Regular backups are an essential part of PC housekeeping, but one that's easy to ignore or forget. Windows includes its own backup tools, but they're not all in one convenient place, their scheduling options are limited, and they don't offer encryption or optimization. For hassle-free backups, it's worth installing a third-party program.
Before we begin, it's worth understanding the different types of backups. An image is an exact copy of an entire drive or partition, including all installed programs and system files. If you need to reinstall Windows, you can boot from the image file and avoid having to reinstall all your programs and reconfigure your Windows settings. Note that you can't use an image to restore your system on a different PC.
Images are very large and take a long time to create, so you won't want to make one every day. For everyday backups, you'll only want to copy the most important data on your PC – your documents, photos and music, for example. There are several types of regular backup:
- Full backup: a copy of all selected data.
- Differential backup: a copy of the data that has changed or been added since the last full backup.
- Incremental backup: a copy of the data that has changed since the last backup, whether that was full backup or incremental.
Each differential backup will be larger than the last, but to restore your system you'll only need the full backup and the latest differential one. Incremental backup files are smaller, but to restore your system you'll need your full backup as well as all subsequent incremental ones, which takes longer.
With that in mind, here's our pick of the best free backup software available to download today.
A perfect balance of automatic protection and manual control
Easeus Todo Backup Free is a full backup suite offering both imaging (with optional creation of a Linux-based boot disc) and file backup (full, differential or incremental). It's intuitively designed and packed with advanced features, making it our backup software of choice.
When you start Easeus Todo Backup Free, its Smart Backup function kicks into gear, immediately backing up your Documents directory, the favorites from your web browser and any files on your desktop. It makes a full backup once a week by default, with differential backups every half an hour if changes are detected. It's an ingenious feature that immediately takes some of the hassle out of protecting your data, and you can customize it later to back up other files if you like.
It's easy to make and schedule your own custom file backups too (full, differential or incremental). Easeus has included some brilliant extra options, such as the ability to run a backup immediately on startup if one was missed while your PC was powered off, and wake it from sleep if necessary.
Full system images are easy to create, and can be encrypted for extra security. You can choose a compression level (high compression takes longer, but uses less space) and split the image into chunks rather than one huge file. The Image Reserve option lets you choose when old images should be deleted or merged – another very helpful function that helps conserve drive space.
There's also a superb drive-cloning tool with optional SSD optimization – brilliant if you're planning an upgrade.
Easeus Todo Backup Free has a couple of limitations compared to the paid-for version: backups can't be triggered by events like logoff and shutdown, and the software won't back up and restore Outlook emails. In all other respects it's superb, and is our number one choice for protecting your system.
Review and where to download: Easeus Todo Backup Free
A powerful backup suite with some ingenious hidden extras and a free sample of cloud storage
Comodo BackUp's main draw is its flexibility – you can store your backups on local or network-attached drives, an FTP server or the company's own Comodo Cloud server. The free edition comes with 10GB online storage which is free for 90 days.
If you fancy keeping the cloud storage, prices start at US$7.99 (about £6, AU$11) per month for 100GB once the trial is over. The software itself is completely free if you're happy to store your data locally, though.
Creating a full drive image and emergency rescue media is a simple process, though it's strange that this feature is accessed via the Settings menu rather than the dashboard.
You'll need the Windows Automated Installation Kit to make an image, so make sure you've installed it first, but once that's done the process is effortless. It's strange that Comodo BackUp doesn't come with this tool already included, and that it doesn't run with admin privileges by default (essential for creating system backups).
Comodo BackUp offers full, differential and incremental backups of files, directories, partitions and drives. It doesn't automatically suggest particular file types or locations to back up, instead letting you take your pick from files and directories, disks and partitions, registry files and registry entries. It's fine for users who know precisely what they should keep, but not the most intuitive system for new users.
