8 Ways to Back-Up Your Computer (and Keep Your Stuff Safe)

11:38:00 PM |

If there's one important task computer users regularly ignore, it's backing up their data, including important items like their office documents, music, videos, and photos. Things go wrong sometimes:Computers get viruses, hard drives fail, and ex-girlfriends launch belongings out of windows, leaving you in a bind.

One of the biggest reasons people forget backing up is that they don't know where to start, what tools to use, or how to go about it. While we can't come to your house and do it for you, we can at least give you our preferred options to help you choose. Don't be scared -- the process is relatively simple these days and often completely automated, so you won't have any excuses when your music library and your financial records are all gone.




Network Attached Storage (NAS)

NAS devices, or Network Attached Storage, are autonomous storage devices that sit on a network outside of your PC but is connected via your home Wi-Fi or wired network. The technology was primarily a tool of businesses up until fairly recently, but now it's more prevalent for personal use as the number of household PCs and file sharing networks has increased.

In many ways, your computer treats a NAS device like any other hard drive. It will show up as a separate disk in 'My Computer' or as an icon on your desktop and you'll be able to access the files just as you would on any drive (external or otherwise). Since it's not directly attached to a PC, it can easily be accessed by several computers at once for sharing files. Even better, consumer-oriented NAS boxes often come packed with additional features that make them an incredibly attractive choice for data storage, such as the ability to automatically back up your data on a regular schedule (usually every night while you're asleep), remote access to your files over the Internet, and built-in BitTorrent clients for downloading music and movies even if your PC is off. And since a NAS device sits on a network separately from your PC, it should still be safe even if you some how managed to destroy your entire computer.

We think NAS is the best and most versatile method for data storage and backups, but the boxes themselves are pricier and a little more difficult to set up than a USB hard drive. A basic 500-Gigabyte (GB) NAS box will set you back around $130, and Buffalo and Net-gear make excellent NAS boxes for great value, while HP's SmartMedia Server uses the Windows Home Server platform that's super-easy to set up (assuming you're using Windows). Most have USB ports for adding extra drives as needed, so the amount of storage available to you with these devices is limited only by your budget.



External hard drives with backup software

The most common method for backing up your data is an external drive, like those from LaCie andSeagate, which come prepackaged with software for easily duplicating your files. Many drives come with a one-click solution, meaning all you need to do is press a button on the front of the drive or your desktop to begin an automatic backup. Of course, you can use any backup software you choose, such as Acronis True Image, Time Machine, or the built in Windows backup tool. As a bonus, some models, such as the Seagate FreeAgent Pro series, have a Web interface for accessing your files even when you're away from your PC.

Prices on external drives have plummeted recently and, with a little searching, you can find a one-terabyte (that's one thousand gigabytes, or more than eight iPod classics) USB drive for under a hundred dollars. With prices so low, there's no reason to settle for less than that amount of space, which is so large that you'd have to really try to fill it.



Online options

Online file storage solutions are becoming increasingly popular and are an excellent option, especially if you want to share files between several PCs. Some Internet storage solutions are used without ever leaving your Web browser, while others add themselves to My Computer like they're just another hard drive. Still others install small apps that work in your computer's background, syncing your data to the Web without you ever having do a thing.

Depending on the scale of your backup plans, we suggest going with either Mozy or Dropbox for your online storage needs. If you're only backing up small amounts of important data, then Dropbox's free 2-GB of storage can't be beat. While it won't let you back up your music collection, it's more than enough for office documents and a few hundred photos. Dropbox has downloadable clients for Linux, Windows, and Mac that will sync anything you put in your Dropbox folder with an unlimited number of PCs, and you can even access files from your iPhone. Dropbox does offer a premium plan that allows you to sync 50GB of data for $9.99, but if you need that much storage, then go with Mozy.

MozyHome offers a similar 2GB for free plan for Windows and Mac only, without any Web or iPhone access. What sets Mozy apart is its $4.95 unlimited data plan, which is by far the cheapest we've seen. We think that's a small price to pay for some computing insurance with no bounds.

