How to back up your Windows or Mac computer

How to back up your Windows or Mac computer

by Irene Park

The worst-case scenario has befallen even the most careful computer user: a coffee mug spills on your laptop or an update wipes all your files and photos.  Despite your best effort, accidents happen. You can take the sting out of any mishap if you have a backup.

Much like flossing, backing up your computer is a regular practice that is crucial to your technological health. While many know it is vital, not many people remember to do so regularly.

Below is an exploration of when backups can be especially helpful to you as well as a step-by-step guide to creating a backup of your Windows & Mac computer.

For more information on where and what devices to back up your computer, check out How to determine how much storage is needed to backup your computer and How to Back-up your devices the right way.

 

When You Need to Backup

external hard drive

Though ideally, you are regularly backing up your computer. For the rest of us, there are some key moments to back up your computer, such as:

  • Before updating software programs such as operating systems
  • Before your computer has been infected with a virus or malware

The reason for these key moments is that it gives you the ability to protect your data before you need to preserve it. You may need to reformat your computer to get it back to working condition.  If something goes wrong in the process, you will have a copy of your data safely ‘tucked away’ via a backup.

 

Where to Back your data up: The Cloud vs. External Drive

Before I dive into the ways to back up your data, you will need to have a location to save your data.

You’ve got two paths here. The choices are fairly simple: in the cloud or on an external drive.  Keeping a backup in the cloud somewhere other than in your real possession, or backing to an external drive that you control. I’ve long ago lost trust in storing anything valuable and meaningful on someone else’s cloud. I still use cloud storage, just not for what’s sensitive and truly important. My assumption is that anything you store on a cloud system is not private.

If you are considering these options, be sure to read more here:

 

How to Back up a Windows PC

Every Operating System version has variations, but the instructions below are outlined for Windows 10.

There are two main types of backups for Windows 10: Image or File Backup.

  • Image backup copies the entire drive, including partitions and boot sectors. This type of backup is the only kind that will keep all your programs and settings.
  • File backups, which is more common, is a backup of all files and data such as photos and documents, but it does not reinstall Windows, programs, or your applications.

Both are great to have, with the image backup only being necessary several times a year and usually before any big updates or software installs. The file backups should be done regularly as you are more likely to change or accumulate individual files such as photos and word documents.

How to create an Image Backup on Windows 10

  • Connect the external drive for your backup to your computer
  • On the main desktop, go to the ‘Windows’ icon to open the menu

Windows Desktop

 

  • Click ‘Control Panel’ icon
  • Control Panel

 

  • Click ‘Backup and Restore (Windows 7)’ [Don’t let the ‘Windows 7’ specification throw you off]

 

  • Click ‘Create a system image’ on the upper left side of the sidebar menu
  • create system image

 

  • Connect whichever device you’d like to use with sufficient space to store the image backup
  • Select Your Backup Drive (or DVD or a network location)
  • Once selected, you can click ‘Next’ to proceed

Select Backup Source

  • Verify that the correct drive or method of backup is selected than click ‘Start backup’

Please note: The backup may take several hours depending on the size of your backup. A best practices approach is to pick a time (perhaps at the end of the day) so you can let your computer back up without interruption or slowing you down.

After the backup is created, you’ll be asked if you want to create a ‘System Repair Disc’.

  • If your computer has a CD or DVD  drive, create the disc.
  • If not, create a Recovery Drive:
    • Plug in a blank flash drive
    • Open Control Panel’s Recovery tool
    • Click Create a recovery drive
    • Then follow the prompts

 

 

How to back up your File History on Windows 10

File History is a software program that is a component of Windows 10. It is an easy-to-use program to automate regular file backups.

