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Hard drives break down eventually and have lots of moving parts, so they don't stand up well to being banged around or dropped. How you can deal with keeping your data safe depends on whether you plan to use a desktop-based external hard drive, or a portable hard drive, like an iPod.
Desktop external hard drive: If you invest in a large, desktop-based external hard drive, you're probably using it to back up data on your original hard drive. So how do you back up the back-up? This is where your removeable media -- CD writer, for example -- can help. Consider backing up your back-up hard drive to CD or DVD once a month, or every six months, or annually. Just do it on a regular basis, depending on how important it is to you to add more redundancy to your data storage. You could also use an online back-up service, either by FTP to your own web space or through an online back-up service.
Portable hard drive: Your portable hard drive is much more likely to eventually fail, given the expected bruising it will take traveling with you. But the good thing here is that few people store unique data on their portable hard drive. Most use it to trasnfer data or to keep back-ups. So if you do have information stored on a portable drive only, make sure you're copying or syncing it regularly over to your main PC or laptop.