Willing to pay for PC protection? Don't miss my top picks!

Sometimes, a freebie just isn't good enough when it comes to preserving your precious files and keeping your PC trouble-free. I'm willing to pay for my protection. Are you? If so, here are my recommendations for tools that'll give you your money's worth.

Having written about the utilities you get for free as part of Windows and how they can help keep you out of trouble, today I will focus on utility programs you must pay for.

The very best of these programs is Symantec's Norton SystemWorks, an integrated suite that include antivirus software, a disk problem-solver and clean-up utility, a defragger, a registry cleaner/fixer, and some other features I hope you never have to use.

OVER THE YEARS, I have played with dozens of utility packages, but have always come back to Norton. Do not be tempted by the siren song of less expensive programs (SystemWorks ranges from around $59 to $99 list), since trying to save money can cost you in other ways--like making you end up with loser programs like Network Associates' McAfee brand.

If you were a friend and called to tell me you had a computer problem and I couldn't solve it immediately over the phone, the first thing I would do is send you to the warehouse store to buy a copy of Norton. At my office, the sun does not set on a new machine before Norton is installed.

I would explain to you what all the various SystemWorks programs do and how to use them, except that it's not necessary for you to know. Symantec has created a "one-button checkup" that runs all the programs from a single click. It doesn't get much simpler than that.

THE COMPANY HAS ALSO AUTOMATED the process of getting antivirus updates, so you'll never be caught short when a new virus is discovered. Scanning e-mail for viruses is also integrated into the program.

Last week, I got a look at next year's versions of SystemWorks and Norton AntiVirus, and feel very confident about the products' future direction. But don't wait for the new version. If you aren't running Norton or something like it, stop right now and go buy a copy. And if you're running something like Norton, consider switching.

No, they aren't paying me to say these things. But I have been using Norton tools for nearly two decades, and over that time they have proven themselves, while their competitors have mostly faded away.

IF YOU ARE ON A CORPORATE NETWORK, backing up shouldn't be a problem. But since losing all your data can ruin an entire month, ask your administrator. Specifically inquire, "Are all my documents and files being backed up and how often?" Make sure you are saving your files to the proper location on the network--desktop machines are often not backed up, but the servers almost always are.

You might also look into an online backup service like Connected TLM or Ibackup, which uses your Internet connection to store your files on its servers. Expect to pay for this service.

You won't be able to back up all your files over the Internet, so make sure your documents and other "live" files are among those you select. Microsoft has been remiss in not putting all the files we should back up in one place, though the My Documents folder has been a step in the right direction.

ONE BENEFIT OF ONLINE BACKUPS is that they allow you to access your files from more than one machine. You might also use a service like FusionOne to keep all your machines synchronized, so your documents, calendar, contacts, e-mail, and other information will automatically stay up-to-date.

If you want to use a traditional tape or disk-based backup, two picks that have gotten good press recently are the Veritas Backup Exec Desktop and NTI Backup Now! Desktop Edition. I've used the Veritas products and didn't like them much, and haven't used Backup Now. I have been using Dantz Retrospect with good success for some time and really have no reason to change.

Key to the selection of any backup program is whether it supports the backup medium--Zip Disk, CD, tape, whatever--you want to use.

IF YOU HAVE TWO OR MORE computers and a network--as well as an excellent memory--you can just keep copies of the important files from one on the other and vice versa. That won't help you if your home or office burns, unless one machine is in one place and the other somewhere else when calamity strikes, but it will protect you against hard-drive crashes and other disasters.

You there you have it, spread over two columns: my top picks for programs that will help keep your computer out of trouble. Of course, these programs are only effective if you use them. The vendors have all tried to make this automatic--even to the point of running programs while you sleep--but it still requires some minimal effort on your part.

I hope this has been helpful to you and these are columns you can share with friends. I have opted for simple, effective solutions that I feel confident recommending to anybody and hope you'll make good use of them…and solve problems before they create havoc on your hard disk.

What other tools and systems do you recommend? Disagree with any of my picks? TalkBack to me.

AnchorDesk on radio and television: David is now getting up bright and early to visit with Brian Cooley every morning at 7:45 a.m. PT on CNET Radio (910AM in the San Francisco Bay Area and at www.cnetradio.com online). He is also co-host of an hour-long program every Friday at noon PT on CNET Radio. You can also catch David on CNET's News.com TV program, which airs twice every weekend on CNBC (see airtimes) or by going to the special CNET TV page featuring his most recent appearances and a link to the Friday radio program.