(The Backup Bible)
updated March 2017

If a major earthquake or other natural disaster strikes, will you lose essential data? If your roof leaks onto your computer and shorts it out, will all your family photos be gone? If something happens to you, a family member, or key employee, does someone else know all the passwords to turn the computer on and access computer accounts, email, and encrypted files?

Plan ahead to prevent losing your list of contacts, emails, tax records, photos, bookmarks/favorites, crucial business data, and other essential files.

Passwords and user names Installation disks and files Emergency disks or recovery drive
What to back up Hardware for backing up Software for data back up
Software for system backup How often to back up data UPS
Your will and executor More information  


 Make a list of all the passwords and usernames that you (and your family members and employees) use. Write them down pencil and paper (legibly!) and put them in your safe deposit box or email it to a senior company officer.  You may also want to keep a copy on your computer, but don't name the file "passwords".  Instead, name it something like Cleveland Vacation Photos, so no hacker will be tempted to look at it. Put a copy of the list in your safe deposit box, along with your will and Medical Power of Attorney.  On this list, include usernames and passwords for: email accounts, computer login, computer administrative user (for Macs and servers), online banking, cell phone unlock code, Amazon account, Apple ID, Dropbox, Audible, iCloud, Facebook, Google Drive, frequent flyer accounts, online shopping, Kindles, router logins, Microsoft account, stock trading accounts, and file encryption keys if you use them.

Capitalization matters with passwords, so when you write them down, make sure people can tell which letters are upper-case and which are lower-case.  Clearly distinguish the letter O from the number 0, and distinguish the number 1 from the letter I and lower case l, so people can read what you have written.  For Gmail, Yahoo mail, Verizon webmail, and others, for extra security you can enable two-step verification, but it is a bit tricky to install. 

After writing down all your usernames and passwords, keep a copy at home, put a copy in your safe deposit box, and give a copy to a trusted friend or relative who lives outside your area.  If a natural disaster (earthquake, flood, etc.) wipes out your house and you are evacuated to a shelter, you can phone your trusted friend to get your passwords.  It's also a good idea to keep a copy of your email password in your wallet.  What makes a good password?  The EFF recommends using a long string of words with no spaces between them.  Something like Myfavoritefoodsarechocolateandstrawberries5# with one capital letter, at least one number, and a special character.  That will satisfy password strength requirements and yet be easy to remember.  Write down the M5# and remember the words in between.


To recover from a disaster, you will need the disks (or the contents of the disks) to install your software, plus any installation files you purchased and downloaded.  When you download software, save it in a folder called Install Files in case you ever need it again, or buy from Amazon which has a one-stop login for all downloaded software.  When you get a CD, copy an image of it (or copy all the files) into a folder in the Install Files folder.  Make a file called CDKEY for each program, with the authorization code or CD key, so you can reinstall it if needed.   Put this CD key file in the folder with the software that it unlocks.  Do this for all software essential to keep your business or household running.  You don't need to back up printer driver files, since you can always download them from the manufacturer's website.  If you are using older versions of software, even if it is freeware, it is essential to save it.  Software vendors commonly only post the most recent versions for download, so make sure to keep archival copies of old software install programs in your Install Files folder.  Make sure to back up this folder as part of your regular backup strategy. is a handy one-stop place to download the latest versions of common freeware. 

When you buy a new Windows computer, one of the first things you should do is to make a recovery disk (or an emergency recovery flash drive).  Have some blank DVDs handy, or a flash drive that is 64 GB or larger, and do it NOW.  If you wait until the computer has a problem, you won't be able to make it.  Mac users instead will use Time Machine (see below).  

Depending on the age of your computer, it will allow you to make either a repair/recovery CD or a USB flash drive.  Instructions for creating a repair CD are here for Windows 7 Windows 8 and Windows 10..  Instructions to create a repair USB drive are here for Windows 8 and here for Windows 10.  You also can borrow one from me or a friend or download the disk image online to burn a recovery disk using a friend's machine.  There are several different kinds of recovery disks (Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 8.1, and Windows 10.  Each comes in two flavors, 64-bit or 32-bit.  You must have the correct version that matches your operating system).  You will need to borrow or download the correct recovery disk if you didn't make one. You can download the ISO for the recovery disks here for Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8, or Windows 10 (click on blue box Download tool now), and then use your CD burning utility to burn a disk.


A dentist I know has a sign in his office which says, “You don’t have to brush and floss all your teeth – only the ones you want to keep.” I should have a sign in mine that says, “You don’t have to back up everything on your computer – only the stuff that is important and you may need some day.” Most people never back up their data, and then get upset when they lose family photos, tax records, business records, school term papers, and other important files.

