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Memory sticks are not quite sufficient for regular backups, but you can find step-by-step instructions to backup to any drive here on Ask Leo!

I'm starting to backup files and photos with a Lexar 64 G memory stick. There are no instructions with this stick and I'm the type of person who needs step-by-step instructions. Can you help?

In this excerpt from Answercast #48, I look at some issues around using a memory stick as a backup media and point to step-by-step instructions.

Backup to a memory stick

I have two pieces of advice for you.

  • One is: don't use a memory stick!

You can, but I don't recommend it for ongoing backups.

Limits of flash memory

The problem is that memory sticks use flash memory and flash memory has a limited number of times you can write to it before it actually wears out.

Now typically, that's not usually a huge problem, especially if you're doing backups periodically, but it's just something that makes me really uncomfortable because backups are so incredibly important.

Backup to an external drive

What I recommend you do instead is actually go out and get yourself an external hard drive. They are not terribly expensive and you end up with half a terabyte (or more even) for not that much money.

Backup drive size

That's the other part of this: 64 GB, while it sounds like a lot of room, is actually (once you start doing backups) not a whole lot.

If you're just backing up files manually, it might be okay. But if you're using backup software (which is what I'm going to recommend next), then it starts to be on the leading edge of not enough space to backup your system the way you really should be backing up your system.

So, how do you do it?

How to backup

Well, a memory stick or an external drive (we treat them both the same way) is just a disk:

  • It's going to appear on your system as another drive.

So, what you need to do is either of two things.

1) Copy files...

You simply copy files from your hard disk to the memory stick like you would copy it anywhere else.

  • By making a copy, you are effectively backing up those files.

That's very simplistic. It's also very error prone because:

  1. It relies on you remembering to backup your files;

  2. It backs up only those files that you remember to backup;

  3. And it only backs up when you do it.

It's one of those things that's very easy to forget and it's also very easy not to backup all of the files you really intended to.

2) Invest in a backup program...

What I strongly recommend people do, whenever it comes to backup, is to invest in a backup program:

That is a program you will run on your machine and you will configure it to perform periodic backups.

You'll say:

  • You know what? Backup the C drive to this other location once a day (or something like that);

  • Or do incremental backups so that you're not backing up the entire thing everyday, but only those things that have changed since the previous day.

Using a backup program

Now, I can could go on in a lot of detail about backing up because it is an important topic:

  • I do have a bunch of articles on how to backup on my site.

  • I also have a book

Maintaining Windows 7: Backing Up is a book that I wrote that specifically goes through the process step-by-step of backing up your machine using Macrium Reflect and/or Windows own built in back up with Windows 7.

There's lots of resources on the site.


  • I really want to point you at the backup articles I have on the site.

  • I kind-of want to wave you away from using the flash disk, the memory stick.

You can! Don't get me wrong, you can. Just realize that, in my opinion, it's probably not sufficient and it might even be a little risky.

  • I recommend instead you get an external hard drive and use some backup software.

Currently, I'm recommending Macrium Reflect as the best way to go about doing that.

Step-by-step instructions

If you're so inclined, grab a copy of Maintaining Windows 7: Backing Up.

It literally walks you through these things. Once you register the book online, you also get access to a bunch of videos that will show you how to do this step-by-step using Macrium Reflect and Windows own internal backup.

Article C5751 - August 30, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

PC Resolver
August 30, 2012 7:09 AM

Leo, I seem to remember that you used to recommend Acronis. Do I remember correctly? If so, what made you switch to Macrium?

I did - I updated the recommendation page here: Acronis Trueimage Home Backup Software
August 30, 2012 8:31 AM

I heard Leo say he likes the support offered by Macrium better. A couple of Answercasts back he was talking about their great support when a backup drive is not being read right.

Here's an article with a bit of a blurb on the switch:
Acronis Trueimage Home Backup Software

August 31, 2012 9:09 AM

I continue to read many articles on Backup approaches. Yet, I must be slow because it is still very confusing. I saw your Flash Drive article and hoped "here it is finally, easy quick simple Backup" But you don't recommend it. Instructions were to just go to what you want to back up and copy. Well I want to copy something and save it to Flash Drive so when I lose my Hardrive I just play the flash drive into the new hard drive and I'm backed up. Is this possible? I have not seen that kind of talk or an instruction like: Go to file such n such, Right click - Copy - send it to Flash Drive. Now put your Flash drive in your safe until the Hard drive dies. You won't have to re-purchase Microsoft Office or Windows XP and you'll be quickly back on line. Did I miss something? Is that data wrapped in your articles and I am slow?
Thank you and Bless you for your patience and help.
P.S. I can afford an 8GB Flash but not a 64 GB HD and it is technically easier.

Mark J
August 31, 2012 2:48 PM

You can back your data up to a thumb drive and it might work when you need it, but if you want to back up your programs, nothing short of a full system backup will work. Otherwise you'd have to have the installation disks for those programs in order to reinstall them.

bob D
September 1, 2012 12:10 PM

check out the one at walmart, about $20 buys the stick, has almost infinity of storage, i leave mine in all the time so that when i shut down the stick has a full copy of all of mine ,,,, anyway,,,, has so much storage i think you could use it on a mainframe and never occupy all of it???? ,,,,,
i guess it will wear out in time but i dont know how to know it is worn out, if i did know i would then buy another and start with a fresh one etc, as above...... altho walmart is not great for
on-shelf stuff for p.c. it does have some kiddie gadgets at the cheap, so i walk the isles and look and drool.... hope this helps, i do not disagree with Leo, he is the genius, i merely say what i did before Leo ("B.L.") in case Leo has some other cheapos on his site that would be better with walmart cheapie, above, than naught....

Mark J
September 1, 2012 9:31 PM

@Bob D
The life expectancy of flash memory is more or less proportional to the price.

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