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Back it up before you hit 'delete' by accident

Too many of us are keeping vital information on our computers' hard drives.  Hard drives can fail at any time — a lightning strike, a mistake performing a computer upgrade, or simple mechanical failure as they wear out — so it's crucial to back up your stuff.
/ Source: Tecca

In this increasingly digital world, it's no surprise that instead of paper files, most of us now keep thousands upon thousands of digital files. Bank statements, correspondence from around the world, photos of the family, your address book — it's nearly all digital now, and instead of being secured in a cupboard, filing cabinet, or safe, it's all on your hard drive. Hard drives can fail at any time — a lightning strike, a mistake performing a computer upgrade, or simple mechanical failure as they wear out — so it's wise to take precautions, just in case.

Why back up?
The scary truth is, your hard drive can die at any time. Hard drives are generally good for more than 3 years, but like all physical things, they can catastrophically fail at any time.

If your hard drive were to fail today, is there data that you would miss? Is there stuff on there that you don't have or can't get, anywhere else? In almost all cases, the answer "yes" — unless you've set up a comprehensive backup system.

A backup is a copy of the data on your hard drive that you store in a safe location. You can back up the entire contents of your hard drive or just your important contact details and photos. Then, if your hard drive crashes, you have a copy that can be quickly restored once your computer is back up and running properly.

How do I make a backup?
Fortunately, making backups is easy and, in most cases, inexpensive. You have two basic options: storing your data on a hard drive at home, or remotely "in the cloud."

Making a home backup
The quickest and easiest kind of backup uses a portable, external hard drive. It's exactly the same as the hard drive in your computer — but it's portable, so you can unplug it and store it in a safe place.

The only real complication is choosing the right size hard drive.

  • If you only intend to back up important documents (bank statements, e-mail, address book), the smallest external USB drive you can find will be enough. It shouldn't cost more than $75.
  • If you want to back up photos and videos, you will need something bigger — preferably a 1TB-2TB (terabyte) external hard drive. These typically cost about $100-$150.

Once you have a drive, plug it in. Many drives come with built-in software that will try to install itself — don't let it! Just keep pressing Cancel until it gets the hint.

If you're a Windows user, you can grab a backup utility like EASEUS Todo Backup. It's free and has an easy-to-follow wizard that will have you backing up data to your external drive in just a few minutes. The latest versions of the Windows operating system also have a Backup and Restore feature, which allows you to back up all or part of the information on your machine to a second hard drive or disk partition.

If you're a Mac user and you have OS X 10.5 (Leopard) or newer, the built-in Time Machine utility is the thing to use. Mac 101: Time Machine guide will walk you through the entire process; as with almost all things Apple, it's very simple.

Once the backup is complete, unplug your portable hard drive and store it somewhere secure, such as in a safe, or at least in a cool, dry place. Remember, if your backup drive gets stolen or it perishes in a house fire, it won't be very useful.

Restoring from a home backup
In both cases, restoring from a Windows or Mac backup is very easy. Just plug in your backup drive and launch whichever backup program you used, then simply follow the prompts to restore your data to where you need it.

Backing up to the cloud
The other option, if you don't want to mess around with portable hard drives, is storing your data in a remote location — that is, on the Internet. This kind of distributed storage is frequently called "the cloud." In general, it's both more expensive and slower than using a portable hard drive, but it's a lot more secure. You can also access your data from any computer that's connected to the internet, which is useful if you travel or work from multiple computers, or if the computer you backed up suffers a complete breakdown and needs to be replaced.

Sign up
If you want to store more than a few gigabytes of files, cloud storage will cost you a monthly or yearly fee. In general, if you're just backing up sensitive documents, you might be able to get away with a free package — but if you want to back up photos and videos, it will cost between $50 and $500 a year. Realistically, if you have a lot of large photos or videos, backing up to a portable hard drive is a much more feasible option.

SugarSync is a good choice when it comes to cloud backups, and it works with both Windows and Apple computers. You can start with 5 GB for free and move up to a larger package if you need more space. There's even a 30-day free trial of any package, if you know beforehand that you'll need large amounts of storage.

Once you've signed up, you'll be prompted to download some software. Install it, open it, and you'll be walked through a very simple quick-start setup process. Basically, you'll be asked which folders you want to back up to the cloud — which folders will be "synchronized" — and the software will get to work uploading your files. Whenever you make a change (by saving a document to one of the synchronized folders, for instance), that change will be made to the online copy, too, so you'll have up-to-the-minute data protection.

There are lots of great things you can do with SugarSync, such as installing it on multiple computers so that you always have access to current versions of your important documents, or using it on your Android device or iPhone, but that's a topic for another day.

Restoring from a cloud backup
If your hard drive fails or if you're just bought a new computer, simply install SugarSync, run it, and it will automatically download all of your backed up files. Easy!

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