Digital photos, videos, music files, and financial records can disappear in a split second. Back up your files and preserve your data while you still can.

By Dan Tynan

If there is one universal truth about using computers, it's that sooner or later something bad will happen to your data. Hard drives die without warning. Laptops get lost or stolen. File-munching viruses worm their way into your system. And then there's good old human error, as in, sometimes you just do something stupid—like accidentally delete a file (or, gasp, an entire drive) with a single absentminded mouse click.

Losing data can mean losing everything—family photos and videos, e-mail correspondence, downloaded music and movies, banking records, school reports, and more. According to a survey by disaster recovery firm Acronis, four out of five people have lost files on their computers, yet 64 percent back up their hard drives only every two to three months, some even less frequently.

The reason? Backing up computer data has been about as exciting as flossing after meals, only more complicated and time consuming. But that's changed. There are now dozens of products and services that make the process as simple as clicking a button, logging on to the Net, or plugging a device into your computer. They fall into three basic categories: software you install, online services that rely on a high-speed Internet connection, and portable drives that do the grunt work for you.

Which method is best? There's no one-size-fits-all answer—it really depends on how you use your computer, how many machines you need to back up, and how much time and energy you would be willing and able to devote to restoring files when disaster strikes. Backing up is still not exciting, but it's a lot less aggravating.

Option 1: Software

Of course, you could manually copy all your files, photos, and videos to an external drive, or burn them to a CD or DVD. But, odds are, you'll fall out of the habit or miss something important—and won't know until it's too late.

Fortunately, there's excellent software that does the job for you. If you own a Mac using Operating System 10.5 or later, you've already got Apple Time Machine, which will continually back up your software and data to an external drive. Most Windows machines also come with a basic, bare-bones backup utility. But if you want more personal control over what files you back up and when it happens, you'll want a backup program like Acronis True Image Home 2009 ($50) or Centered Systems' Second Copy (starts at $30).

The beauty of backup software is that you can generally set it and forget it. The basic drill involves picking what types of files you want to back up, where you want to store them (such as, to an external hard drive, USB thumb drive, or disc) and when you want it to happen. Software also makes it easy to restore files when you need them later.

Upside: You don't need to think about backing up again until your storage device runs out of room or you need to restore files. It's also the least expensive of the three options.

Downside: You may need to buy an external hard drive for storing backups, which can cost another $75 to $150. You'll need to actively manage multiple backup sets; that means labeling and storing them carefully, and erasing older backup sets off external drives. You'll also want to keep copies in another location, like at work or in a safe-deposit box, and rotate them on a regular basis. Otherwise you could lose everything in a fire, flood, robbery, or other catastrophe.

Best for: Telecommuters, home-based businesses, and anyone who can't survive without immediate access to complete backups.

Option 2: Online Backup

Some of the newest backup companies rely on a high-speed Internet connection to keep your files safe. Services like Backblaze, Carbonite, Memeo, Mozy, Norton Online Backup, and others work by installing a small program (or "agent") on your machine that automatically funnels copies of your data to a secure Web site. The cost: around $50 to $60 a year.

As with backup software, you can just pick the types of files you want to back up and you're good. Some services, like Norton Online, let you schedule backups; others, like Backblaze, simply back up data constantly, waiting for moments when your computer is idle.

Upside: As automatic as DIY software, and your files are already stored off-site, so they're always protected in case of trouble.

Downside: To conserve space, most online services back up only your personal data and media files. That means if your hard drive crashes, you'll have to manually reinstall your operating system and other programs, and restore all your old settings, which is a hassle. If your Internet connection goes down, you may not be able to get to your files when you need to restore them (though Backblaze will overnight your files on a disc or an external drive for an additional fee). Some online backup services, like Memeo, can also save files to local drives, giving you the best of both worlds.

Best for: High-speed Internet users comfortable with reinstalling software in case of total disaster.

Option 3: External Drives

These days external hard drives have such generous capacity and are so cheap they've become the backup medium of choice. A number of vendors have taken an extra step and loaded their software right onto the drives themselves; some of the top examples include: Clickfree Portable Backup Drive ($90 to $220, depending on capacity), HP SimpleSave ($120 to $330), SanDisk Ultra Backup USB Flash Drive ($50 to $280), Seagate's Replica ($130 to $200), and Toshiba's Canvio external hard drive ($110-$200).

