How to back up your Windows PCJanice writes: I have a Windows 7 laptop that I’ve never, ever backup up—yes, I know, I know. I’m ready to take my medicine now; what’s the easiest way to start backing everything up?

Hello Janice! When it comes to backing up your personal data, better late than never, particularly when it comes to ever-vulnerable laptop PCs (which, after all, are dangerously prone to coffee spills, thieves, and careless baggage handlers).

The good news is that Windows 7 boasts an easy-to-use utility that’ll regularly backup your personal documents, media, settings, and other data.

(Several commercial backup utilities are also available, of course; for this how-to, though, I’ll be focusing on Microsoft’s built-in backup tool.)

The Windows backup utility will help you create three key things: a partial backup of your just your personal files, handy for cherry picking individual documents to restore; a total hard drive backup (also known as a “system image”) that you can use to recover your entire system in one fell swoop; and a “system repair” DVD that can boot, diagnose, and restore backup files in case disaster ever befalls your system.

Related: How to back up your Mac with Time Machine

Before we start with any of that, though, you’ll need an external backup drive—ideally, one that’s at least as large as your system’s hard drive. Many roomy and relatively cheap external USB drives are for sale online; Amazon, for example, sells massive one-terabyte (1TB, or about a thousand gigabytes) for as little as $100.

Once you’ve got an external hard drive and a rewritable DVD (also available through Amazon and other retailers, or even your neighborhood drug store), you’ll be ready to begin backing everything up.

So, let’s get started!

Burn a system repair disc

The first thing we’ll do is create a so-called “repair” disc—a DVD you can use to boot up your computer in case your system’s hard drive conks out.

Not only will your repair disc start your computer, it also comes loaded with utilities that can find and restore the backups and system images that we’ll be creating in a little bit.

Creating a Windows repair disc

A Windows repair disc will come in handy if your system's hard drive goes on the fritz.

  • Open the Start menu, select Control Panel, then click the “Back up your computer” link under “System and Security.”
  • Next click the “Create a system repair disc” link. A window will pop up prompting you to insert a blank disc into your computer’s DVD drive; go ahead and do so, then click the “Create disc” button to start burning your rescue disc.
  • After a few minutes (probably under a half hour or so), Windows will tell you that your rescue DVD is ready to go; it’ll also suggest you label the disc “Repair disc Windows 7 32-bit.” Good idea.
  • Keep your new rescue disk in a safe place; chances are, you’re going to need it sooner or later.

Create a system image

Next step: making a complete copy—or a “system image”—of your entire Windows hard drive, which (with a little help from your rescue disc) you can use to completely restore your system in case disaster strikes.

The downside of restoring a system image? It’s an all-or-nothing process: that is, you won’t be able to pluck, say, an older version of a specific Word file out of your system-image backup. Instead, you’ll have to restore everything—quite a headache if all you want to do is restore a single document. (A WIndows backup of your personal files, though, will let you grab a single file—and yes, we’ll be getting to that soon.)

Saving a system image

A system image will let you restore your entire system in case of a hard drive failure, but you won't be able to pick and choose files to restore.

  • Make sure you have your new external drive connected to one of your system’s USB ports; with any luck, Windows will automatically “mount” the empty drive to your desktop.
  • Go back to the Control Panel, click the “Back up your computer” link (again), then click the “Create a system image” link in the left column of the “Backup and Restore” window.
  • A window will appear, asking where you’d like your system image to be saved—on a hard drive, or on one (or likely many more) DVDs. Select “On a hard disk,” pick your external drive from the menu, then click Next.
  • A confirmation window will appear that tells you how much hard drive space will be required for your system image. Assuming there’s enough space available, you can go ahead and click “Start backup.”
  • Now it’s time to sit back and wait—and indeed, you could be waiting some time, depending how much data is on your hard drive. Eventually, though, Windows will tell you that it’s finished…and well, there you go. On to the next step!

Back up your personal files

Last but not least, we’ll create a backup of all your personal documents, media, settings and other data—most everything save for the core Windows files your system needs to run.

What’s the point of backing up your personal files again if we already saved them all in a system image? Well, like I said before, you can’t restore individual files from a system image—again, it’s an all-or-nothing deal. With a standard Windows backup, though, you can pick specific documents to restore, handy when all you want is last week’s version of a single Word file.

  • Click the Start menu, select Control Panel, then click the “Back up your computer” link.
  • Once you launch the Windows Backup tool, the first message you’ll see will be “Windows Backup has not been set up.” (Very true.) Over to the left of the screen, you’ll see a link that reads “Set up backup”—and yes, that’s our next stop. Click the link.
  • Next, a window labeled “Starting Windows Backup” will briefly appear, followed by another window that lets you choose where to store your backup files. Find your external drive in the list, click it with your mouse, then click the Next button.
  • Now it’s time to decide what you’d like Windows to back your files up. You will get the option to let Windows pick and choose—and for most of us, that’s the best option. If you have specific files and directories you’d like backed up, click the “Let me choose” option. Once you’ve made your decision, click Next.
  • A final setup screen lets you review your settings before initiating the first backup, including a schedule for automated weekly backups (which you can always change later). If everything looks good, click the “Save settings and run backup” button.
  • You should now see a green progress bar start to fill up as the backup process begins; if you like, click the View Details button to keep on eye on what Windows is up to.
  • Sooner or later, depending on how much data is on your hard drive, Windows Backup will notify you that it’s done. It may also (and probably will) note that it failed to back up a few files; if that’s the case, click the “Show Details” button to find out which files it skipped.

Restoring a file, or your entire hard drive

Let’s say something bad happens—you delete an image file that you really, really needed, or something terrible befalls your entire system. Now what?

To restore one (or a few) files…

  • Click the Start menu, click the “Backup and Restore” link, then click the “Restore my files” button (it’s near the bottom of the window).
  • Next, navigate to the file you want to restore; just click the Search or Browse buttons to find your way.
  • Once you’ve found a file or document you’d like to restore, select it and click the “Add Files” button, then rinse and repeat to add more files to the restoration queue.
  • Ready to bring your lost files back to life? Click the Next button, choose a location where you’d like your resurrected files to be deposited, then click Restore.

To restore your entire hard drive…

  • Make sure your external backup drive is connected to your system, insert your repair disc into your computer’s DVD drive, and power it up.
  • Tap a key at the prompt to boot your computer using the repair DVD rather than the hard drive.
  • After a few minutes, a prompt will appear asking you to choose a keyboard input method (just pick your country and language), followed by a window that’ll check for damaged Windows installations to fix. To restore one of your system images to your hard drive, click the “Restore your computer using a system image that you created earlier” option.
  • Your repair disc will now scan your external hard drive and report back with the most recent system image to restore; click the Next button to proceed (good luck!), or click the “Select a system image” if you’d rather restore an older backup.

Bonus tips

A backup is only as goodas how recent it is; if you go for weeks at a time without backing up your system, you’ll be pretty unhappy when your hard drive up and dies and you’re stuck with a backup from last month. Make sure to back up your computer at least weekly—or even daily.

Even a giant 1TB external hard drive will fill up eventually, especially after a few weeks or so of saving large system images. Left to its own devices (sorry for the pun), Windows will start deleting your oldest backup files once your start running out of hard drive space, so keep an eye on your storage if you want to keep a vault of all your old backups.

Phew! A big dose of information, I know. Still have questions? Probably—and if so, feel free to post ’em in the comments below.