Upgrading to Windows 10? Back up your PC first! Here's how

Upgrading from Windows 7 or Windows 8 should, in theory, work without a hitch, preserving all your files and applications. But long time users of Microsoft products know these things don’t always go as planned. A critical software error or hardware failure, for instance, could derail the installation and leave your PC bricked. Or the upgrade succeeds, but you decide Windows 10 is not all it’s cracked up to be and want to revert back to your older OS.

That’s why, prior to installing Windows 10, you should back up all your data. A full backup includes all your personal files like documents, photos, videos, and downloads, as well as system settings and applications. On the off chance that anything goes awry, you can have peace of mind knowing all your stuff is safe and recoverable.

To do this, you’ll need a provider that offers full system backups. While Google Drive, DropBox, and OneDrive all have cloud storage options, they have limited space and don’t usually backup anything beyond user files. For a proper full disk backup, you’ll have to pay; there’s not really any getting around it.

“But I’ll just create a backup partition on my hard drive,” you say? Well, yes you could do that, but reliable backups are location-independent, meaning they don’t exist on the same machine as the original files. If something goes wrong during the update, the entire computer could be affected, not just the original hard drive partition. You could also buy yourself an external hard drive, but if the only purpose of the EHD is to back up data for a one-off update, you’ll actually save money by buying a one-month subscription to a cloud backup provider and cancelling the account when finished.

Carbonite, CrashPlan, IDrive, BackBlaze, SpiderOak, and more all offer full disk backups at varying prices. Once installed and beyond the initial setup, the process is fully automated. Just select the defaults and let it run. Note that the initial backup could take anywhere from a couple hours to over a week depending on your internet speed.

If you’re more organized, most backup apps will give you the option of selecting specific files and folders, filtering by file extension, and restricting files by their size. This is useful if you have limited storage space on your cloud or just want to get some spring cleaning done and rid your PC of files you don’t need anymore.

If you want to back up your entire system but your online backup provider doesn’t support full disk backups, Windows offers a way around this. Windows 7 and 8 both have a built-in image backup function. A disk image is a copy of your entire system that doesn’t allow you to restore individual files, but can be used for disaster recovery to restore an entire PC. An image backup and restore can be performed from the Control Panel. You can store the image on your local drive, then upload it to the cloud. The process can take a couple hours, but you can continue to use your PC as usual during the backup. Just make sure you have enough space on the cloud with no file size limitations, as the image will be several gigabytes large.

Upgrading to Windows 10 requires a minimum 16GB of available free space on your hard drive. If you don’t have that, then you can move files to the cloud to create space. Be aware, however, that backing up your computer keeps an exact copy of what’s on the hard drive saved to the cloud. That means if you delete files to make space, those files will be deleted from the backup as well. This is an important distinction between cloud backup and cloud storage. See more on the differences here.

Related: See our write-up of the best VPNs for Windows 10.