It's finally time for consumers to take system backup seriously.

Backup has always been important, especially for businesses that store critical documents like contracts, manuscripts, and the like. But it's really no less important for consumers, and a dynamic shift in the way people use computers is finally driving home the importance of data protection.

In the last five years, digital photography, and to a lesser extent, digital video, have exploded.

I'd say its growth has risen much faster personal computer use did. Decades passed before most people owned PCs, but digital imaging products became nearly ubiquitous in less than one decade.

Digital photography has changed the way we capture memories, as I've noted previously. Most of those images are now digital and have no physical backup. Video is moving in the same direction. And that's why backup is about to move from the backwaters of big business and small offices to front and center — consumer PC usage.

Some would argue that contracts and patent plans are more important than any digital image. Perhaps that's true in the larger sense — but for end-users, nothing is more precious than a photo or video memory.

Losing a Microsoft Word document hurts for a day or so. Losing a memory hurts for a lifetime.

Today, data is in far greater jeopardy than in the early days of home computing, because family members have their own digital still or video cameras and save the content on their own PCs. With that in mind, I now back up digital photos from both my own and my wife's PC once a quarter.

Virtually all new digital-imaging devices also capture video, which means that more and more of us will be committing digital memories to bits and bytes and moving them right to PCs.

Those files — many of which are produced by multimegapixel cameras — are bigger than ever. True, hard drives have tons of space, but these files have the capacity to fill that space quickly.

But accepting that backup is something you need to do isn't enough. You need to understand the urgency and have misconceptions erased. Here's a short list that will help do both:

1) Computer hardware will fail, and sooner than other electronics. Your PC is not like your TV. Because a PC has more moving parts and more complex components, it's far more likely to suffer a breakdown.

2) Hard drives die. As you may recall, I learned this hard lesson a year or so ago. The only good news is that the drives will sometimes give you hints that there's a problem (for example, error messages or a corrupt file or two) and you may have time to save your files before total failure. (BTW: Our new utility HD Heartbeat can help you keep an eye on hard–drive health).

3) Backing up to the same drive data is on, or even to a separate partition on the same drive, is virtually worthless. Saving backups of your documents or image and video files is a good idea, but having the fallback on the same drive is akin to storing a paper original and its copy in the same manila folder — if anything happens to that one folder, both versions are toast. Although many large hard drives have separate C:, D:, and even E: partitions, a hardware failure puts all the partitions at risk.

4) Backup is not hard and there are good options.

What to do (some great guidance I got right here at PCMag):

1) Try software. You can use Microsoft Windows' own backup utility or others to manage the process. If you have access to a network drive, back up to it. If not…

2) Create a separate physical location for your backup: Buy a USB 2.0 or FireWire drive. There are great options such as the Maxtor One Touch II. Most devices like this will let you do a full data backup with the push of a button and will also let you schedule backups — full or incremental.

3) Try an online service like Streamload, which I've been using for a while to back up images of my construction project. It works pretty well, although it's not a perfect system. As with other such services, it's slow. Also, Streamload is marketed more as a video and photo-sharing site, but my photos are about 2MB apiece, which most people can't view, so I have to convert my images to make them smaller.

Of course, changing the perceptions and practices surrounding backup is not just up to consumers.

Microsoft and PC manufacturers must help move the need to safeguard data to the forefront. Microsoft makes sure we can always find the Internet Explorer icon, but good luck locating the built-in backup capabilities.

Manufacturers seem to have gotten the message about security, and now make strong utilities readily available on the desktop, but I'm unaware of any backup deals or wizards that guide PC users.

Also, Dell and others are always willing to bundle a printer (mostly because everyone can make more money on the cartridges), but how about a decent external backup drive? It's time for these companies to start selling a little peace of mind.

Simple, obvious ideas, right? Now let's see if these companies can act on them, and if you consumers can finally start getting the message and begin backing up. You can thank me later.

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