The beginner's guide to backing up your precious data

Be prepared for disaster to strike

Backing up your data might sound like a boring chore only carried out by IT administrators and the super-geeky, but should your smartphone fall down a well or your laptop get swiped on the train, backups are the only chance you have of getting your files back again.

Fortunately making sure backups are in place is a lot easier than it was five or ten years ago - many systems and apps are now designed to minimise the need for manual backups. If you want to know how to get started and keep your data safe, read on.

Choose your files

Choose your files

Your first job is working out exactly what you want to back up, which should be fairly straightforward - all those pictures, movies, spreadsheets, essays and other bits stored on our hard drives. Two copies of your important files is the bare minimum, but you really need three, with one of these in a separate location: what would happen if a flood or a fire swept through your home? If you're relying on an external hard drive set up next to your laptop then both of these copies would be made unusable at the same time.

Email can be a tricky one which is why it's a good idea to use a cloud-based service such as Gmail or Outlook even if you run a desktop email client too. If you don't have your messages backed up on the web then consult the backup and export instructions for your application of choice for help. Pay particular attention to any photos and videos you want kept safe, although remember that the likes of iTunes and Google Play Movies let you redownload any content that you've already paid for, so that's not something you need to worry about.

Choose your apps

Choose your apps I

Once you know which files to focus on, there are all kinds of options for backing them up, including just plugging in an external hard drive and copying the data over manually. Both Windows and Mac have built-in tools for making regular backups to external hard drives connected to your computer - if you combine these tools with the respective cloud storage services offered by Microsoft and Apple (OneDrive and iCloud) then you have your three copies, although you may need to pay a monthly fee for some extra online space depending on how much data is involved.

Services such as Dropbox, Box, Google Drive and Amazon Cloud Drive run across multiple platforms and sync all of the files in a particular folder to the web and other computers (the three copy rule again) - in each case you will probably need to pay for additional room online, although some special offers are available (Amazon Cloud Drive offers unlimited photo storage with Amazon Prime, for instance). Move all of your crucial files into the designated folder for these apps and new files as well as edits to existing ones are automatically synced to the cloud.

Choose your apps II

If you want something even more comprehensive, Backblaze and Crashplan will back up everything on your machines and your external drives for a few pounds (or dollars) a month. They don't have extras such as online apps or file sharing, but they're cheaper and offer more storage for keeping your important files safe. While the plethora of choice can seem daunting, it means you can tailor something specific to suit you: just make sure you have at least two and preferably three copies of all your important files in separate locations.

If you need more help deciding then consult our comprehensive round-up of the best cloud storage services out there today. All of the applications and services we've mentioned are straightforward to use and in a lot of cases you won't have to worry about running backups or launching particular utilities once the original setup is completed - everything works seamlessly, which is part of the appeal. As long as you have multiple copies of your data, there's no right or wrong solution, so pick one that suits your budget and setup.

Don't forget your smartphone

Smartphone backups

Thankfully, most modern-day mobiles are now designed with data backups in mind - the software operating systems made by Google, Apple and Microsoft automatically back up contacts, apps, settings and so on, and (as you'll know if you've upgraded recently) creating a new clone of your old phone is pretty straightforward. Even the apps themselves have changed tack, with the likes of Netflix, Spotify and the Microsoft Office mobile apps keeping all your content in the cloud and removing the need for making local copies.

However, you should consider important files you've downloaded or created on your phone and which aren't backed up somewhere else - using iTunes or iCloud (on iOS) or something like Dropbox or Google Drive (on Android) you should be able to transfer these to a PC (you can also just plug your phone in and copy them via USB). Crucially, don't forget your photos and videos - set up a service like Google Photos, iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive or Amazon Cloud Drive to ensure all your images and video clips are synced to the web automatically.