  • Connect the external drive for your backup to your computer
  • On the main desktop, go to the ‘Windows’ icon to open the menu

Windows Desktop

  • Click ‘Settings’

Settings

  • Scroll down the ‘Windows Setting’ page, and click ‘Update & Security’

Update & Security

  • Click ‘Backup’

Select Backup

  • Select ‘Add a drive’

add drive

  • Choose the external drive or network location you want to back up the files

 

How to set up automatic backups on Windows 10

If you’d like to set up automatic backups for file history or image backups, follow the instructions below:

  • Connect the external drive for your backup to your computer
  • On the main desktop, go to the ‘Windows’ icon to open the menu
  • Click ‘Settings’
  • Click ‘Update & Security’
  • Click ‘Backup’
  • Click ‘Go to Backup Backup and Restore (Windows 7)’ [Don’t let the ‘Windows 7’ specification throw you off] (This is under ‘Looking for an older backup’ section
  • Click ‘Change Settings’ in the Schedule section
  • Click through without changing settings (unless you want to) under the ‘Review your backup settings’ section
  • Click ‘Change schedule’
  • Check off the ‘Run backup on a schedule’ box then specify the frequency using the drop-down menus
  • Click ‘OK’
  • Click the ‘Save settings and exit button’

 

How to Backup for Windows 8.1

  • Connect the external drive for your backup to your computer
  • On the main desktop, go to the ‘Windows’ icon to open the menu
  • Click ‘Control Panel’
  • Click ‘System and Maintenance’
  • Click ‘Backup and Restore’
  • Select ‘Set up backup’ then follow up the setup wizard steps to create a new backup

 

How to backup on Windows 11

  • Connect the external drive for your backup to your computer
  • On the main desktop, go to the ‘Windows’ icon to open the menu
  • Click ‘Control Panel’
  • Search for or Select ‘File History’
  • Select drive for your device
  • Click ‘OK’
  • Click ‘Exclude Folders’ if you want to remove folders from backup
  • If you want to add folders, click ‘Add’
  • Click ‘Save changes’
  • Click ‘Advanced settings’ in the ‘File History’ screen
  • In the drop-down menu, click ‘Save copies of files’ to choose how often File History should run
  • Click ‘Keep saved versions’ to choose how long the file backup should be kept
  • Select your preference and click ‘Save Changes’ when finished

 

How to restore your backups on Windows

How to restore your Image Backup on Windows 10

If you are already logged-in or able to login to the computer, you can follow the steps below to Restore your computer using a System Image Backup:

  • Connect the external drive with the Image Backup for your computer
  • On the main desktop, go to the ‘Windows’ icon to open the menu
  • Click ‘Settings’
  • Click ‘Update & Security’
  • Click ‘Recovery’ in the left sidebar
  • On the main menu, under ‘Advanced Startup’, scroll down and click ‘Restart Now’
  • After the computer restarts, click ‘Troubleshoot’
  • Click ‘Advanced Options’
  • Then Select ‘System Image Recovery’
  • Once your computer restarts, it will begin the process of ‘System Image Recovery’
  • You’ll be prompted to select the User Account.
  • Enter your Password
  • Click ‘Continue’
  • Your computer will automatically locate the latest ‘System Image backup’ for you
  • Click ‘Next’ to proceed
  • Click ‘Finish’ to restore your computer from the selected ‘System Image backup’.

How to restore your files with File History on Windows 10

If a file or folder goes missing that you’ve backed up, here is the process to retrieve it:

  • Make sure to connect the external hard drive or network location where you backed up your ‘File History’
  • On the main desktop, go to the ‘Windows’ icon to open the menu
  • Click ‘Settings’
  • Click ‘Update & Security’
  • Click ‘Backup’
  • Click the ‘More options’ link
  • Scroll down to the bottom of the ‘File History’ window and click ‘Restore files from a current backup’
  • Double-click the folder you want, and/or double-click the file you want to view.
  • Once you find the file you want, click the green button on the bottom of the ‘File History’ page to restore it.
  • If you want to save the file to its original location, simply click ‘Restore’.
  • If you want to save it to a different location, right-click ‘Restore’ and you will get an option to select ‘Restore to’ and then you’ll be able to choose a new location

How to restore your backup on Windows 8.1

  • Connect the external drive with your backup
  • On the main desktop, go to the ‘Windows’ icon to open the menu
  • Click ‘Control Panel’
  • Click ‘System and Maintenance’
  • Click ‘Backup and Restore’
  • Click ‘Select another backup to restore files from’ then follow up the setup wizard steps to create a new backup

How to restore your backup on Windows 11

  • Connect the external drive with your backup
  • On the main desktop, go to the ‘Windows’ icon to open the menu
  • Click ‘Control Panel’
  • Click ‘Backup and Restore (Windows 7)’ [Don’t let the ‘Windows 7’ specification throw you off]
  • Click ‘Select another backup to restore files from’
  • Select the location of your connected external drive with your backup
  • Then follow the instructions to restore your files

How to Back Up Your Mac

Already included in most recent Mac operating systems, Time Machine creates versions of your Mac: daily, weekly, monthly, etc.

