How to Backup Your Computer to an External Hard Drive

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If only! This is the two-word refrain of anyone who lost hard drive data without having a solid backup waiting in the wings. Learning how to backup your computer to an external hard drive may not be the most fun way to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon, but trust us on this! 

You may well be thanking yourself (and us!) later. 

Nerds On Call Computer Repair are always here to help you retrieve lost hard drive data, but when it comes to keeping your data safe, the simple fact is that prevention is way better than finding a cure!

So here’s a quick and snappy guide to keeping your data safely backed up on an external hard drive. We’ll start by giving you the pros and cons of opting for an external drive backup. Then we’ll walk you through the five key principles of data backup. Then we’ll give you a step-by-step walkthrough for backing up your data to a Mac or a Windows PC. 

 

Why an External Hard Drive Backup?

So, first up, why might you want to create an external hard drive backup?

The obvious reason is it’s a contingency plan. Hard drives are physical devices, and they can destruct. Keeping a backup on your existing hard drive won’t help you if that hard drive fails!

What about cloud backups. Absolutely. A cloud backup is a good thing to have. However, an external hard drive backup means you’ll be able to restore your computer with or without a functioning Internet connection. 

For many, this is a more convenient and secure option. 

 

When Might You Need a Backup?

The first and most obvious reason is in case of hard drive failure. That failure could look like a complete and sudden breakdown of your hard drive, or (more often the case) you may have experienced file corruption owing to a gradually deteriorating drive. 

You might also face a situation where software failure damages crucial files. This is less common than it once was, but sometimes software fails catastrophically, damaging files you may have been reading or editing. 

Finally, there’s good old-fashioned human error. Accidental file deletion or overwriting happens all the time. While you have a range of options for retrieval here, an external hard drive backup is your best final safety net. 

If all else fails you can always grab that crucial archive.

 

How to Protect Yourself with a Backup Protocol

OK, so by now hopefully you’re convinced that backups aren’t an optional extra in your computing life! So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of how. 

 

Know Your Backup Best Practice

Your first step is to know and understand some basic principles of good backup practice. There are five rules of thumb you should attempt to follow faithfully:

  1. Have a schedule – It’s boring we know, but backing up is something you should do regularly. Some software will handle a regular backup schedule for you, but just to be sure, add a regular reminder to your calendar to check that you’re backed up. We’d recommend that, at a minimum, you aim for a quarterly full backup schedule.
  2. Aim for redundancy – External hard drives can fail as well! If your budget will spring for it, don’t just backup to one external drive. Backup your backup. One neat way to do this is to alternate your quarterly backups across two external drives. 
  3. Only backup clean data – Before you perform a backup, it pays to spend a little time cleaning your hard drive of old, duplicate files. Spend a little time on file structure as well. The more organized your folders are before you backup, the easier it’ll be to retrieve specific files or folders. 
  4. Keep your drive safe – Ideally, you’d keep your external drive off-site. At the very least, make sure it’s stored away from your main computer, and somewhere that wouldn’t easily be found in the unfortunate event of theft. Again, it happens! Make like a cub-scout, and be prepared. 
  5. Encrypt where possible – People backup in different ways, and encrypting your backup drive (making it impossible to read or access without a password) isn’t always feasible. However, if you can, encrypt your backup. It takes a little longer but it keeps your data extra safe.

 

For Mac Owners

Mac processes are usually pretty simple and streamlined. Unfortunately, this rule doesn’t apply quite so readily to external drive backup. There are a few reasons for this, but the big reason is that Apple wants you to backup your data to iCloud. This isn’t a terrible idea, but you will have to pay for that feature! Once you buy your external drive/s, you face no ongoing expense.

Here are your steps:

  1. Connect your new drive to your Mac via the USB port. 
  2. Right up at the top right of your screen, you’ll see a little magnifying glass. Click that and type Disk Utility. On the left, you’ll see a directory of connected drives. Be sure to select your new drive, and then select Erase from the top bar of the Disk Utility app. 
  3. Select Mac OS Extended format (Journaled) and then give your Mac the go-ahead to perform the erase. Note that, if you wish, you can encrypt this drive as you format it. We recommend you do this! 
  4. Your new drive will be wiped and formatted to be compatible with Time Machine backups. 
  5. Open up your Apple Menu (the cute little apple at the top left of your screen). Then select System Preferences and hit Time Machine. 
  6. You’ll be asked to select your Time Machine Disk. Select the disk you just formatted. If you ticked the encrypt button during the formatting stage, you’ll be asked to re-enter your password at this point. 

At this point, Mac will now manage data backups for you, periodically sending a mirror of your hard drive across to your external drive. Should you ever need to retrieve files (or restore your whole system in case of catastrophic hard drive failure) Time Machine will handle your data retrieval for you. 

One thing to note: this is a perfectly fine solution for keeping your data safe, except that you need to keep this drive connected to your machine in order for the dynamic backup process to work. 

If you want to keep your data safe from theft, you might want to consider an additional external drive to which you periodically copy your most valuable files. This one you can store separately from your computer, effectively covering all your bases. 

 

For Windows PC Owners

First up, be aware that Windows PC owners also have cloud backup solutions they may like to consider in parallel with an external backup option. Google Drive and SkyDrive are among the most widely used in the Windows PC world, and they’re an acceptable solution if you don’t mind cloud and if you don’t mind a subscription service.

If external hard drives backup is your preferred option, the process is pretty straightforward. 

  1. Connect your external hard drive via your PC’s USB port. 
  2. Open your Control Panel. The easiest way to do this is by going into your system-wide search bar and typing Control Panel. Then, look for System and Security.
  3. Select Save Backup Copies of Your Files with File History, then select System Image Backup. 
  4. You’ll then be prompted to create a system image. 
  5. Be sure to select your new hard drive from the drop-down box, and then hit Next.
  6. At this point, your computer will whir into life and backup your whole system. This includes all your system files, your OS settings, and of course, all your media files. Essentially, this backup is a mirror of your whole local hard drive.
  7. Now, wait! And by wait, we mean that this process could take several hours. While you can continue to use your computer during this process, it’s best not to. For this reason, you might want to time your external backup to take place overnight, or even better, while you’re powering through Season 4 of Better Call Saul. 

 

A Few Minutes Now Could Save You Hours Later!

So now you have the skinny on external file backups. We know it’s not necessarily a fun topic, but keeping your data safe is a vital part of responsible home computing. So, kudos for sticking with us through to the end. 

The bottom line is, learning how to backup your computer to an external hard drive is just a smart and prudent thing to do. Sure, it’s not the most fun piece of housekeeping, but setting yourself up now with a simple, easy-to-repeat process, may well save you hours of heartbreak and hassle further down the road. 

If you’d like to learn more about how Nerds On Call can set you up with an online backup process, check out this link for Mac users, and this one for Windows PC users. Or, you could just call us on 800-269-8084.