Note: Our best free PC backup software round-up has been fully updated. This feature was first published in March 2013.
From viruses and bugs, to hardware failure or simple human error, there are many potential dangers waiting to trash your files.
And if the worst happens – you lose personal photos, your music library, vital business documents – then that could be a real disaster. Which is why it's a very good idea to back up your PC on a regular basis.
This is never going to be fun, of course, but with the right software it'll be easier than you think. And you may not have to spend anything, either, because there are some great free (for personal use) backup and disk cloning tools around for Windows.
AOMEI Backupper Standard
AOMEI Backupper Standard is a good-looking and easy-to-use backup tool with a pile of features: file sync, partition, disk or system image backups, disk cloning, easy browsing of backup images and a bootable rescue disc for emergencies.
A super-flexible scheduler can run your backups automatically at regular intervals, daily, on certain days of the week, and more – just set it up and you're done.
There are a few limitations when compared to the $49 (around £33, AU$69) Backupper Professional edition – namely that you can't merge backup images, there's no backup disk space management, no system cloning or migration. But overall AOMEI Backupper Standard performs very well, and there's more than enough power here for most people.
EaseUS Todo Backup Free
At first glance, EaseUS Todo Backup Free seems much like the competition – you get file, disk and system image backups, a scheduler, disk cloning, and a bootable recovery disc for easy image restoration.
But then you notice some major extras, such as the Smart Backup system which checks the folders you specify and backs up whatever has changed. Or the support for saving your archives to Google Drive, OneDrive or Dropbox.
There's real depth here, too, with many options you won't always see in the free competition. Backup encryption; full, incremental and differential support; network throttling to reduce performance impact; "pre-OS boot" to recover backups without a disc; not to mention both a Windows PE and a Linux rescue environment.
All this power does make EaseUS Todo Backup Free a touch more intimidating than the best of the rest, but it's still not difficult to use. If your backup needs are demanding, try this one first.
Macrium Reflect Free
Macrium Reflect Free won't be for everyone. There's no file-based backups in the free build, it's strictly image-only, and the interface isn't what we'd call novice-friendly (one tooltip reads "Validate the XML syntax of the selected file").
Still, experienced users will find a lot to like here: differential imaging, compression, a powerful scheduler, image > VHD conversion, a feature-packed Windows PE rescue disc, and in-depth control over how long backups are kept.
Backup Templates help you put together a professional backup plan in seconds, too. Choose the "Differential Backup Set" template, say, and the program sets itself up to run a full backup monthly, and a differential backup every day (these can be tweaked as required).
Factor in Macrium Reflect's good performance and overall reliability, and it makes a good imaging backup choice.
FBackup is an interesting file backup tool, a little short on features but with a strong focus on keeping operations as simple as possible.
A plug-in system, for example, allows you to back up key data – Chrome and Firefox profiles, Outlook mail, IE favourites, pictures, documents – with a couple of clicks.
A "mirror backup" option simply copies your files from one location to another, with no compression or imaging to get in your way. And the wizard-based interface means you'll be creating your first backup job in no time at all.
There are also restrictions, in particular no support for incremental or differential backups. But if you just need a quick and easy file-based system, FBackup is worth a look.
BackUp Maker is clearly aiming to be the file-based backup tool for everyone. A simple wizard means novices can get started in seconds, but experts will find plenty of extras including encryption, password protection, excluding files by size, backup to CD/DVD/Blu-ray/FTP/FTPS, the ability to run backups when a USB device is plugged in, send backup reports by email, and more.
Unfortunately, there's a catch, and it's a big one. The program can't back up locked files unless you buy a €15 (around £11, $16, AU$23) extra.
BackUp Maker wouldn't be our choice for a general backup tool, then. But if you just need to back up some files which aren't being used – pictures, music, documents – then the lengthy feature set makes it worth giving this program a go.
Targeted squarely at the expert user, Areca Backup offers a host of expert-level options and tweaks, including filtering by extension, folder, size, date, status and regular expression, Zip and Zip64 support, AES and AES256 encryption, backup to local or network drives, FTP, FTPS or SFTP servers, and more.
The interface does little to help you out, unfortunately, and most tasks are trickier than you'd expect. Scheduling, for instance? Set it up yourself via the command line tool.
There's no backup of locked files, either, unless you spend €4 (around £3, $4, AU$6) on an add-on.
Still, there are major pluses here. Like the delta backup technology which saves only the modified parts of files, potentially giving you a huge speed boost. Or the ability to recover files by a specific date.
On balance, if you're an experienced user who needs the fine control Areca Backup offers, it deserves a closer look.
Paragon Backup and Recovery 14 Free
Paragon Backup & Recovery hasn't been updated for a while, and it's not difficult to tell. It suffers from a clunky interface, image backups only (not files), some useful exclude filters – and saving to VHD/ VMDK images – but otherwise there's nothing surprising about the core engine.
Still, Paragon's option to save your image to a "capsule" – a secure area where it's less likely to be lost if your partition is damaged – is worth having.
You also get an excellent bootable rescue disc, and there's a basic set of partition management tools thrown in.
Put it all together and Paragon is still a contender, but the company will need to deliver more, and soon.
QILING Disk Master Professional
QILING Disk Master Professional grabbed our attention immediately with a simple but effective strategy – throwing in more features than just about any other backup program ever.
So of course you get file and imaging backups, with full/incremental/differential support, compression, password protection, scheduling, and full or partial restoration from a Windows PE rescue disc or a pre-boot environment on your hard drive.
But there are also tools to clone a drive. Migrate your system. Create, format, delete and recover disk partitions. Check your hard drive's health. There's a RAM disk, a defrag tool, a virtual disk for easy software testing, and more.
Some of these options are basic, and high-end competitors do better in a few areas (EaseUS Todo Backup Free has a smarter scheduler, for example), but QILING Disk Master Professional's all-round versatility still earns it a thumbs-up from us.