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Back Up Data Now or Suffer Later

Have you made a backup of your computer data today? If not, you’re risking disaster.

Backup Now!
Like flossing your teeth, backing up your PC is one of life’s annoying necessities. Consider the consequences if all your data suddenly vanished—your scanned contracts, photo library, e-mail database, client list—everything. It’s a chilling thought, but it happens. Frequently.

Mechanical failure is one cause. Sometimes the hard drives that store your precious data just give out. But an even bigger risk comes from havoc-wreaking viruses and spyware, some of which can erase or corrupt your data or even render your computer inoperable. Even if you’ve installed software to protect you from these threats, there’s still a chance something will slip through.

It’s scary stuff, which is why you need to think like a Scout and be prepared. By making regular backups, you’ll be protected in the event that disaster strikes. Even if your primary PC bites the dust, you’ll be able to keep working because your data is intact.

The good news is that it’s not prohibitively time consuming or costly to make regular backups. It just takes discipline and a little know-how. You can even skip the discipline part if you choose a backup solution that works automatically. (More on that later.)

The first question: What should you save? A backup can consist of just your most prized data or the complete contents of your hard drive, software and all. The smart move is to make both kinds, because even backups aren’t infallible, and there are times when it’s good to have multiple restoration options at your disposal.

CDs and DVDs
Your PC probably has a built-in CD or DVD burner—a drive that can record data to blank media. And these disks are exactly where you should store your data, as they’re generally impractical for creating complete system backups. CDs and DVDs offer cheap storage for your documents, Web links, e-mail and other indispensable files. Plus, you can make multiple copies and keep one offsite in the event of a fire, hurricane or other disaster.

Genie Backup Manager (www.genie-soft.com) is one program that can create these kinds of backups for you. It’s incredibly simple, walking you through a handful of basic steps (“Where to Back Up,” “What to Back Up,” etc.) and allowing you to easily find important files and settings.

Particularly admirable are its plug-in capabilities, which enable you to easily back up third-party programs like Firefox, Quicken, and iTunes. That saves your having to figure out which files are the crucial ones for these programs.

At nearly any step along the way, you can view an animated tutorial explaining the backup and restore procedures, or access a comprehensive built-in help file. (Because this is shareware rather than a boxed retail program, there’s no printed manual. But few users would need one.)

Genie allows you to backup across multiple CDs or DVDs. Of course, you’re not limited to optical media—the program also lets you back up to removable drives, other PCs on your network and even remote locations (though you need some technical knowledge to do this).

You can compress your backups to maximize the available storage; set up automated, unattended backup sessions; secure your backups with passwords and/or encryption; and even create a self-restoring backup—one that will restore your data to any PC whether Genie is installed on it or not.

In short, Genie has every feature a good backup program should have, along with plenty of automation and customization options for novices and experts alike. It’s a hair on the pricey side at $69.95, but weigh that against the cost of losing all your data to spyware, a virus or some other catastrophe.

Hard Drives
Where computer backups are concerned, nothing beats a cloned hard drive. If your primary drive fails for any reason, just send in the clone and you’re back in business—programs and all. You can also use the backup drive to quickly retrieve any individual files you may have lost.

For this, you’ll need two items: the drive itself and software that will copy the contents of your primary drive over to it (a process commonly known as imaging.) One popular option is the Maxtor OneTouch III (www.maxtor.com), an external hard drive that plugs into your computer’s USB port and comes with automated backup software. In fact, true to its name, the OneTouch is so automated that all it takes is the press of a button to perform a complete system backup. The drive is available in several different capacities, with prices starting at $159.95 for the 200GB model.

Although a secondary hard drive is by far the fastest and most versatile backup solution, it’s susceptible to the same risks as your primary drive. It could be rendered toast by mechanical failure, a virus or spyware. In fact, if you back up an already-infected PC, your backup will be just as infected—all the more reason to make sure you have a secondary backup.

The Web
Backing up your data to an online service has two major advantages. First, it protects you in the event that a fire or other catastrophe wipes out your office (and your local backup along with it). Second, it enables you to access your files from any Web-enabled PC—great if, say, you’re working away from your office and need to grab some vital documents.

Streamload (www.streamload.com) isn’t the easiest service to use, but the price is right: Starter accounts are free and come with a whopping 25GB of online storage space. Just upload your files and—Voila!—you have a safe offsite backup that’s accessible from any PC. The catch? The free account limits downloads to 100MB per month. That’s fine for retrieving a few files here and there, but if you ever need to download everything, you’ll probably need to upgrade to a paid account. Even then, the rates are reasonable, starting at $4.95 per month (a price that bumps you up to unlimited online storage).

A somewhat more automated solution is Mozy (www.mozy.com), which, like Streamload, stores copies of your files in a secure online bunker. Services like this are nothing new, and in fact, they number in the dozens (if not hundreds), but Mozy is special for a couple reasons.

First, it’s free. When you sign up, you’re immediately given 2GB of backup space. That’s enough to store a lot of data: Word and Excel files, an Outlook database, your browser’s bookmark list and other crucial day-to-day stuff.

Second, it’s highly automated. After you’ve installed the Mozy software (currently available for Windows only; a Mac version is in the works), a wizard helps you select the data you want to back up.

Specifically, Mozy supplies predefined “backup sets” for common data types like photos, e-mail, office documents and financial records. A few clicks, and you can select all your indispensable stuff.

After the initial backup, the software automatically makes incremental additions. That is, it adds only the files that are new or have changed. Thus, subsequent backups take much less time, and they happen at regular intervals, while your computer is idle, with no effort required on your part. Indeed, Mozy makes backups almost entirely hassle free.

The beauty of an online backup is that you can restore your data to any PC from any PC. Suppose your notebook hits the pavement and you have to use a loaner while it’s being repaired. Just sign into your Mozy account via the Web browser, and you will be able to download your data to the new system.

Mozy’s not perfect, of course. The initial backup can take close to two days to complete, depending on how much data you have. Mozy estimates a data transfer rate of 1GB per day; in informal tests, we were able to get a 1.3GB backup uploaded in about nine hours.

It’s worth noting that you can restore data only a few times per month, though that’s not a major shortcoming. It would be preferable not to need to do it at all. As for the 2GB space limit, that may be more than ample for some users and only scratch the surface for others. For the average sales associate, it’s probably enough to store office documents, but you’ll definitely need a more roomy solution for property-photo collections (which tend to be too large to effectively back up online anyway). If you do end up needing more space, Mozy offers an almost unbeatable deal: $4.95 per month for unlimited storage.

Whatever backup tack you decide to take (and remember, it’s advisable to use more than one method), don’t put it off another day. Ask any veteran computer tech, and you’ll hear the same warning: Data loss is not a question of if, but when.

Rick Broida is a freelance writer and the co-author of “How to Do Everything with Your Palm Powered Device,” 6th edition. Broida does not have any affiliation with the companies mentioned.

The Florida Association of Realtors® and Florida Realtor® magazine do not endorse any products mentioned in this article.