WHEN I started working on a personal computer a dozen years ago, the world was different.
My machine had word-processing and communications software, some old articles, and an unused spreadsheet program. It didn't matter too much if the machine locked up. I could always reload the software and shrug off the lost data.
Then I found new uses for the machine - database, appointment calendar, note-taker - and my data suddenly got much more valuable. I believe the same transformation is now under way with the home computer.
Once the repository of a few games and old letters, the average home computer today holds family finances, that business report you're working on, and little Johnny's half-finished English paper. What would happen if that stuff were suddenly wiped out?
Unfortunately, many users ignore this threat. They treat their home computers like appliances, not realizing the dangers posed by software glitches and hard-disk failures. A power surge might slow down a Hoover; it can knock out a Hewlett-Packard.
So avoid carefree appliance thinking, urges David Oldfield of the software company Symantec. Think of a home computer as a car, which needs regular attention. Here's a list of steps to maintain Old Faithful and her data:
* Back up your data. It's the single most important precaution a user can take. Yet most of us ignore it, probably because it's bothersome to juggle floppy disks. I got so tired of losing data a few years ago that I installed a tape backup unit. It is far easier to use than floppies. If you like, backup software will run it every day automatically. Another solution is a disk-cartridge drive from SyQuest or Iomega.
* Get utilities software. I'm a big fan of Symantec's Norton Utilities, which has recovered numerous trashed files that I never expected to see again. A good utilities program will also tune your system, make it easy to recover from a disaster, and put your files back in logical order on the hard disk, which can actually speed up the computer.
* Check for computer viruses. These man-made programs can be quite nasty, but their threat varies widely. If you're the type who only uses software from reputable firms, never allows friends or associates to stick bootleg diskettes into your machine, and never downloads programs from an electronic bulletin board or the Internet, then you probably don't need anti-virus software. Otherwise, get it and use it.
* Prepare for electric gremlins. At the very least, every home computer should have a surge protector to prevent damage from lightning strikes and the like. Get a high-quality one that warns you if its circuitry has been damaged.
I've been thinking for some time of moving up to a battery backup-power unit, which also protects equipment from power sags and outright blackouts. While I can count on two hands the number of times I've lost data because of a blackout, an IBM study found that a typical computer experienced more than 120, mostly invisible, power problems a month. That affects the life of the computer, says Joe Capes of American Power Conversion, which sells backup-power units targeted toward home users.
* Turn off that monitor. Newer monitors often power down automatically when they're not in use, extending the life of the all-important tube inside. When I step away from my older Nanao monitor, I just turn it off. (Frequently turning the monitor off and on won't hurt it, Nanao's Brian Mast says.)
How much you decide to invest in protecting your home computer depends on how valuable your data and equipment are. But do invest something. Otherwise you're driving into the Information Age with no insurance.
* Send comments to CompuServe (70541,3654), America Online (LBELSIE), or via Internet (laurentb @delphi.com).