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Surviving digital disasters why you should be protecting your virtual valuables
December 2008

You don't have to wind the clock back too far to see the effect that computers and gadgets have had on our lives. In just the last 10 years or so, the way we communicate, listen to music, watch films - and take, store and view photos - has changed almost beyond recognition. And the pace of change isn't about to slow down.

But with so many of our documents and memories now stored as files on our computers, the consequences of a theft or a simple accident can be devastating. Not only that; digital technology isn't perfect, and the storage our computers and gadgets use can fail without warning.

If you're without a backup, then, you could find yourself up the creek without a paddle, but the good news is that protecting yourself is easy. Here we'll highlight some of the most important digital file types, where they're stored, and how you can protect them.

Be secure

Wherever you store your files, safeguarding them requires a two-pronged approach. It's important to protect them from computer viruses and other security threats, and even more vital to take regular backups.

While most hardware failures are random, manhandling a computer - particularly when it's on - can damage the hard disk where it stores information. Always transport gadgets and laptops in a suitable case, and handle them carefully.

It almost goes without saying, but keep a good eye on expensive portable equipment when you're out and about. 2007 research by silicon.com showed that each year, tens of thousands of laptops are reported stolen from people who've taken them out and about.

Of course, not all security threats are visible. Viruses and other malicious programs can try to erase files or steal your personal information, while a hacker could easily find their way onto an unprotected computer. Anti-virus software is a must - check the reviews in a magazine such as Computer Shopper for recommendations. Some programs, such as AVG, are free for personal use. Windows XP and Vista come with a built-in firewall which should offer protection against most threats, but make sure that you use a login password that can't be easily guessed, and be wary about joining public wi-fi networks.

Be prepared

Unfortunately, disaster can strike no matter how careful you are. If your hard disk fails and you don't have a copy of your files - or you accidentally delete them - you could be waving a permanent goodbye to your accounting records or irreplaceable memories. It's absolutely essential to keep a backup.

There's no one right way to do this, but here are some simple pointers:

  • Always backup to a separate physical device - there's no point in having two copies of a file on the same failed disk.
  • Backup regularly.
  • If space is an issue, give priority to unique files - like photos you took yourself. Music and other files may be easier to replace.
  • Check your backups - don't wait for a disaster to discover they're not working.

These days, you can buy a portable hard disk from sites like Dabs.com for less than £60. With a simple USB connection and hundreds of gigabytes (GB) of storage, these can make ideal portable backup drives. Windows XP Professional, and the Business and Ultimate editions of Vista, both come with software that can schedule complete or partial backups of your computer. If you don't have space to backup your entire computer, make sure you at least include My Documents and all of its subfolders.

You can never be too prepared and, even if you have a backup, a bad flood or fire in your house could destroy both the original and the copy. If you have a fast internet connection, consider using one of many online backup services as extra protection for your most important files. Some, such as Mozy home and IDrive, offer free storage space. Remember, though, that backups will be very slow and you'll quickly fill this up if you backup music, film, picture or TV files online.

Filers keepers

You're probably familiar with files like MP3s (music) and Docs (word processing document), but unless you're reasonably savvy you might not know exactly what they are. In both cases, the popular names come from their file 'extensions' - the three letters that Windows-based computers use to distinguish different types of file. An example might be Hard day's Night.mp3 or Party Invite.doc.

Windows hides these, but you can get it to show them by clicking on My Computer and choosing Folder Options... from the Tools menu. Click the View tab and click the box next to "Hide extensions for known file types" to remove the tick. Now click Apply before clicking the "Apply to All Folders" button.

It's impossible to make a one-size-fits-all list of the important files on your computer, but here are some of the most common extensions for files you might find irreplaceable, and where you might find them:

  • Office applications. Your files are likely to be in My Documents (Windows XP or earlier) or just Documents if you have Vista. If you're using Microsoft Office 2003 or earlier, you should find Word documents saved with the .doc extension, spreadsheets with .xls and presentations with .ppt. Later versions of Office use the same names but add an 'x' to the end: docx, xlsx and pptx.
  • Pictures. Almost all digital cameras save JPEG files, which have the .jpg extension. Where they end up depends on the software you use to transfer them to your PC. Look in My Pictures within My Documents (just Pictures and Documents on Vista). If you're using software that came with your camera, check its settings to find where it keeps photos on your PC.
  • Music. As with pictures, where you'll find your music files depends on the application you use to download or create them. Most software uses My Music within My Documents (Music and Documents). iTunes makes its own folder inside My Music, and uses the .mp3, .m4a, .m4p and .m4v (for video) extensions.
  • Email. If you use a web service such as Hotmail or Google Mail, your inbox is stored on that site's computers, so it should be safely backed up. If you use a program such as Microsoft Outlook/Outlook Express or Mozilla Thunderbird, you'll need to check its settings to find where it stores your mail.