There's simply no reason for any computer user to lose important data.
My hat is off to the tech companies that provide the hardware, software, and services we rely on every day. From Microsoft's Shadow Copy feature in Windows Vista (though only partially implemented in the Home Edition), down to the smallest Web start-ups offering free and easy online storage (though you have to pay for unlimited storage capacity), they have made tremendous strides in helping to keep our valuable data safe. Now it's up to us to take advantage of these great products and services.
For full backups, image is everything
Start with a complete image backup of your hard drive using a program such as Acronis True Image Home. The program is so much easier to use than the backup utility built into Windows Vista and XP that it's worth spending $50 to keep it beyond the 15-day trial period. I create an image backup of the hard drives on three of the five PCs on my home network once or twice a year, depending on how much use they're getting. (The other two are test systems that are constantly reset to their defaults anyway.)
It can take five or more 4.7GB DVD discs to back up a big-capacity hard drive, so you may want to consider buying an external hard drive to simplify the process. Just remember to keep the external drive in a location other than next to your PC to prevent both being damaged or stolen at the same time.
Go casual for your day-to-day file backups
Over the years I have gotten into the habit of duplicating my important files on a regular basis: either by e-mailing them to myself and setting my mail server to save copies of all mail after it is downloaded to the PC; to the Web-server storage that's included in my ISP account; or burning a copy of the 1GB USB thumb drive I use as my primary file-storage location to a DVD. (Adding the storage folders on the thumb drive to my took only a couple of minutes.)
Online backup fills in the gaps
You might think that these occasional image backups and regular, informal file backups would have me covered. But recently I faced a situation where neither backup approach was appropriate. One of my three XP machines is showing signs of old age and may be ready to cash in its chips. I have gotten more than my money's worth out of this trusty, old hunk of metal, which served as my primary work system for three years before being converted to a test PC about three years ago. In that capacity it has been through the wringer: I've downloaded, installed, and uninstalled dozens of programs onto its 30GB hard drive.
Before I consign it to a shelf in the garage with the other PC wrecks, I need to get my personal files off its hard drive (which I'll probably pound a few nails through before I take it to our local electronics recycler). I've plugged at least two different digital cameras into this system, and several different audio players, all of which seem to use their own software. I've also used at least a dozen other applications at one time or another. Who knows where all these programs have put my images, audio files, and various documents and spreadsheets?
Instead of hunting down all these files before pulling the plug on the PC, I signed up for a free account at IDrive, which makes it easy to ferret out these files. The free version of the service gives you 2GB of storage with no limitations on the number of backups and restores. It also lets you perform continuous backups as frequently as every 10 minutes, and it doesn't delete your files on its servers after a period of time, as other free backup services do.
In the past, I have tried many online-backup services, including industry-leaders XDrive (now owned by AOL) and Mozy, both of which offer free limited-storage versions. But IDrive is the most straightforward of the three to sign up for and use.
Getting started with IDrive requires only a name, an e-mail address, and a password. You're given the option to use IDrive's encryption key, or to create your own based on a separate password of your own devising. After you download the client program used for your backups, you select the file locations and types you want to back up, or choose the service's automatic option, which includes the usual file-storage folders on your system.
Backing up the personal files on my old XP PC went smoothly, though it took just over five hours to transmit 450MB of files to the service. Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to use more than the 2GB available for the free account, so I upgraded to the IDrive Pro service, which costs $5 a month or $50 a year. The Pro account lets you manage several accounts with a single log-in and from one console, though each PC has to have its own account. The exception to this is if you need to restore the backup of a crashed PC to another (the scenario I'm anticipating I'll have to use someday).
While the initial IDrive backup can take several hours if you're saving hundreds of megabytes of data, subsequent backups are much faster, and the service's automatic-backup settings make them nearly transparent. You can also sync online files with your local PC, and view your files and other account information from any Internet-connected PC via its Web interface.
Tomorrow: registry freeware you shouldn't compute without.