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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 1 Issue 6 December 2007
In This Issue
What's the single best way to protect my computer?
New! Contest: Send me your most horrible/most wonderful backup story
New! Product to avoid: Canon PIXMA MX310
I Recommend...
If I had to pick just one thing you could do to protect your computer that you're probably not already doing, I'd have to suggest that you start backing up your important data on a regular basis. It's not as difficult or mysterious as you might think! If you're already doing backups, read on for some tips that you might find useful.
What's the single best way to protect my computer?

Why backup is not boring
Computer disasters happen. Your computer or hard disk may just wear out or stop working with no warning. In recent years my computer repair colleagues tell me that intense price competition has lowered the quality of parts in most computers, so if your computer is more than about 3 years old then you're "living on borrowed time," whether it's a Windows machine or a Macintosh. You might also accidentally delete an important document or project. Power surges, lightning, theft, fire, and vandalism can also strike unexpectedly.

Backing up is cheap insurance against disaster when compared to the cost of losing everything on your computer, especially if you're running your own business. Choosing a backup method is a trade-off between your time, effort, budget, and what disasters you want to protect against.

Why would anybody risk not doing regular backups?
In my very unscientific experience, the top reasons people don't do backups are:
  • They're just too busy - "I'm sure it's important, but who has the time?"
  • Wishful thinking - "It's not going to happen to me...."
  • They don't realize how much they might lose - "I never stopped to think how much I rely on the computer for X until it all disappeared one day!"
  • They have no idea how - "It must be difficult to do, right?"
Many people only learn the value of backup after a disaster, and sometimes not even then.

How do I get started?
Here is how I get a typical client started with a simple system to back up one computer:
  • I look through their hard disk at all data folders (see the next section for details), note how many megabytes or gigabytes each folder takes, and then add those up to get the total amount of data to back up as of today. Note that this is not about the number of files, but the amount of overall storage the files need. (If you're not sure what a megabyte or gigabyte is, see http://www.kadansky.com/files/tips/whatsagig.html for my article "What's a gigabyte? and other basic questions.")
  • If any of those folders seem likely to grow quickly over the next few years, I estimate the increase and increase the total storage need. For example, the user might take lots of digital photos, or receive many megabytes of email attachments, or work with large sound or video files.
  • If this total storage need is less than 2,000 megabytes (2 gigabytes), then I recommend buying one or two USB flash drives (also called thumb drives or keychain drives) to serve as the backup media; you can probably find them for under $15 each. If the total is larger, then I recommend buying one or two external USB hard drives large enough for the data with plenty of room to spare; depending on the size they can cost anywhere from $50 to $200 each. These drives are typically formatted for Windows and will work on a Macintosh, but if the client has a Mac I "reformat" the drive into native Macintosh format for best results.
  • I then install free or low-cost backup software to automate copying the user's data to the backup drive, and set it to run on a regular schedule, for example, every day at 8pm (which assumes the backup drive will be connected full-time). I like backup software that simply copies the user's files and folders to the backup drive just like the user might have done with a manual click-and-drag. However, the software does it more efficiently, and it won't accidentally forget a folder or copy the wrong one. (Also, no special software will be needed either to confirm that the backup is working or to restore the user's data.)
  • If we've bought two backup drives, then I suggest the user manually rotate between them every week or so for extra protection. If we've only bought one and there's room on it for multiple sets of backups, I suggest we have the backup software automatically rotate the backup sets on the backup drive.
This approach is simple and efficient for most users. It has a few drawbacks (if your computer or hard disk fails you'll have to reinstall all of your programs, and since a backup drive is always plugged into the computer it's not immune to risks like surges, fire, and wearing out), but given all the trade-offs it's easier to set up and use than most schemes. An extra benefit is that the backup also serves as a good way to "ferry" your data to a new computer.

What data should I back up?
Here is my checklist of what most users should back up:
  • Your documents folder: Typically stored in the My Documents folder on Windows and the Documents folder on Macintosh.
  • Your desktop folder: Some people like to keep their most-accessed files or folders here; you'll also find other less-important icons (shortcuts and aliases to programs, etc.).
  • Your accumulated email messages: If you use a regular email program (Outlook Express, Outlook, Eudora, Apple Mail, etc.) then your messages are stored in a special folder on your hard disk; each program uses a different location. If you use webmail or AOL then your messages are stored on the email server, not on your hard disk, so you can't include them in your backup.
  • Your email address book: If you use a regular email program then your address book is also stored in a special folder on your hard disk, possibly the same one as your messages. If you use webmail or AOL then your address book is on the server, so you can't back it up directly, but you can usually "export" it and then back up the export file.
  • Your web favorites or bookmarks: These are stored in a file or folder on your hard disk, determined by your web browser.
  • Other important data not included in any of the folders above: Make a list of all the other programs you use (e.g., Palm Pilot software, Quicken, QuickBooks, etc.), find out where they store their data, and make sure it's included in your backup. (Or, if the program lets you put its data anywhere you choose, I move it into My Documents so it doesn't have to go on this list of "other folders.")
If enough of these folders are located inside a single common parent folder (usually the "user" or "home" folder), I might choose to back up that parent folder instead for simplicity, but it depends on how many megabytes of other stuff this will add to the backup. Note that I don't recommend backing up any program folders or the operating system.

What backup software should I use?
There are many good backup programs on the market. Two free ones I often use are:
Retrospect (available on Windows and Macintosh) is another popular program, but I find it far too complex for the average user, and it stores the backup in a special format that only Retrospect can decode.

