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Backing up your mobile

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Wendy M Grossman Wendy M Grossman | 11:00 UK time, Friday, 16 March 2012

According to security experts, there are two types of computer users: people who have lost their data and people who are going to lose their data. The solution, of course, is backups. But here's something almost everyone forgets: your phone is a computer, too. And of all the computer devices you own, your phone is the one most vulnerable to damage because you use it so often and carry it everywhere.

Today's phones store phone numbers, pictures, messages, video clips, downloaded apps, paid-for music, and, soon, digital money and payment receipts. What if your phone were lost, stolen, or dropped in the toilet? How would you get it all back?

Fortunately, backing up your phone isn't as difficult as you might think. Most phones – certainly all smartphones – come with software that allows you to take a copy of your phone's data. Many of the more thoughtfully designed smart phones come with a built-in backup routine that kicks in automatically and reminds you frequently.

Sometimes these can be too automated, so you're not sure what's being backed up or where the data is stored. But they come close to the ideal, which is that if something happens you can buy a new phone, connect it to your PC, and find everything present from the old phone. Many phones come with backup software; for those that don't a web search should find something that will work.

Backup for smart phones is often called "synchronisation". A backup just means taking a copy of your data, but syncing lets you use the data seamlessly on your main computer. Sync software typically has two components: software you install on your computer and an app or equivalent that runs on your phone. The phone app works in several stages. First it collects the data you want to back up. Then it connects to either your own computer or a remote one owned by a service provider in the cloud. Finally, it uploads the data to the location where the backup copy will be stored.

Where you'll store the data depends on the choices you make and the software you're using. Storing the data on your own computer is free, and also means you have complete control over what happens to it. Storing it in the cloud, on the other hand, means that you can restore the data onto your phone – or a replacement – from anywhere you happen to be.

There are two complications. One is that the backup routines that come with your phone may not include third-party apps you've downloaded and the data they create. If so, you'll need to search for something more comprehensive. The second is that phones may store data in more than one location: in the memory built into the phone itself, on the SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card that communicates with the mobile network operator, and on any other memory cards you have installed.

Of those three, the memory cards are easiest: just plug them into a card reader, either built into your computer or an external one, and copy the files. For the SIM cards and memory, if backup software wasn't supplied and you can't find anything online, you will need instructions from the phone's manufacturer.

Wendy M. Grossman is a freelance technology writer and author living in London and is founder of The Skeptic magazine.

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