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Having a device on which to backup data is only half the battle. If you want it to be able to restore your entire machine, additional steps are needed.

If I get [some specific backup device], does that mean that I can then somehow use it to restore my entire machine if it crashes completely?

Yes, but...

The device alone is not enough. In fact any device, alone, is not enough.

There's more - much more - to restoring a complete system than just having backups. Besides the device, you need to have taken the right backups, and have the right tools with which to restore.

We need to first separate out devices from software.

Devices that appear as hard drives - be they hard drives or iPods or USB keys or whatnot - are just that: media on to which you place bits.

Most commonly, particularly with smaller and more portable devices, people copy important files so as not to lose those files should the primary machine go belly up.

"Here's the kicker: the bootable restore tool is almost never the backup image."

In order to do full system restores you also need software that

  • will backup the entire system in such a way that it *can* be restored

  • provide you some way of accessing and restoring that backup when the worst happens

And perhaps most important to realize is that this is typically independant of where the bits happen to be stored.

Tools like Acronis True Image (which I happen to use) as well as others do this.

The first point is handled by performing full and/or incremental complete-system backups on a schedule (though I suppose you could do it on demand). The second is handled by, before needing it, creating a bootable CD that has a copy of the backup software's recover tool(s) on it.

You can create bootable USB devices, but this should absolutely be tested prior to needing it, especially if you're planning to use this backup approach while traveling. (And fortunately, if you haven't made it before you need it, you also can use another computer to create the bootable media when you find you do need it. Assuming you have another computer available, of course.)

When disaster hits you boot your broken computer from the rescue media, it fires up a restore program which then allows you to locate and restore the backup image from wherever you put it. "Wherever you put it" could potentially be an external drive, USB thumb drive or other USB device. (Again, I'd test the device you plan to use to make sure it's recognized by the recovery tool - not all are.)

Here's the kicker: the bootable restore tool is almost never the backup image. Meaning, just doing a backup to an external device does not guarantee that you have everything you need to restore it. You need to make or be ready to make that separate bootable media. (I believe that the primary reason for this is the unreliability of being able to boot from random USB devices. I'd never count on my PC being able to boot from my iPod, Blackberry, or Kindle, for example - all of which might appear as USB disk drives - even though they might be fine places to store a backup image.)

Summary:

  • backing up data and system are two different things (though the later can supersede the former)

  • backing up system requires backup software

  • restoring your entire system requires

    • bootable media for your backup and restore program
    • the ability to boot from that media
    • the ability for the recovery software on that media to recognize and access the device on which the backup images reside.

When traveling, I do NOT try and backup my entire system.

I do however, backup my data religiously - which things like an iPod or external hard drive or thumb drive (or Kindle, or Blackberry, or ...) are perfect for. In fact, an online backup service might also work, if you have connectivity, and the amounts of data we're talking about "fit" the bandwidth you'll have available.

Article C4286 - April 28, 2010 « »

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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.

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6 Comments
Bert
May 4, 2010 9:13 AM

One solution is to buy an extra hard disk and clone the original. I use Acronis and 're-clone' every couple of weeks. This way I've always got a totally complete backup. If my original HD dies or becomes completely messed up I can be up and running in a few minutes by plugging in the clone. The only thing to remember is to make sure the power to the PC is off before swapping/unplugging drives. I also backup my data every few days to an external drive.

whs
May 4, 2010 9:31 AM

I make daily images at boot up. Here is how:
http://www.sevenforums.com/tutorials/73828-imaging-free-macrium.html?ltr=I

beck2512
May 4, 2010 9:58 AM

I use Paragon ( a complete back-up program),I made a Bootable CD and did A full back-up on my system... Paragon is not cheap,but for me it worked perfectly,when i had to restore my computer after I had some nasty virus,it worked Great...

robert p
May 4, 2010 11:11 AM

One major problem with most backup systems, both hardware and/or software, is you don't really know if they worked. I have tried all the popular methods, Paragon, Acronis, MS Backup, etc, and I assume they work, but unless you try a recovery, you cannot be certain. This is why after years of various backup methods, I finally settled on Casper. It makes a full copy to a second HD or external HD, all files, even Windows files, and because it uses VSS and VSC, the backup is dynamic and bootable. A file by file indentical copy. Once a month or so, I change the boot sequence in BIOS and boot to the backup, just to make certain it's there and it works. Also, if you lose a file, photo, whatever, you have a instant copy on the backup without having to run any kind of recovery.

Periodically testing your backups - recovering a file, or even restoring a system - is a very good idea regardless of what backup approach you use.
Leo
05-May-2010

bravo11
June 1, 2010 8:51 AM

I've used Acronis True Image for several years, and it's always come through for me.

I've had to restore a computer several times. In fact, it's been easier to restore from backup rather than trying to undo some of the "tweaks" I've done. Might take an hour to restore, but that's an unattended hour, where I can just start the restore and come back in an hour to a working computer.

However, now I use Windows Home Server. Didn't buy it for the backup feature, but that backup sure is nice. Once configured, and it's a simple configure, it backs up every computer on your network. Incremental backups, AND it backs up only 1 copy of identical files, regardless of how many computers the file is on.

With a free add-in, you can even backup the backups...

But whatever program you chose, like Leo says, the most important thing is backing up. I'd also say to have the backup verify the data for every backup. Not foolproof, but better than blind faith. Just make sure you check the log files for any errors.

Finally, every now and again, see if you can restore a file or two from a backup.

It's like fire insurance: you hope you never need, but nice to have if something does happen.

Bombay Granny
February 9, 2011 12:33 AM

I'm no techie, and I'm so overwhelmed by backup instructions that I've never..gulp!..had the courage to try it. My daughter bought me a 4G thumb drive (or maybe it's called a flash drive; it's the size and shape of a thumb) and a portable 500MG hard drive, but I still haven't worked up the courage to try a backup. I know I need to do this, but there's so much more to it than just connecting either one of these to my computer.
1) for full backup instructions, what is the click-by-click sequence?
2) now this article tells me that in case of a crash, this backup alone is not enough to restore anything, and that's increases my confusion and cowardice in trying a backup
3) I have Windows XP on a 512 machine, and I'm constantly getting messages telling to wait while my computer increases my _____ ? memory (sorry, can't remember the term) but so far nothing bad has happened. My biggest use of my computer is for email and surfing the internet, though I do a fair amount of work in Word and a little in Excel and very occasionally Corel Photo Shop. In the five or so years that I've had this computer, the amount of disk space used and left for use after defragging has barely changed over the years, even though I have stored hundreds of pictures.
There is so much information in your articles that I can't see which of the methods and steps and software you describe would be the very simplest for this non-tech user. Could you recommend which of your answer(s) would serve me best? Even if you or one of your helpers would just send me the numbers of the answers I could refer to would be a help. Right now I've gone through so many of them that I'm on overload and still can't tell which would be the easiest and most straightforward. Thank you.

Unofortunately there is no single "click by click" sequence. It depends entirely on what backup software you choose to use. I have one example set of videos using Acronis TrueImage 2009 - start at Installing Backup Software. I have to stress that's an EXAMPLE - exactly what you do may need to be different depending on your computer and the backup software you use. But it'll give you a great idea of exactly what the process is. Be sure to view the entire series, listed below the transcript.
Leo
09-Feb-2011

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