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Backing Up Your Digital Life

Three methods to ensure you don't lose data
on your computer

Backing Up Your Digital Life

— Jon Feingersh/Getty Images

Remember when your books sat on a shelf, your music stacked up in a pile of vinyl and your photos simply hung on the wall? With the proliferation of e-book readers, MP3 players and personal laptops, how we store — and preserve — our cherished goods has changed dramatically.

Whether you're using an MP3 player or a digital reader, or managing your photos online, it is absolutely necessary to back up all of the files that you store on your personal computer, which is where most of the files live. Following are three ways you can back up your digital libraries, whether you're a beginning, intermediate or advanced computer user

  • Beginner: Back up to a CD/DVD
  • Intermediate: Back up to an external hard drive
  • Advanced: Back up to an online "cloud" system


Beginner: Back up to a CD/DVD

If you want to keep this simple, your best bet is to back up all of your files to a CD or DVD. You can purchase a set of blank CDs or DVDs at any electronics store or online. DVDs are more expensive but hold considerably more, so you will be able to back up more of your files on a single DVD.

Simply insert the CD or DVD into your computer and then transfer copies of your important files to the CD or DVD. On most computers, this is as simple as clicking and dragging the files from one folder to another. Just be sure that you're copying the files, not moving them (check to see if the files are still on your computer, which means you've copied, not moved, them). Once you've copied your files, store backup CDs or DVDs in a safe place away from your computer, so that anything that damages your computer won't also ruin your backup disks.

Experts recommend backing up your important files at least once a month. If you have a hard time remembering, use the calendar function on your computer to set a reminder — say, the 15th of every month.

Intermediate: Back up to an external hard drive

If you need to manage a great number of files — such as a music library with hundreds of albums — consider purchasing an external hard drive. External hard drives are available in many shapes, sizes and prices. Regardless of its size, the physical device plugs into your computer, usually through the USB port.

It's a good idea to buy an external hard drive with as much memory as possible, even if you don't think you'll need it right away. For instance, you may only need a 20 GB external hard drive right now to back up your photos, but what if you end up purchasing a video camera that requires tons of memory? It's better to buy an external hard drive that has more memory now than to upgrade to a larger one later. For one thing, doing so will save you money.

As with CDs or DVDs, it's a good idea to back up at least once a month, but with an external hard drive you can back up much more frequently, especially if you have one that remains plugged in to your desktop. To back up your files, just plug in the hard drive to your computer and copy your files onto the device. Copying the files may take anywhere from minutes to a few hours, so choose a time, such as overnight, when the computer isn't needed.

Advanced: Back up to an online "cloud" system

A "cloud" system is the least mechanical way to back up your files, but it requires a leap of faith. Here’s how the system works: A professional service backs up your computer's files and copies them into an online environment, all through a Web-based browser. If your computer crashes, the service can automatically provide all of your saved files. In practice, it's similar to using Web-based e-mail, which doesn't actually live on your computer.

There are several reputable services that will back up your data online, including Dropbox, Box and Carbonite. If you sign up for one of these services, you can either manually upload the files you want to save, or set your account for automatic updating. If you're someone who doesn't like messing with cords or who has a hard time remembering to do your backups, then a cloud system is definitely for you.

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