Answer Line: Preserve Your Most Vital Data for the Long Haul

How do I safely store important data for many years?

David Donovan, via the Internet

No one has a definitive answer on the best way to preserve your digital information. But the following recommendations will improve your odds of having a legible data archive at hand for years to come.

Choose the right format: Use file formats for your data archive that you'll be able to open 20 (or more) years from now. The most likely candidates are formats that everyone uses and that many programs support, such as .bmp (bitmap), .tif (TIFF), and .jpg (JPEG) for image files; and .doc (Microsoft Word), .htm (HTML), and .txt for text files. (Remember that if an image to be saved isn't already a JPEG, keeping it as an uncompressed TIFF will preserve more details.) For an extra level of security, use at least two of these formats for each file you want to keep.

Use write-once discs: Of course, the file formats you use for your archive are irrelevant if the physical media the files are stored on become unreadable or if technology companies stop making drives that can read them. Again, think ubiquity. Today, so many manufacturers produce CD and DVD drives that some are bound to continue to do so for a long time. But only Iomega makes the Rev and Zip drives, for example--if the company stops making them, getting data off those cartridges will become very difficult.

Go with CD-R or DVD±R discs; stay away from RW media. The primary advantage of RW--the ability to erase and write over data--isn't an advantage if you're saving something for good. More important, RW discs aren't as stable as R discs.

Avoid packet-writing software: When you preserve your data, don't use tools such as Drag-to-Disc (in the Roxio Easy Media Creator suite) or InCD (in the Nero suite) that allow you to write to the disc directly from Windows Explorer. Instead use a good, basic authoring program, such as Easy Media Creator's Creator Classic.

Make multiple copies: Having extras on hand increases the chances that one will survive. As mentioned above, use two or more different formats, where possible.

Store them properly: Optical discs like a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight.

Check them regularly: Every few years, take the discs out of their storage, insert them in your PC, and make sure you can still read all the files they contain.

Convert Audio Files

I've got a lot of Windows Media Audio (WMA) files and an audio player that doesn't support that format. Can I convert the files to MP3?

Tom E. Hughes, Moraga, California

Maybe, but it's best not to. Both formats use lossy compression, which saves storage space but reduces the sound quality. When you convert from one lossy format to another, you hurt the quality twice.

If possible, rerecord your tunes from their CD or other source as MP3s. If you don't have an MP3-ripping program, use Microsoft's free Windows Media Player 10.

You can't convert copy-protected WMA files, including songs purchased from Musicmatch or Napster--as well as tracks you've ripped with WMP's default setting. To find out if a WMA file is protected, right-click it and select Properties; if there's a License tab, the file is protected.

If you don't have a program that converts audio formats, try DBpowerAMP Music Converter (see Figure 1

FIGURE 1: Switch your audio files from one format to another by using this option in the DBpowerAMP Music Converter utility.
). It's a free program if you're converting MP3s to WMAs, but after 30 days you must pay $14 to keep converting WMAs to MP3 format.

Password Protection That Tags Along With You

Last February I recommended the free program Password Safe for managing passwords. Jim Moore of Panama City, Panama, points out that unlike most Windows programs, Password Safe runs on PCs without being installed on the hard drive. You can put the program on a USB memory key, encrypt and store your data on the device, and access your passwords on any computer. Get your copy.
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