Why don't you recommend this other backup method that I've seen?
  • Online backup services: I always mention these, since backing up to an off-site computer (for a monthly or annual fee, some are free if your backup is less than a given number of megabytes) avoids a number of risks (especially if it's located far away), but most users I work with are uncomfortable with the idea.
  • Backing up manually: When given the option to do their backups manually, most people just don't do it. That's why I prefer to automate it if possible.
  • Less often: You're more likely to lose important data if you back up less often. If you back up every week, then in the worst case (your computer dies right before the backup runs) you may lose 7 days of work. If you're going to leave your backup drive plugged into your computer all the time, then you might as well do it daily and only risk one day's worth.
  • Just back up the most critical data: While there's nothing wrong with this if you're busy with a critical project, it's not a good long-term solution.
  • Back up the entire hard disk: This requires special software called disk imaging software, which makes an exact copy of your hard disk onto another hard disk, down to the smallest detail. If you have a disaster and you end up staying on the same computer, then this will avoid your having to reinstall and configuring anything, but it's overkill if you end up buying a new computer instead.
  • Use CDs (700 megabytes), DVDs (4.7 gigabytes): These may work fine in some situations, but many users outgrow them quickly, they're not as fast as other methods, and I've had enough problems with them over the years that I no longer recommend them.
I'm already doing regular backups
That's great! Let me suggest the following:
  • Check my list above ("What data should I back up?") and make sure that you're backing up all of your data. There's nothing worse than thinking your backup is comprehensive only to discover too late that it isn't.
  • Have multiple backup drives and rotate them off-site for extra protection.
  • Consider using both regular backup drives and an online backup service for extra protection.
Where to go from here
  • Find out how many megabytes or gigabytes your data currently takes up; do this before you buy a backup drive.
  • Think about whether you'd rather back up to equipment in your home or office, or to an internet backup service, or both.
  • Think about what it will cost you if you don't have a backup and disaster strikes, especially if your computer is more than 3 years old.
If you're not sure how to do any of this, or if your situation is more complicated, feel free to contact me. If I can't help, I'll be happy to recommend someone else.

If you know someone else who might find this helpful, please feel free to forward it to them.
If you have any comments about this article, send me a reply!
If you have a topic that you'd like me to write about, I'd love to hear about it!
New! Contest: Send me your most horrible/most wonderful backup story

I want to hear your most horrible backup disaster stories, and your most heartwarming disaster-avoided stories! For example:
  • Horror story: "I was just putting the finishing touches on the only copy of my thesis when I heard this grinding noise...."
  • Disaster-avoided story: "The nuns at the orphanage had finally started to use their backup system. The very next day lightning struck...."
Entries must be submitted by Saturday January 5, 2008. The winner will arbitrarily be determined by the effect your story has on me and on a select group of friends, which will probably depend on the amount of fruitcake and fresh cider we've had over Christmas while watching re-runs of Blake's 7. The winner will receive a pair of 1 gigabyte flash drives (a $23-30 retail value) along with a handwritten note encouraging their use for alternating backup or other productive purposes, and will be announced in the January issue of my newsletter.
New! Product to avoid: Canon PIXMA MX310

Once in a while I run across a problem with a product that I feel is important enough to mention.

If you've got the multifunction inkjet Canon PIXMA MX310 (printer/copier/scanner/fax, often free with a new computer), you should know about the following problem, confirmed by Canon customer support:
  • If you want to use it as a fax machine, and
  • You plug it into a phone line that you also use for regular voice calls, and
  • You've set the MX310 to "TEL PRIORITY MODE" which tells it that you get a mixture of voice and fax calls on that line, and
  • You answer an incoming call from an extension phone that is not plugged into the back of the MX310,
Then you will probably find that even if the MX310 hears no fax tones during the ensuing phone conversation, it will still assume it is an incoming fax call and start emitting its ear-piercing receiving fax tone, drowning out your conversation. In other words, this unit doesn't have a "completely manual" fax mode. The only workarounds are:
  • Always answer an incoming call using a phone plugged directly into the back of the MX310 (not a reliable solution unless you only have one phone)
  • Press the Stop button (only practical if you can run over to the MX310 when the problem occurs)
  • Keep the unit powered off
  • Get a separate fax line
  • Get a separate fax number on the same line with a Distinctive Ring pattern
Canon support tells me that PIXMA models MP530 and MP830 do have a "completely manual" mode, so they are better choices than the MX310 in this situation.
I Recommend...

In this section of my newsletter I will sometimes recommend trusted colleagues and other times I'll suggest useful products and software. Today's recommendation is:

Inexpensive USB flash drives from www.microcenter.com

These little "thumb drives" or "keychain drives" are solid-state disks about the size of your finger that can hold huge amounts of data for their size, equivalent to hundreds or thousands of floppies. They're useful for backup (if all of your important data will fit) as well as "ferry" purposes (transferring data from one computer to another). They are more expensive per gigabyte (G) than regular hard disks, but extremely portable and convenient. The prices on these have come down a lot recently, and they're available at a number of retail stores, but the lowest-priced ones I've seen (ignoring rebates, which I find tiresome) can be purchased online (and sometimes in the store):
  • Go to http://www.microcenter.com
  • Type this phrase into the Product Keyword box at the top right: usb flash drive
  • Click Go
  • Click on the column title "Price" to sort by lowest price first
  • Look for the size you need - when I last checked they had 1G, 2G, 4G, 8G, and even 16G units for less than other vendors, the least expensive ones are "OEM" or "Bulk" units. Prices as of December 2007: 1G for $7.99, 2G for $13.99, 4G for $24.99, not including tax or shipping.
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2007 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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