The best ways to back up your data.

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Dec. 2 2008 5:49 PM

The Dog Ate My Hard Drive

With lots of easy options, there's no excuse for not backing up your data. Here are the best ways to do it.

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Last month I confessed to being a backup slacker: While I occasionally make copies of some of my files, I've got no regular routine to ensure that everything on my computer is secure. On any given day I'm moments away from disaster—I could be hit by a virus, earthquake, power surge, or malicious co-worker, and that'd be the end of my decades-old collection of snappy ideas for romantic comedies. (Underwrite Me: Jennifer Aniston is an opera star who needs life insurance; John Cusack is an actuary with Asperger's. While trapped in an elevator with a wise-cracking janitor—Luis Guzman—they realize you can't put a value on true love.)

Yet despite the irreplaceable nature of all my data, backing up, like organizing my closets, has always seemed too daunting to bother with. First, you have to search through your computer to determine what you want to protect, making sure not to keep too many big files that aren't important. Then you have to spend an afternoon burning the data to a bunch of CDs or DVDs. And finally, you have to find a safe place to store all those discs; inevitably, you'll never find them when you need them urgently.

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But in the last few years, all that has changed. We now live in an era of cheap hard drives that have made all this hassle obsolete. Today you can buy an external drive with mountains of backup space for about 15 or 20 cents per gigabyte, meaning you can get at least two or three times as much room as you now have on your computer for less than $200. And prices are dropping fast: Last month I paid $170 for a 1 terabyte Western Digital external drive—about 1,000 GBs, as big as eight of Apple's largest iPods. Today, the same thing is selling for $150.

Alternatively, you can rent space remotely. Several companies will let you park all your data on their servers for about $50 a year. If your computer gets wiped out, you can just download all your saved files over the Internet.

Today, the only reasonable excuse for not backing up your data is that there are too many easy ways to do it, and picking the right strategy can be a pain. When I asked readers for their backup plans, I got 150 e-mails outlining at least 35 different purportedly simple ideas. Readers were split on the two main ways to back up: Just about half of them swore by saving stuff to an external drive while the rest couldn't say enough good things about online services that made backing up as easy as doing nothing at all.

Each method has its pros and cons. Backing up locally is fast and flexible, but it requires that you buy a big enough external hard drive, which is initially more expensive than renting the space on a server. Plus, there's a security downside—your data won't survive a fire, flood, or some other local calamity. And even if your days are free of hazards, you can be sure that your external hard drive will eventually fail because all hard drives eventually fail. (There are conflicting figures on this, but failure rates for drives older than three years increase dramatically.)

That's the main advantage of backing up online: Hard drives at online server farms are themselves constantly backed up, and your data stay safe even if your house gets hit by a hurricane. On the other hand, online services are slow. It takes days—or even weeks—to get your data up to the cloud, and if your computer is destroyed, you'll wait days to restore all your files. In addition, there are space restrictions online. Mozy and Carbonite, the two most popular online backup services, both offer virtually unlimited backup plans, but there's still a practical limit of how much data you can transfer in a reasonable amount of time. The services keep different snapshots of your data for only a month, and when you delete a file from your computer, it gets deleted from your backup. This means that if you accidentally deleted a file three months ago and only noticed it yesterday, you won't find it on either Mozy or Carbonite.

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