In this thread I advise you not to shutdown your computer regularly but instead reboot it about once per month. There is a negative side to this, and it is especially pronounced when you get a power surge or even a brown or black out. Surges are more deadly to computer components than outages, but the quick halt of any device can cause problems. Outages can wreck your computer, but surges are killers, so we'll start there.

A surge is basically a rush of electricity to either a home or single outlet, where the normal wattage is spiked with excess energy. I don't need to tell you that being shocked is bad, and this can actually destroy electronic equipment plugged into an outlet. A power surge can render any single component in your computer useless, from destroying a power supply to burning out your video or sound card, or even frying your motherboard and/or CPU. More commonly when a surge wrecks a motherboard, the whole board isn't ruined, just a single bus. Yet that bus can be the one your CPU uses to access your hard drive, your RAM, your network adapter. In essence, if a single bus is fried the whole board needs replacing. (There are exceptions, such as a bus leading to the onboard network adapter is fried but installing a new one in an expansion slot works fine.)

So surge is bad, but we can't actually help when one occurs . . . most of the time. Certainly faulty wiring in a home where wires are exposed and shorts occur can lead to surges and can also be fixed. Normally, however, a surge comes from beyond our property, from the energy provider. To protect yourself from potential surges you need a surge protector. This is not the same thing as a power strip.

Surge protectors and power strips often look the same: you have a plastic bar with several outlets on it that you plug into the wall. Power strips offer an one/off toggle so that you can turn all power off to the bar. Many surge protectors also offer this feature, yet they also employ a "fuse" (a breaker) that will blow before letting excess power reach its outlets. A power strip is simply a device that expands the number of outlets accessible to a single wall outlet. A surge protector acts as a power strip and includes surge protection by way of employing a fuse capable of handling X amount of joules above the normal output before blowing.

So how do you tell the difference when shopping? First and foremost, surge protectors will always cost more than power strips. As well, the packaging for a surge protector will have a number of joules it can handle, whereas a power strip won't, because it cannot handle any power above what the wall offers. Also, surge portectors are equipped with obvious fuses, typically round buttons that pop out when a surge occurs that can be reset like a breaker. Because a surge can ravage your computer—and any other electronic device plugged into an outlet when the surge occurs—it is best you spend a little extra money for one instead of a power strip. Those things are designed to get fried before the components plugged into them. And many of the higher-end surge protectors offer warranties, claiming if you lose gear plugged into their devices they'll replace them up to X amount of money. I've seen some that go as high as $15,000 worth of equipment.

We cannot control outages. When a grid goes down we lose power, and sometimes those outages start with a surge. We know how to protect from surges now, but what about outages? When the power to your home suddenly stops, everything requiring power stops. Your computer will not shutdown properly but instead just switch off bluntly. This is like ripping the power plug from your wall. Outages that do not surge first can only hurt your hard drive by simply yanking power from it. The platters don't just slow down, they halt, and this can destroy a drive quickly.

Your surge protector will prevent a jolt of juice from frying your motherboard, but it will not protect your mechanical hard drive from screeching to a halt. When you shutdown a computer it slows components down in waves, and once everything is halted the power is cut. The shutdown process for all computer systems is gradual. So when the power goes out in your house while writing that pesky term paper, not only will you lose changes, but data can easily become corrupted, and your drive could fail next time you boot up. So what's the answer?

UPS is the answer. Not the United Parcel Service, the Universal Power Supply, which can also be called a battery backup. A UPS is a box you plug your computer into that continues to work when the power goes out. It's a battery that only activates when it's receiving no power from the outlet. Depending on the amount of time you want the thing to power your computer, it can be as small as a shoebox or twice that size. The best part about these things is that once the battery is mostly depleted, it uses its remaining power to shutdown your computer properly. This gadget doesn't require you to order from a specialty store; it is available at most retailers handling computers. Some Wal-marts may carry them, and I assure you nearly every Best Buy has at least one in stock.

On the low end you're looking at paying roughly $50 for a device that acts as a surge protector AND a battery for your computer for upwards of 15 minutes after loss of power. On the high end you're looking at several hundred dollars for one that lasts 60-120 minutes and includes top software for backing up any work.

Buy a power strip for lamps and radios. Do not use them for computers. Start by spending a little extra cash for 1200-1600 joules tolerant surge protector ($20+) and then save some cash for a UPS. I recently bought a new surge protector with a $5000 insurance attached, capable of withstanding 1600 joules, and I paid $12. Surge protectors are not that expensive. A good UPS will likely run you no less than $50 for 15 minutes of power (probably closer to $80). It's cheaper than replacing a motherboard or a hard drive, not to mention hassling with lost data.