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While sitting down to write this story, I responded to a computer user who had accidentally deleted his entire collection of 30,000 music files. A collection which he had spent hundreds of hours ripping and organizing. The unfortunate soul was extremely upset because he did not have a backup and he had no idea if he could recover the files. His story is unfortunate but all too common and, of course, entirely preventable.

Recently, while helping some parents transfer precious home videos from their camcorder to their computer, I inquired about how they backed up their media files. The mother paused then sheepishly admitted they had no backups.

The couple said they knew they should backup their computer but mumbled something about how it was too time consuming. When I told them my computers are backed up automatically every day and it doesn't take me anytime, they admitted they simply didn't know how to go about backing up their computers.

Rather than preaching about the importance of backups, let me offer some constructive advice on how to go about creating a low maintenance plan that could save your digital assets.

The first thing you need to do when creating a backup plan is determine how big the backup is going to be now and in the future. To do this, perform a quick inventory of your computer's hard drive and determine approximately how much space is being taken up by Program, Data and media files.

  • Program Files Should your computer crash, these files are critical to get your computer up and running again. On a Windows computer, these files are typically found on your root drive under the Windows and Program file directories and take up under 60 Gigabytes of space.
  • Data Includes word processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations, text files, email, and project files. Data files don’t normally take up a lot of space on your hard drive with hundreds of often just taking up a few gigabytes of space.
  • Media Consists of digital photo, video and music files. For digital media enthusiasts, (isn’t that all of us?), these files can take up tens, even hundreds of gigabytes of space.

A rough guideline for determining backup space required is to figure on about 100 to 150 GB of hard drive space per computer for program and data files plus what you need for your growing collection of media files. For example, if your media collection takes up 300GB of space and is growing quickly then consider at least 600GB of drive space just to backup your media files.

For users wanting a simple automated backup solution, I recommend buying and installing backup software from a reputable software developer such as Norton or Acronis for about $80.

If you have just one computer in your home, the simplest thing to do is attach an external hard drive to your computer and instruct the backup software to make incremental backups either every hour, every day or every time you shut down the computer.

If you have two or more networked computers, consider buying a Networked Attached Storage (NAS) device (or even a home server) and have your backups stored on that. The amount of networked storage you will need will be the sum of all the drive space used on your computers plus your future expected growth.

Consider off-site backups too

A simple backup solution is great protection against a hard drive crash, but it won't protect you if your computer and backup device are stolen or damaged in a fire or flood. To protect against robbery or catastrophe, I also recommend creating an off-site backup. This is simply a second backup of your files which are then stored outside your home.

Since off-site backups require a little more effort and hardware, I suggest a different strategy for each type of file to make things easier. Here is how I recommend you perform off-site backups for each type of file:

  • Program Files Operating system and program files seldom change on a computer so, to make things easier, consider saving just these files to a small external hard drive which can be stored outside the home. This off-site back up can be updated monthly, ideally after any major Windows update or after adding new programs to your computer. This backup can also be a lifesaver if your computer and local back up are infected with malware and you need to start over.
  • Data Files Data files change often and need to be backup constantly, however, since they seldom take up more than a few gigabytes of space on your hard drive, so I recommend syncing them with an online cloud storage solution such as Microsoft SkyDrive, Apple iCloud or Google Drive. Each service offers between 2GB and 25 GB of free storage which should be more than enough space for just your data files. If you run out of free storage, simply sign up with another provider. To make syncing easier, place all of your data files in a separate directory on your hard drive and have that directory continuously synced to your online storage provider. Backup software providers such as Acronis and Norton also offer several GB of free online storage to buyers of their product.
  • Media Files Due to their large size, it’s probably not practical (uploading 100GB of files to the web could literally take weeks or months and wipe out your monthly bandwidth allowance) or cost effective to store media files in the cloud therefore I recommend copying all of your media files onto a hard drive and storing them offsite. When you add new media files to your computer, burn them to a DVD and then take them to your offsite storage.

Remember, backing up your computer should not be difficult and it should never be an option.

Hugh Thompson is a Consumer Electronics enthusiast, writer, Internet Marketing Consultant, and former owner of Digital Home, a consumer electronics news and information website. As a voice for the Canadian consumer, Hugh is a frequent guest on radio and television programs across the country discussing the latest in consumer electronics.