This is from the Kim Komando Tip of the Day newsletter.
I have an external hard drive for backing up my files. It was a lifesaver when the hard drive needed to be replaced. But I am a little confused by backup methods: synchronizing folders, copying "My Documents" to the external hard drive, backing up online with Carbonite, or taking an image of the hard drive. There are many choices. Why should I use Carbonite?
First, let me give you a gold star for paying attention. Far too often people don't even think of making backups until it's too late. Their precious photos, data, files, memories and game scores end up in the intergalactic bit bucket.
Now, all of the backup methods you mentioned will work. Some cost more than others. And some require you to think less. So, each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Let's run through each that you mentioned.
Start with SyncToy
â€¢ Synchronizing folders: Microsoft has an excellent free program, SyncToy. I have a link to SyncToy  on my site.
SyncToy is one of Microsoft's Power Toys. It makes synchronization easy. You could use a flash drive or an external hard drive.
You install the program on your computer. Then, you pair folders. For example, you could pair your Documents folder to a folder on a flash drive.
SyncToy gives you several options for synchronizing data in the folders. You could specify that one folder always overwrites the other. Or, simply specify that the newest files be kept in both folders.
This makes it very easy to ensure that new files are backed up. Since the data is on a removable drive, it is easy to access and take with you.
Also, you can synchronize files across multiple computers. This is handy if you tote files between the office and home.
But, you must remember to run SyncToy. It's not automated. Also, SyncToy doesn't give you off-site backups. Well, those are two big strikes against it.
You should keep a copy of important data in a secure, off-site location. This poses difficulties for many people. Secure off-site locations just aren't easy to find. And, ferrying data from the computer can be time-consuming.
Doing it manually
â€¢ Copying the My Documents folder to an external drive: This is the most rudimentary way to back up data. You're responsible for copying the files manually.
This means that you must remember to back up the files. You must also select which files to copy. And you need to remember to keep a copy of the data off site. That's three strikes.
It is easy to slip up. I wouldn't rely upon a backup system that isn't automated. At least use SyncToy to help out!
Of course, many external drives come with backup software. The software is usually fairly similar to SyncToy.
Image the hard drive
â€¢ Hard drive imaging: When you create an image, you copy everything on your hard drive. Your data, programs and settings are all saved. You don't need to worry about overlooking anything.
The data is usually compressed. The backup drive doesn't need to be as large as the original.
It is relatively easy to restore an entire drive with an image. That's why hard drive images are popular with IT folks. Multiple computers can be set up with the same software and options.
But hard drive imaging isn't convenient for most people. Drive imaging isn't always a walk in the park. You need to worry about things like incremental and differential backups. And, hard drive imaging can take a lot of time.
Drive-imaging programs like Ghost ($70) and True Image ($50) are improving. They're becoming more like backup programs than true drive-imaging programs.
The programs make it easy to restore files individually. You can also schedule and customize backups.
Also, you can send backups to an off-site location. You may need network-attached storage or an FTP site for this.
Because imaging takes so long, it's usually done on a schedule. It is only a snapshot in time. Unless you do it every day, you need a complementary backup. Otherwise, the snapshot is old and recent work is lost.
Besides, hard drive imaging is simply too complicated for most people. I think you would do better with something simpler.
Over the Web
â€¢ Carbonite ( www.carbonite.com/kim ): With Carbonite, you can back up your documents, programs and settings. The data is sent over the Internet to a secure location.
Carbonite is a sponsor of my national radio show. But well before our relationship blossomed, my people were using Carbonite. Way back then, there was a lot to like about Carbonite.
Carbonite runs automatically, so there's nothing to remember. You just set it and forget it. I love that. Whenever you create or update a file, it's set to be backed up. And your data is encrypted before it is sent off site. That should put your mind at ease!
You can restore select files and folders. This is helpful in case you accidentally delete a file or save over one. You could also restore your entire system. You can restore to the same machine or a new one.
You do need to set up your options. For example, Carbonite only backs up certain folders by default. But, you shouldn't have difficulty changing your options. You just highlight any additional folders or files you want to back up.
Other online backup services charge a certain amount; say $29.95 for 2 GBs. Carbonite charges $49.95 per year for as many gigabytes as you want. Two gigabytes really isn't that much anymore.
Now, Carbonite does have some drawbacks. It is relatively slow compared to external drives.
When you first install Carbonite, it must send all your data off site. This process can take days. That's especially true if you use your computer a lot. Carbonite only backs up your data when the computer is inactive.
Your Internet connection can also slow down Carbonite. You signed up for a particular broadband speed. For example, you may get 786 Kbps downloads. This could throttle your file restoration. You may only be able to restore about 15 gigabytes of data per day.
Let's pick one
So, where does this leave us? Any of your suggestions will work. Drive imaging is good, although I would not use it for backups. Your most likely crisis will be a hard drive failure. In that case, you can put the image on a new drive. But you need a backup for recent changes.
Copying your My Documents folder to a hard drive sounds good. It isn't. Backups have to be automated. Otherwise, people stop doing them, despite their best intentions. I predict you'd get sick of that process within a week.
You can automate the process with most backup programs. That satisfies an important demand. But the backup is still onsite. It could be lost in a fire. Or, a burglar could run off with it.
SyncToy has some of the same problems. It is not automated. So, you have to remember to run it. And it's probably going to stay onsite.
That leaves us with Carbonite. It is slow to copy all your files. But once it completes that, it needs no interaction with you. It runs in the background, untended.
I like things to be simple and automated. So, I use Carbonite. I can live with its issues.