It doesn’t matter how you do it, but back up your data

Your computer isn’t worth much. Anyone who has tried to sell a used one knows that. The value of your computer is in the data stored on the hard disk.

That’s where you’ll find all your family pictures, recipes, email, tax information – it all amounts to a huge hunk of your life. And it can be destroyed forever in just a millisecond. It could come from a lightning strike, or a failing hard disk, or maybe a virus or other bit of computer malware. And I can promise you that your hard disk will eventually die – taking all your data with it.

There is only one way to protect all your stored information from permanent loss. And that’s by backing up your data. I harp on doing that all the time. But usually I spend two sentences doing that and then go on to ramble on about other precautions you should take. Today, we’ll talk about just one thing – backing up your data.

There are two main ways people back up their computer. One is to store all that information on an external hard disk. The other is to use one of the many online backup services. I have a clear and strong preference for online backups. And I’ll explain why in a bit. But – since any kind of backup is miles better than nothing – let’s start by talking about using an external hard disk to back up your data.

The various versions of Windows contain free software to make and manage your backups. To save time and space, I’ll tell you how to find out all the details. Go to Windows Help and type the word “backup” into the search menu. Then scroll down until you find a topic called “backup your files.” Depending on the version of Windows you have the wording may differ a bit. But that’s close enough for you to find it. By clicking on that link you’ll not only learn how it works but let you set up things so that Windows will automate the process for you.

All you’ll need is an external hard disk to store the back-up. It’s easy to use; just plug it into a USB port on your computer. You’ll find good ones for less than $100 at computer stores, big box stores or online. And many if not most will come with back-up software. Once you’ve set things up backing up your data is automatic. The first backup will save all your data. From then on, when you store something new it’ll be automatically added to the backed up data. If and when your hard disk fails you can just replace the hard disk (or the entire computer, depending on the type of failure) and your backup software will copy the data onto the new hard disk.

When we started I told you that online backups – not using an external hard disk – are my favorites and what I recommend. That’s because there are some danger points in using an external hard disk. For starters – just like the hard disk in your computer – that external hard disk will eventually fail. But there’s another more important reason. One way that your computer’s hard disk can be destroyed is because of either a lightning strike or a huge voltage surge. Since your external hard disk is electrically attached to your computer it’s likely that a big jolt of current will destroy it along with your computer’s hard disk. All your good work would be for nothing.

Things are different and far safer when you use an online service. I use Carbonite (www.carbonite.com) and another is Mozy (www.mozy.com). Both do an excellent job. Since there are various plans offered by each company, prices vary. But, as a guide, Carbonite costs $59 a year for its basic plan.

Like backing up with an external hard disk, the process is automatic. The first backup copies all your data, and then as you add data it is automatically added to the backup. But – unlike with the external hard disk – the data isn’t stored at your home. It’s stored online.

The companies literally back up your backups. In other words, there are multiple copies of your saved data. It’s as safe as safe can be.

Every time I write about online backups I hear from readers worried about trusting their data to some outside company. They worry about two things – some rogue employee stealing their data, or a hacker breaking into the data base and stealing data. I understand the fears – after all it’s your private information. And scarcely a week goes by without reading about some new computer crime where hackers break into a respected company’s database. But that’s why these back-up companies let you encrypt your data. If you do that even the company’s experts can’t see your data. Only you possess the key to decrypting the data.

But the big deal is to have a backup of any kind. So don’t worry if you decide you’d rather not store your data elsewhere. Use an external hard disk. The important thing is to have a backup.

Take a moment to think of all that is stored away on your hard disk. Think of what a mess it would be to lose that data. And then make sure you are backing up your data one way or another.

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