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Backing Up Programs and Data
Most files on a typical PC can be broken down, loosely, into being either programs or data. These differ of course in many ways, but not least is in how they should be considered for backup.
In general, data files should always be backed up. These are the fruit of your labor, and cannot be replaced! Every backup should include all of your data, either via a full backup of the entire hard disk, a selective backup that includes the directories where the data is, or an incremental backup. (Having all your data in a handful of directories instead of scattered all over the hard disk is useful, for this very purpose).
Programs are a somewhat different story for two main reasons: first, they are static, meaning once installed they do not change (with a few exceptions). Second, they are recreatable; if your Microsoft Office directory gets wiped out, you can reinstall it from your original CD-ROM disk. The combination of these characteristics suggests that backing up programs is less important than backing up data, and this is true. Programs do not need to be backed up as often as data does.
However, you should also remember that setting up and configuring a PC today takes a considerable amount of time. Tweaking all the operating system settings, installing all the software, and modifying parameters to get everything working the way you want can take the better part of a weekend. While you can reinstall Windows 95 and all of your applications if you have to, this is not something that is going to be fun to do. You will also have the problem of remembering what you changed from the standard defaults. For these reasons, installed programs should definitely not be ignored when looking at backup.
Note: Some PCs ship with their
software preinstalled on the hard disk and no original disks or CD-ROMs! This is a poor
practice and I recommend that people avoid buying from companies that do this, since it
makes it very hard for you to reinstall software if you need it in case of disaster. If
you have no original disks, your installed programs should be treated as just as
unrecreatable as your data. Incidentally, many PCs that come only with preinstalled
software have utilities that will let you create install disks from what is stored on the
hard disk, sort of a "reverse install"; consult your owner's manual.
I believe that a full backup of the entire hard disk is still the best type of backup, for the simple reason that it is the safest and easiest way to get you back where you were before a catastrophic data loss--and that is the exact purpose of backup. If you don't have the backup capacity to do the whole hard disk, then consider a combination of full and incremental backups, which will preserve any changes you make to your programs while saving media.
Next: Files Not to Back Up