You can lose files due to earthquake, theft, fire, virus infection, or the computer dying from heat or old age. Sometimes these files can be recovered at a cost of thousands of dollars, but sometimes they are not recoverable at any price. So BACK UP your important files. Often.

Most home users do not need to back up the entire computer, just their data. But businesses can’t afford for their computers to be down for days while they re-install everything after a disaster. So businesses need to back up the entire computer, not just the data. Usually business computers are networked together. The easiest way to back up a network is to designate one computer as the network master or server. Back up all the subsidiary computers onto the master, then back up the master (including the slave backups) onto a removable external drive.

In the old days, all files were stored locally on your computer and you had to remember to back them up.  Nowadays you have a choice - keep your files locally and back them up locally, or store them in the cloud using Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, or another cloud service provider.  Even if you store files in the cloud, it's a good idea to locally back up your most critical information such as your Contacts, old tax returns, and most important documents. 

For files stored on your own computer, most home users back up these folders:  My Documents, Desktop, My Pictures, Favorites, Downloads, Google Drive, Dropbox, Install Files, and My Music.  If you have an iPod, your music is probably already copied onto the iPod, which will back up your music. If you use Firefox or Chrome, back up your bookmarks if they aren't synced to your Gmail account.  If you use Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora, Thunderbird or other email software, make sure to back up your Contacts, Inbox, and other email files in CSV format.  You may also have other folders such as SWSETUP or DRIVERS on your hard drive that need backing up, to help you reinstall software on a replacement machine.

Don't forget to back up your mobile devices (cell phone, smartphone, tablet, iPad, and laptop) if they have stored any data or photos that aren't already in the cloud or on your desktop computer.  If you sync your mobile device to your computer, then backing up the computer will also back up the data on the phone. 

Make sure to back up your email contacts, online calendar, and email.  To export just the contacts, Gmail users can go into their contact list, then click on More / Export.  Save into your My Documents folder, Google Drive, or Dropbox folder.  Or get detailed instructions for backing up Google Contacts, Google Calendar, Google Drive, and other Google data here.  and also check your Gmail security settings including a recovery telephone number here  Yahoo email users can export their contacts but not their mailboxes.  To export Yahoo contacts, click on the Contacts icon on the left, then select Actions/Export. 


Back up your data onto a USB flash drive if you don’t have a lot, or onto a removable hard drive if you have too much for a flash drive. USB flash drives cost about $20 for 64GB. A removable hard drive costs about $90 for 2 TB (2000 GB). You can also back up your data using an online backup service, where you don’t need to buy any hardware, as explained in the software section below.  USB 3.0 drives are much faster than USB 2.0 drives, but only the newest computers can take advantage of this additional speed.  If you buy a USB 3.0 drive, make sure it is backwards compatible to USB 2.0. 

Except when actually running a backup, always disconnect and remove the backup drive from the system. If the backup drive is turned on and running when an earthquake hits, the data on it will probably be ruined. After disconnecting the backup drive, get it out of the house or office, to protect it if there is a fire or burglar. So-called “fire-proof” safes will not protect your hard drive from an intense fire. Take your home backup to the office, and take the office backup home. Keep your USB flash drive in your purse, pocket, neighbor’s house, or give it to your kids. Remember that USB flash drives are easily broken. Do NOT lose the cap, and do NOT touch the metal connector on the end, especially on dry days with lots of static electricity, which will permanently fry the drive. Keep your removable hard drive in your bank safe deposit box, neighbor’s house, or someplace else AWAY from the computers it is backing up.  If you store it at home, put it low to the ground so it won't get damaged falling off a high shelf.

Mac users with a combination router/TimeCapsule cannot turn it off without losing your internet connection.  So if you use TimeCapsule, in addition, you need to buy a separate external hard drive for backup. Periodically, copy the contents of the Time Capsule onto the removable hard drive, turn off the hard drive, and get it out of the house. If the TimeCapsule is turned on and running when you get hit by a lightning strike, strong earthquake, burglar, or leaky roof, you will lose the contents of the TimeCapsule, so turn it OFF and get it OUT of the house.  Bring it back from time to time to do the backup.  Or get two identical TimeCapsules and alternate them home and to the safe deposit box.

