KELLNER: You better back up, or else

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This may not be the most “sexy” technology topic for the holidays, but, I promise, you’ll thank me someday. If you’re not backing up your computer now, you need to, and the sooner, the better.

Why? Life happens.

More specifically, power systems fail, computers crash, hard drives freeze, children do things, stuff breaks, files are accidentally deleted — all these are real-life circumstances, and there are many more. Data lost is often data lost forever, unless you have the aforementioned backup. It’s one thing to have to recreate a spreadsheet or that term paper. But family pictures, or that video of Julie’s first steps?

The question is how to back up and with what. Time was — and I’m talking only about 12 or 18 months ago — that a DVD-ROM or even a CD-ROM was the best you could do on a budget. Buy a pack of discs, grab the Sharpie permanent marker and start copying. It was time consuming, tedious and heaven help you if you lost one, but, hey, it was a way to go.

A Canadian firm, Storage Appliance Corp., has updated this for Windows users in a rather neat way. Its “Clickfree” (www.goclickfree.com) DVD product, which comes with three ($9.99), five ($14.99) or 10 ($27.99) DVDs, is seemingly effortless. Pick the file type of your choice - photos, music, Microsoft Office files - insert the matching DVD and it does the rest. The DVDs hold 4.5 gigabytes each, so a 10-pack should handle many ambitious projects. For the price, it’s a very good value.

The recordable disc quickly was succeeded by various hard drives that attach to a computer. These external drives were usually large and sometimes expensive: I spent $159 in January for a 320 GB hard disc from La Cie; today, Amazon.com is selling a newer version of the same drive for $40 less. Though a good drive overall, the La Cie suffered from a somewhat large size (about that of a wireless router) and the need for external power. Both limit effectiveness when on the road.

By contrast, look at Seagate Technology and its “FreeAgent Go” line of drives. The same 320 GB capacity can be had for a list price of $123 for PC users and around $160 for Mac users. Either one, in my book, is a bargain, because they are plug-and-play models that behave nicely with backup software found in both Microsoft Windows Vista and Mac OS X Leopard.

The FreeAgent Go is stylish: It comes with a docking station that puts the drive at a slight angle, making it look nice and ensuring maximum air circulation. It draws power via a cable connected to a PC, thus no external power supply is needed.

Now, there are limits. The “Go” is limited to a top capacity of 500 GB on the PC side and 320 GB on the Mac side. But for road warriors or the budget-conscious, this is a good alternative.

For those wanting more, Seagate has larger FreeAgent drives for the desktop. These will require an external power supply, and aren’t as portable, but they work the same way and should do the trick.

Remember the Clickfree folks? They also offer plug-in hard drives, priced from $99.99 to $179.99, and ranging from 120 GB to 320 GB. A $200/500 GB model is due soon. The firm claims simple plug-and-backup capability for each drive, and the software can back up from five to 25 different Windows-based PCs, with each backup separate.

Apple Inc. also has an entry, the nicely named Time Capsule, available in 500 GB and 1 terabyte sizes for $299 or $499, respectively. The units, which are low profile and stylish, add a wireless router to the mix. Plug in a Time Capsule next to your cable or DSL modem and share the Internet as well as your backup capabilities with the whole house.

The device will work with Windows-compatible backup software, but it also performs best with Mac OS X and Time Machine, the very good backup program. The cost is a bit steep, but a close inspection of Apple’s Web store (www.apple.com) will reveal refurbished models of both sizes for $249 and $419, depending on capacity.

I am hoping to report on online backup. On the Windows side, Carbonite (www.carbonite.com) has its legions of fans; the firm is developing a Mac client, but my early attempts were far from successful.

For pity’s sake, do something. Otherwise, your children might need years of therapy to understand that Daddy didn’t mean anything when he deleted their home movies.

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