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When a friend's computer crashes, I am often the lucky recipient of that first frantic phone call from the poor soul who believes he has lost everything: headshots, letters to casting directors, scripts that have taken years to write, music and video files.

Ever the optimist, I always ask first: Is anything backed up onto an external hard drive? I already know the answer—99.9% of the time the answer is no—but I ask anyway. Sometimes the person calling will say he has a separate hard drive, but it's still in its unopened box. And this is when we both shed a tear, because I say I will try to help, but it is likely that his best bet is to engage a hard-drive retrieval expert, who may charge thousands of dollars for this service.

It's a marvelous suspension of disbelief that no one thinks their computer will crash, that it's something that only happens to other people. But it happens all the time, no computer is immune, and it's always a crushing experience. To add to the madness, external hard drives are cheap, easy to use, and they add a measure of security rarely offered in life in so small a package.

If you check those sales circulars stuffed into your Sunday newspaper, you'll find drives for well under $100. Install the accompanying software, plug the drive into your computer, and you'll be led through a quick installation. The icon for your new drive will appear on your desktop; drag any and all files onto it, and you're done. It's that simple.

One issue that may deter some people from backing up is that it seems like it will be a time-consuming process. It's not. Here are two options for quick backups:

1. When you first install your new hard drive, drag and drop the entire contents of your computer's hard drive to it. This will ensure that everything currently on your computer gets saved. This will take a bit of time; I recently dragged 80 gigabytes of data to a new external hard drive, and it took about four hours. However, you only need to do this once. After you have it all backed up, dragging over a few files on a regular basis will take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, if it's a lot of data. In other words, there's no need to keep backing up the entire contents of your computer, just those few files you've recently updated. If you mostly use a word-processing program or Quicken, for example, you'll find that these files transfer in seconds.

2. You can buy backup software that automates this process for you, performing its magic in the background or even while you're sleeping. Check out well-reviewed backup software, such as WinBackup for about $50 or Norton Ghost for around $70. The advantage of commercially sold products? A four-star review by PC World, for instance, is a nice bit of reassurance. If these options are too pricey, try Googling "free backup software." You'll find a bunch of options, but look for ones that offer user reviews. Another free option: Many drives offer their own automated backup software, depriving you of one more reason not to back up.

And how cheap are backup drives? This week, one of the major electronics chain stores offered a 100GB hard drive for around $80, but you can find them for much less, especially smaller drives. Remember, if your computer's hard drive is only 40GB, you don't need a drive that's larger than that. Of course, if you can afford a bigger hard drive, it's a great way to store large files, like digital video, which take up a lot of room. On this score, make sure you buy a drive that offers a FireWire connection and not just USB2. Although USB2 can be slightly faster for data transfer, FireWire guarantees real-time delivery at a specific rate, which is crucial for a digital video stream, where dropped or delayed data transfer can wreak havoc with your video editing. For video editing geeks, you'll also want a hard drive that runs at 7200 rotations per minute, and no less, which is optimal for transferring video.

Finally, you may have noticed I keep harping on an external backup drive and not another internal drive. Although internal drives are cheaper, I'm a big fan of portability. And because actors often take to the road, having a backup drive you can carry with you is a great convenience.

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