Resolved: How To Keep Your Computer Safe, Clean And Backed Up In 2011

Those important computer tasks—like securing, cleaning, and backing up—are like any other resolution: we all say we’re going to do them but rarely keep up with them all year. Here’s our simple guide to staying on track in 2011.

Keeping your computer in good shape gets to be tedious and annoying when you have to try to fit it in to your busy schedule. Rather than letting things slip through the cracks and watch your computer slow to a crawl, fall victim to a nasty virus, or crash and burn with no backups, we’ve put together everything you need to tackle to stay on top of all your computer maintenance tasks. Here are the four things we’re going to look at (feel free to click to skip to any of the sections):

Back Up Automatically

Backing up our data is something we all know is important but many of us do not do. In the past you might’ve been able to get away with the excuse of inconvenience, but nowadays it’s so effortless that if you’re not backing up, you should make it your first order of business for the new year.

A good backup system will duplicate your important data in three places. One of them can be your computer, another can be an external hard drive that you keep in your house, but one of those three places should exist outside of your home. Local backups (liking backing up to an external USB drive) protect you if a hard drive dies, but not if your house is robbed, catches fire, or your fall victim to any other incredibly fun disaster you can imagine. While these are rare circumstances, the effects are devastating. Since backup is so easy, there’s really no sense in taking the risk. First we’ll take a look at backing up to the cloud, which requires essentially no effort at all, and then we’ll consider your options for each specific operating system so you can have a local copy on an external drive as well.

Backing up to the cloud

As long as your work doesn’t consist of serious data creation, I’m of the opinion that you can use Dropbox for all your backup needs, especially now that it includes selective sync. I used Dropbox toorganise my home folder and sync my iTunes library to multiple computers and it works great. While Dropbox can take care of just about everything I want backed up and synced, it can’t handle your applications and system files without causing problems. Also, for reasons I don’t entirely understand (aside from the cost), not everyone wants to keep the majority of their stuff in their Dropbox. So, for those of you who aren’t sold on Dropbox being the golden egg of cloud backup, your other best bet for off-site backup is Mozy.

Mozy has become a Lifehacker favourite, especially with the speed boosts and its ability to also back up to external drives. In fact, its external drive backup options make it a cross-platform tool that can pretty much handle every one of your backup needs (cloud + local drive). While I wasn’t in love with Mozy when it first came about, it’s now considerably faster than it was in its early days and can handle everything from one application. That’s pretty tough to beat. For a full walkthrough, check out our guide to setting up a foolproof and fireproof automatic backup plan with Mozy.

Backing up to a local drive

NOTE: While we’re not going to get picky about the brand of drive you use, make sure you get one that’s a bit bigger than your computer’s drive if you want to save multiple backups.

While Mozy can back up to an external drive nicely, you may prefer a backup tool with a larger feature-set that’s more tailored to your operating system. Fortunately, there is no shortage of backup software available for every operating system. We’ve narrowed down the pool and have a few options for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, that should cover all your local backup needs.


Built into Windows 7 is the Backup and Restore Center, which Microsoft debuted in Windows Vista and has since improved in Windows 7. While it’ll take more than a few clicks to set up, you’re given a good number of options to control how your data is backed up. You can choose what you want to backup, where you want to back it up (including network locations), and how often you want the backup to occur. While it may not be the perfect solution for all users, it’s built into Windows and pretty easy to set up.

Alternatively, you have the classic SyncBack. The SE version is free but you can pay for additional features. Nearly five years ago, Gina used SyncBack SE to set up an automatic backup plan that still works today. If Windows Backup centre doesn’t quite cut it for you, SyncBack SE is a great alternative.

Mac OS X

One nice feature of Mac OS X 10.5 and 10.6 is Time Machine, which lets you plug in a drive and just back up with no effort at all. Once it has a full copy of all your data, it will only backup the files that have changed since that original copy was made. If you want a file you lost, you can activate Time Machine and go back in time to retrieve an earlier copy of that file. Your Time Machine backup drive can also be used to restore lost data and set up a brand new Mac with all your files.

