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Choose best hard-drive backup

I have received a boatload of questions recently about online backup solutions, I believe in the wake of a huge ad campaign by one of the major providers of this service.

Before we wade in, we need to lay the foundation.

There are really three ways to back up your computer.

The first is to make an "image" of your hard disk. This copies everything present on your drive, including the operating system (usually Windows) and therefore makes it simple to recover when you lose everything. That is the good side of imaging software. You have a copy of everything and you are back up in an hour, back where you were. The downside is disk space on your backup device. Because you are backing up everything, your device needs to be big, too.

Once you have one complete backup of everything, you do the next ones as "incremental" backups that only copy what has changed on your drive. This saves both time and space. Software that does this includes Symantec's Ghost, Rebit and Acronis True Image.

The second type of a backup is a data-only backup. This can be done by hand, by you copying your files to a backup drive or burning them to DVD, or by software that usually comes with your operating system or with your backup drive.

The advantage of this, of course, is speed. Backups will take a moment or two because you are only backing up your documents, photos and videos and not the whole computer and operating system. The downside is you are likely to miss something (where exactly did iTunes cram my music again?), and when you do lose your hard drive you are stuck reinstalling all of your software by hand.

The last type of backup is an online backup service. For this you pay a yearly fee, typically around $50, and sometime each day or each week your data files are encrypted and sent over the Internet to an off-site location for backup.

The upside of this is it actually gets done; on the previous two versions there usually is some kind of human intervention needed, though not always. I am the No. 1 proponent of backup and for grins I just checked on the last backup date on the computer on which I am writing this column, and it was more than five months ago. The downside is the cost, which is considerable, given the one-time cost of onsite backup. Still, the peace of mind of having a backup away from your home or office cannot be underestimated if you have a fire or theft, especially if you have important documents or photos on your computer or server.

The main message of this column is to pick one of these strategies and actually do it. In my business, I have had countless heart-wrenching tales of lost data, missing wedding photos, baby pictures long gone and more sad tales.

Hard drives stink, and you should not trust them for very long. If you want to keep it, back it up and back it up a lot.

James Derk is owner of CyberDads, a computer repair firm and a tech columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is jim@cyberdads.com.