The mantra to prevent loss of important data created with a computer is "Back up, back up, back up." Even when the worst disasters strike—a natural disaster such as a fire, a machine disaster such as a hard disk crash or a human disaster such as accidentally deleted files—if you regularly make backups and store at least some off-site, you'll greatly lessen your recovery time.
If you use your computer exclusively for fun and don't keep anything you can't lose on it, forget about backing up. If a truly cataclysmic disaster such as a large meteor strike happens, backing up also becomes irrelevant.
Despite the repeated advice about backing up offered over the years, many people still avoid what they consider to be a tedious and unnecessary chore. But various options today make backing up easier than ever, and choosing the appropriate option depends largely on how much data you produce and how important it is.
Backing up is a specific type of save procedure. But instead of saving your word processing, spreadsheet, graphics and other data to your hard drive as you do normally, you save it to another medium.
You have four main choices, with some overlap among them, and you can opt for more than one for added safety:
1. File-based backup. This is the oldest type of backup procedure, and it's still popular. You can manually copy individual files to a writable CD or DVD, USB drive, secondary hard drive, file server or disk space that your Internet service provider offers. Or you can use a program that automates the process for you, allowing you to pre-select files or folders you want backed up at specific times.
Windows Vista PCs and Macintosh computers come with their own backup software. Some Internet service providers, such as Comcast, offer free automated backup as part of their security suites. Any of these programs may be all you need, but they're typically more limited compared with stand-alone programs.
PowerBackup is easy to set up and use, and it has all of the tools that a typical consumer or home-based business would need. It supports writable CDs and DVDs and external hard drives but not tape drives. NovaBackup also does all the basics easily and does support tapes drives, but is a bit more expensive.
2. Image backup. Here you back up in one fell swoop the entire image of your hard drive, including your operating system and programs. It's more time-consuming than backing up selected files, but it makes it easier and quicker to get back to work if you have to start over from scratch.
Norton Save & Restore is easy to use, and for added flexibility it also lets you back up and restore individual files. Runtime Software DriveImage XML doesn't let you back up individual files, but it's free, and if you want a basic image backup program to complement other solutions, it can be a good choice.
3. Continuous backup. If your data is mission critical, this is the way to go. With continuous backup, also called continuous data protection or real-time backup, specific files you specify are backed up as soon as you create or change them. The downside is that it can slow your computer down a bit.
NTI Shadow backs up files as they change or at specific intervals you choose. It lets you save only the latest revision of files, all revisions or a specified number of revisions.
Larger businesses typically need beefier backup solutions, such as network-attached storage. Products such as Iomega StorCenter Pro offer automated backup of multiple PCs through company networks to their own hard drives.
4. Off-site backup. No backup will help if the building goes up in flames. Off-site backup includes carrying home critical files on a USB drive, manually copying files to your Web space after encrypting them with a file compression program and using an automated online backup service.
Online backup services are most convenient, but because of the time it takes to upload files. even over high-speed connections, they're best suited for a small number of your most critical files.
ElephantDrive.com is a good choice for home users as well as businesses, offering various packages from one gigabyte of backups per month (for free) to unlimited. Windows Live Workspace (workspace.officelive.com) is a free service from Microsoft, currently in beta or testing phase, that lets you to store Microsoft Office documents offline.