Any number of things can cause your computer to crash and have trouble starting up properly again. It could be that a computer virus or worm has seized control, or it may be something as benign as a failed attempt to install video software. Sometimes computer hard drives fail for no apparent reason at all.
The reason couldn't matter less when all you want is for your computer to work again. That's the worst time for your computer-geek buddy to say, "Oh, you should have backed up your files." But he's right. Most people don't consider backing up their files until it's too late.
Here are some convenient ways to back up data that computer users of any skill level can handle:
* Burn it. Most rewriteable CD and DVD drives come with software to help you transfer files from your computer to a disk. A CD-ROM disc is fine, but consumers who have DVD drives that can write data to a disc can save nearly seven times as much data on a rewriteable DVD disk. Whether you use a DVD or CD burner, check to see if your burning software supports file compression. This will allow you to store more data on your backup discs.
Backing up your data is easiest if you keep most of it stored in just one or two places on your hard drive. Even on a well-kept machine, locating all of your important data files -- bookmarks, e-mails, contacts lists, special program settings -- can take time, but after you've done it once, it is far less painful the next time around.
(In Windows 95/98/ME, most of the Web browser bookmarks and other data used by programs installed on your PC are stored in a handful of folders usually located in one or more of the following places:
"C:\Windows\Local Settings\Application Data\"
"C:\Windows\Profiles\[Your user name\".
In Windows 2000, NT and XP, most of the stored program data can be found in the directory:
"C:\Documents and Settings\[Your user name]\Application Data\"
Windows XP Professional comes equipped with a built-in backup utility. Instructions for using it are at: www.microsoft.com/athome/security/update/backup.mspx. A tutorial on a similar tool available to Windows XP Home users is at: support.microsoft.com/default.aspx ?scid=kb;en-us;Q306186&sd=tech#3.
* Install a second internal hard drive. This can be used to store backup copies of your data files. Installing a second hard drive isn't as hard as it sounds, but it does involve multiple steps. PC World has a how-to on this at: www.pcworld.com/howto/article/0,aid,47370,00.asp. Removable or external hard drives are a popular and relatively painless choice for backup, but they usually cost more than twice as much as internal drives.
* Back up automatically. For periodic, automated backups, check out BackupMyPC from Stompsoft, www.stompsoft.com. The downloadable basic version starts at a hefty $70, but it offers a range of backup options, including the ability to keep the same rewriteable DVD or CD in your disc burner and back up the same files and directories at scheduled intervals.
Symantec's Norton Ghost and GoBack are reliable alternatives for data backup and recovery. They cost about $40 each at www.symantec.com.
There are plenty of free and trial backup products available for download or purchase online. Just open your Internet browser and search for the term "Windows backup."
* Perform a rollback. Windows XP also ships with a "System Restore" utility that can roll back your settings, programs and drivers to a previous date. If you decide to use this option, remember that any data created since the date of your restore point will be lost when you roll back your PC.