How to Back Up with Time Machine

Time Machine saves all your settings, data, and apps from your Mac. And unlike most other backups, Time Machine only backs up changes you’ve made since the last time you ran it so the process is quicker than traditionally backing up data. The benefit of having versioned backups is that it not only saves your ‘hide’ when something goes wrong with your Mac, but it prevents you from user errors. If you accidentally delete or alter a file and need to restore to its original or older version, you can.

Below are the step-by-step instructions on how to use Time Machine to back up your Mac:

  • Connect your external drive with the Time Machine backup to your Mac

Notes: Make sure the drive is correctly formatted for the current Mac you’re using. If you’re planning on migrating your Mac’s data to another Mac device, make sure you format the drive that is compatible with the Mac you intend to transfer the data to

  • Open ‘System Preferences’ in your Dock

System Preferences on dock

  • Click ‘Time Machine’

click ‘Time Machine’

  • Click ‘Select Backup Disk’

Time Machine Backup

  • A window will pop-up with a list of external drives
  • Select the drive you want to use for your backup
  • Click ‘Use Disk’

Select Drive for Time Machine

Please note the initial backup using Time Machine will usually take the longest.

 

How to Restore Your Mac

How to Restore Individual files or folders with Time Machine

  • Connect the drive with your Time Machine backup to your Mac
  • Open the folder where the item you want to restore resides (example: Documents)
  • From the desktop, click the Time Machine icon on the Menu bar
  • Select ‘Enter Time Machine’Enter Time Machine
  • Another screen pop-up showing the timeline of your backups of that folder or file, which you can navigate chronologically using the arrowsRestore Individual files or folders
  • Once you’ve found the version you want, click ‘Restore’ and it should appear in its original location

 

How to set up automatic backups with Time Machine

Below are step-by-step instructions to help set up automatic backups with Time Machine. As long as your external drive is connected to your Mac, it will create hourly, daily, weekly and monthly backups once you select automatic backups with Time Machine. It will continue to backup every time the external hard drive with the Time Machine backup is connected. It will erase the older backups as space runs out on the external hard drive used for these backups.

  • Connect your external drive with the Time Machine backup to your Mac
  • Open ‘System Preferences’ in your Dock
  • Click ‘Time Machine’
  • Tick the box that says ‘Back up Automatically’

automatic backup

  • In the next window, select the external drive you want to use for these automatic backups with Time Machine
  • Click ‘Use Disk’

select hard drive

How to Restore Your Time Machine backup with Migration Assistant

Migration Assistant is a program that comes standard with most MacOS. It enables users to transfer user accounts, computer settings, apps and data from one Mac to another.

  • Connect the drive with your Time Machine backup to your Mac
  • Go to the ‘Applications’ Folder on your dock
  • Click ‘Utilities’

App folder

  • In the ‘Utilities’ folder, click ‘Migration Assistant’

Click Migration Assistant

  • You may be prompted for your User Name and Password. If so, enter both to proceed
  • Select ‘From a Mac, Time Machine Backup or Startup disk’

MA main

  • Icons of available drives will populate, select the drive you used for the Time Machine Backup
  • Click ‘Continue’

Select drive on MA

  • Select the information to transfer (folders, files and/or user accounts)
  • Click ‘Continue’ to transferSelect files and folders to transfer

Please note it may take several hours to complete.

Accidents happen

While there are many paid services and programs for backups out there, Windows and Mac both have easy-to-use programs and functions built into their operating systems. Regardless of what method you choose to backup your computer, just make sure to do so regularly or at the very least before any major changes to your system. If you’re using an external hard drive to store your backups, do keep it in a safe place so you have a copy of your digital ‘life’ no matter what happens.

Tell us: What is your backup strategy? Are you regularly backing up data, or was this article a good reminder to back up your data now?

 

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