Whatever option you choose, this off-site method of backing up your data will keep everything safe, even if your house burns to the ground.



USB flash drives

By now, you know that flash drives are great for carrying around your data everywhere you go. They're also great for saving all your important files (like that presentation you just spent 16 hours assembling) in a place where they're safe from hard drive failure, viruses, hackers, or just plain bad luck. At this year's CES, Sandisk unveiled its Ultra Backup line of flash drives that come with software similar to that found on large external hard disks for quickly and automatically backing up your data. Once it's set up, all you have to do is plug in an Ultra Backup drive, hit the "Backup" button on it, all your data will be copied automatically. Of course, if you have a ton of music, photos, and video on your PC, you'll probably want some of the previously mentioned bigge-capacity solutions to backup your whole system.



Windows Backup/Restore

Windows XP has two different backup solutions built in: System Restore, which is automated and intended to rescue your PC in the event of a catastrophic failure or infection, and Backup, which must be run manually and is found in the Start menu under Accessories --> System Tools. Backup will launch a Wizard to walk you through the process of saving all of the data on your PC or just some files, but in the end it is still a vastly inferior solution to most of the other options on this list.

Vista has an improved Backup and Restore Center accessible from the Control Panel that can automatically copy your files and perform complete system backups and restorations. Unfortunately, to get those features you need to spring for the Business or Ultimate editions of Windows Vista. It's better than nothing, though.

Both versions can be used to create backups on NAS devices, external drives, or even on your primary hard drive, which is not recommended.



Time Machine

Mac users have an excellent built-in backup program called Time Machine. After backing up some or all of your files, you can restore them with equal versatility, either to a previous saved point or just rescue a version of a single file from several months ago. Time Machine, which is in your dock by default and can also be found in the applications menu, can also work in conjunction with the Apple branded Time Capsule NAS device or with any standard USB or Firewire external hard drive.

Added bonus: Time Machine is the prettiest backup software out there. Unlike most other backup solutions, it's loaded with eye candy like fancy animations and 3D effects for browsing through past versions of files.



DVD/CD/Blu-ray

Blank CDs and DVDs are a quick and cheap way to create extra copies of important files but they fall short in other areas. For one, rewritable discs are not very common, so if you're stuck using write-once media, like CD-R, you'll have to burn an entirely new disc to update your backup. Second, backing up to optical media is time consuming and hard, if not impossible, to automate, so you'll have to remember to make time to work on it. Of course, with the largest DVDs topping out at 8.5GB -- around 2,200 songs, or the size of the smaller capacity iPod Nano -- they're still not ideal for backing up large data collections. It would take over 100 DVDs just to equal the storage of a 1-terabyte external drive.

Blu-ray media and drives are dropping in price, making them increasingly viable options for storing data. Burners have dropped under the $200 mark and write-once discs are below $10. Their 25-GB capacity makes them a better option for backing up collections of audio, video, and photos than DVDs or CDs. Their size also makes them a decent option for creative types who don't want to shell out for a new hard drive every time they run out of storage on their PCs. They'll hold about 7,000 songs or a couple of hours of HD video, but they still suffer from many of the same limitations as other optical media.



RAID

The easiest set and forget method is one that many consumers are only just beginning to hear about -- RAID. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks and comes in many different flavors. RAID 0 and RAID 1 are the most common and are supported by most modern desktop PCs. RAID 1 uses two identically sized disks to make two copies of all your data, or "mirroring" it. By writing everything on your PC to both disks at the same time, a RAID array ensures that even if one of your hard drives dies, your computer will operate normally as long as the other still functions.

Though RAID arrays can be contained in an external box, they are more commonly built into a PC. There are two downsides to RAID, however: First off, this will not save your PC in the event of a serious virus infection since both drives share the same exact data; and second, unless your computer came with a RAID installed, it may be difficult to set up. The process often involves opening your PC, breaking out the screw driver, and connecting poorly labeled cables, so obviously this isn't for the average customer.

Of course, some NAS boxes come configured as a RAID array, using it to make a backup of your backup. As with aluminum foil hats, the NAS and RAID combo is a great option for the truly paranoid.