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What is the Best Computer Back up System?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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A computer back up system is paramount with home computers approaching the terabyte boundary. Reconstructing the operating system alone can be time consuming even if data files have been archived to compact discs or other media. The best computer back up system for an individual is dependent on many factors, including personal needs, preferences, skills and financial considerations.

External, magnetic tape drives provided affordable back ups at a time when the alternative was floppy disks, or later, compact discs. While still widely used for backing up networks, most tape drives have extremely slow access times. With the falling price of hard drives and more convenient alternatives, the magnetic tape drive is becoming legacy and is not the best choice for the home user.

Some people opt to use software to make a disk image of their system. A disk image is one large, compressed file that takes up far less space than cloning or copying a disk. The disk image can be saved anywhere, even on the primary drive, though this isn’t the best place. It’s safer to put the disk image on a secondary or external drive. In the event of primary disk failure, the image can be used to recreate the system on a new hard drive.

The advantage of a disk image is that it consumes a relatively small amount of space. A disadvantage is that it cannot be directly accessed, but must be restored by the software that created it. This can mean booting from a proprietary CD to access the restoration process. Though the procedure is not complicated it can be a little nerve wracking to have to “jump through hoops” to get the system rebuilt.

A better computer back up system dedicates a secondary hard disk as a clone for the primary disk. If the primary disk fails, the secondary disk takes its place. No restoration is required, no downtime, and no hassle. You simply boot from the back up drive and go about your business.

Software like the popular Acronis™ can clone a primary disk to a secondary disk in a matter of minutes. The secondary disk can be internally installed or it can be housed in an external enclosure. In the event of disk failure, a desktop or laptop has the ability to boot from an external device so that work can continue using the external (or secondary) drive until the failed drive has been replaced. At that point the external drive is cloned back to the new, primary drive.

The nice thing about this computer back up system is that there are no hoops to jump through and you don’t have to wait for a replacement drive to continue working. Your clone is ready from the moment the main drive fails. If the secondary drive is housed externally, you can also keep it in a secure place like a fireproof, locked safe. The downside to using this computer back up system is that a new disk must be purchased, and the entire disk must be dedicated as the clone.

Another solution that uses two disks (minimum) is RAID or Redundant Array of Independent Disks. Both drives are installed internally, making this a desktop-only solution. RAID has different flavors or methods of functioning, referred to as RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 2, etcetera. RAID 1 is a mirror technology, meaning everything that is written to the primary drive is written simultaneously to a secondary drive, keeping a constant duplicate or mirror of the primary drive. If one of the drives fails, it’s replaced, and the mirror drive copies itself to the replacement drive.

An advantage over the previous computer back up system is that both drives are always current. Disadvantages include setting up RAID (a motherboard function), which can be technically challenging. RAID 1 also doubles the load on the computer processing unit (CPU) which could slow some systems. Additionally, mirroring opens the door to corrupting both drives with the same malicious event. Using the previous solution if a system acts up after installing a program, for example, one can use the “offline” clone drive to copy over the primary drive, returning it to a prior state.

If you aren’t inclined to add a dedicated clone drive, remote backup services are available online. Users subscribe to the service, set up credentials for entering a secure server, and use the site’s software to back up his or her system to the remote Web server.

Advantages include ease of use and online access to the computer back up system from anywhere in the world. The back up is also safe from damage that could befall your personal computer from natural disaster or theft. Disadvantages include inherent risks of placing data on a server than is not owned by you, and over which you have little ultimate control. It’s also important to note that you cannot boot from an online remote backup.

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Discussion Comments

By barryherne — On Oct 23, 2013

If we're talking about Acronis, I can say that our company has had only positive moments while working with this software. I like that they are trying to be up with the times and launch new products all the time.

By moby — On Nov 09, 2010

Thank you for the information. I was thinking of getting an external hard drive but some tell me to get the online back-up. What I like about the external is that I can back it up and delete it off my computer. But at the same time, externals can die on you.

So considering what you said in the article I would say the best way to backup your computer is using ZenOK Online Backup. I recommend it because I have found it easy to set up and reliable. You Just add your important files to your online backup. Everything you choose to include will be there for you to download on any computer just by using a web browser.

By anon32817 — On May 27, 2009

Yes to all of your questions regarding Acronis. It duplicates the hard disk in its entirety, with partitions, making the dupe bootable. According to Acronis' help menu, the external drive should only be connected during the actual cloning process, then disconnected afterward, as Windows does not like to see two drives designated as "C" when it reboots (although it will reassign other drive letters to the external if it's left plugged in).

When I used Acronis for this to dupe my laptop, I tried testing the duped clone by telling my BIOS to boot from the USB external drive. However, the boot process kept turning over to the installed drive. Eventually I ran into a problem with the installed drive and removed it. The laptop still had trouble booting from the external USB drive. This might be a fault of my laptop and not of Acronis. The way Acronis *intends* the process to be used, would be to remove the external dupe drive from its enclosure and install it inside the laptop (or desktop)... *then* try booting from it. But I had duped to a standard size drive, not a small laptop drive, so I couldn't install it in the laptop. I did eventually use the Acronis external dupe to copy on to my new drive, but I had to boot from a CD I made with XML Backup, a free cloning software, to copy the external duped disk to the laptop disk.

Acronis is shareware, so you can try it before you buy it. See if it works for you. Read the included manual. It sure works beautifully on my desktop where both disks are internal. I just dupe back and forth between them to keep the system backed up.

By henk4207 — On May 24, 2009

Does Acronis make a clone/copy of the whole Hard Disk including OS, all programs, data, e-mail system, documents, etc., as installed on the original Hard Disk? Is partitioning of the Hard Disk automatically done? Is Acronis suitable for Windows 2000 Professional? Do I have the external Hard Disk connected all the time to assure to have a complete clone/copy? How can I see if the original Hard Disk fails and the computer will use the external drive?

Your info will be highly appreciated.

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