PC Backup
(A work in progress)

The most important thing is to know about your computer is where it's hiding all your personal data. Once you've had a computer for a few years, you will have created LOTS of personal documents, pictures, etc. You know that are on the computer, but where are they?? People seem to think they're inside the various programs they use (e.g., documents are inside Word, pictures are inside your graphics program, etc.)

What is true is that everything is inside some folder. This is why it is so important to organize your folders in a way that makes sense to you. If you haven't, you'll have trouble finding anything. And unless you know where it all is, you won't be able to back it up.

Your hard drive IS going to fail.

It's only a question of when, so you better a have good backups so you don't loose too much when it does fail.


This was written a couple years ago ... you may still find it a useful overview, but you'll find a lot more details at the website. I recommend the page on "Safe Computing" and all the various pages on Backup.

Backup what's important frequently

Make your own list of what's important and where it is on your computer. Here's a start, but make your own list ...

  1. Financial Data (Quicken, Money, etc.)
  2. Documents you've created (Spreadsheets, Word Documents, etc.)
  3. Bookmarks in your Web Browser
  4. Your eMail address book
  5. eMail you've received/sent
  6. Pictures
  7. Music
  8. ______________________________________
  9. ______________________________________

Each of these you may want backup on a different schedule.

  1. Financial Data:   Should be backed up very frequently ... usually fairly small ... fits on a couple of floppies or on a flash drive. Also include this with the backup of your Documents.
  2. Documents:   How frequently you back them up depends on how much you use your computer ... decide on a regular schedule ... once a week ... once a month, etc. If you've organized things correctly (see below) they should fit on a single CD.
  3. Bookmarks in your Web Browser:   best strategy is to export them to a file in your Documents tree before backing up your documents.
  4. eMail address book:   again my suggestion is to export it to a file in your Documents tree before backing up your documents.
  5. eMail:   Usually you want to backup along with your other documents. (If you use Outlook Express see below.)
  6. Pictures:   Backup seperately ... see discussion of backing up your pictures
  7. Music:   Backup seperately ... only you can decide how important this is and when you've added enough to warrant another backup.

Backing up your entire computer

Unless you have an external hard drive just for backup (see below), you're not going to do this very often (because it may take many CD's or a few DVD's) but it's important you have a backup you can fall back to when either: your machine becames hopelessly infected with a virus and/or spyware or your hard drive fails.

Requirement: a good CD/DVD burning program that can do a complete system backup. Personally I use Roxio, but many people like Nero.


  1. Cleanup your machine. Only delete things you know are safe to delete. Do other cleanup after you've made your backup ... that way you can retrieve something you delete by mistake. Example: "Temporary Internet Files" are always safe to delete and may be taking up LOTS of space ... make your own cleanup list.
  2. Start your backup program and request a complete system backup
  3. It will build a a tree of all the folders on your machine
  4. Remove from this tree folders which you backup frequently (especially folders which are huge and might take lots of CDs). Examples: Pictures, Music, Videos
  5. Remove any other folders you don't want to backup at all. Example: CD Images
  6. It should tell you how many DVDs (or CDs) the backup is going to require. Be sure that's reasonable and then go ahead and create the complete backup.
  7. On older systems, you can boot from the backup CD and restore directly. With XP you need the CD that came with your system ... you have to restore XP first ... then you can restore from your backup. Try a test to see if you have all the things you need. Be careful not to actually restore ... but if by mistake you do it shouldn't be a problem.

External hard drive

Alternative strategy: Buy an external hard drive. Instead of backing up your system to disks, you can back it up to here ... some come with backup software (which I've seen complaints about) but personally I would use Roxio or Nero ... they should let you direct the system backup to a HUGE file on the external hard drive.

The external hard drive is also a great place to keep extra copies of your important folders.

Second Computer

If you have two computers networked together you can treat the drive on the "other computer" like an external hard drive.

Recommended Folder Structures

In the last 10 years, Microsoft has tried to encourage program developers to put user's personal data in or under a folder called My Documents. The concept is good, but not everything you care about ends up there, and on computers with (potentially) more than one user it's a little hard to find were on your hard drive your My Documents folder is ... since, too confuse things more, there may be more than one My Documents folder.

If you have a machine with XP you'll probably find your My Documents folder down under "Documents and Settings", and it will have a structure like this:

Drive C:
    Documents and Settings
            My Documents
                My Music
                My Pictures
                My Videos

Use your CD burning program ... after requesting to add My Documents and all sub-folders to the CD, it will tell you how much space is left on the CD (or how many CDs will be required). If it all fits on one CD and you know where to find your My Documents folder you're in good shape ... just be sure you backup frequently.

On the other hand if you're into digital photography, music or video, you're going to find it may take MANY CDs to backup your My Documents folder. In this case I strongly recommend moving (and renaming) your My Pictures, My Music, and/or My Videos folders. This gets them out of your My Documents folder, and should allow you to back it up on a single CD. Personally I also move and rename the My Documents folder. With XP, you get just move and rename them, or you can use TweakUI to specify alternative names and locations for each of these special folders. (TweakUI is free and you should get the correct version for your operating system from Microsoft, currently the two versions can be found here: XP Version or Windows 2000/98/95 version. If these links don't work, use Google to find TweakUI.)

My recommendation is to put each of the directories you use at the top level of your C drive and give them names that will sort near the top alphabetically. For example, on my own machine I use something like:

Drive C:

Or if it was a machine that I was sharing with my wife something like:

Drive C:

Another trick is instead of using the character A at the beginning of the name use a special character like the underscore or pound symbol because they usually sort before A alphabetically.

Warning:  It is always safest to make major changes like this after you have just backed up your machine completely. I have never lost anything moving these special directories around, although there can be a moment of panic if you temporarily "misplace" all you most important personal documents.

Outlook Express Store Folder

All your emails are in Outlook Express, sure, but they are also somewhere on your disk. Locating the folder where Outlook Express keeps folders and messages is not obvious.

To specify the folder where Outlook Express stores your messages:

Close and re-open Outlook Express for the change to take place.

WARNING:  Someone who tried this lost all the eMail they had stored in outlook express folders when they tried this. My recommendation is to:  1) backup your current outlook express folder onto CD (you can find it's location in step 3 above), 2) manually copy your existing folder to its new location before doing step 5 above. Hopefully that will work. Report back your results so they can be shared with others.

... with thanks to Charlie Fote for telling us how to do this.

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