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Types Of BackupWhen it comes to protecting your valuable digital data, backing up your information, and backing it up frequently, is increasingly vital. More data, both sentimental and truly valuable, is being stored digitally than ever before. It is also easier than ever to perform consistent, comprehensive backups, so if your computer crashes and you’re unprepared, you have no one to blame but yourself.

This guide was designed to provide information on the three primary types of backups – full, incremental and differential – as well as on several other alternatives. You can get specific backup tutorials with this introductory course on understanding backup services, file hosting services and usage of Dropbox.

Full Backup

The first of our Big Three is the full backup. This is also referred to as a reference backup and the terms can be used interchangeably.

The full backup is where most people start when they have a new computer or new, large set of files. It is just like it sounds: you are backing up all selected files and folders, which in most cases are all the files and folders on a device. Once you have successfully completed a full backup, you would normally use incremental of differential backups to save future changes, but we’ll get to that in subsequent sections.

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The reason most people do not use full backups every time they perform a backup is because it can take a very long time (for example, if you have several hundred GB of data) and, naturally, it uses up a lot of storage. Every time you perform a full backup, all of the files are copied and saved.

Let’s say that you have 250 GB of data. Every time you perform a full backup, you are going to need 250 GB of space in which to save the new backup. So after the first backup you will have used 500 GB; after the second, 750 GB; after the fourth, 1000 GB; and so on. You can see how this is less than ideal for large amounts of data.

On the other hand, if you have a project that you’ve been working on for six months and it only uses a few GB of data, then you might as well do a full backup every time. First, you won’t monopolize space, and second, once your project is completed, you will be able to delete many of the backups.

It’s generally wise to do a full backup every now and then, and of course you can delete old backups once your newest data is safe (although many people like holding on to multiple versions). A full backup allows you to do a full restore (if your computer crashes) and you have the priceless piece of mind of knowing everything is safe.

If, however, you do manage to lose a whole bunch of valuable data, refer to this blog post on recovering your formatted hard drive and retrieving lost data.

Incremental Backup

Now that you know what a full back up is, you can probably guess what happens when you perform an incremental backup.

It is essential to understand that incremental backups only work if you have already completed a full backup. That’s because an incremental backup saves all the changes you made since your last full or incremental backup. That might sound confusing, but really all you need to know is that you must start with a full backup, but then you can perform as many incremental backups as you wish.

To begin with, incremental backups are lighting fast compared to full backups. That also use significantly less space, as you are only saving the changes and not the entire files.

If you use your computer for work and make changes every workday, you can setup your computer to automatically perform an incremental backup every night at, say, 10 PM. Any changes you make during the day will be saved; these tend to be rather small, so the amount of storage you use will be inconsequential. You can then, if you want, do a full backup every weekend, every month, whatever.

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Since you can pretty much use incremental backups with as much frequency as you desire, you can keep multiple versions of projects and files without claiming too much storage. This is a nice luxury to have in your back pocket.

Most people do not recommend relying solely on incremental backups. You should still do a full backup every now and then so that if disaster strikes, you can restore all your files easier and with more confidence.

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Differential Backups

The differential backup might seem like over-kill, but it actually serves a number of useful purposes.

Differential backups are the happy medium between full and incremental backups; they only save changes made since the last full backup. That might sound like an incremental backup, but in reality it is only the same as the first incremental backup. Whereas subsequent incremental backups save changes made since the last incremental backup, differential backups always save changes made since the last full backup, regardless of how many incremental or differential backups you perform.

Being a happy medium, a differential backup is faster and more efficient than a full backup, but slower and less efficient than an incremental backup.

Let’s say you perform a differential backup every week, assuming you have already completed a full backup. The first week you will save any changes made since the full backup as well as any new data. The second week you will save everything from the first week plus any new changes or files added. This differs from an incremental backup in that it saves all the changes over again, not just the changes made since the last differential backup.

I don’t have much to add here other than stressing the middle-ground nature of differential backups. People who have extremely large amounts of data who absolutely must protect it might opt for a differential backup over an incremental backup. The main advantage would be that you can restore it much easier than an incremental backup while using considerably less space than a full backup.

Remote Backups

While we covered the three most popular kinds of backups, I want to talk about remote backups as they are increasingly easy and reliable. Examples of this include data storage options such as Dropbox and iCloud. Remote backups go by a variety of names. Undoubtedly some people will be very picky over terminology, but I am not one of them. Remote backups can be FTP, Cloud backups and other Online backups. They are all so similar that I prefer to group them under one name to which they are all synonymous: remote backups.

A remote backup is one that is both offsite and accessible. This means that you can store your data someone far, far away from the physical data, and yet access it as if it were at your side. This is accomplished primarily through the internet, FTP servers and backup providers such as the ones listed above.

Anyone who has used a remote backup service such as Dropbox knows just how awesome it can be. And awesomeness is definitely an advantage. You can, for example, access saved data anywhere you have an internet or cell phone connection. You can download the Dropbox app onto any device imaginable and access all of your data from just about anywhere in the world. This is ideal for people who travel a lot and don’t have 500 GB of storage on their phones or tablets.

Get all the info you need on modern remote backups with this tutorial on cloud computing and understanding the basics.

As long as Dropbox doesn’t go out of business without fair warning, your data is as safe as it will ever be. No natural disaster or spilled coffee can permanently delete your data. You can also share data easier than ever before; it’s just a few clicks away.

On the other hand, if you want to backup large amounts of data, or really even average amounts of data (Dropbox only gives you several GB for free), then you have to pay for the service. It isn’t ridiculously expensive, but it’s a monthly fee nonetheless.

Local And Offsite Backups

I want to wrap up this discussion with some old school knowledge: the local and offsite backups. These are still great options for a number of uses, FYI.

A local backup is one that is, literally, local. If you use Apple’s Time Machine and backup your computer to an external hard drive, that is a local backup. They are still the most common type of backup today. Anything from a CD to a TB stick to an internal hard drive counts as a local backup.

The advantages mostly consist of convenience and accessibility. If your primary concerns are viruses and coffee spills, local backups make a lot of sense. They’re cheap, too (at least these days), but they can easily be stolen, lost or damaged. Even still, most people still use local backups for all kinds of applications. Check out this blog post on how to backup Microsoft Outlook for a complete tutorial.

An offsite backup is similar to a remote backup except that it does not offer the convenience of remote accessibility. An offsite backup is physical, meaning the only way to access it is to go to where it is located. It is literally “offsite.”

Offsite backups are safer but less convenient than local backups. Unfortunately, anyone who is making frequent changes to data will find them unbearably inconvenient. Still, many businesses prefer to use them as they can be kept at other offices and, as long as the physical device itself is not stolen or damaged, they are 100% reliable and do not need a fast internet connection.


Now that we’ve exhausted our options for backing up your prized digital possessions, the time may come when you need to wipe and destroy your data from certain devices. This will come in handy if you need to sell a computer, perform a restore, or hide your info from the government. Get all the essential facts and tutorials with this course on data wiping, destruction, erasure and sanitization.

Page Last Updated: February 2020

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