day and wants to secure it at the end of their working day, the AutoBackup method works well. But it won't restore a PC that suffers catastrophic drive failure, as it can't secure a running operating system or boot partitions.
For that purpose, O&O has DiskImage 12, a system imaging tool that comes available for £32.99/$49.95.
O&O also has DiskRecovery 12 Professional (£65/$99), a tool for recovering lost files and damaged partitions, along with specialist software for handling SSD migrations, cash mitigation and secure erasure of systems.
Find out more about each product on O&O's website.
The concept behind Backblaze is simple; a Cloud-based secure service that keeps a copy of any files you create or store on your computer.
What that doesn’t include is the operating system, applications or any temporary data that is created by active apps. But it does copy away any documents, images, videos or other file types that are on your system, and it works with Windows and Mac OS X (and macOS) computers.
Should something unfortunate happen to your computer then you can download your files in zip document for free or - for $99 (£76) - they’ll put them on a 128GB USB drive for you. For those with more files than will fit on a USB stick, a 4TB hard drive can be bought for $189 (£145). The cost includes mailing those storage devices back to you, avoiding the time and bandwidth consuming act of downloading all those files.
The limitations of this solution are that it won’t rebuild your computer from scratch. And, if you have lots of files it will take some time and broadband bandwidth to secure it all, or restore it.
It’s also not suitable for those people that have bandwidth restricted or data capped connections, as securing a PC could easily see terabytes being transferred either in the initial sync or if you ever need to recover a system.
For those without broadband limits, a flat fee of $60 (around £50) per year per computer for practically unlimited Cloud storage seems like a really good deal. Alternatively, Backblaze can also be purchased for a monthly fee for $6 (£5) or on a 24-month cycle for $110 (£90).
In addition to their personal storage solutions, Backblaze also has Business options that cost as little as $6 per month for each terabyte held. The Business model can also secure VMs and database structures, and not just conventional documents.
As good as the Backblaze solution is, it won’t do a bare-metal restore. Therefore, you should use it in conjunction with a system imaging tool, for complete peace of mind.
Find out more about both personal and business offers on Backblaze’s website.
Many cloud backup services offer a trial period, usually 15 or 30 days. Instead IDrive gives you 5GB of free space indefinitely, allowing you to see if it's the right one for you.
If you’ve more than 5GB of data to secure, and most people have, then IDrive Personal costs $52 (£42) in the first year, with a maximum of 2TB of online space made available to you.
Compared with some Cloud storage solutions that offer unlimited space that might seem restrictive, but a single IDrive account can secure multiple devices (PCs, Macs, iPhones, iPads and Android devices) without additional licensing.
For the home user that can keep the costs down dramatically, as a single account could secure the files from a whole family of hardware for modest annual or monthly bill.
Another bonus is that it also works in a very Apple Time Machine way, in that you can go back and restore a file at any point in its history. Ideally before it was corrupted or encrypted by malware. You can even recover files you’ve deleted, as long as it is within 30 days of the point where you put them in the trash.
What IDrive won’t do is secure the PC entirely, as it’s a file-based solution and not an imaging tool.
Therefore you’ll need to use this in conjunction with other software if you want to have a proper disaster recovery plan in place.
For users that have more than 2TB of data a 5TB package is available for $74.62 (£60), and there is also a slew of IDrive Business plans that can handle unlimited users, computers and servers starting at $74.62 (£60) for 250GB and going up to $2249.62 for 12.5TB of active storage.
Like with all Cloud backups, IDrive is suitable for those with high-speed unlimited bandwidth broadband, and those with capped connections should avoid this type of solution.
Find out more about all the available options on the IDrive website.