Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
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?
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.
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.)
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
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.
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