It's an unpleasant fact of digital life: If you keep your computer long enough, your hard drive will eventually fail. You're wise to put...

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It’s an unpleasant fact of digital life: If you keep your computer long enough, your hard drive will eventually fail.

You’re wise to put a system into place now to back up all of your documents and possibly your programs, as well. There are a number of things to consider when you’re choosing a hard drive.

• What’s the purpose of the external drive?

If it is to protect your data against disasters such as fires or floods, you’ll want a portable drive for storing your files that you can take with you on vacation or leave most of the time in a safe-deposit box.

If the goal is to protect your system in case of a hard-drive crash, you’ll want an external hard drive that backs up frequently and sits on your desk most of the time.

• What do you want to store on the drive?

This determines how much space you need. If you just want to back up your files, you won’t need as much space as if you want to back up your operating system and all your programs.

Backing up your operating system allows you to easily regenerate your hard drive if it crashes.

With specialized software, you can create a backup image of your hard drive and recover your whole system all at once after a crash.

Otherwise, you’ll have to reload your operating system and software and move your files over manually.

Space requirements

All of this plays into your space requirements. External hard drives start at 80 GB, but that would not leave you enough room for growth. At a bare minimum, I’d suggest buying a hard drive with 120 to 160 GB of space — more if your budget allows.

• Do you want to use the external drive with multiple computers?

If so, you’ll want to consider network-attached storage, which allows you to share files across computers using the drive.

Now, a few affordable options.

If you decide to purchase a portable hard drive, consider the 160 GB Western Digital Passport.

This small, sleek hard drive is powered via USB, meaning you won’t need to carry a power adapter, and included software lets you synchronize files between home and office and encrypt the drive’s contents for additional security.

You might also consider the Seagate Free Agent Go, also 160 GB.

It offers the same USB power and encryption abilities, plus fast transfer speeds and software that allows you to take some programs and Web settings (such as your favorites, passwords, cookies and settings) with you, wherever you go.

If you prefer a full-size desktop hard drive, consider the Seagate drive’s inexpensive larger brother, the 320 GB Seagate Free Agent Desktop. And if you choose to integrate your external hard drive into your home network, check out the 320 GB LaCie Ethernet Disk Mini, an inexpensive, easy-to-use drive.

Half the solution

Finally, having a place to back up your files is only half of the solution. You may also want to purchase software to back up your files automatically, rather than counting on yourself to remember to do it.

If you use a PC, programs such as SyncBack or Second Copy will regularly back up some or all of your files. You could also purchase a program such as Acronis True Image to create a mirror image of your hard drive, including the operating system.

For Macs, Apple’s Leopard operating system comes with Time Machine, which is designed for automatic backups. Additional programs such as SuperDuper! help you better customize backups to meet your needs.