While 10 or 15 years ago most of us lived happily without a home computer, nowadays, it seems they're indispensible. Not only has e-mail become a daily part of our lives, but we use our PCs for viewing and storing photos, listening to music, writing letters, filing our taxes... there's really nothing we can't -- and don't -- do digitally.
But there's one aspect of owning a personal computer that many of us don't consider. If that machine decides not to turn on one day, will you be able to live without the information it was storing?
The importance of being backed up
There's no reason to assume that you will lose your data -- in fact, it's likely that you'll experience no problems at all. However, there's always the chance that something can happen to your home computer, whether it be a fault in the hardware/software, a damaging power surge or theft. And while any of these occurrences would be stressful, if you back up your data regularly, at least you won't have lost last year's tax return or the pictures from your daughter's wedding.
What files are important?
Before backing up, you need to think about what on your computer is irreplaceable. E-mail, word processing documents and digital photos are probably the most common items, but others include web browser bookmarks and saved passwords, and other important personal files such as PDFs, music files and movies. According to Wayne Bryan, a service technician at CPUsed in Toronto, you shouldn't need to worry about anything else. "System software and applications can always be reinstalled later," he says.
To make things easy for you, make sure that you always save documents in the same place so that they're easy to find when you're backing up. If you use an e-mail program on your computer (as opposed to an online system like Gmail or Hotmail), refer to the program's help documents to find out which files to back up -- the same goes for your web browser settings. And Bryan simplifies things for Macintosh users running OS X: "All you really need to back up is your user account folder."
Back up often
How often you back up depends on how much you value your data, says Bryan. "Too often I encounter customers whose entire life or business is on their computer," he says, "yet they don't have any backup plan in place." He suggests backing up crucial files once a week as part of your routine -- perhaps less often for less important data. Bryan adds that nowadays, when most personal computers have built-in CD or DVD burners, "there's really no excuse for not backing up data." Try imagining your life if everything on your computer were to suddenly disappear, then develop your backup system accordingly.
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Top 3 methods for backuping files
Your choice of backup method should be based on several factors, including the amount of data you are backing up, the amount of time you have to spend on backups, and the amount of money you're willing to spend. Here are three options to consider:
1. Burning to CD or DVD
Pros: This is the simplest method for many people, as their computer will already have a built-in burner and they need only invest in the discs. Plus the method is low-cost, as you can get rewritable CDs and DVDs (aka CD-RW and DVD-RW discs) and cycle through a small number of them.
Cons: A CD holds only up to 700MB of data and a DVD up to 4.6GB. If you have more than this to back up, this method can become time-consuming. "You can do it," says Bryan, "but who wants to sit there and burn a 20GB folder to several discs?"
2. Copying to an external hard drive
Pros: An external hard drive is easy to hook up to your machine and can hold large amounts of data -- "It's not uncommon for drives to exceed 200GB of capacity nowadays," says Bryan. He suggests choosing a drive that connects to your computer via USB 2 if you're on a PC and via Firewire for a Mac.
Cons: This option can be expensive -- expect to pay $200 or more, and the prices go up along with the capacity of the drive.
3. Backing up to an online service
Pros: The benefit of using an online service rather than a home solution is that it's out of the house -- in the event of fire or theft, your data still exists in another location. It's convenient, as well, and takes up no space on your desk. Plus some services, such as Apple's .Mac, offer other features, such as file sharing.
Cons: First of all, count on having a monthly or yearly fee rather than a one-time cost. Also, you'll be trusting someone else with your valuable data -- so make sure that the company you choose is well-known and reliable.
Not backing up is risky -- you insure your house, so why not ensure that your non-tangible goods are safe as well? Check out computer websites to get started, or visit your local computer store for advice. The peace of mind will be worth the effort.
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