Like it or not, we live in a digital world. A computer crash or a lost cell phone can wipe out your family's photos and financial and medical records or your entire address book. But backup programs can prevent such catastrophes from becoming irrevocable.
Many people forgo online services and back up their PCs with an external hard drive or a stack of DVDs because they worry hackers will gain access to sensitive records. But an external drive or backup discs won't protect you from fire or theft unless they're stored off-site (say, at your office or Grandma's house).
Among the online backup services that safeguard customer data on secure servers are Microsoft's SkyDrive, ADrive and Apple's MobileMe.
Windows Live SkyDrive is free. All you need to do is sign up for a Windows Live account. (If you have a Microsoft Hotmail, Messenger or Xbox Live account, you can use that, too.) You get 25 gigabytes of space. Then, using the optional upload tool, you simply drag files from the Windows desk-top to your online folders. SkyDrive doesn't support Macs, nor does it offer additional storage. But it's an easy way to back up thousands of files, and you can't beat the price.
ADrive offers 50GB of free storage. Upgrade to its Signature service ($7 a month, or $70 a year) and you'll get advanced features, such as file encryption.
Apple's MobileMe is accessible via any Web browser and is a good option for Apple fans. (It works with Windows PCs, too.) The service costs $99 a year for 20GB of storage. Although that may seem pricey compared with SkyDrive and ADrive, MobileMe offers a lot more services, including the ability to sync all your contacts, whether they're stored on a Mac, iPhone, iPod Touch or Windows PC.
If your provider offers wireless-backup protection for your phone (you'll have to check to see if your model is covered), that's usually the best choice. If your phone is lost or stolen, you can easily reload your contact information. And when you upgrade to a new phone, it's usually easy to transfer data to the new handset.
Sprint's backup service saves your contact list to a secure server. You may edit the information at Sprint's Web site, and the data is automatically forwarded to your phone. The service costs $2 a month. Good news for T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless customers: Both provide enhanced backup services free. T-Mobile servers safeguard your contacts, photos and videos (go to www.t-mobile.com/shop/addons, select "Included Services," "My T-Mobile" and then click on "MobileLife"). Verizon Wireless Backup Assistant (https://backup-assistant.vzw.com) offers a similar set of tools, but only to customers who open a free online account.
AT&T Wireless's mobile-backup service isn't accepting new customers, although it continues to support existing subscribers. But if you have a smart phone, you can back up contacts to Microsoft Outlook or a similar program. Among the online options, iPhone users should consider Apple's smartly designed Mobile-Me. And don't overlook third-party mobile-backup providers, including Microsoft MyPhone, which is free and works with some Windows Mobile phones. The more sophisticated Skydeck is also free and backs up contacts, text messages, call records and voice mail.
If you switch wireless carriers, you'll likely have to take your old phone into your new carrier's retail store to transfer information. Data stored on your old carrier's backup probably won't transfer.