Time Machine pretty much does what it wants to do and that’s that, so if you’re looking for more control I’d suggest picking up Carbon Copy Cloner. It’s a free backup utility that makes a bootable copy of your drive (which Time Machine does not). I use it all the time and love it. It can be as simple as selecting the drive you want to copy, but you can also selectively copy certain files. Carbon Copy Cloner is very straightforward backup software, so you’re not going to find the bells and whistles you might with paid software, but if you want something simple that also offers quite a bit of control over your backup, it’s an ideal choice.


For easy backups on Linux machines, Back In Time is a good solution. You can get your backup plan set up pretty quickly, and it backs up using space-saving snapshots (much like Apple’s Time Machine). As far as Linux backup apps go, it’s pretty easy to understand and runs great on GNOME and KDE-based Linux systems.

Secure Your Computer And Your Life Online

There are a number of ways your computer can get into trouble. Whether you’re dealing with viruses, online threats, or physical theft, here are some great tools to help keep you safe.

Antivirus software

For Windows, however, you don’t have to look much further than Microsoft Security Essentials. There once was a day when relying on third-party antivirus software was necessary, but Microsoft put those days behind us. MSE is great at ferreting out malware, performs very well, and is free. Mac OS X and Linux users generally don’t have to worry too much about viruses, so you get a pass on antivirus software. But you don’t get a pass on the next category.

Online Security

We’ve take a pretty extensive look at how to stay secure online, so read through that and you should be in pretty good shape. Additionally, you’ll want to take a look at how to combat spam email, learn how to prevent someone from breaking into your Mac or Windows PC, and invade your own privacy to make sure your private information is secure.

Preventing (and preparing for) computer theft

Prey is a wonderful, free, open-source tool that can help you track down and (potentially) recover your stolen Mac, Windows PC, or smartphone. If you’re like me and you’ve had your laptop stolen before, you know how devastating it can be. When you lose technology with personal data, the thief doesn’t only have access to your expensive hardware but a lot of information about you as well. Coming to this realisation is not fun, so be smart and take the necessary steps to protect yourself from a potential theft.

For those of you with iPhones (or other iOS devices), you’re lucky enough to have free access to find my iPhone. Set it up and use it! If you’re don’t have a recent iOS device, we’ve got you covered. Here’s how to set up Find My iPhone on older iOS devices.

Run Regular Maintenance

With your data backed up and protected, you’re going to want a computer that runs smoothly. Performing regular maintenance can play a big role in keeping your machine in tip-top shape. Mac OS X and Windows 7/Vista will take care of defragmenting your drive for you—so no need to take care of it yourself—but if you’re running earlier versions of Windows you should check out our guides on setting up a self-repairing hard drive and setting up scheduled tasks to run your favourite cleaning tasks in the background. If you’re a fan of CCleaner (the all-in-one crap cleaner for Windows), check out this guide to automating your CCleaner sessions.

For Mac users, maintenance tasks are regularly scheduled by OS X and so, technically, you don’t have to do anything yourself. Nonetheless, it’s in your best interest to play a hand in your system’s upkeep. If you want a look at every possible option you have, definitely check out our guide on cleaning up and reviving your bloated, sluggish Mac. Alternatively, if you want to do a bit less, you can just schedule maintenance tasks in the Terminal and repair disk permissions. If you’re not familiar with repairing your disk permissions, all you have to do is go into your Applications —> Utilities folder and open up Disk Utility. Inside of Disk Utility, choose the First Aid tab and then click the Repair Disk Permissions button. It’ll take a few minutes and slow down the system a bit, but running this operation will help prevent little errors here and there. Running this once a month (and after any major software installation) will keep your Mac a bit happier and less prone to preventable issues.

Last, if you have a bad habit of letting your Downloads folder or Desktop get out of control, check out our guide to automatically cleaning and organising your folders with Belvedere (or with Hazel if you’re on a Mac).

Create A Tidy, Attractive Desktop

Once your computer is backed up, safe, clean, and running smoothly, you ought to finish up with a little fun. Your machine is, ultimately, going to be more fun to use if it’s easy to navigate and looks just the way you want it to look. We’ve taken an extensive look at customising your desktop, so be sure to check out those options to take on some serious customisations. Need inspiration? Check out our most popular featured desktops from 2010. If you’re just looking for some simple customisations, however, you can find some excellent, distraction-free wallpaper over at Simple Desktops and great free icons at the Iconfactory.

Hopefully now you’ve got a good plan to keep your computer in good shape this year. Is there anything you’d add to this list? Let’s hear about it in the comments.

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