My name is Mike Beeferman and I’m new to blogging on this site. I spend my days running around Brooklyn and New York City helping people with their technology issues and emergencies. I’m going to be sharing some computer tips and stories from my experiences in the field in this and future blog installments. I thought for my first post I would tackle an issue that is familiar to everyone but something that many people often ignore: Data Backup.
I was working with a client in Park Slope this week who called me when their Windows machine would no longer boot up. They were panicked because their hard drive contained hundreds of photos and videos of their children, their music collection, and various other documents that had accumulated over the years. Fortunately, it was an issue caused by a bad sector on the hard drive (what geeks call a “soft error”) and I was able to successfully rescue their data and copy it to another computer in their home.
I get these calls a lot. People don’t like to worry about or deal with data backups until the day their computer fails to boot or stares back at them with a blue screen of death (the infamous blue screens are a strong indicator that all may not be well with your machine). That’s when people go into panic mode and sweat about all that personal stuff they store on their laptop or desktop. It’s a cold reality: hard drives are fragile little mechanisms and ALL of them will eventually die. Some live long, productive lives and others falter after only a few months of service. That’s why it’s absolutely necessary to have some kind of backup plan in place. Whether you have a PC or a Mac, you need to keep copies of the data that lives on your machine: photos of your kids, a video of grandpa’s 100th birthday, or that super rare Grateful Dead bootleg you had digitized for your mp3 collection. I really hate to be the guy to tell someone that the awful clicking noise coming from their computer is their hard drive going into cardiac arrest—but it happens a lot more than you would think.
If your hard disc suffers a true meltdown (what geeks may call a “hard error”), the internal parts of the drive may stop working and no longer function. At this point, there aren’t a lot of options to consider. One is to contact a data recovery service like Drive Savers who operate what is not unlike a surgical hospital for hard discs. In a clean room facility, they can usually replace any parts that have failed and magically resurrect the drive and the data it was storing. This process is not always a hundred percent effective, especially if the surface of the disc has been scratched or damaged. The cost for these procedures can also run into the thousands of dollars to retrieve your data. I’ve seen clients spend insane amounts of money to get back those cherished photos of their kids because there was no other alternative.
That’s why it’s best to have some kind of backup plan in place while your system is still humming along in good working order. Get yourself out to the electronics emporium (Best Buy is one of the few of these left) or go online and purchase an external USB hard drive. I recommend you get one that’s at least twice the size of your computer’s internal drive (you can probably score one for $100-150 bucks). Western Digital and Seagate are decent brands to go with, I would probably steer you away from the “bargain” drive with the name that no one has ever heard of. Once you get home, all you have to do is plug it in via the USB cable and start copying your personal files to it. You don’t need to worry about software programs or operating system files which can usually be installed from a DVD or a quick download from the web. The stuff to focus on are your documents, photos, videos, music and anything else you deem important and irreplaceable. On a Mac, these files are usually stored in your home folder and on a PC they are most likely saved somewhere in “My Documents”. Don’t forget to look for stuff on the computer’s desktop, a lot of files usually end up here in a holding pattern before they are moved elsewhere.
If you don’t like the “copy and paste” approach, there is also plenty of software available to help make the backup process considerably easier. Software for this purpose will generally copy everything on the first go and then will only need to duplicate any new files or changes to old ones on subsequent backups. If you have a Mac, I recommend using the built in Time Machine program that came with your computer. Just plug in your new drive and tell your Mac to use it for your Time Machine backups and that’s basically it. The software will run automatically to copy of all your files and check hourly for any new stuff to add to the backup.
If you have a Windows machine, there are many choices (including Windows 7’s built-in backup software) but I prefer a free utility called Synctoy. It’s a simple and effective little program that’s a snap to use after a little bit of manual tweaking. Depending on your technical expertise, it might be a good investment of your time and money to call on the services of a geek to assist with the initial setup. This way you’re sure that everything is working the way it’s supposed to. As a tech guy in the field, I have seen my share of “backups” that never actually copied or backed up the stuff that was intended. Then I end up being the guy who has to tell you your backup wasn’t really a backup.
The last thing I recommend (in addition to the steps above) is to add some kind of off-site-backup-solution to the mix. Keeping a copy of your files outside of the home can be critical in the case of a robbery, fire, or an act of nature involving the family cat or coffee tsunami. This can be as simple as leaving an additional hard drive at a friend’s house or subscribing to a service like Backblaze or Carbonite (both good choices. I’ve been using Backblaze for a few years now after it was recommended by a friend and I’ve been very happy with their service). For an investment of about $50 a year you can upload your files to a safe haven in the cloud where your data is encrypted, secured, and available for download should you need to retrieve it. The initial upload for this type of backup may take a while depending on the amount of data you have but future additions are much faster and limited to new and updated files.
I know this topic is not the most fun thing to chew over when you get out of work (especially with the weather we’ve been having) but try to give this stuff a little bit of thought, preferably sooner than later. Get online and order that external drive or investigate a free trial with Backblaze or Carbonite. The important thing is to get some kind of a backup plan in place. You’ll be ready for that blue screen of death...if and when it comes.