Be very careful if you use a network attached storage (NAS) device, or RAID for backup.  (If you don't know what these words mean, you are not using it.)  The backups made by these devices can usually only be read using the exact same hardware and software that created them.  If the NAS device or computer running RAID fails, unless you can buy the exact same hardware and locate the original software, your data will probably be unreadable.  So my advice is either not to use them, or to purchase two identical sets of hardware and keep one unused, not plugged in, as a spare. Better yet, get an inexpensive Windows computer and back up data onto it instead of an NAS.  This inexpensive Windows computer can also serve as an emergency computer if the primary one fails.


These days, many people elect to back up to the cloud instead of backing up data locally.  The most common method is Google Drive which currently gives you 15 GB free storage.  You can pay for more if you need it, but 15 GB is enough unless you have thousands of pictures, videos, or songs.  Once you install Google Drive, move all your items that need to be backed up into the Google Drive folder and wait for it to upload and synchronize.  The paid version of Google Apps (which includes Google Drive) is now HIPAA certified and thus can legally be used in medical offices to store sensitive patient information. 

Alternatively, Windows and Mac users can use Dropbox, which is a free download from When you install the program, it sets up a folder called Dropbox. Any file you copy or save into the Dropbox is almost instantly backed up to servers in Arizona, automatically, every time you edit it, as long as you are connected to the internet. You can access these Dropbox files from any computer anywhere, using your email address and password. You can also set up a public folder which allows you to share files (like photos of your kids) with anyone. You get 2 GB of free storage, and only pay if you exceed 2GB. The Dropbox home page has a video tutorial that explains how it works. Once you install Dropbox, move your important files into the Dropbox folder. 

When you back up locally, make sure you are backing up uncompressed, unencrypted data, so it can be recovered using any computer, without needing a particular vendor's product to do the recovery.  Many backup programs and most network attached storage devices save the data in bizarre formats that are impossible to recover if you have a hardware or software failure.  Either drop and drag your files onto the external drive, or use the software recommended below.

Windows users can automate data backup using the excellent program GFI Backup which is free to home users. (download here) GFI performs an incremental backup on just the files that have changed since your previous backup. You put little check marks (see graphic to the right) next to the important folders that you need to back up, and it does the rest for you. Do NOT use GFI in automatic mode. Instead, manually run the program when you need it, so you can disconnect the backup drive from the system. You can selectively restore individual files from GFI. Do not use GFI to back up the entire computer, just use it to back up the data. By default, GFI will save data unencrypted and uncompressed.  Don't fiddle with these settings.  The newest version of GFI backup requires you to use a login password for your main Windows account.  If you have a blank login password, use an older version of GFI, which you can download here

Mac users can use TimeMachine to back up their data and their system. Do NOT use TimeMachine in automatic mode. Instead, manually run the backup, then disconnect and remove the backup drive from the system. TimeMachine allows you to selectively restore individual files or the entire computer. If you use a TimeCapsule, you cannot turn it off without losing your internet connection.  So if you use TimeCapsule, in addition, you need to buy a separate external hard drive for backup. Periodically, copy the contents of the Time Capsule onto the removable hard drive, turn off the hard drive, and get it out of the house. 

You can back up several gigabytes of photos using the free photo program Picasa, from Google.  Download here and sign in to your Google web album using your Gmail address.  Picasa also allows you to easily import photos from a camera, edit them, and organize them.  Picasa is no longer being updated by Google, but it's still my favorite photo program.


You should back up your entire computer so you can restore it if the system won't turn on or if it gets a nasty virus infection that cannot be removed.

Before starting the system backup, it's a good idea to run a CHKDSK, then Disk Cleanup, then a second Disk Cleanup and check the box to clean up system files, then run CHKDSK again.  When running Disk Cleanup, check all the boxes except for Thumbnails and Drivers.  To run Disk Cleanup, click on Start, then in the search box type Disk Cleanup or follow these instructions.  To run CHKDSK, click on Start, then in the search box type CHKDSK or follow these instructions

Windows 7 has a built-in program for creating a system image, which backs up the entire computer, not just your data. Windows 8 and 10 have this program also, but it currently doesn't work, so you will need to use Acronis TrueImage instead until this bug is fixed.  To make a system image in Windows 7:  use these instructions or click on Start/All Programs/Maintenance and enter the Windows Backup and Restore Center. Or click on Control Panel / System and Security / Backup and Restore. 

In Windows 7, you cannot selectively restore individual files, nor can you do an incremental backup using this method. A complete system image can take several hours to create if you have lots of data.  To recover from a disaster, you will do a complete image restore, then use GFI (or Dropbox of Google Drive) to recover files that have changed since the system image was created.  If you decide to use Windows to create a system image, you should create an emergency boot disk using the same Windows utility.  You will need a blank CD or DVD (or flash drive for newer computers) and follow the prompts as they appear.  If you need to recover and didn't make the disk, don't panic.  Read the information above on Recovery Disks or borrow one from me.

