My 10/14/07 Missoulian column: Save your data with a backup
You don’t miss your data until it’s gone.
What would you feel like if you turned on your Windows laptop and saw a blank screen with line “No Had Disk Driver Detected”? Or you started up your Macintosh and got the flashing question mark that meant your computer can’t find the hard drive?
It means your hard drive crashed. It means that more than likely all your files are gone: your email, photos, documents, music. Next question: do you have a backup? No?
Hard drives aren’t supposed to break, right? Well, not ideally. Hard drive technology has come a long ways in recent years, but drives are still not foolproof. Banging a laptop around, age and heavy use will contribute to a failure. The potential life of a computer disk drive is rated by what’s called Mean Time Between Failure, or MTBF. Modern drives have a MTBF of 500,000 hours or more, which works out to around 57 years of 24/7/365 use, but that’s misleading because that figure is calculated from running hundreds of hard drives side by side for a few months, and not from testing drives for the full 500,000 hours.
I’ve got drives that are ten years old and still working, but the older a drive, the greater the risk of a drive crash and chance of not having a disaster if you have a backup. Even new drives a few months old will crash; sometimes a whole batch from a manufacturer will be defective.
Flash drives are a good choice for backups; they’re small and fast. Pocket size USB hard drives, too. Don’t consider floppy disks, unless your PC doesn’t have a USB port; floppies are less reliable than any other type of disk. You can easily burn a CD or DVD of your files, while CD-RW’s and DVD-RWs can be reused.
You can also “clone” your entire hard drive to another external drive for a full restore of everything should the worst happen, but that will take a large external disk, and might not be worth the time and money if you have all your original software disks to reinstall anyway.
For Windows, you can manually backup your files like your documents in My Documents and Shared Documents folder; same with My Music and My Pictures. Check the size of the folders before you copy, and then decide on a CD, DVD or external drive with enough capacity to hold everything.
You might want to try Windows XP Pro’s built in backup utility. It’s in Start menu/All Programs/Accessories/System Tools/Backup. Try it out or read full instructions from Microsoft. For Windows XP Home, you’ll need to install Backup; check the instructions at that same link; they will walk you right through backing up your email, settings or the entire hard drive. Windows Vista also has full disk and scheduled backups available, depending on your version. There are other backup software packages for Windows reviewed by PCWorld.
For Macs, you can backup manually, too. Your files are in the Users directory at the top level of the hard drive, in the folder with the same name as your login. Your whole user folder will be too big to put on a flash drive, but if you want just your Documents, they can all be copied from there. Your Music and Movie folders are in the same place; email is in your Mail folder inside the Library folder.
For whole disk backup, try SuperDuper or CarbonCopyCloner. They both “clone” or completely copy your hard drive to an external drive. With a newer Mac, you can clone your drive and then, if needed, startup from that drive and completely restore your system and all your files to a new internal drive as if nothing happened.
The new version of OS X – called Leopard – is due out in a few weeks, and a feature called Time Machine will make a copy of everything on your Mac, and you will be able to go back in time to recover anything – music, word files, bookmarks, photos, etc.
Another option is a .Mac subscription ($99/year); with that, you can have a 10 gigabyte offsite backup on the .Mac server, and be able to use other .Mac services, like web hosting, file syncing and sharing.
Which brings up my next point: if you’re going to backup your files, they are only as safe as the location of the backup. You can put the flash drive in the glove box of your car or the hard drive in the bottom drawer of your desk, but your backup might not be there when you need it. Protect a backup the same way you protect your laptop or computer itself. Check Google for other Windows and Mac online backup services; they can be fairly inexpensive and they will get your data off site and safe.
Another point to consider is if your disk backup is accessible to others, it’s a good idea for the data to be encrypted. Check the links above; some software offers encryption for backups, as do online backup services.
Keep the instructions for your backup software or online service printed out, because if you need to use the backup to restore or install on a new hard drive, it’s much easier when you have the instructions in your hand and not on the hard drive that crashed.
If your work is really valuable, do a hard drive backup and an online backup.
Worst case, if your drive does crash and you don’t have a backup, check Google for data recovery businesses; irreplaceable files can be recovered from crashed hard drives, depending on the severity of the crash and (ouch) how much money you can afford.
Don’t wait until your hard drive crashes; your digital life can disappear. If you have a good backup, restore it and be back in business.