Plug the drive into the USB port on your Windows PC, and it automatically installs the software and starts backing up your files. Most let you back up multiple computers to a single drive, so you can walk around the house and plug it into each machine. Aside from that, each drive offers something slightly different. For example, keep the Seagate Replica drive connected, and it will continuously back up your data as your files change. Clickfree also sells the Transformer, a USB connector that turns any external drive into a backup device ($60), as well as the Traveler, a credit card-size backup drive for laptops ($70 to $220). The SanDisk USB drive adds powerful data encryption, keeping your files safe from prying eyes if the drive is lost or stolen.

Upside: Easy to use and store; highly portable.

Downside: You have to remember to do the backups, especially if you're using it with multiple computers. Some drives only back up data, not software or your operating system. And there's no easy way to store backup sets off-site.

Best for: Families with multiple computers and the stick-to-it-iveness to actually plug in the drive regularly.

Your best solution is likely some combination of online and local storage, says Backblaze CEO Gleb Budman. That way you can rest assured your digital stuff is safe no matter what happens.

"Data gets lost fairly frequently, probably a lot more often than you'd think," says Budman. "One piece of dust making its way into a hard drive can wipe out every single photo you have stored. Families really should back up data continuously." In other words, think like Nike: Just do it.

Recovering from Data Disaster

For professional photographer Cindy Baxter, the loss could not possibly have happened at a worse time.

On December 12, 2008, all of Baxter's image files—of families, kids, the last days of aging parents—vanished overnight. The sophisticated system she'd set up to automatically preserve her files had failed, and she had no other copies.

"I was overwhelmed," says Baxter, 45, of New Martinsville, West Virginia. "I hadn't just lost my clients' photos. I'd also lost the trust they placed in me to keep their memories safe."

The lost data included $40,000 worth of yet-undelivered photos, many of them meant to be Christmas gifts. So Baxter started calling data recovery services until she found one that could unjumble her drives: DriveSavers (

Within a week she had her drives home again with the images intact, but at a steep price: nearly $10,000, deemed "well worth it" to save her business and maintain client confidence.

Data recovery firms like DriveSavers are almost always expensive. The average cost of recovering a hard drive is around $1,500, says Kelly Chessen, data crisis counselor for the California-based company. And they can't always guarantee success.

"If it's critical you recover your data, we're the right people to talk to," says Chessen, whose job it is to counsel distraught customers. "If you can live without it, you probably don't need us. But our clients aren't always businesses. I've spoken to people who lost pictures of the last day they spent with their grandmother, who's now dead. Those photos are priceless; they have to get them back."

Preserving Your Digital Memories

You probably have shoe boxes filled with photos in your attic. But if you've taken any pictures or shot any videos over the past five years, you have digital files too. What kind of electronic shoe box should you keep them in so they'll last long enough for your kids to show their kids?

Ten years ago you might have relied on a floppy or Zip disc. Finding a machine that can read either today may require a trip to a museum. Machines that can read CDs and DVDs may survive, but the discs won't, because they're fragile and easily damaged. And if you save images in the wrong format, there may not be software around in 20 years that can open them.

Online photo services like, and can safeguard your images for the long haul. iMemories can also take your print photos and analog home movies, convert them into digital format and easily let you share them with others online for prices starting at around $5 a month, says CEO Mark Rukavina.

The problem is, if an online company goes out of business, your memories may vanish with it. So you'll also need to store copies at home. Your best bet is on an external drive in a file format (like JPEG or TIFF) supported by all types of image editing software, says Michael Shafae, assistant professor of computer science at California State University, Fullerton. As the drive nears the end of its useful life (maybe around five years, though that figure could vary widely) you'll need to transfer those images to another drive, and so on over time.

Another easy option for digital photos? Print and frame them.

Smarter, Safer, Savvier Backups

1. Do an all-out data search. You probably have files squirreled away in all sorts of places, like digital cameras, MP3 players, USB thumb drives, and discs. You need to get everything onto one machine before you can move forward.

2. Create a schedule. Plan to do a full backup of all the software and data on your computer at least once a month, and daily backups of files that have changed since the last full one.

3. Test. This is the step where many backup plans fall down, says Steve Bass, author of PC Annoyances (O'Reilly Media) and the newsletter. "It's always a good idea to pick one or two files out of a backup and restore them to make sure they've really been copied." He also recommends choosing a backup program that gives you the option of automatic verification, a feature included with Acronis True Image.

4. Store some backups off-site. If a fire, flood, or theft takes out your house, you've still got your data.

5. Always keep a local copy. Even if you go with an online service, make sure to keep duplicates of any essential documents, photos, and other files close at hand.

Originally published in the May issue of Family Circle magazine.