Backups can be scheduled for regular intervals and, like Easeus Todo Backup Free, Comodo BackUp lets you choose what should happen if it misses a backup. There's also support for file compression and splitting, encryption and email notifications. Interestingly, there's also a hidden tool that lets you scan for junk and malware before backing up – presumably a little add-on originating from Comodo's Internet Security suite.
Comodo BackUp uses Windows' Volume Shadow Copy function to make backups while files are in use, enabling it to run quietly in the background. It's undoubtedly a powerful backup tool packed with useful functions for protecting your data, but its slightly awkward interface and lack of guidance for new users put it just behind EaseUS.
Review and where to download: Comodo BackUp
A wizard-based system for images and file backups that's great for beginners
AOMEI Backupper Standard includes a simple wizard that makes creating images straightforward, even for complete beginners. It suggests which drives to back up and where to store the resulting image – whether it's a local drive, an optical disc or network attached storage. Give the image a name (ideally including the date) so you can find it easily later, create a schedule so the process is repeated at regular intervals, and click 'Start backup'.
This can take a long time, depending on the amount of data on your drive, so the option to shut down the PC automatically once it's complete it a thoughtful touch. You can then restore your system from within Windows, or by booting from the image.
For day-to-day backups, AOMEI Backupper Standard lets you save whole partitions or selected directories, with a simple drop-down menu enabling you choose between full, differential or incremental backups. Again, these can be scheduled to take place at regular intervals, making it a simple set-and-forget affair.
The process is incredibly straightforward, and there are also a few handy extras including password-protection and encryption to secure your data, but not as many as you'll find in Easeus and Comodo's backup software.
Review and where to download: AOMEI Backupper Standard
This tiny program doesn't offer imaging, but is ideal for off-site file backups
One-man project Personal Backup is small and easy to use, but only creates regular data backups – not images. As an indie passion-project it lacks the gloss of its commercially-driven competitors, but is nevertheless great for saving copies of your most important data.
Personal Backup offers both a straightforward wizard and manual options for more advanced users. The wizard begins by asking you to select a destination for the backups. This can be local or network-attached storage, or an FTP server. The latter option is ideal for off-site backups.
Next, you're prompted to select the data to be backed up, whether it should be compressed, and whether to apply encryption. It's advisable to select the option to verify your completed backups. Backups can be scheduled to take place daily, weekly, or when an event is triggered (such as logon or shutdown).
The advanced tool is where things get really interesting – you can create a desktop shortcut for a backup task, enabling you to run it with a simple double-click whenever you like, decide which file types should be compressed, set filters so only files containing a certain string are backed up, and decide whether backups are full, incremental or differential. The restore options are equally detailed; you can select the type of files to be overwritten or kept, whether to keep file permissions intact, and the age of files to be restored.
Review and where to download: Personal Backup
A simple backup tool that's fine for novice users, but lacks advanced options
If you're a little daunted by the prospect of making your own backups, Genie Timeline Free is as user-friendly as they come. Its wizard (there's no manual mode for fine-tuning your backups) takes you by the hand, suggesting the drive to be used for storage and making a folder for you automatically, then showing you various file types that can be stored (emails, pictures, videos, documents, music and the contents of your desktop are selected by default).
Sneakily, Genie Timeline Free lists drive images among the file types it can back up, but you can only create them using the premium version of the software. Compression and encryption are also unavailable unless you open your wallet, which pushes this otherwise great backup tool down to fifth place.
Genie Timeline Free backs up your files quietly in the background – an unobtrusive approach that's welcome, but wouldn't be possible if it was creating an image. It's not mentioned in the interface, but all backups are incremental, making them as fast as possible.
The restore tool is similarly straightforward – simply select the backed-up files to restore, choose where to restore them to (and whether to overwrite existing files with the same name) and click 'OK'.
Uniquely, Genie Timeline Free has its own iOS app, which provides status updates on your scheduled backups. It would be handy to be able to start backups manually via the app as well, but it's a welcome addition for those of an anxious disposition, and a modern alternative to the email notifications offered by some other backup tools.
Download here: Genie Timeline Free