Backup your data ... today!

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By Catherine Holland By Catherine Holland

Q. I’ve been in a dither, not knowing what files to back up. Can you suggest or recommend a backup procedure?


A. When it comes to a backup strategy, the best advice I can offer is to keep it simple. The more involved and time consuming it becomes, the less likely you are to adhere to it. That's just human nature. I've been using the same backup strategy and protocol for years, and despite having experienced several drive failures, I've never lost anything of significance.

Backing up data should be fast, easy, and reliable, the quintessential "no-brainer" activity, devoid of stress or anxiety. I don't like to depend on others or any automated devices for my data, so my backup protocol is about as simple as it gets. I use an external USB drive that plugs into a USB port and it's ready to use. No additional software is required. Windows detects the new drive, assigns it a drive letter, and I'm off and running.

I never back up programs because I can always reinstall them from the original installation CD/DVD or by downloading. It's my important data that I cannot replace. So for my first backup with a new USB drive, I copy, for example, my entire Documents (My Documents) folder, and whatever other folders I can't afford to lose. From that point forward, I simply back up whatever I'm working on. If I'm working in Quicken, for example, every time I close Quicken, I back up. If I'm working on a document, when I'm done with a session, I copy it to a shortcut on my Desktop that goes directly to the external drive. Maybe it takes two seconds of my precious time at most. On a bad day.

When I stop working on anything, I quickly save it to the external drive so everything is backed up as I go. I usually rotate between two external drives as an extra layer of protection in case one fails, swapping drives every week. In an absolutely worst-case, semi-apocalyptic scenario, I would lose a week's worth of data -- though that's never happened and it's highly unlikely to ever happen. It would require two independent drives (my hard drive and one USB drive) to fail at the same time. I'm much more likely to be struck by a meteor -- which is why, of course, I wear a helmet at all times. One can't be too careful.

I also, on occasion, use a Gmail account to back up certain files. The process is very simple, and best of all, it's free: I simply email to myself any files (as attachments) that I want to save. They then reside on Gmail's server, they are safely out of harm's way, off-site, and I can retrieve them any time I need them, from any location. The amount of storage Gmail provides is more than 7GB (gigabytes), per account and you can create as many accounts as you wish. I have six or seven Gmail accounts that I use for various purposes.

If you use a computer, you will experience a drive crash or other malfunction at some point. Only then will the value of your backups become self-evident, and that value -- when you can quickly recover and restore your data -- is priceless.

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Mr. Modem publishes "Ask Mr. Modem!” each week, featuring PC tips, tricks, and plain-English answers to your questions by email. For more information, visit