How to set up a safety net
Whether you're working on a school assignment or a business report, you need to be prepared when disaster strikes.
The night before your big deadline is the worst time for a tech disaster to strike, but it's often the way of things. Many of us know that sinking feeling as your computer gives up the ghost and takes your documents with it to the grave. That rising panic as you discover they were your only copies. The painful knowledge that a simple back-up system could have saved the day.
Technological disasters happen to everyone; it's simply a matter of time. All hard drives fail eventually, while a power spike or nasty virus can also swallow your precious files in the blink of an eye. Then there's the threat from fire, theft or even something as mundane as a leaking roof. Even a blackout can be a disaster if your urgent report is locked away in your computer when it's due first thing in the morning.
The key to surviving a tech disaster is a solid back-up strategy. You also need a way to keep working on your documents, even when your computer is out of action.
The simplest back-up plan is to regularly copy important files to a memory stick or USB hard drive, but it's easy to fall behind.
If you can't afford to lose even one day's work, then you need a better system.
Macs and Windows-based PCs both include built-in back-up features that can automatically copy files to a USB drive or a network drive attached to your broadband router. Alternatively, Windows users could look to software such as Handy Back-up and Cobian Back-up, while Mac users might turn to ChronoSync or Synk.
If you really can't afford downtime, then consider the extra protection of backing up your entire operating system, so you can simply roll back time if you're struck by a virus or other disaster. Once again, these features are built into Windows (System Restore) and OS X (Time Machine). Windows users could also try Acronis True Image or Norton Ghost, while Mac users might look to SuperDuper.
These precautions might insure you against virus, hardware failure and human error, but you're still not completely safe. Should fire, flood or theft claim your computer during the night, the back-up drive sitting alongside it will also likely be lost. You need the protection of ''off-site'' back-ups, with copies safely stored far from home.
Once again, the easiest solution is to leave copies at a friend's house, but it's easy to become lax. To play it safe, you should also automatically upload files to the cloud, particularly documents in progress, so you can easily access them from any internet-enabled computer.
You'll find a wide range of cloud back-up services such as Carbonite, Mozy, Jungle Disk and CrashPlan, designed to run in the background on your computer and automatically upload new or changed files. You'll also find cloud sync services such as Dropbox, SkyDrive and Google Drive, which synchronise files and folders between your computers so every edit is copied to every device. Many cloud services offer both back-up and sync, and pricing varies, so it's important to read the fine print.
You'll also find network-attached storage drives that can sync files with cloud services.
It's possible to embrace the cloud completely with an online office suite such as Google Drive, Microsoft's Office Web Apps or Zoho. They store your documents, spreadsheets and presentations in the cloud rather than on your computer, giving you the flexibility to work anywhere, any time.
Cloud services make it easy to keep working when disaster strikes, but you're trading one set of risks for another. Give some thought to back-up internet access, perhaps via your smartphone or a dedicated wi-fi hot spot. Some cloud services offer a limited offline mode, but it might not meet your needs.
If all your files live in the cloud, then you need to consider ''on-site'' back-up, so you've got a spare copy at home in case disaster strikes the cloud. Some cloud office suites let you sync files to your computer, but others store only a shortcut to the online document, which is little consolation if the internet is down or the file is lost.
Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all solution for surviving tech disasters, so you should test a few services with a handful of files before taking the plunge.
Chances are you will end up using a mix of back-up strategies, but you can never play it too safe when it comes to preparing for the unexpected.
Google Drive: 5GB free
Google Drive lets you upload files via a web browser, mobile app or desktop software that also syncs files between computers. Google Docs online Office files can be created and edited via any device, but the Google Drive desktop software doesn't download copies to your computer (try Syncplicity or Syncdocs). Microsoft Office files uploaded to Google Drive must be converted before they can be edited.
Dropbox: 2GB free
Dropbox lets you upload files via a web browser or mobile app. Desktop software also syncs files between your computers. Dropbox does not feature an online Office suite for editing documents but there are third-party workarounds (try TextDropApp or Writebox).
Microsoft SkyDrive: 7GB free
SkyDrive lets you upload files via a web browser or mobile app, while desktop software also syncs files between your computers. Microsoft Office desktop software supports SkyDrive storage with offline editing, while files can be created and edited online using Office Web Apps. The SkyDrive desktop software downloads full copies of Office Web Apps files to your computer, while uploaded Microsoft Office files can be edited in Office Web Apps without conversion.
Apple iCloud: 5GB free
iCloud isn't an all-purpose online back-up service like the others. It syncs Apple's iWork office files between iGadgets and Macs, plus Photo Stream syncs photos from iGadgets. You can't edit iWork files online in iCloud.