You're certain that your computer's hard drive will never go bad. You're never going to do something so idiotic as accidentally erasing a batch of your most critical data files. You fear no virus.
Until it happens to you.
Weeks, months or even years of data lost in an instant. And you never bothered to back up your work because you thought it was too much trouble, or you'd rather spend your computing dollars on something that's more "fun."
Welcome to the club. Many computer users -- particularly those who bought their first machines in the past couple of years -- have given little thought to making backups. But if there's anything on your hard drive that you'd be distressed to lose, you should be backing up regularly.
How regularly depends on how often you create or modify critical files -- business correspondence, reports, presentations and financial records. Some people should back up their work every day; some once a week. For the average user, once a month is probably sufficient.
Fortunately, plenty of backup options exist. Which one you choose depends upon the size of your files, how frequently you need to back up your data, and, of course, your budget.
Some people like to have an exact duplicate of their entire hard drive on hand in case the disk goes south. Others might be content just to back up their data files, since the operating system and programs can be reinstalled from the original CD-ROMs (although it takes a long time). In the early days of PCs, users just copied their data onto floppy disks. But given the ever-increasing capacity of hard drives (the average hard drive today holds 200 times as much as the the average drive of 10 years ago), plus the proliferation of ever-larger files such as digital photos, backing up material on 1.4-megabyte floppies has grown impractical for most of us.
The oldest high-capacity backup solution -- which some PC owners still prefer -- is a magnetic tape drive, the PC equivalent of a cassette recorder. Tape drives are slower than removable disks -- it can take several hours for a complete backup of a hard drive. But tape is still the cheapest large-scale backup medium and the only one capable of storing the contents of today's large hard drives on one cartridge.
Tape drives can fit inside your PC if you have an open drive bay, but many users prefer external units that hook up to a computer's printer port. Internal tape drives that can hold up to 8 gigabytes of data -- such as Seagate's Tapestore 8000 -- are available for less than $200. External units, such as Onstream's massive, 30-gigabyte DP30, run about $400.
In 1995, Iomega's Zip drive made its debut. In those days, a handful of Iomega's 100 megabyte Zip cartridges ($12 to $15 apiece) could satisfy most backup needs.
The Zip became an unofficial industry standard, and its near-ubiquitous presence is the strongest argument for buying one. Besides providing backups, it can double as a medium for exchanging large files with others, and it's available for PCs and Apple Macintosh computers. With a Zip drive, Mac users can read PC-formatted Zip disks, although it doesn't work the other way around.
Earlier this year, Iomega unveiled a 250 MB version ($200) of the Zip, but given hard drives that are now averaging 8 to 12 gigabytes, the Zip is still better for archiving critical files than performing a full hard drive backup. Iomega's 2-gigabyte Jaz drive is a more practical disk-based backup solution for today's hard drives, but its cartridges cost $125 each. Like the Zip, Jaz drives are available in Windows and Mac configurations.
Owners of Apple's iMac (which lacks a built-in removable storage device) should seriously consider Imation's 120-megabyte SuperDisk. This $150 external drive plugs into the Universal Serial Bus (USB) port of a Mac or PC, uses affordable $12 high-capacity disks, and works with old-fashioned, 1.44 megabyte floppies as well. There are internal versions that use a PC's hard disk controller or a separate SCSI controller card.
A 3-year-old company called Castlewood Systems has attracted attention with its new $250 Orb drive, which stores 2.2 gigabytes of data on disks that cost $30 each. It's available in a variety of internal and external models for PCs and Macs. Though it's a young and unproven product, the Orb is worth a look because it beats all other removable media in terms of price and performance.
Other alternatives include rewritable CDs and DVD-RAM drives. These use disks that look like CD-ROMs, but they're rewritable, like a videotape. CD-RW drives start at less than $250 and use 650-megabyte CDRW disks that cost about $12 each.
The similar DVD-RAM stores 5.2 gigabytes of data on a $50 compact disc, but the drives are expensive -- $750 and up -- and there's no industry standard format for recording yet.