Time Machine backup how-toA new year means a new start—for both you and your gadgets. Get off on the right foot in 2012 with these five essential tech tips, from backing up your hard drive (you are backing up your hard drive, aren’t you?) to taking charge of your pile of passwords.

1. Back up your PC or Mac
Yes, backing up all your files and system settings is a hassle, and most days it’s not terribly rewarding—but you’ll be happy you did when your hard drive up and dies on you (and yes, it’ll happen sooner or later).

The first step is getting a USB-enabled external hard drive for your system—one that’s big enough to back up all your essential files. The good news is that they’re relatively inexpensive; think less than $100 for a 500 gigabyte external drive, or less than $200 for a whopping 2 terabytes (or about 2,000 GB) of storage.

Related: How big is a gig (GB), anyway?

If you’ve got a PC running the latest version of Windows, you’re in luck. Windows 7 comes with a couple of built-in utilities that’ll automatically back up the most important files in your user directory (such as your music, photos, videos, Office files, and other personal documents), as well as create an “image”—that is, an exact copy—of your entire hard drive.

While the “Backup and Restore” tool (which you’ll find by clicking the Start Menu and selecting Control Panel, then “Back up your computer”) won’t back up your entire hard drive, it will let you pick and restore a previous version of any individual file. On the flip side, the “Create a system image” utility will make a copy of your entire drive, but it won’t let you pick and choose individual files to restore; instead, you’ll have to restore the entire drive in one shot.

My advice: make sure to set up and run the “Backup and Restore” utility, at the very least (and yes, you can even schedule backups to occur automatically). Feeling more ambitious? Go ahead and create a system image.

Got a Mac? If so, meet Time Machine, the built-in Mac OS X utility that automatically backs up your hard drive every hour. Like the backup tools in Windows, Time Machine is free and easy to set up—and here’s a step-by-step guide to get you started.

2. Speed up your system with more RAM
Has your PC or Mac been feeling poky lately? Well, you could always just start over with a brand-new system, or you could give your old desktop or laptop new life with an infusion of memory, or RAM.

Adding more RAM is an easy way to boost your system’s speed, and the best part is that it’s cheap—for example, you can snag 8 GB of RAM for a new MacBook Pro for less than $50. You can save even more money by installing the RAM chips yourself (a process that typically involves little more than cracking open a panel with a screwdriver), or you can always have your local computer repair shop do the work for a nominal fee.

If you’re thinking of getting more RAM for your PC or Mac, I advise checking out Crucial.com, a online memory retailer that can scan your system to determine the exact type of memory that you’ll need.

3. Install virus and malware protection
Mac users are still relatively safe from viruses, but if you’re using Windows, be careful out there. Just last week, I visited a friend who was busy reinstalling Windows thanks to a particularly nasty piece of malware hiding in a software download—one that briefly took control of her system and crammed it full of eye-popping images that would make Hugh Hefner blush.

There are plenty of commercial, for-pay virus-protection packages on the market (Norton and McAfee among them), but I’ve got a free solution for you—Microsoft Security Essentials, which you can download and install right here.

4. Take charge of your passwords
Can’t keep track of all passwords—you know, the ones for your online banking account, Netflix, Facebook, Google, iTunes, and so on? Or, even worse, are you using the same password for all your online accounts?

First things first: yes, it’s easier to remember one password for every account, but it’s a recipe for disaster if your password is ever stolen or compromised. At the very least, make sure you use a unique, strong password for your online banking account.

Next, think about using a password manager to keep track of all your password—and indeed, this is something I need to do this year. PC World has a handy roundup of four top password managers right here.

At the very least, consider doing something that might sound verboten: writing your passwords down. Yes, your online life will be an open book if your list of passwords is ever found, but it’s probably a safer solution than using a single, weak password for all your accounts. Also, if you do decide to write your passwords down, do so using pen and paper, and not in a document on your hard drive.

5. Lock your smartphone with a passcode
Speaking of passwords, do you have a passcode set up for your iPhone or Android phone? It may seem like a nuisance, but you’ll be sorry of your unlocked handset—along with all your email, contacts, photos, and other personal information—falls into the wrong hands.

To set a passcode on your iPhone, tap Settings, General, Passcode Lock, then follow the instructions. You can set either a simple, four-digit passcode, or switch “Simple Passcode” off to create a longer passcode.

For Android phones, tap Settings, “Set up a screen lock,” and then “Password” to create a PIN or “Pattern” to unlock your phone with a simple pattern that you trace on the touchscreen.

And one more thing: don’t create a passcode along the lines of “1234,” “5555,” or “1212.” Yes, they’re better than nothing, but just barely.