SHIFT: Learning to back up the hard (disk) way: a crash course

Fish gotta swim. Birds gotta fly. Hard-disk drives gotta crash. Even executives of companies who make hard-disk drives admit they have a life of between three and five years. They're mechanical. They wear out. Any hard drive still chugging after a half decade is a crash waiting to happen.

So, where do you have your 1,000-plus digital photos stored? Wait. Don't tell me. Your hard drive. And only your hard drive. You'll forgive my bluntness, but if I've just described you, you're an idiot. Before you get all angry and defensive and whatnot, read on.

In the aftermath of a natural disaster — fire, flood, storm, et al. — survivors are thankful that they're alive and naturally philosophically sanguine about their lost possessions. It's just stuff.

What survivors bemoan is the loss of their one possession that cannot be replaced — their photos. You cannot go back and re-stage and re-shoot the moments of your life. Once they're gone, all those singular events of your life captured in bits and pixels are gone, baby, gone, forever.

Backing up your photos is cheaper and easier than you think. And you have several options:

Option 1: An External Hard-Disk Drive
I know. I just ranted all about how hard disk drives crash. Why am I suggesting backing up to another hard drive? It's called redundancy. Both drives won't crash at the same time. One drive crashes, you get a new one and reload the pictures from the backup drive onto it.

External hard-drive backup has two advantages: the drives are cheap, and it's easy to do. You can buy a 250GB external drive such as the Maxtor OneTouch4 for less than $100. Figuring a life span of five years, that's like paying $20 a year in picture insurance. Isn't a lifetime of memories worth twenty bucks a year?

Option 2: DVD-R
If you opt for optical storage, do DVD. I was able to squeeze around 1,500 8- and 10-megapixel pictures onto a single 4.7GB DVD-R. Only around 150-175 pictures will fit on a blank CD. Blank DVDs are maybe twice the price of blank CD but hold 10 times as many pictures. Like backing up in general, that's a no-brainer.

But do not trust your pictures to those 100 blank DVDs for $10 that you bought on sale at the local drug store. These DVDs are cheap for a reason — they're crap. That's because cheap DVD blanks have a silver reflective layer. Silver oxidizes, sometimes in as little has six months. Why do you think those English maids have to regularly clean the silver? Oxidizing creates black spots, which can mean dropouts in your pictures.

Invest in your memories and buy blank DVDs with pure gold reflective layers, available from Memorex, Delkin and MAM-A, which developed much of the technology used by the other two. Anyone else selling "gold" DVDs likely mixes the gold with silver. Good, but not best.

Option 3: Online Storage
Unless you keep your external hard disk drive and backup DVDs in a fire-resistant safe or off-site in a safety deposit box, local storage is susceptible to the same natural disasters that could result in the loss of everything else you own.

So store your photos where fire and water can't get at them — on a remote server. Many online photo sites, however, compress your photos for online storage and won't let you download them at full resolution. Shutterfly claims they don't compress uploaded photos, and you can store an unlimited number of photos free without making an annual purchase. If you need to recover your pictures, they charge $40 to send 250-1,000 pictures back to you on CD.

That's a good deal, but Sharpcast, Phanfare and MediaMax (formerly Streamload) are better. Each offers massive amounts of storage at annual rates. While hardly free like Shutterfly, these sites are designed for backup and offer a plethora of features designed to ease upload and recovery of your digital pictures.

Sharpcast, for instance, has desktop software that automates photo uploads and automatically propagates any changes you make to these photos to all copies of that picture. In other words, you edit a picture on your desktop, it will make sure the changes are made in the copy stored on Sharpcast — and vice versa.

Personally, I use all of these solutions. I refuse to wake up one day and find my life has been erased by the capricious nature of technology. Don't wait for a hard drive crash to teach you a valuable lesson about backing up your digital photos.

Stewart Wolpin has been writing about technology for more than 20 years for such publications as Playboy, CNET, Consumers Digest and American Heritage of Invention and Technology. He's also a Mets season ticket holder and has played poker every Thursday night for the last 22 years.