Things can go wrong in many ways. The most catastrophic, the physical failure of a hard drive, has mercifully become a very rare event. But hard drives do still get corrupted, causing at least a partial loss of data. And probably the most common source of problems is user error, either the accidental deletion of files or folders, or intentional erasures that seemed like a good idea at the time -- until you discover, too late, that you really needed that stuff.
Fortunately, good backups have never been easier. There are several criteria for what constitutes a good backup. First, it must be automatic, because people say they'll back up manually, but they rarely do. Second, the medium you back up to must be highly reliable. Third, and perhaps least appreciated, the system should preserve all versions of the files that are backed up. This gives you insurance if, for example, you realize after saving and backing up that you made a mess out of the formulas in a critical spreadsheet. Saving multiple versions lets you revert to the last good copy.
PLUG AND PLAY. One of the simplest systems for reliable backups that I've encountered is Automated Backup System Plus from CMS Peripherals (www.cmsproducts.com). It consists of software for Windows or Macs (including OS X) and a self-contained external hard drive. Prices range from under $250 for a system with a 10-gigabyte hard drive to around $650 for 100 GB. Depending on the system, the drive can connect to your computer using a PC Card, FireWire (also known as IEEE 1394 or iLink), or USB. The USB models support version 2.0, so new computers equipped with USB 2.0 ports will be able to take advantage of the latest standard's much higher speed.
In its simplest configuration, ABSplus is literally plug and play. You install the software, plug in the drive, and your computer begins an automatic backup of the entire drive. Subsequent backups copy only changes to the external disk. In this mode, the ABSplus drive becomes a complete disaster-recovery system. Your computer can actually be booted from the FireWire and USB versions in case of a hard-disk crash.
A custom mode allows you to pick which files or directories are to be backed up. This is useful if you have more information on your hard drive than can be backed up to the ABSplus drive. In that case, you probably will want to back up only your data, not program, files. Either way, this system lets you either restore an entire backup or selectively pick files to be restored using a Windows Explorer-like (or Finder-like in the Mac version) interface.
CLICK AND RESTORE. Backing up your files to a remote data center adds an additional layer of protection, guarding you not only against computer failures but fire, theft, or other disasters. I have been a longtime customer of Connected Corp.'s TLM service (www.backupmystuff.com), and it has saved me more than once. TLM, available only for Windows, costs $6.95 a month for 100 megabytes or $14.95 a month for up to 4 GB.
You download and install the TLM software, which uses rules to decide what files and folders should be backed up, though you can override its selections manually. It does an initial backup -- you'll definitely want a high-speed Internet connection for this -- then backs up any new files or changed files in subsequent scheduled sessions.
To retrieve backed-up data, you just select the files or folders you want to fetch from an Explorer-like list, and click a button to begin to restore. You can also order your data on CDs for a bulk recovery at a cost of $25, plus shipping, for the first three and $20 for each additional disk. Connected also provides a Web-based service that you can set up to let you retrieve critical files from any computer.
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS. At times even a backup can't save you. It doesn't happen often, but for various reasons, a file becomes corrupted and cannot be read. And sometimes the only backup is also corrupted. One tool that may come to your rescue is EasyRecovery Pro from OnTrack Data International (www.ontrack.com).
It's a data-recovery toolkit that can, among other things, salvage the information from most corrupted Microsoft Office files as well as Zip archives. At $499, it's really intended for info-tech professionals rather than individual users, but it does work. And if your data are valuable enough, it may just be worth the price.
You can take many other approaches to backup, including writeable CDs or DVDs and magnetic tape. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. But ABSplus and Connected TLM are two of the simplest, safest, and most cost-effective that I have seen. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek. Follow his Flash Product Reviews, only on BusinessWeek Online