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updated 10/19/2005 2:01:03 PM ET 2005-10-19T18:01:03

Burglar alarm salespeople like to say: “Better a year too early than one day too late.” It’s precisely the same when it comes to backing up your hard drive, yet that continues to be one of the toughest lessons for computer users to learn.  Far too often, the first time that users really think about backup is after their hard drive fidgets, burps, and dies. (While there are companies that are very good at recovering data from defunct hard drives, you’ll pay deeply in both dollars and angst.) When it comes to your home office, where you’re likely to have business records as well, there’s just no excuse for lacking a carefully-thought-out backup strategy from day one.

Fortunately, there are a number of good ways to proceed.  One of the simplest approaches is simply to buy an additional external hard drive and backup software. (Some save money by installing a second internal hard drive in their computer for backup, but that’s not as safe as an external drive.) You don’t even need to buy a drive with the capacity of your computer’s drive — you will just want to back up your documents and records, not the operating system and applications. If your main drive dies and needs to be replaced, you’re best off reinstalling the operating systems and applications from their original disks, then going back to restore your data.

Companies like Western Digital, Seagate, LaCie, SimpleTech, Maxtor and others all make external drives in sizes ranging from 40 gigabytes on up, in some cases to a full terabyte. Shop around — to a great extent, hard drives are commodities — but make sure it’s a manufacturer with some experience and a track record of reliability.  Also look for drives that include backup software — many of them come with a version of Dantz Retrospect, which would normally cost you over $100 by itself. Retrospect works with both Macs and PCs and has been around for years. There are other good options for backup software but read reviews carefully first — backup software is one place you don’t want any surprise glitches the first time you try to restore your data.

Hard drive manufacturers are also now tailoring some models for backup. Both Seagate and Western Digital have models with an additional button that triggers a backup — a convenience, but certainly not a must. A bit more elaborate is a line of backup drives from Mirra — these connect to your home network and will continually back up all your computers. A nice plus: you can also use the Mirra Web page to remotely access your home office files while you’re on the road. Another interesting variation called Storage Central was just introduced this month by Netgear: a $149 box into which you can install two hard drives of any size, which then connect (via wires or wirelessly) to all the computers in your home. As well as backup and file-sharing, the dual drives allow automatic “mirroring” of data in two places — previously the province of more elaborate corporate installations — for even greater security.

If you don’t want to invest in an additional hard drive, and you already have a CD or DVD burner, then you can just buy backup software and use recordable CDs or DVDs. Keep in mind, though, that even the most advanced double-sided DVDs hold “only” 8.5 gigabytes, so if you have a lot of images or video, you may well have to burn multiple disks. And it’s harder with DVDs to do incremental backups, that is, backups where the software only copies data that has been changed since the last backup. That means each backup to DVD may be more time-consuming. All in all, you’re probably better off spending a bit more on an external hard drive. 

Of course none of the solutions above will do you much good when the house burns down or the levees break, which is why many big corporations store their backups offsite. The easiest way for the home user to do this is via Web-based backup, wherein your backup files live on a server farm somewhere far away. Many of these services are aimed at larger businesses, but both Xdrive and IBackup have reasonable monthly rates for home users, starting at $9.95 a month for 5 gigabytes, for either PC or Mac. The pluses: even if your whole city ends up underwater, your files are safe. You can also access your files remotely, from any computer with a browser. The primary downside is that even using a good broadband connection it can take a long time — as in ten hours or more — to upload your files. Any glitches in connectivity can delay the process even more.

One final note: the ideal, of course, is to backup one’s files at the end of each workday — some backup software allows you to do that automatically. But in the real world, you may find that once a week is a more practical frequency — so when that inevitable crash happens, you’re going to lose at least a little bit of work. In the course of any given day, however, you’re likely to have files and documents that you’d hate to lose to a mid-week crash. That’s where inexpensive USB removable flash drives come in: for less than $25 you can buy a 128 megabyte drive that remains plugged into your computer as the target for on-the-spot backups of any document in progress. In fact, that’s exactly the way this article was backed up during the writing — and now, as good backup practice usually means, we’ve reached the end with no problems. 

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