It's a worrying fact of life that most people use their computers far more than they did even a few years ago. You've probably gone from occasional web-browsing and email, to using it to store and view your photos, videos and music, your financial files, music, diaries, work documents, video conferencing, scanned documents and more.
So why should you be worried? Because your files, data and memories might not be anywhere near as safe as you imagine. In fact, as uncomfortable as it may be to admit it, there are a staggering number of threats to everything that you store on your PC. Windows backup is more essential today than ever before.
Hard drives can (and do) fail with little or no warning. Then there are viruses, malware and the terrifying prospect of ransomware. And don't forget the usual culprits - fire, theft, electrical surge, wear and tear, spilt drinks, accidental deletion, data corruption, vandalism... the list just goes on.
Despite this, the number of people and businesses that assume their data is automatically safe just because it's on a computer is worryingly high. Whereas the reality couldn't be further from the truth.
It's a dangerous world out there! And the number of ongoing security threats to your system is growing at a staggering rate. For every security update that Microsoft release, there are countless more vulnerabilities just waiting to be discovered. And even though you may be running a trusted and up-to-date anti-virus program, you can't really rely on it for absolute protection. Why? Because it can only protect you from viruses and threats that are already known. Someone has to be infected by zero-day threats for the protection to exist for everyone else. And as for malware and ransomware, as long as the bad guys continue to make money from infected systems, the problem won't be going away any time soon.
The best backup software can counteract all of these threats and more. Even if you're unlucky enough to be infected by viruses, malware or even ransomware, having solid and safe backups of your precious files, windows programs and data means that they can still be accessed and reused, no matter what state your system may be in.
In other words as long as you're backing up correctly, and keeping your backups safe, an infected system won't pose a threat to your files and data.
While I wouldn't read too much into the feared rise of AI, the fact is that computers do some things far better than most people can. I've lost track of the number of individuals and businesses whose idea of backing up their files involves remembering what to back up, remembering when to do it, and then remembering to store their USB sticks and hard drives somewhere safe. This is just the sort of thing that computers and software are great at!
The problem with having to remember all of these things is that in the real world you won't! As a species, humans are not blessed with overly reliable memories! Unlike machines...
Good backup software will take all the pain points away from you: files will never be forgotten, backups will automatically take place without any sort of user intervention, and no-one will ever have to remember to put the backup somewhere safe.
Many people are surprised to discover that they have more data files than they expected. There are the obvious items such as photos, music, graphics, documents and spreadsheets, but many pieces of software also have their own data files, often stored in unique locations on the hard drive.
A good backup solution will allow you to specify precisely which files, folders and locations should always be backed-up. Effectively this means that the fiddly task of selecting the files to be backed up is a one-time job. Once they've been chosen, complete with possibly choosing which files shouldn't be backed up as well, you can sleep well at night, knowing that all of your important files and data are safely backed up.
A key aspect of the right PC backup software for your needs is being able to back up your files when you need them. For some users, once a day is all that's needed, whereas others may need several times a day, hourly or even continuous backups. What is consistently important is the need to automate the backup process. Any system that relies on your actions, memory or even attendance is going to fail at some point.
The ability to store different versions of your files can make the difference between a life-saving and completely useless backup. Imagine, for example, you had a single word document that was updated every day. For example some sort of manually-entered activity log or diary. And because you were sensible enough to use good backup software, this file was backed up every single day, once a day. However when the file was last updated, you inadvertently hit CTRL-A instead of SHIFT-A, and then typed over all the previous content without even noticing. If this version of the file was then backed up, all of that old data would have been lost in the backup as well.
Versioning allows different versions of the file to be retained. For example instead of simply replacing the backup with the latest iteration of the file, the last ten copies of the file can also be retained. So in the above scenario, you would still be able to restore the file as it was the day before the corrupted version was saved.
Versioning can also offer an additional level of protection against ransomware, when files may be overwritten with encrypted versions.
A good backup solution will give you the flexibility you need to set this up to suit your needs.
In theory, a good piece of software shouldn't need too much by the way of support. And while most users of good backup software won't encounter any problems, complex user requirements and hardware combinations can result in scenarios where expert help is required. Some software companies don't provide support at all, and some require paid support contracts to be in place. But if the files and data that you're backing up are important to you, having a reliable and effective means of reaching out to the software company is vital.
While choosing the best free backup software for your PC, it's important to pick a solution with room to expand. If, for example, you initially only backup to an external hard drive or networked PC, but in the future decide to make use of the low-cost and high-reliability of an FTP server, having to migrate to a new product might prove to be a costly headache. But having one piece of software that can handle local, network, FTP and cloud backups means that all future options are covered.
Any piece of software that runs on a system is of course going to have an impact on your system resources. If backups are taking place while you're working on the systems, then the effect the backups have should of course be minimised. Whereas if backups are taking place at night, for example, when the systems aren't being used or accessed, then speed may be more important that minimising disruption. A good backup solution will allow you to set the priority - in other words how heavy an impact the backups will have on your system. Failure to offer this option can mean having to work your backups around usage times and scenarios. And the best time to backup any data is the time that it most needs to be backed up!
This is an important aspect of the backup process that shouldn't be overlooked. While some backup software tries to make this painless by effectively backing up everything on a system, this can result in enormous and time-consuming backups. And much of the data may not even be needed.
Having a good user or role-based system for storing data in specific locations can make this a lot easier, but ultimately it's a good idea to spend some time considering what files, data and settings would be important or damaging if they were lost.
Some people like the idea of real-time updates - the moment a file is saved or updated, it is backed up to an alternate location. And some prefer to backup their data only once a day. Ultimately there is no right answer for everyone, but there are plenty of wrong decisions that can be made! For instance saving all changes in real-time with plenty of versions might seem to be the safest option, but this can soon prove to be demanding in terms of space and even cost. Striking the right balance, for example backing up some files twice a day and retaining a week's worth of versions might be a good compromise. Good backup software will allow you to set this up according to your requirements.
There is a fairly obvious hierarchy of safety when it comes to where your files are stored. Keeping them backed up on a different directory on the same drive, for example, is better than nothing, but ultimately quite insecure. Storing your backups on a separate PC or NAS drive is better, but not as robust as using a separate location, for example a remote FTP server. And this in turn is not as good as storing your backups in the cloud with multiple backup locations around the world, effectively offering backups of your backups.
The right backup software will work the way you want it to, and not force you to adapt to its own limitations. As well as paying attention to what external locations are supported (for example Amazon S3, Google Drive, Microsoft Azure etc.) it's important to consider how the software will work around your needs. Good windows backup software should be flexible enough to cover all possibilities and allow you to expand the scope of your backups as you need to.