I had a conversation yesterday about this very topic that made me realize it’d make a great article. So here’s how to backup — and if needed, restore — both your Mac and PC in a pretty much foolproof sort of way.
Before I start, let me clarify three things.
First, using backup software does not necessarily mean you can restore your entire computer in case it crashes, gets infected with a virus, or the hard drive dies. Keep that in mind! Backing up your files means just that: you’re backing up your files and can restore them, not your computer. The question you need to ask yourselves is: “Does my backup software let me restore my entire computer (operating system + my files) or just my files?”
Second, you’ll need a good backup device. It won’t do to have both your computer and your backup device fail at about the same time, or you’ll be nowhere. So make sure to get a good external drive with plenty of space (I use these) or to use a device that’s built to secure your data against hardware failures (like a Drobo, which I also use). Apple has just released a wireless backup drive called Time Capsule, which should work nicely with Macs.
Third, I’d rather not get into arguments about how some piece of software is better than that piece of software. The point is to make things easy for those of you that are confused by all the pieces of software out there. In the end, you use whatever software works for you, but remember that this is what I recommend. I don’t want to bog people down with doing their virus checks with Whodalala and their spyware checks with Whodalulu, and… I think you get my point. An all-in-one solution works best, especially something that you install and then runs automatically. I believe strongly in automating these sorts of tasks and making it easy for the average person to use the software, and I’ve written about this in the past as well.
How to backup and restore a Mac
This one’s really easy. Get Mac OS X Leopard and use Time Machine. It’ll do both file-level restores and full restores. It backs up your computer automatically every hour, and the first time you run it, it’ll do a full backup of everything on your computer. It’s great, I use it too, it works. In case your Mac should go kaput, you can restore it in its entirety after it gets fixed by booting up to the Leopard DVD and choosing “Restore System from Time Machine” from the Utilities menu. Should you only need to restore files, you’ve probably already seen the cool demo video and you know all about that.
Don’t have Leopard? Still on Mac OS X Tiger? It’s okay. Use Carbon Copy Cloner. It’s wonderful, it’s free (you should donate if you find it useful though), and it can do full and incremental backups and restores. (Incremental means it’ll only backup or restore the files that have changed since the last backup or restore.) It works with both Tiger and Leopard, so you’re fully covered.
How to backup and restore a PC
OneCare Live is made by Microsoft and will do most everything PCs need: defragmentation, virus checks, spyware checks, firewall, and backups. What’s more, the software will remind you if you haven’t backed up or ran scans lately. It’s an all-in-one piece of software that I’ve used for over a year, and I like it.
A nice thing about its pricing is that it lets you use one license on up to three computers and manage the OneCare settings from a single machine. This means you can install it on your children’s PC and your wife’s PC and manage their security settings from your own machine. You can even schedule all three to back up to a central location like a network drive or a Windows Home Server.
The thing to keep in mind about it is that it does NOT do full backups and restores. It will only look for your files (documents, spreadsheets, movies, photos, etc.) and back those up to an external device. That means that unless you want to be stuck re-installing the operating system and applications every time your computer crashes, you’d better have something else to work alongside OneCare.
That certain something else is Norton Ghost. I’ve used it as well, and it sure works as advertised. Many system admins swear by it, because it makes their jobs a lot easier. The way to use it is to get your computer all set up and ready to go (with the OS, apps and latest patches and updates all installed), and BEFORE you start using it, ghost it. You can either boot up from the Ghost CD and clone your entire hard drive to an external device like a USB drive or to DVDs, or you can run the Ghost application right from the operating system, with your computer functioning normally while it’s getting cloned.
Once you’ve ghosted your machine, keep that ghost image safely somewhere and do regular backups with OneCare Live. If your PC should ever crash, you can boot up with the Ghost CD and restore it from its ghost image, then do file-level restores with the OneCare application.
Just remember, it’s important to ghost your PC at that critical point after you’ve gotten everything you need installed, but BEFORE you get it infected with something or installed stuff you’ll want to uninstall later, otherwise the ghost image will understandably be pretty useless to you.
Hope this helps!