Tuesday, September 12, 2006

My Computer Hates Me

I got a call the other day (I’m in the computer repair business both onsite and online) from a computer user that would have been funny except I get them often. I answered the phone and there was a short pause then the person on the other side said “my computer hates me.”

It was a sad voice, one that wallowed in desperation. I could tell they actually thought that their computer was out to get them. They had accepted their destiny with no hope of any solution. I have to admit I have seen machines that can create that type of response.

I do a lot of in home computer repair and the same scenario is often repeated. Just like in football, the best offense is a good defense. Years ago I was in the military (Army) and our company slogan was “Always Be Prepared.” That applies to computer problems too. Only it should be “Always Back Up.”

Intermittent problems are the toughest to fix. Usually a hard drive, power unit, or section of RAM will create errors a few times before going to computer heaven. Most users ignore them if they re-boot and the problem temporarily goes away. Until the big bang, when the part has a catastrophic failure.

And then I get the call. My first question is “do you have a current backup of any important data?” Most of the time the answer is no, but I did do one last month, year, or whatever. And then the fun starts. If the user has a current backup, a simple hardware replace and software restore is all that is necessary. It’s a pain in the neck, but not a big deal.

Going in after data, when the hard drive has failed, is a lot more involved and expensive. About 80% of the time the data can be recovered. But it’s not quick and not very much fun for all involved. And if they are graphic files like digital photos, they can be easily damaged when the hard drive fails.

So if you don’t have a current backup, please do so as soon as you finish reading this article. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief and some poor computer repair guy (like me) a lot of work. Just so you don’t have an excuse I’ll give you some pointers on how to back up easy and often.

One of the reasons many people don’t back up is they don’t have their data organized to make it easy. The first step in creating a good backup plan is to put all of the files that change often in one directory. Chances are you are a Windows user and the My Documents directory is easy to use and most software defaults to save in that directory anyway.

Create subdirectories that make it easy to find files once they have been saved. My directory looks like this:

My Documents

- Data - Web Sites - Clients - Photos - Work In Progress - Programming

Then under the subdirectories I have more specific directories by client or type of data. But when I go to do a backup, I just take the whole My Documents directory and it’s a done deal. Incremental backups can be made for just any directory that has changed that day or week. You can make your directory structure as sophisticated as you need, but put them all under one major directory.

There are other important files that you may want to periodically copy to your My Documents directory. Like Favorites from your browser, or any data that requires you save it to its own directory like many accounting packages. Also snag a copy of your email address book, important calendar, or to do lists.

Once all your data is in one place, you need a storage device large enough to back up your data. If it’s under 650 Megs, you can write it to a CD. Use either a write once or write multiple. If you have more data than can fit on a CD (or DVD, which can hold up to 4+ Gigs) you can always get a USB portable hard drive that holds up to 300 Gigs. The USB large end units go for under $100 on eBay.

OK, we have the data in one place, we have a device that can hold the amount of data we have to back up. Now you need to establish how often. My rule is every day for anything I’ve worked on. I’m lazy and hate to recreate anything twice. It really depends on whatever you are comfortable with replacing if things go awry.

If your storage device is big enough to hold multiple copies, you can do daily, weekly, and monthly in case you want to go back to a specific point in time on some of the data. It’s commonly referred to as the Grandfather Method. Many network servers are backed up in such a way so that information can be restore according to date and corrections made from that point on.

Any system you develop should be easy and quick or you won’t do it. The most common reason I get for not making backups is I didn’t have the time. So make it easy, and follow your schedule. You could also make a second copy and store offsite if necessary and the cost of replacement dictates.

You might want to test your backed-up data every once in a while to make sure that it is backing up and the data can be restored. The time to find out if the backups are bad is during a test and not an actual emergency. Better safe than sorry on data reliability.

So even if your computer hates you, you can have the satisfaction knowing that you have got a good fall back plan if it fails. A good backup can turn a disaster into a minor problem instead of a major setback.

About the Author John Dow owns a Web site that specializes in computer troubleshooting, security, and repair utilities.

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