There are no excuses. You must have a backup of your data that is updated regularly.

A backup is just a second copy of your files stored separately from the primary computer’s hard drive. It doesn’t matter how that copy is maintained as long as you understand the process.

There are many ways to back up your data – your documents and spreadsheets, email, photos, music, financial records, and everything else that is valuable on your computer. Almost anything will work if you have an individual computer but you’ll have to think things through if you have several computers or a small network. (I’ll talk later about the different considerations for small businesses with data on servers.)

backups_toshibahd It’s not mandatory but most of you should handle backups by purchasing a large USB external hard drive. Prices are best on drives that are 750Gb – 1Tb, currently around $100-125. Here’s a fairly arbitrary selection from Amazon. You can make a personal choice – you might decide you want a pocket size drive or something that has decorator colors. The manufacturers have discount lines for a few dollars less, or more expensive versions with added features. (The added features are frequently unnecessary. In particular, you don’t need a Firewire connection.) Some of the smaller ones do not have to be plugged into electricity (they get their power from the USB cable), which is convenient but reportedly a bit touchy sometimes.

The brand doesn’t matter. Personally, I’d buy from Western Digital, Maxtor, or Seagate but I could be tempted by something quirky like the adorable little Toshiba on the right.

When you connect an external hard drive to a Windows XP or Vista computer, it will be assigned a new drive letter and show up in My Computer within twenty seconds or so. It’s ready to be used immediately – no software is required to begin using the drive.

It probably seems like overkill to get a drive with 750Gb of space or more – that’s probably bigger than your computer’s hard drive – but there are some advantages to the extra space. You can make copies of your data in a couple of different ways, as we’ll discuss further on, and your backup software may keep multiple copies of files as they’re edited and changed, letting you go back to earlier versions of a document when you regret the changes last week, for example. You can also set things up to keep backup copies of files that are deleted from your computer just in case a finger slips on the Delete key.

Tomorrow I’ll give you some ideas about the software that you can use for those data backups. In the next few days, I’ll give you some ideas about online backups, image-based backups, and backups for small businesses. More to come!

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