There’s a saying among IT pros: If it doesn’t exist in more than one independent place, it doesn’t exist. Your beloved devices are doomed eventually to fail, and unless you have a backup plan when they do, there’s a danger they’ll drag your work, tax returns, and all those pics of your adorable children with them to digital hell.

Set up your computers to automatically back up important data to an external drive or to a cloud-based service. The advantage of using a cloud is that you eliminate the danger of a fire or robbery dooming both your computer and its backup device; and as you continue to accumulate snapshots of your precious Sally and Stan, you’ll never run out of storage space.

When shopping for a backup hard or cloud drive, keep in mind:

  • A big advantage cloud services have over physical drives? You can log on from anywhere. Take a pic with your phone, save it to the cloud, then use your computer (or a friend’s) to log on to the cloud and download it. If you go to work and leave your laptop at home, you can access the laptop’s backed-up files from your cubicle.
  • Many companies (Dropbox, Apple, Google, Amazon, MegaBackup, MediaFire, FlipDrive) offer free cloud backup, usually capped at 2 to 5GB, which is plenty for most of us. If you need more, sign up with two or three services, or buy a large-capacity plan. For example, with Amazon you can get 100GB of space for $11.99 a year and 1TB for $59.99 a year. MegaBackup offers unlimited backup for $83.88 a year; FlipDrive provides 10GB free or 100GB for $10 a month or $120 a year.
  • If you mostly have photos and home videos to store, Google+ offers users unlimited free cloud storage of them, with the caveat that you’ll need to cap your video resolution at 1080p and your photo resolution at 16 megapixels (not a problem for most of us). Amazon Prime members can back up unlimited pics and video to its cloud for free.
  • Get a hard drive or cloud storage service that offers a syncing feature. When you plug in a backup drive or log on to a cloud service’s website, these devices or sites automatically scan the folders you want backed up, examine them for changes, and save new or altered files. As long as you correctly designate the folders where you’ve saved stuff you want to keep, you don’t have to do anything else.
  • But if you enable syncing features, don’t treat cloud backup as a secondary storage device if your computer runs low on space. If you upload a file onto your cloud account, and then delete the copy from your hard drive, the service will notice the deletion while syncing, assume you deleted it because you no longer wanted it, and delete the uploaded copy.
  • Replace old backup drives with new ones. If one or more older external hard drives have piled up around your house, offload their contents to new drives with terabytes of capacity, since photos eat up lots of disc space. Write the purchase date on the new drive with a permanent marker, so you know when to plan for that drive’s ultimate demise several years from now.
  • Before signing on for terabytes of backup space to stow your music and movies, check with the vendors who sold them to you. Most digital music and movie sellers allow you to re-download content you own, so backing up these files is unnecessary.