1. Set up a Backup Routine
Before you fire up your browser and log in to Facebook, check e-mail for the first time, install extra software, or even start thinking about where to put all those photos and MP3 files, the very first step to take with a PC is to configure backup and recovery software.
Surprising though it may be, creating a backup routine is even more important than configuring a virus- or spyware-killing tool. Just make sure you do not go on the Internet for now; with no network cable attached, you shouldn’t be able to, anyway, unless you make a conscious effort to connect to a wireless network. The reason to stay offline for now: It’s impossible to get a virus or spyware if you do not go on the Internet, load any software, or perform any actions on the PC other than configuring a backup.
There are a few options when it comes to backup, but at the most basic level, you can configure Windows’ included backup program. In Vista and Windows 7, just click Start and type the word “backup” into the Start menu’s search box. In Windows 7, you’ll see an item named “Back up your computer,” which you can select. Then configure the options according to the wizard that pops up. Windows does a good job of walking you through the steps required, letting you set how often you want to back up and specifying which drive to use.
You have three main options when it comes to selecting the drive to which you’ll write your backed-up data. First, you can specify the main hard drive of your computer; this makes a backup quick and easy, and if you need to restore a file, it’s easy to find the backed-up files. The downside, though: If the entire drive fails, mechanically or due to corruption, it can be difficult or impossible to retrieve your data.
That’s why it’s usually best to go with the second option, an external drive or optical media. You can use a fast portable hard drive, such as a Seagate FreeAgent Go drive (we reviewed the 320GB and 1TB models). These are small (about 4×6 inches) and connect to your PC with a USB cable. Most current external drives hold 120GB of data or more, plenty for most reasonable backups, and you can find some decent-capacity models for as little as $50. An alternative to a hard drive is a USB flash drive. (We looked at a bunch here.) These small drives come in a variety of capacities, though they start to get pricey once you look at ones greater than 16GB. (That’s still enough space to back up documents and images, for many folks.) But these drives offer extra convenience because you can insert them into a free USB port and leave them there. Optical CD or DVD media is also a possibility, using the CD or DVD burner, but burning discs tends to be more cumbersome than the other methods.
The third―and we contend, best―option for backups is to use a network-enabled drive. In this scenario, you back up to a drive commonly called a network-attached-storage (NAS) drive, which you attach to a router. (NAS drives generally start at around $150; we reviewed a load of NAS drives here.) If you go this route, you will need a router, and you’ll need to configure home networking so that your computer is attached to the router. (We’ll talk about how to do that in Step 4.) This may seem like a lot to do when you haven’t even checked your Hotmail account yet. And, yes, this approach is a bit more complicated. Still, a network drive provides the fastest, most reliable backups. If you do plan to use a network drive, follow the instructions in Step 4 first to configure a router, and then attach the NAS drive and configure its backup software.
Whether you opt for your local hard drive, an external drive, a USB flash drive, or a NAS drive, you can use the included backup software in Windows. But another option is to use a third-party utility such as Retrospect or Memeo. You can order these programs online or buy them at a computer store and install them from CD. They work about the same as the included programs in Windows, usually with a few extra security features and options. One major advantage of these tools, even if they do not offer any extra features over their Windows counterparts, is that they are more capable of compressing your data-backup files, if desired.
If you configure backup right away―before you start cranking out e-mails or playing computer games―there’s a much better chance that you’ll continue to perform backups. The software itself will remind you to back up, and you can automate this process. The part you can’t automate, though, is the storage―if you run out of space on your target drive (internal or external), you’ll need to tweak the settings to delete old backups once you hit a certain threshold, or add more storage. So keep an eye on free capacity in Windows Explorer from time to time.