Admit it—the last time your computer melted down, you swore you'd investigate backup options, but somehow you never got around to it.
Luckily, there are now automatic online backup services. All you have to do is install the software, and copies of whatever you want to protect are transferred to a secure service center. The software then keeps track of when you create or modify files and saves a copy of any new or updated items as well.
Why online backup? It's the safest and most convenient way so far. "It's impractical to carry an external hard drive with you everywhere," says Kent Hall, NextAdvisor.com's editor of services reviews. "If you have a laptop, you're much more likely to be connected to the Internet than you are to external hardware." Plus, using an online service means your photos and files go to a protected center where they should be less vulnerable to fire, theft, power surges, and general drive failure, as well as hacking, because the files are encrypted.
There are hundreds of services to choose from, but experts recommend you stick with big—that is, reliable—names for peace of mind. The Coke and Pepsi of the online storage world are Mozy (mozy.com, a subsidiary of storage giant EMC) and Carbonite (carbonite.com, an online-only company). A third is SugarSync (sugarsync.com), whose default settings are simpler but allow for backing up multiple computers simultaneously. If you want more customizable options, Hall recommends going with Mozy. If you simply need unlimited storage capacity with good, remote file access, he suggests choosing Carbonite. All start at about $50 to $55 per year. (Mozy offers 2 gigabytes of free storage, but that's enough to hold only about 300 photos or 200 MP3 files, so you'll almost certainly need to pay for additional space.)
Rich Castagna, editorial director of Storage Media Group, which covers all things related to data storage, notes the importance of understanding the fees. All the services charge for the amount of data you store, but some also charge for transmitting. If you ever need to restore your data at once, it can take a while—"maybe even days, depending on the quality of your connection," he says—so ask the service if it provides alternatives, like speed-mailing you a disk.