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Get Organized: Back Up Your Most Important Data


You've put off backing up your computer because it's too big a project and you don't feel confident you know all the options. Get the lowdown on backups so you can put the right safety net into place quickly.

We all know we should backup our computers, but who has the time? The initial setup could take hours when you include all the research that goes into choosing a backup method, learning how to put it in place, configuring the settings, and making sure it works.

If backing up your computer is a chore you've put off for too long, this article will speed you through some of the most time-consuming steps and hopefully convince you to backup at least part of your computer: the stuff that matters most to you.

This article refers only to desktop and laptop computers (or "personal computers," whether they're Windows PCs or Mac). Next week's Get Organized article will explore backing up mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets.

A Manageable Approach to Backing Up

The reasons to backup your computer are clear. Our PCs house some of our most precious data, from photos to financial records to research and creative work. Losing those things can be devastating. It can disappear in a heartbeat if your computer is damaged in any number of scenarios: a fire, theft, virus, a spilled soda, or an inexplicable hard drive failure.

Most of know that we should backup, but we put off doing it. Losing valuable data is a threat rather than an imminent danger. Plus, the project seems overwhelming.

To get yourself organized and motivated, imagine that the most important data on your computer—be it emails or the video of your child's birth—is at risk right now. If figuring out your entire backup strategy is biting off more than you can chew, just focus on the files or information that have the most value for you. Let's start there. (Note: I really do advocate a more thorough backup regimen to save not only your files, but also your drivers, settings, and more. But I also understand the reality and am taking the approach that "something is better than nothing" for the purpose of this article.)

How to Back Up Your Most Important Data Quickly

The first rule of backup is redundancy, so once you have identified the most important data you want to backup, you'll need to choose two methods. So, if you're not backing up your entire machine, just selected files, I recommend using a cloud based file-syncing service and a USB flash drive or discs (alternative options are listed on the next page). This combination is extremely cheap and takes mere minutes to use.

Cloud service. For cloud-based storage, or Internet-accessible storage, I would start with a simple file-syncing service (click the link for recommendations). Pick a service (SugarSync and Dropbox are two of my favorites), surf over to the website, and signup. With most providers, you'll get anywhere from 2.5GB to 10GB free space, which is probably all the space you'll need if you're only backing up some files and not your entire PC. All file-syncing services have some kind of "get started" literature or video—pay attention! The most important thing to know about file-syncing services is if you delete files from your PC, they will also be deleted from the cloud. Syncing is different than making a one-time copy of a backup. Setting up this service should easily take less than 15 minutes, plus additional time for all the files to make their way to the cloud (though you can do other things while that's occurring in the background). When it's all said and done, your files will be accessible to you from any nearly any Internet-connected device. If your laptop incinerates, the files will still be online, and you can download them as a ZIP files to make a new copy on a new PC.

Discs and USB drives. You can buy USB drives and blank CDs or DVDs at any office supply store, many chain pharmacy-marts, and even at some large grocery stores. Pop one into your PC, drag files you want to back up into the device's folder on screen, and give it a few minutes to process. Voilà. Two backups done.

You can also use a USB flash drive to back up your entire PC, which is surprisingly quick and simple, but you have to make sure you buy a flash drive that has more space than your computer.

That's the quick and dirty way to back up selected files. But different kinds of backup solutions work better for different kinds of data and your ability to retrieve them.

I highly recommend Eric Griffith's thorough article, "The Beginner's Guide to PC Backup," which explains in much greater detail the pros and cons of different types of backup options, lists the basic how-to steps, and names recommended backup products and service providers. For even more recommendations, see Disaster-Proof Your Data with Online Backup."

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