Have you backed up your computer lately? That question seems to strike fear into the hearts of many computer users. Yet backing up is crucial to protecting the data you store on your computer, from financial information to precious photo memories.

There’s no need to dread this task. In fact, it’s pretty simple. This guide will tell you how to set up Windows and Mac operating systems so all your files are automatically backed up. 

Before you get started, you’ll need to decide where you’ll store your backed-up data. Backing up to the cloud, using a service like Apple’s iCloud or Microsoft’s OneDrive, places the data physically out of your house. Should a disaster like a flood or fire occur, your files will be safely tucked away on a server (actually, many servers) far from home. In contrast, using an external drive keeps the data in your hands, and there are no concerns about a cloud service being hacked or going out of business. Other options include DVDs and network drives, depending on which operating system you’re using.

If you decide to use an external hard drive, choose one that’s got double the storage of your computer. Depending on how you set things up, you’ll need room for different versions of files, for a system image, and for applications. Get a USB 3 model, which will transfer files much more quickly than the older USB 2. You can use a USB 3 drive even on a computer with a USB 2 port, and you’ll be future-proofed in case you buy a new computer later with USB 3. Apple’s got a proprietary interface called Thunderbolt that’s very fast but works only on Macs. Skip that and stick to USB 3, which you’ll be able to use even if you switch later from Mac to Windows.

You’ll need to choose the cloud service that works best for you if you decide to back up an online provider. Many offer a relatively small amount of storage space free, then charge you to increase that base amount. We’re taking a closer look at the various options and will post our results soon. 

Once you know where your files are going, you’re just a few easy steps away from automating your backup. Here’s how to do that for Mac OS X, Windows 8, and Windows 7.

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Mac OS X 10.5 (Snow Leopard to Yosemite)

Apple’s Time Machine makes backing up to an external device easy. You’ll find the controls in System Preferences (click the Apple icon on your toolbar). You can also do a search for it in the Spotlight search window. Time Machine does a full backup the first time you launch it, then keeps hourly backups for 24 hours, weekly backups, and daily backups for the previous month. If your drive becomes full, the oldest backups are deleted first. 

It’s easy to restore a file from Time Machine. Click the Time Machine icon on the toolbar, and navigate to the file or folder you want to restore. Then press the control key, choose “Restore <name of file> to,” and select the folder you want. Since Time Machine backs up every time you change a file, and saves prior backups, you can restore older versions of files as well as the most current.

You can also use Time Machine to move your files from an old Mac to a new one. Before you make the switch, run a manual Time Machine backup to make sure you get the latest version of everything. When you set up your new Mac, it will ask if you want to restore from a Time Machine backup. Connect your hard drive to the new Mac and follow the instructions to transfer your files.

Windows 8

The latest version of Windows also makes it remarkably easy to back up. In fact, Windows 8’s File History uses a scheme that’s similar to Apple’s Time Machine.

When you connect a new external drive, Windows will ask if you want to use File History to configure the drive. Otherwise, swipe in from the right and search for “File History.” If you already have an external drive attached, Windows will detect it and suggest that drive for storing your backups. If there is no external drive detected, Windows will prompt you to connect to the Internet, a hard drive connected to a router, or a server drive. Once your backup destination is determined, click Turn on and you’re finished

An initial backup automatically keeps copies of files in your Library (Documents, Music, Pictures, and Video), Desktop, Contacts, Favorites, and offline OneDrive folders. (You can’t add folders to File History, so make sure all your files are saved to one of those default folders—it’s likely that all are by default.) After the first backup, File History searches your libraries every hour and backs up when you change a file or folder.

It’s just as easy to restore files. Search for “File History” and select “Restore your files with File History.” You can then navigate to the file you want to restore (you’ll find it in a folder with the same name as the original). By selecting the appropriate back and forward buttons, you can choose the date and time of the file version you’re looking for. To restore the file, you can overwrite the current file or restore it to a different location by right-clicking the file or folder and selecting “Restore” or “Restore to.” Like Time Machine, File History saves different versions of your backups, so you can retrieve an older version of a file if you need to.

Windows 7

This version of Windows uses a utility called Backup and Restore for automatic backups. (If you upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 8, you won’t be able to directly transfer files backed up using this software.) To launch Backup and Restore, click the Start button, type “Backup” into the “Search programs and files” box, and click on “Backup and Restore.” Choose “Set up backup,” then “Let Windows choose,” and Backup and Restore will automatically copy all files saved in Windows Library (My Documents, My Music, My Pictures, and My Video) and on the Desktop.

There’s also an option that lets you choose individual folders, libraries, and drives yourself. It’s called, not surprisingly, “Let me choose.” But you’re limited to using an external hard drive or a DVD for storing your backups. Automatic backup to a cloud service is not an option with Windows 7.

A weekly backup is scheduled by default, but you can change that during setup to daily or monthly. If you wish, you can get really specific by selecting day of the week and time of day. If you only use your computer a couple of times a week, then a weekly backup should be sufficient. If you’re using it more than that, a daily backup will do the best job of protecting you.

If you think you’re using an uncommon application that saves files in different locations or in uncommon file formats, take a look after your first backup to make sure those files are being saved. If they’re missing, return to the “Set up backup” menu, select “Let me choose,” and pick the folder that contains those files as well as all the default folders.

If you need to restore a file, go into the Backup and Restore program, click “Restore files,” and you’ll see a directory of your folders and files. Navigate to, then select, the items you want to restore.

Unlike with File History and Time Machine, Backup and Restore saves only your most recent backup. If you want to save different versions of your files, you’ll need a utility called Previous Versions. You’ll find it in the Control Panel under System/System Protection.

—Donna Tapellini

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