Backing up data isn't exciting, but it's important. Unfortunately, many of us only realise how crucial it is when something goes catastrophically wrong. There's nothing quite like a failed hard drive or ransomware infection to sharpen the mind, and lead to a resolution to do things a little differently in the future.
But where do you start? You could create a manual backup by simply copying your important files to a spare hard drive, but it makes far more sense to turn to dedicated backup software to automate the process.
A regular backup plan is especially important if you own a small business that handles other people's personal information. Following the implementation of the EU's new General Data Protection Regulation, anyone who does business in the EU (even if they aren't based there themselves) has an obligation to protect any data that could be used to identify someone – whether that's their name, email address, physical address, or even their IP address.
A good backup program will let you choose exactly which data should be stored, how often, where, and whether it should be encrypted for extra security. You should also look out for a backup tool that makes recovering your data easy after a disaster.
With that in mind, we've put the best free backup software through its paces and picked the very best options.
A perfect balance of automatic protection and manual control
EaseUS Todo Backup Free has lots of bases covered: backing up individual files and folders, whole drives or partitions, or creating a full system backup. There's also a 'smart' option that automatically backs up files in commonly used locations, and you have the option of using cloud storage.
Backups can then be scheduled, running as incremental, differential or full backups as required (see below for a full explanation of the differences).
The free version of EaseUS Todo Backup free has almost all the features of the premium edition. You can still run backups on a schedule, but lose the ability to have these backups triggered by various events – not something most people will miss. The same goes for command line-driven backups, PC-to-PC data transfer, and Outlook backup; they're all nice to have, but their absence is unlikely to be a deal-breaker.
A few features are exclusive the the premium version, but EasusUS Todo Backup Free is more than enough for just about everyone out there.
You'll be offered a free download of the Chromium browser and a Bing search plugin during installation. If you'd rather skip these, uncheck both boxes before clicking 'Next'
Advanced backup software for experienced and confident users
Cobian Backup is the most advanced free backup tool around, and might be overkill for new users, but if you know exactly how you want to configure your backups then you can be confident it'll give you the flexibility you need.
Cobian Backup can be used to create and schedule multiple backup jobs, and files can be archived to another local hard drive, network location or, if you have access to one, an FTP server. It can back up to multiple locations at the same time, so it's possible to run multiple backup jobs simultaneously.
Backups can be compressed to save space, and there's optional encryption to keep your data secure.
Cobian Backup loses when it comes time to restore data – there's no simple wizard to automate the process, so you're left on your own having to copy files back into place, decrypting and decompressing first if necessary.
Still, for backing up your most valuable data, this is one of the most comprehensive tools out there.
The easiest way to back up your system – just set and forget
Paragon Backup & Recovery does an excellent job of making the process of backing up as simple as possible, holding your hand with a wizard-driven interface. You can opt to back up your entire computer, partitions, select files and folders based on location, or files based on their type.
Once that's done, just set a schedule and choose the type of backup you want to want to create and then leave the software to take care of things by itself.
That's not all – as the latter portion of its name suggests, this isn't just a backup tool. Paragon Backup & Recovery is a whole data management toolkit, and also includes an impressive CD or USB-based recovery system that can be used to get your data back even if you're not able to boot into Windows.
It's all very impressive. Once you've signed up for a free account, this free backup software is a thing of beauty.
FBackup offers advanced and simple modes, with easy scheduling
FBackup has a slightly unappealing (and Office-inspired) interface, but don’t let that put you off. Beneath the ugly exterior is a capable backup utility, although it isn't as feature backed as tools like Paragon Backup & Recovery.
FBackup offers a choice of wizard and advanced modes. Whichever you choose, it's easy to create backup jobs comprising files and folders, which can be saved to local or network drives, removable disks, or Google Drive. Scheduling is available to keep your backups up to date.
There are in-program ads suggesting you upgrade to the paid-for Backup4all, but thankfully they are relatively unobtrusive so hopefully you'll be able to ignore them if you're not interested.
The free version of the program lacks a few features, but these might be inconsequential, depending on your needs. If you can live without encryption, FTP backups, email notifications and incremental backups, Fbackup is well worth checking out.
A new backup tool that uses Google Drive to store your files
Google Backup and Sync isn't a traditional backup tool by any means, it is cloud-based and just what you are able to back up will depend on how much online Google storage you have available.
You're given a limited amount of space for free, and there are various ways to boost it without having to part with any money, but in reality Google Backup and Sync is going to be useful for backing up individual directories – not your whole system.
For backing up key files and folders, however, it's superb. You can easily specify any number of folders for the software to monitor, and any changes, additions or deletions are implemented near-instantaneously.
As the name suggests, the software can be used to synchronize files between computers, and they are accessible through on any device via the Google Drive web app. An excellent, if slightly limited, backup tool.
Understanding backup types
When you're choosing backup software 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.