Two things become clear the longer you work in IT; that people lean heavily toward the optimistic and hardware has no soul.
On the other hand, hardware also tends to be incredibly predictable. So when your computer begins making intermittent strange noises, or behaves in erratic ways, the best response is to never (and that means ever) ignore it.
The most common, and mission critical, are unhealthy hard drive noises. You’ll hopefully recognise it when you hear it and have prepared for such an event in the form of regular backups. If not, dive for the nearest external hard drive and get as much data as you can on there because it could literally be your last chance. The fact of the matter is, once you hear that first “clunk”, death is inevitable. If you have important data on your hard drive when it becomes completely non-functional, your two options are to either accept it and say goodbye or pay for some serious data recovery (both of which are extremely expensive in their own way).
This is why we (and pretty much every other IT professional) promote good backup habits so much.
Something many people don’t realise, however, is that your backup drive is subject to exactly the same laws of inevitability as the one inside your computer. Which is exactly the reason people serious about data spend scary amounts of money on RAID servers along with multiple backups both locally (“here, in my hand, I hold a backup”) and/or offsite (stored remotely on a server somewhere). It’s certainly more of an investment and probably not something the regular home user is going to be prepared to dedicate time to, but at the very least you need one healthy backup of your data.
For the home user, one backup performed at least weekly is probably the most common we see (which isn’t nearly as often as we’d like).
For Apple users, there are many automatic solutions (Super Duper, for example) but the go-to backup system seems to be the wonderful Time Machine included with OSX from Leopard onward. One of the many great things about Time Machine is, once set up, it’s transparent to the user and as long as the backup drive is available, works continuously in the background to keep your backup current. It’s also incredibly easy to restore a Time Machine backup to a brand new hard drive (for example if you upgrade your hard drive or need your old one replaced), giving you a system exactly how it was with the old hard drive.
For Windows, there are also dozens of automatic backup systems. Windows 7 now includes the very capable but basic Windows Backup, which is nice to see finally, and many companies offer paid applications to get the task done for you as painlessly as possible. There are some truly excellent free alternatives and for home users we highly recommend this route (these days, “free” definitely does not translate to “rubbish”). GFI Backup Home is usually our first recommendation because it’s free for non-commercial use and includes some fairly fine grained backup options such as dedicated email backup.
Regardless of what operating system you’re using, the important thing is that you get into the habit of creating regular backups. If you can only manage a single backup onto an external hard drive every two weeks, so be it. It’s better than nothing.
At the very least, you’re creating basic redundancy for your data and that’s a good start.