Rhodri Marsden: Cyberclinic

If my hard drive fails, how can I avoid losing my stuff?

Once again, I've been left looking stupid after suffering a computer crash not having backed up any files for months. Is there such a thing as a foolproof backup strategy?

You don't realise how valuable your hard disk content is until it's gone. Rather like your virginity - well, it's the best analogy I can come up with. In fact, that's where the analogy ends, as it is possible to get your hard disk content back again.

"My devotion to backing up occurs in waves," writes Jim Milner, "always starting out with the best intentions, but inevitably doing it less frequently until a disk failure has me cursing." But what do you actually back up? On PCs and Macs, the "My Documents" or "Documents" folder is supposed to store all of your essential items but, as Richard Bland writes, "Software developers often give the impression that you don't need to worry where you store your files." There is always important stuff - fonts, preferences, emails - that ends up in the computer equivalent of the cupboard under the stairs; backup procedures can be made easier by learning where files are stored and organising them logically where possible.

If you back up your entire hard disk you don't have to worry about arcane filing systems, but copying lots of data is tedious. Rhian Cross recommends disk-cloning programs such as Acronis True Image; Bombich's Carbon Copy Cloner does the same on a Mac, and although the process can take hours, you can be sure your computer can be fully restored. More popular are programs which perform automated incremental backups, so you don't even need to think about them; Mark Anderson recommends Retrospect, noting that "it has a nice 'grooming' feature which always gives you a good history of old versions of documents."

So how do you store all these backed-up files? As the average file size has got bigger, thanks to digital photos, MP3s and video files, the floppy disk, CD-R and DVD-R have all been outgrown as backup media. The best solutions are either cheap external hard disks - as little as £80 for a 120GB USB drive - or, to protect additionally against theft, fire or other home-based disasters, you can upload your data to a secure online backup service. BT recently launched its Digital Vault service to much fanfare, but shop around; mozy.com offers 30GB with automated backup for just under $5 per month, while carbonite.com gives you unlimited space on their server for the same price.

Diagnosis required

Next week's question comes from Steve Pastor: "Many people I know have had a massive increase in junk e-mails recently, and it's getting better at passing the filters. What's going on?" Any comments, and new questions for the Cyberclinic, should be e-mailed to cyberclinic@independent.co.uk.