People don't neglect backing up their computers because it's hard—it isn't, at all. No, people file into the inevitable death march of data loss for one reason: Backing up usually costs money. But it doesn't have to.
When your concerned friends and family insist that you have to back your data up (as anyone who's seen my atrociously beaten-down laptop in the last few months has done to me) they're effectively telling you two things: That backing up your data will save you a massive headache in the future, because more likely the not, your hard drive will fail; and, less bluntly, that you need to buy a hard drive. And who wants to do that? It's hard to lay out the cash for a backup hard drive, since the payoff is uncertain, and (hopefully) far away. It's a good investment—not an easy one.
The good news is, most of us cheapskates can still keep our most important files safe without spending a dime, or wasting more than a few minutes. Here how:
Note: These methods don't give you traditional, full backups—they are ways to keep copies of the files that matter most to you, like your documents, photos, music and videos.
Do you live with someone else? Do you share a network with someone else? Then hey, you've got an ready-built backup system right there! There are a few ways to deal with this setup, from stupid-simple to moderately complex.
First, you need permission. Whoever your networked buddy is, sit them down and have a talk. Give them a glass of milk, and explain to them how important data backup is. Persuade them. Coax them. Scare them. Offer to store their backups in exchange for them storing yours. Great! Now you have a partner in data safety. Congratulations.
The easiest, most direct and least intimidating way to get free backups is to set up simple file sharing on your PC or Mac. On the PC, it's just a matter of ticking a few boxes and setting a few parameters (Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 7) and on Mac, it's not much harder (To another Mac, to a PC, courtesy of Lifehacker).
Now you need to decide what to back up, and how to do it. If privacy isn't an issue, like in a scenario where you're just syncing files between two open access family computers, you can simple copy your documents, photos, video and audio to opposing computers' shared folders, and voila. If privacy is an issue, like if you're trying to back up sensitive documents or embarrassing photos, you can simply create a password-protected archive of some or all of your data, then copy that over to the backup folder.
But this is all a little manual for my taste—for a longer term solution, I'd recommend something a little more automated. All we need with such a simple setup is a basic backup utility. For Windows, I've been happy with IdleBackup, a free little utility that'll copy selected folders to any destination you want—including network folders—while your computer isn't working. For Mac, Lacie's SilverKeeper is as simple and powerful a tool as you'll need, syncing folders locally or over a network on a set schedule—also free.
Again, short of purchasing a whole lot of online space especially designed for the purpose of storing full backups, this'll be a scenario in which you're picking a choosing what you save and what you don't; your intention here is to save and recover the files that matter most, not restore your entire operating system. Luckily, with increasingly generous offers from online storage companies, you can put quite a bit of your stuff on someone else's servers for nothing. A few of the best:
Windows Live Skydrive: This one really deserves more publicity that it seems to get, because it hands you 25GB of no-strings-attached storage, for free. The 50MB filesize limit is a little low considering how large the online disk is, but for document, photo, and even music backup, it's hard to beat this.
File Factory: 100GB of free storage with a 300MB file limit. The catch? It can be a little slow, so this much data isn't necessarily that usable.
Dropbox: This is more than just a backup service—it has plenty of nifty file syncing and features, too—but it's a super-simple way to store 2GB of data online, with well-designed clients on every major platform
Mozy: Gives you 2GB of storage for free, or an unlimited amount for $5 a month. Comes with an extremely handy Windows utility that makes it easy to specify what gets uploaded, and what doesn't.
Orbit Files: Offers 6GB of space, but with fewer options available for non-paying customers, and no software client.
Scatter Yourself In the Cloud
The bad news is, this is the most time-consuming way to skirt proper backups, both in terms of setup and recovery. The good news is, you're probably already doing this, to an extent.
If my laptop died right now, I'd lose my settings, a little bit of music, a few day's worth of documents, and well, that's about it. That's because so, so much of my data lives in various online services, just by nature of how I work. Rather than undertaking a day-long effort to upload all your files to myriad websites, just consider changing your habits a little, and easing into a cloud over time. That these services provide useful backups is incidental—usually they're intended as web apps—but that doesn't mean they don't serve the purpose beautifully. Use them for their intended purposes-be it document editing, photo sharing, or music streaming—and you'll soon realize that, without even trying, you've create a wonderful, distributed backup of your most-used media across the internet.
Google Docs: This one's a no-brainer, since a lot of you probably already use Gmail, with which Docs is tightly integrated. It can sometimes break formatting in files, but at least you won't lose important data.
Office Live: Microsoft's take on the online office suite comes with a free 5GB, which, let's be honest, is an awful lot of Word documents.
Zoho: As an online office suite, Zoho offers a few little features that Google and Microsoft don't. As a storage service, though, they only offer 1GB. Still!
Flickr: The obvious choice for photography geeks, Flickr give you unlimited storage for free, at a rate of 100MB a month.
Snapfish: With fewer options for enthusiasts, Snapfish's draw is its unlimited storage and orderable photo prints.
Picasa: 1GB of Google's storage space for free out of the box, with a nice client to boot.
Photobucket: Another 1GB of free storage, but this one takes video as well.
Facebook: This might seem like an unlikely recommendation, but they've got one of the best deals going, in a way. If you're not concerned about the quality of your photo uploads—like, you just want them for onscreen viewing—you can upload unlimited photos here, 200 at a time. And in any case, a medium-quality JPEG is better than no photo at all.
MP3Tunes: Puts your music library everywhere, with a bevy of client apps for various platforms, including the iPhone. 2GB of free storage isn't much, but it's something.
File Factory: Mentioned above in the general storage section, FileFactory also has a web interface for music. 100GB is quite possibly enough to store your whole library.
Deezer: A French music streaming service that also lets you upload as much music as you'd like, for personal use.
This is the most hackish of the bunch, but YouTube, Vimeo, Viddler and the like usually support private or invite-only videos, which means they can act as last resort backup solutions, though the loss of quality and long upload times might make these plans a little unwieldy.
So that's about it! Please add in your experiences in the comments—your feedback is a huge benefit to our Saturday guides. Happy data-hoarding, and have a great weekend!