How to Copy Your Hard Drive

If you want to copy your hard drive, you need all the right pieces: another hard drive to store the data, software to help manage the backup and the right connection to save your sanity and speed things up. Prepare yourself for this process; it's challenging the first time around and there are no shortcuts, but once you've got the backup, you'll find that future backups are much simpler.

Storing the Data
If you're thinking of copying your hard drive data, you'll need a place to put it all. Hard drives today contain massive amounts of data, so you'll need an external hard drive to store everything. Check the data capacity of your PC's hard drive, which is measured in gigabytes (GB). You'll need an external hard drive at least as large, but it's better to get one that's 5 to 10 times larger, if you can afford it. This will let you keep multiple backups of your drive and configuration, useful if a new piece of software causes problems and you want to roll back to a previous setup. A 500GB external hard drive costs as little as $100 and provides plenty of storage space.

Use Backup Software
The easiest way to copy your hard drive data is using backup software. Backup software copies all of the files that you designate the first time you run a backup, and then copies only new files or files that have changed since the previous backup when you run future backup sessions. Backup software saves you the trouble of manually dragging-and-dropping your data to your backup source, and makes backups much more efficient. If you want a complete image of your hard drive, backup software is the only way to ensure that all the hidden files get moved to the proper place.

Finding the Right Connection
Because computers typically contain a lot of data, it can take quite a long time to copy your hard drive. If you're only backing up Word documents, it may take less than 10 minutes to back up content. If you're copying video, pictures and audio files, it could take hours to copy the contents of your hard drive.

USB is the slowest connection available, so consider the time factor when you're shopping for an external hard drive. Firewire and eSATA are significantly faster than USB, in that order, but Firewire and eSATA ports are less common than USB ports. Check your computer to see what ports are available, then look for a compatible external hard drive. For video and large audio libraries, these faster connections will save hours and possibly days of time.

Creating a Hard Drive Image
Backing up your hard drive typically consists of creating a copy of the important files and documents on your computer. A backup would normally include your My Documents folder, your Pictures folder, your Music folder and any other folders containing files you want to save. However, backups only save files; not software.

If you want to create a complete copy of your hard drive, you'd need special software that is designed to copy all of your software, license keys and vital operating data from your computer. With hard drive imaging software, you can create an exact copy of the contents of your hard drive, and restore the copy if your hard drive ever fails. If you're only backing up your files, you can restore important files, but you'll lose your software in the event of a massive computer malfunction.

For most users, a backup of data files is enough, and it's the less-expensive option. If you're running legacy software or have a complex setup to maximize your PC's performance, creating a hard drive image is the best solution.

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