From a system image, Windows 8 and 10 currently will allow recovery of selected files only if the computer will boot normally.  You cannot recover the entire system under Windows 8 or 10.  In Windows 10, 8 or 8.1, you can mount a Windows system image to browse for files, copy them, or restore them individually or in bunches.  But you cannot restore the entire system until Microsoft fixes the bug. 

When you create a new Windows System Image for a given computer, it will delete the old System Image unless you rename the old file before creating the new image.  If you have room on the hard drive, it's a good idea to keep the old version around.  On your backup drive, open the WindowsImageBackup folder, look for the computer name, and rename the image file something like WindowsImageBackupDec2014.  In order to restore this file, you will need to rename it back to WindowsImageBackup from the DOS prompt during the recovery process. 

For Windows 8 and 10 users, I recommend using the software program Acronis TrueImage Home for system backup.  Acronis allows you to recover individual files or folders, unlike Windows recovery which recovers everything or nothing.  Acronis is inexpensive and is available here.  Make sure to make a bootable rescue disk from Acronis.  You will make a bootable rescue CD if your computer has a CD drive, or a bootable USB if your computer has no CD/DVD drive.

Mac users can use TimeMachine to back up their data and their system. Do NOT use TimeMachine in automatic mode. Instead, manually run the backup, then disconnect and remove the backup drive from the system. See the explanation under Hardware for backup, above.

I do not recommend using Carbonite or any other online backup service for system backup.  It slows down the computer, and greatly slows down your internet speed.  If you need to do a complete system recovery, it can take several days to download the entire system data to be recovered, or you need to wait for them to mail you a set of recovery disks.  


In Windows 7, safe mode is enabled by default and you can boot to it by hitting F8 repeatedly immediately after turning on the computer.  This does not work in Windows 8 or 10.  For these operating systems, to enable safe mode.  To enable entering safe mode with F8, open an elevated command prompt and type in the following three lines, one at a time. Each time the computer boots, it will briefly flash the screen shown at the right.  You have one second to hit the F8 key when you see this screen, if you want to enter Safe Mode.

   bcdedit /set {bootmgr} displaybootmenu yes
   bcdedit /timeout 4
   bcdedit /set {default} bootmenupolicy legacy


Back up your data as often as it changes significantly. I back up at least once a month. If I am working on something long and complex, like my taxes, I back up those files at least once a day. Businesses usually do a daily backup or twice-daily backup.  Most businesses also use Google Drive, Dropbox or other real-time system for their crucial files so they are always backed up.

ALWAYS turn the backup drive off (or eject it) and disconnect it, except when you are actually running the backup. If an earthquake strikes and the computer is on, and the backup drive is plugged in, you will lose the data on BOTH of them. Store the backup drive lying down, someplace close to the ground where it won't fall over or fall down if there is an earthquake. 

For businesses, I recommend doing a full system image backup once a month. For home users who choose to do a full system image, once or twice a year is enough, but most home users choose to not bother doing a full system image. If their home computer dies, they usually pay to get it fixed or buy a new one, and the downtime isn’t critical like it is for a business.

Periodically, check your backup drive to make sure your data is actually getting backed up, and that you can read the backup.  All too often, people ask me to recover data from a backup drive that is empty.  They THOUGHT they were backing up, but the backups never happened. 


Most businesses have an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) attached to their most important computers.  A UPS is a four-pound battery with its own power strip.  The battery charges during normal use, and has enough power to keep your computer running for about 15 minutes if there is a power outage.  This permits you to save what you are currently working on, and back up the files, before shutting down the computer.  Note that a UPS won't help you if there is major shaking due to an earthquake, because then the data on your computer will be damaged and lost.  But if there is a power outage due to wind or a fire at the power distribution center, a UPS will let you run long enough to save your information.  Most home users don't need one.  UPS are sold at office supply stores, computer stores, and online through Amazon and other vendors.  I recommend the manufacturer APC.  An UPS will also protect your computer from damage due to surges on the power line and protect it from brownouts. 


You may want to appoint a digital executor in your will, or specifically grant powers over your digital information to your executor.  Read this article from Yahoo Tech for further information, including language you can include in your will to cover digital information. 


You can view a PowerPoint summary of these issues here.  The PowerPoints are not updates as frequently as this Backup Bible. 

Questions? Need help? The Computer Doctor is a consulting computer service based in Menlo Park to help individuals and small businesses with their computer problems. Visit our website for more information, or email Sue Kayton,