Most people — even IT pros who spend their lives maintaining corporate computing infrastructure — are so busy with life, families, work and the rest that they tend to leave periodic home PC maintenance tasks at the bottom of a long list of things that never get done.
With that in mind, we’ve put together this concise guide to some of the most important and oft-delayed or forgotten maintenance tasks that Windows PC users can perform regularly to keep their computers — and data — healthy through the year. For each of the five categories of tasks, we’ve listed applications and services that are available to make things quicker and easier, so that you don’t have to spend too much time and effort.
Offsite data backup
Arguably, the most important task in all of personal computer maintenance is data backup.
But even if you regularly back up using an external hard drive to replicate and store your data, that may not be enough. Often, it isn’t until disaster strikes that we realize how important it is to also have offsite copies of our critical files. Storage drives can fail, malicious applications can attack and devices can be stolen or damaged by fire or flood, usually at the worst possible time.
As an extra precaution, one of the simplest ways to safely back up your data offsite is to save it to the cloud. A number of online services offer a limited amount of free storage space, and you can often purchase additional space if you need it.
Online backup services are typically designed to back up your data files but not the operating system or program files. Then each time they scour your drives, they back up any files that are added or changed, keeping your data backup current. For an added layer of protection, most also offer encryption.
One of the more well-known services, Mozy, recently caused a considerable brouhaha when it announced that it would no longer be offering unlimited backup services — a move that could soon be copied by other services as well.
Meanwhile, here are some top contenders for your data backup needs:
IDrive Basic offers 5GB of free encrypted storage space, which can be managed through a browser-based application that you install on your PC. You can buy additional space with IDrive Pro; for example, 150GB costs $4.95 a month or $49.95 a year.
MozyHome offers up to 2GB of free space with automatic or scheduled backups, including file encryption. The company’s new pricing structure charges $5.99 a month for 50GB of storage space and $9.99 a month for 125GB.
SOS Online Backup offers up to 50GB of storage for up to five PCs for $9.95 a month or $79.95 a year.
Backblaze is actively courting ex-Mozy customers — it’s blazoned a “Welcome Mozy Users!” sign across its opening screen, along with with a statement that it’s “committed to continue offering unlimited storage.” For this, it charges $5 per month (or $50 per year) per computer. But be aware that file sizes are limited to a maximum of 9GB each.
Carbonite is another service that still offers unlimited online backup, charging $54.95 a year with a free two-week trial.
CrashPlan is a little different than the others: It offers social backup — in other words, you back up your data on one or more external systems (for example, belonging to friends and/or relations). If you’re looking for something more traditional, Crashplan+ Unlimited provides unlimited storage for one computer for $5 per month or $49.99 per year.
Some services let you access your files from any almost any computer, including a variety of mobile devices, and work with those files as if they resided on that device. Dropbox, for instance, provides free apps for the iPhone, iPad, Android and BlackBerry devices. It offers 2GB of storage space for free or 50GB for $9.99 a month.
There are other options that you may not even realize that you already have — and some of them are free. Many home ISPs offer a fixed amount of online data backup, with extra space available for purchase.
Offsite data backup capabilities can also be found within some utility programs you may already own. Symantec Corp.’s Norton 360 Version 4.0 includes 2GB of data backup online. Additional cloud storage space starts at $29.99 a year for 5GB to $89.99 a year for 50GB.