Backing up isn't hard to do, but it's definitely a chore. PC Advisor explains the methods most suited to various computing scenarios, and review a range of  backup services that make the whole process run like clockwork.

A corrupted Outlook database trashes your email archive and contact list. An accidentally deleted folder wipes out your most important business documents. A sudden hard-drive failure destroys your MP3 and photo libraries. The list of potential catastrophes goes on. For most of us, it's the loss of a critical document or access to our favourite photos that causes us to do something about our lack of a backup plan.

Losing access to an entire archive due to sudden and total hard-drive failure is not an unheard of scenario, but it's far more likely that an individual file will become corrupt or a  USB drive containing your only copy of a presentation will go astray.

Most of us tend to implement a backup plan only retrospectively, when we discover there's a problem or the amount of data we've created or accrued has stacked up so much that we need to do something with it. But it's no use getting into the backup habit only after you've run out of disk space and need to start archiving.

From a certain point of view, data is a little like money. Financial advisors always recommend maintaining a diversified portfolio, with the idea being that if one stock falls, you won't go broke. The same concept applies to backups: by diversifying your approach and archiving your data in multiple places using various methods, you're safe even if disaster strikes one location or collection of data.

Over the following pages we look at ways to expand your backup portfolio to protect against the inevitable data catastrophe. To ensure the safety of your important files, we recommend using at least a few of the following methods in unison.

Choose your backup type

Full system backup

A drive-cloning program such as Casper makes simple work of duplicating your entire hard drive, but it's only the first step in a diversified backup plan. With external one-terabyte (1TB) hard drives available for around £100, there's no reason not to keep one plugged into your PC and paired with Casper, which can perform scheduled, incremental backups, with or without compression. A full-system backup to an attached drive is your best line of defence against data loss: in the event of total failure, it's a simple matter to restore every bit and byte to a replacement drive.

Remote, data-only backup

Don't overlook the benefits of backing up just your critical data: documents, bookmarks, financial records, email, contacts and so on. Sometimes you just want to restore a handful of files or a particular item of data. These backups also take less time to complete.

Spare PC backup

Use Microsoft SyncToy 2.1 [64-bit] or Microsoft SyncToy 2.1 [32-bit] to back up files and folders to other PCs on your home or office network. You could also create a home backup network that makes uses of all their hard drives. SyncToy lets you create ‘folder pairs' between PCs, copying files between them with a single click. This is a great way to sync disparate photo libraries between your PC and your better half's, and to create a backup of both in the process.

If your PCs aren't on the same network, try Microsoft's Windows Live FolderShare. This automatically syncs files across the web.

Document backup

Using Google's Docs tools you can create, access and synchronise your Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents on and over the web. The result is an online backup that's accessible from any browser. Although it's not a ‘proper' backup tool, it's a more reliable method of sending yourself in-progress documents than emailing them to yourself, as Google automatically saves a copy for you to access.

See also: Google Docs review

Bookmarks backup

Foxmarks was designed to sync your Firefox bookmarks between multiple PCs, but it also creates an online backup of those bookmarks. If you're like most users, you've probably accumulated years' worth of bookmarks in your browser – a collection you don't want to lose. Firefox users should install the free Foxmarks plug-in, while Internet Explorer users can accomplish the same thing using the free BookmarkSync. Both tools keep your bookmarks in sync across multiple PCs, and let you access them from any browser.

Email backup

MailStore Home archives your email messages to disc and creates a local duplicate of the database that you can search with ease. Another useful tool, Amic Email Backup, copies everything – including your address book, account settings and message rules – to a single compressed file.

Amic Email Backup supports email clients including Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express and Eudora. Mailstore Home works with Windows Mail, Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird and Seamonkey.

Of course, unless you put those discs in a safe or upload them to the web, these backups are still vulnerable to fires and other local disasters. That's one reason to consider routing your email through Gmail Imap, which creates a web-based archive by synching mail between Google's servers and your PC.

Start by signing up for a free Gmail account, then enabling Imap and following the configuration instructions for your mail client. You can then either configure your mail account to forward all messages to your Gmail account, or set up Gmail's Mail Fetcher to retrieve messages from your ISP's POP3 server. From then on, all your mail will go through Gmail, giving you more than 6GB of storage space for your email messages and attachments, and some excellent spam-filtering in the bargain.

Once you have everything set up, you'll forever have copies of your messages available in your web-accessible Gmail account. That's not only an ideal email backup, but handy too.

The pocket backup

Finally, we come to the backups you already have but don't know you do. If you carry a smartphone that syncs with your PC, it's like having a mobile backup of your contacts, calendar, memos and tasks. The latest Windows phone 7 devices have automatic over-the-air synchronisation when you're within range of your home Wi-Fi network. Similar auto-synchronisation is offered for some Google Android phones, too.
In the event of desktop data loss, just sync your device to restore everything to Outlook or the file manager associated with your smartphone. Make a one-time adjustment to the sync settings so everything is copied from the device to the PC, not vice versa.

Your iPod doubles as a portable backup of your music library. Use a tool such as Bootstrap MediaWidget to copy the contents back to your PC.

Likewise, you can use a media player to restore a music library. Any MP3 player that appears as a removable hard drive when you plug it into your PC will let you can drag-and-drop songs from device to desktop.

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