Of course, if you're really worried about your data, you can always just do both, getting the speed of a local backup plus the reassurance of a faraway backup. In the past, this would have been prohibitively costly. But cheap storage now makes this sort of redundant backup the best option. I tried out several local and online backup strategies to see which ones could get me the best of both worlds.
Local backup. To get started, first buy a big hard drive. I decided to get one twice as big as my computer—I've got about 500 GB capacity in various drives on my machine, so I bought a 1 TB drive. This gave me enough room to save a copy of everything I have on my computer now, plus multiple versions of those data over many years into the future. (There's enough room for multiple versions because backup software saves updates to your data only when it scans your machine.) Next, plug the drive into your computer's USB slot or get a wireless drive that connects over your home network. People with newer Macs can pretty much stop there; Time Machine, the backup software that Apple built into the latest version of its OS, works silently in the background, and it's got an intuitive interface that makes restoring your files a snap. As reader RM "Auros" Harman put it: "Time Machine kicks so much ass that they've had to import extra ass into Cupertino solely for its kicking purposes."
After connecting the drive, Windows users typically need to add one extra step: Download software to manage your backups. (Many drives come pre-installed with backup software though many of these default programs aren't very good.) Of all the apps that readers recommended, I was most impressed by Acronis True Image, which sells for $50. (You can download a 15-day free trial here.) While True Image's interface isn't as pretty as Time Machine's, it, too, seems designed for you to have to make as few decisions as possible. When you load up the software, you're asked to choose which drives you want to back up (I selected all the drives on my machine); where you'd like the backed-up files to go (e.g., to your new external hard drive); and how often you'd like the software to take snapshots of your machine. The first time you run it, True Image collects and compresses all of your data and saves them to your external drive; this took about four hours for my 500 GB or so of data. I asked True Image to take snapshots of my machine a few times a day; each of these subsequent scans ran when I wasn't using my machine and took just a few minutes each. Unlike online services, True Image imposes no time limit on your backups—if there's enough room on your external drive to save the old backup, you can restore what was on your computer last month or even last year.
Recovering your data from the True Image backup is also pretty simple. First choose the date of the snapshot you want to go back to, then navigate to the specific file or folder you want to restore. Per its name, True Image can make a perfect image of your computer, so you're best off letting it save everything—not just your data but also the system files that run your OS and your programs. This way if your machine fails, you can quickly reconstitute all your stuff on a new computer. (I didn't try this.)
Online backup. As for the online services, I found both Mozy and Carbonite easy to set up and to use. I preferred Mozy's slightly better-looking interface, but that was subjective. I also found Mozy a little faster than Carbonite though by no means fast. When I loaded it up, Mozy scanned through my computer and found about 56 GB of pictures, music, and documents that it determined needed backing up. This was only partly right—it had missed many older, bigger folders on my machine that I should have saved, too—but I tested it out with the smaller amount. I've got a relatively fast Internet connection—about 16 megabits per second for downloads, 1 megabit per second for uploads—but it still took Mozy about 20 hours just to uploaded these 56 GB the first time, so it would take more than a week to send the entire 500 GB on my computer. Subsequent scans are much faster—Mozy and Carbonite monitor the changes that occur on your drive and then send only those differences to their servers—but if you're in a hurry to get your stuff backed up, an external drive is a better bet. Restoring your files is also slow: Of the data that I'd backed up to Mozy, I chose about 2 GB of music I wanted to bring back down to my machine. The files streamed down over the course of about an hour. Were I trying to replicate my entire machine, I would need to wait a week. (And Carbonite was even slower.)
If you like, you can download each service and see which works best for you—but I'm going with Mozy. It offers 2GB of storage for free; if you need more space than that, go with its unlimited plan, which costs $60 a year. Carbonite offers a 15-day trial for its unlimited plan, which is $50 a year. Each service keeps your data private and secret using industrial-grade encryption.
But whichever you choose, choose something. In an era of cheap hard drives, you no longer have any excuses for being a backup slacker; at most, you'll spend $250 on your hard drive, the software, and the online service, and you'll need about 15 minutes to set everything up. Do it now—buy the drive, install Mozy, or do both, and let the backups begin. The world will never be in danger of losing Underwrite Me again.