Back up your Windows PC: 2 surefire ways to make sure you never lose a file

Don't get caught with a broken PC and no backup of your most important files.

Jason Cipriani Contributing Writer, ZDNet
Jason Cipriani is based out of beautiful Colorado and has been covering mobile technology news and reviewing the latest gadgets for the last six years. His work can also be found on sister site CNET in the How To section, as well as across several more online publications.
Matt Elliott Senior Editor
Matt Elliott is a senior editor at CNET with a focus on laptops and streaming services. Matt has more than 20 years of experience testing and reviewing laptops. He has worked for CNET in New York and San Francisco and now lives in New Hampshire. When he's not writing about laptops, Matt likes to play and watch sports. He loves to play tennis and hates the number of streaming services he has to subscribe to in order to watch the various sports he wants to watch.
Expertise Laptops | Desktops | All-in-one PCs | Streaming devices | Streaming platforms
Jason Cipriani
Matt Elliott
5 min read

Make sure your files are backed up at all times. It doesn't take a lot of time. 

Ian Knighton/CNET

It's far too easy to ignore the Windows prompts reminding you to create a backup of your PC. I've done it many times. Most of my files are backed up to some form of cloud storage, be it OneDrive or iCloud Drive. However, those files aren't everything I have on a PC. There are settings, applications along with other odds and ends that aren't backed up. 

If my PC were to stop working right now, I'd still have to set it up from scratch. I'd have my files, sure, but I'd spend a lot of time installing apps and getting everything back to how it was. Windows provides two different ways to back up your PC. One of those methods creates copies of the files you care about most, allowing you to revert to an older copy of a file if, for example, you accidentally delete something or make a mistake. 

Below I'll walk you through how to set up routine backups of your most important files, as well as how to create a complete copy of your system in its current state. For either method, you'll need an external hard drive or SSD. The unofficial rule for the amount of storage a backup drive should have is 1.5-2 times the size of your computer's storage. So, if your Windows 10 laptop has 256GB of storage, you'd want a backup drive with 512GB of space. Not sure where to start when it comes to picking out a drive? We happen to have a list of our top recommendations

Windows 10 Backup

Turning on the built-in back up tool in Windows 10 only takes a few clicks.

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/CNET

Back up your files every hour

Windows 10 has a built-in tool that will back up files and documents on your behalf, every hour in the background, all without you knowing it's even happening while you continue to use your computer. To set it up, plug your external drive into the PC, and then click the Start button then the Settings gear. Next, click Update & Security followed by Backup in the list of options on the left-hand side of the window. 

Select Add a drive and then select the external drive you just plugged into your PC. If you want to stop there, you can. Windows will create a folder on that drive and start automatically backing up your files. 

I suggest taking a few minutes to make sure Windows is backing up the folders you care about and removing any folders you don't care about. To do that, click More Options that's located just underneath the Automatically back up my files button. 

There you'll find a list of all the folders that Windows is monitoring and copying to your external drive. You can add or remove any of those folders, change how frequently you want Windows to back up your files, and even set how long you want backups to be saved. I recommend switching the Keep my backups option to Until space is needed. That way, when your external drive is full, Windows will delete the oldest backups to make room for new backups. Otherwise, it would simply stop creating backups. 

To restore any files or folders from a backup, scroll to the bottom of the More options page and select Restore files from a current backup


A system image might be the way to go if you don't want to mess with setting everything back up. 

Ian Knighton/CNET

Create an exact copy of your Windows PC

The other option you have when it comes to backing up your PC is to create what's called a system image of your computer as it is right now. The image will include every app, setting, file or folder; all of it. 

The benefit of using this method is that if your PC crashes and you have to set it all up again, you only need to restore the system image and you're back in action. The downside is that the image you create is from that specific moment in time, so if it's been awhile since you last created an image, you'll lose any changed settings, newly installed apps and files you aren't storing in a cloud service or backing up to a different external drive. 

You could create a system image once a month, or every few months on the same drive you're backing up files to, as long as it has enough space. 


A system image reflects a specific moment in time for your PC. 

Screenshot by Matt Elliott/CNET

Plug in your external drive before creating the backup image. Then open the Control Panel by clicking on the start button then typing control panel. With the Control Panel opened, go to System and Security > Backup and Restore ( Windows 7 ) > Create a system image on the left side of the window. 

You're then asked where you want to save the backup image; select your external drive from the On a hard disk dropdown. If your PC has a DVD-RW drive, you can use that along with blank DVDs to store the system image if you'd prefer. Click Next after selecting the backup location, followed by Start backup

It can take a while to create the image, depending on how much data is stored on your system. Once you start it, you can still use your computer, or you can start it right before you go to bed and it'll be done in the morning. After it's complete, you'll be asked if you want to create a system repair disc. You can skip this option, especially if your desktop or laptop doesn't have a CD ROM drive.

Should you need to restore your system, you can use the image you just created or, if needed, you can create a Windows 10 boot drive on a USB thumb drive.

To use your system image to restore your PC, open the Settings app and go to Update & Security > Recovery. In the Advanced startup section, click the Restart now button. When your PC restarts, go to Troubleshoot > Advanced Options > System Image Recovery and follow the instructions to restore your PC using the system image you created.

With your PC now fully backed up, take a few minutes to learn about Windows 10 features that are better than Windows 7, secret Windows 10 features, and how to turn your old PC into cash