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Backing up isn’t all that hard to do

If you’re looking for a very useful holiday present for a friend, loved one or yourself, you should definitely consider an external hard drive. I realize that a storage product isn’t nearly as exciting or instantly gratifying as a digital music player, a digital camera or a large screen TV, but it can be incredibly useful.

To begin with, you can use it to backup your hard drive – always a good idea. Most external drives come with backup software but you can use any backup program or merely use the operating system’s file copy functions to backup your content.

If you have a Macintosh with the new Leopard operating system, you can use the “Time Machine” backup program that’s included. Time Machine makes backing up and restoring files easy and strangely even fun. Microsoft Windows Vista also comes with a backup program that’s relatively easy to use but not nearly as appealing as Time Machine.

In terms of basic functionality, it hardly matters which brand external drive you get – there are excellent ones on the market from Maxtor, Seagate, Western Digital, Simple Tech, LaCie and others. Your most important decision is how much storage to get.

The more the merrier, of course, but in most cases, you probably don’t need to buy a higher capacity external drive than the number of gigabytes in your internal drive. And you might not even need that much storage since you don’t necessarily have to backup the operating system and your software: your data is what counts.

Still, there are reasons to consider getting a monster-sized drive. One is if you do want to create a complete mirror of your hard drive and another is if you have a lot of video, photos, audio and other large files that you want to store. I know someone who has 12 one-terabyte drives to backup his entire DVD collection. That’s 12,000 gigabytes of data. How he was able to defeat the copy protection on his commercial DVDs so he could perform the backup is an entirely different story.

For most users, 500 gigabytes should be more than enough. I recently tested a 500 GB Seagate FreeAgent Pro, which sells for under $200. In addition to basic file copy and backup, it comes with software that allows you to quickly sync data to an iPod, an online photo sharing service, or an online backup service. But what I mainly liked was the cool orange light on the cabinet that lights up to let you know it’s working.

All models in the “pro” line have a USB interface and a SATA interface. With SATA, the external drive is just as fast as an internal drive but even USB 2.0 is pretty fast, so there’s no excuse not to back up your files.

The latest external drive to wind up on my desk is a 320 GB version of Western Digital’s popular Passport line of portable drives. My only complaint about this drive is that I worry about losing it because it’s so small considering how much data it stores. It weighs less than four ounces and measures .6 inches by 5 inches by 3 inches, which makes it small enough to fit into a pocket.

For those who don’t think in terms of gigabytes, Western Digital has broken it down in terms of your stuff. 320 GB is enough for 91,000 digital photos or 80,000 songs or 24 hours of video. At $229.99 it’s a bit more expensive than your typical stocking stuffer (although it might actually fit in a stocking) but the company also offers lower capacity Passport drives starting at $79.99 for a 60 gigabyte model. That may not backup your entire hard drive, but it’s probably enough for a good chunk, if not all, of your precious data files.

One of the things I love about these ultra-portable external drives is that they don’t have to be plugged into the wall. They get their power from the USB 2.0 port which makes it easy to hookup and really easy to move from machine to machine.

I often use a drive like the Passport to transfer files from my desktop to my laptop PC. Speaking of transferring, the Passport comes with some nice synchronization software that automatically transfers your Microsoft Outlook files, and web browser settings from whatever PC it’s plugged into. You can even use it to synchronize two or more computers by moving it from PC to PC.

And speaking of little storage devices, those USB thumb drives are ubiquitous. But if you’re looking for something really unique, consider a Swiss Army Knife with a USB attachment. My knife ($78.95) has a gigabyte of storage, which I use all the time to move files between machines.

The only thing I have to remember is to put it my checked luggage when I travel by air. The Transportation Security Administration doesn’t care about thumb drives but they do get a bit testy when you try to sneak even the tiniest knife past security.