Backing up explained

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Rachel explains the best methods of backing up and sharing your data, from CDs and DVDs to USB flash drives and external hard drives. What should you be using?

Floppy Disks
Not only are floppy disks very out of date, most computers made after 2010 won’t run them, even if you have an external floppy disk drive which you plug in through a USB port. If you have any other option, do not use a floppy disk. It’s not worth your time.

Compact Discs, better known as CDs, were originally developed to play music. They have since been adapted to data storage. In order to use a blank CD to store information, your computer must have a CD burner. There are two types of CD.

CD-Rs can only be used once. After you have ‘burned’ your data on to them they cannot be overwritten, added to or used to do anything but read the information you loaded them with.

CD-RWs are rewriteable CDs. If you leave your ‘session’ open, you can add files to a CD which already has files on it. If your ‘session’ is closed, you can only write over the CD, wiping any data which was previously on it. Either way, they can be used multiple times. They are, however, notoriously difficult to use, and are more likely to lose information or be unreadable by another person’s computer than a CD-R.

A standard CD will hold approximately 700Mb of data. This equates to two short mid-grade television episodes, 300 photos taken on a smartphone or an album’s worth of music. They are cheaper than DVDs, and thus can be a good way to give photos to friends and family.

CDs will supposedly last for up to 40 years, but one scratch is enough to corrupt the data, so ensure that if you are storing precious family photos you have more than one backup.

DVDs are similar to CDs in almost every way, except that they store much more data. They also come in a once-only type, DVD-R, and a rewriteable type, DVD-RW.

DVDs hold 4.7Gb, or almost seven times more data than a CD. They are better for storing larger files, such as videos or many high-resolution photos. Much like CDs they will deteriorate, especially if left in extreme temperatures, however, they supposedly have a longer shelf-life than a CD. As neither CDs or DVDs have been around long enough to test the shelf-lives out, nobody knows for sure how long your data will last on these disks. Again, beware of scratches.

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USB flash drive
Also known as a USB stick or a flash drive, this small device plugs into one of the USB ports on your computer. They are small (some are only half the length of an adult’s thumb) and are rewriteable. You can add and delete files without writing over all the data on the drive as many times as you like. USB drives have become so affordable that they can now be used to share data with friends, as you can buy packets of three 4Mb flash drives for as little as $6. The largest publically available flash drive in the world at the moment holds 1Tb of data – 1000 Gb, or twice the capacity of the average laptop. They do, however, come in more reasonable sizes. You can find an 8Gb flash drive (enough to hold quite a bit of video) at any computer or stationary store for less than $10.

According to SanDisk, one of the more reputable manufacturers of USB flash drives, the life of a flash drive should be 10 years if you put data on it once and then leave it alone somewhere it is unlikely to be damaged. If you write data onto it over and over again the lifespan will decrease.

External hard disk drive
The ‘external’ part of the name ‘external hard disk drive’ refers to the fact that your computer has a hard disk drive inside it. External hard disk drives, or external HDDs, are similar to what you would find inside your computer, except that they have their own casing and connect to your computer via a USB cable. Of all the readily available data-storage options, external HDDs hold the most information. It is easy to get a 1Tb or two 2Tb external HDD (although they’re not cheap), and they are the best option if you wish to back up a lot of information, or even your whole computer. There are two types of external HDD.

Portable external hard drives do not require an external power source – instead they draw power from your computer via the USB cable. They are often more compact, which is a plus. The downside is they can take longer to transfer files to or from. Because you tend to carry them around they can also be less reliable, as they are more likely to get knocked around in your bag. These are useful if you want to back your computer up while travelling, or to store photos separately to your computer.

Standard external hard drives come with both a USB cable and power cable. These external HDDs need to be plugged into a power point as well as your computer, as they need an external power source. They run faster than a portable HDD, but they are often bulkier and are better left in one place.


  • CDs – Good for sharing photos with friends. Have multiple backup copies if storing important information, and replace every five to ten years.
  • DVDs – Good for storing and sharing video. Have multiple backup copies if storing important information, such as family home videos.
  • USB flash drives – Good for keeping on your key ring to transfer files between computers on the go. Can store large files quite cheaply. Keep multiple copies and only use sparingly if intending to store information for long periods of time.
  • External HDDs Good for backing up your whole computer, or storing many large files. Portable HDDs are easier to carry around, but less reliable.

What do you use to back up your data? Have you had problems or success with any of the methods we have talked about?


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