Imagine powering up your computer one day and getting nothing but a blank screen, and realizing that at one fell swoop you may have permanently lost your financial records, personal journals, work projects, photographs, and the home movies of your child taking her first step. It’s one of the ugliest feelings of the computer age.
Hence the need to backup your data. To “backup” in this context means to create a duplicate to be stored off your primary hard drive. That way if something happens to one version, you have at least one other surviving version.
Normally we talk about backing up files rather than programs, because you don’t backup programs in the same sense. With programs what you need to do is save all your original discs, and all the instructions and serial numbers and other information that came with them. In the case of programs you downloaded from cyberspace rather than uploaded from a disc, it’s a good idea to get into the habit of keeping a list of the URLs of where you got everything.
If you have all your original discs, and you know which websites to return to for everything else, you should be fine with programs, whether one program ceases working for you, or the hard drive itself fails entirely. If you lose your virus prevention software, Microsoft Excel, Firefox browser, video editing software, Photoshop, etc., etc.-even Windows itself or whatever operating system you use-you can rebuild all that fairly simply.
So what you want to focus on is your own material-your documents, photos, video files, music files, e-mails, etc.
You have several options as to how to backup this material:
1. Copy your files to a disc, either a blank CD or a blank DVD.
The main drawback to this method is that the capacity of these media is quite low. Discs are fine if you have only a handful of crucial files you want to copy, but beyond that, if you rely on discs, you’ll soon find yourself juggling dozens of them, popping them in and out of your computer as they get full, having to keep some sort of record of what is on each. It can be a considerable hassle. Not to mention if you have any unusually large files, like a big video file, they may not even fit on a disc.
2. Copy your files to an external hard drive.
External hard drives have come down drastically in price in recent years, and they’re fairly easy to use. Pretty much you just connect them with a cable to your computer, and you’re ready to go. At most you might need to spend a few minutes formatting the drive (the instructions that come with the drive will explain how), and then you just transfer files over to them the same as you would to a disc.
If you prefer, there is software that will make copies of your files and transfer them automatically to your external hard drive every 24 hours or however you set it. The first time you use the software, you’ll need to spend some time telling it what you want duplicated (e.g., the contents of your “My Documents” folder, the contents of the folder that contains all your music, the contents of the folder than contains all your photos, etc.), but after you’ve done that once, the software will take care of the backup automatically.
Norton 360 bundles such a backup program with its virus protection software. 2BrightSparks has a program called Syncback, which has a nice free version. There are plenty of others.
3. Use online storage to backup your files.
There are companies that you can transfer backups to through cyberspace. (Here are reviews of several.) As with the external hard drives, you can either do the transfer manually or use their software to have it done automatically at regular intervals. It can get a little pricey, but it all depends on how much data you have. Some of these services offer a certain amount of space for free, say 2 GB, and then only charge if you go above that.
The biggest advantage to this method is the greater distance of your backup from your computer.
Consider: Usually when your primary hard drive dies on you, it’s a problem specific to that hard drive. But not always. Let’s say you lost your primary hard drive not because of some mechanical failure, but because there was a fire in your office that destroyed your computer. Or maybe someone broke in and stole your computer and other electronic equipment within reach.
In a case like that, your backup is likely gone as well. For instance, if you’re using an external hard drive attached to your computer as your backup, chances are any fire that melts your computer is going to destroy the external hard drive also, in which case having a duplicate version of your files wasn’t much help.
So that’s another factor to consider, that the farther away your backup is from your computer, the better. In that sense, an external hard drive attached by cable to your computer is more secure than an internal hard drive; an external hard drive or discs kept in another room after transferring the data is safer than an external hard drive attached by cable to your computer; an external hard drive or discs at your work or a friend’s house or in a safe deposit box after transferring the data is safer than an external hard drive or discs kept in another room. And backups of your files in cyberspace are farthest away and safest of all.
However, there are drawbacks to this method. One is that transfer speed tends to be pretty slow for some people’s taste. Another is that the capacity of online storage is far from unlimited. I don’t mean for large corporations that can make their own special arrangements for backup, but for people using one of the free or inexpensive online services geared toward individual consumers and smaller companies.
I’ll cite my experience as an example. I do a lot of work in video, so I tend to generate a lot of very large video files. I called one of the better known of the online storage companies to check rates, and explained that I so far had 10-12 external hard drives of 500 GB and 1 TB maxed out, and that I’d be gradually adding to that over time, and I wanted to see what it would cost me to store backups with them online. His answer? That much data is many, many times what they allow, and if they were to accept that much it would cost me thousands of dollars a month for storage, and would take forever to upload anyway.
So online storage is really more an option for documents, photos, and small to medium size files like that. For monster files, it’s much too slow and expensive, if available at all.
Of course there’s nothing stopping you from using multiple backup methods. For your most important documents, most irreplaceable photos, etc., why not keep them on your computer, have copies on an external hard drive, AND have copies stored remotely with one of the online storage backup companies?
Eventually you reach a point of overkill if you get too paranoid about this stuff, but I’d rather see people err on the side of taking too many precautions rather than too few. The realization that you maybe devoted a little more money and effort to backing up your files than you needed to is bad, but it will never hurt you like that gut shot of knowing that all of your life that you have on your computer has just ceased to exist because your hard drive is fried.