You probably don't want to know this, but all the programs and data stored in your computer reside in a microscopically thin magnetic coating on thin metal discs spinning at several thousand revolutions per minute. All it takes is a single speck of dust, a sharp knock or a virus to destroy all of the information held on your PC's hard disc drive. Fortunately it doesn't happen very often, and you are fully protected against viruses (aren't you…?) but suppose the worst did happen, how would you fare?

If all of your non-replaceable data is safely backed up then it need be no more than an inconvenience. Mass storage devices are so cheap nowadays there's no excuse not to protect your computer against hard disc failure or corruption and it also makes it easier to archive or swap large files between PCs. Of course you can save data on floppy discs, the 1.4Mb capacity is sufficient for important system files a few documents or one or two images but far too small to be of use with today's video and multimedia applications. Data can be compressed, to make more efficient use of the floppy's limited storage space and Windows 95/98 has a useful backup utility built-in (My Computer > right click drive C: > Properties > Tools) but there are simpler solutions.

Basically there are three hardware options: magnetic tape, magnetic disc, and optical disc, we'll look at each one in turn. Magnetic tape systems have two distinct advantages, they are cheap and they hold enormous amounts of data. The cheapest tape-based backup system is the Danmere Backer which sells for less than £40 and can download the contents of a hard disc drive on to a 3-hour video tape costing a couple of pounds. More advanced tape systems like the Hewlett Packard Colorado, Segate Travan or Iomega Ditto use dedicated data cartridges, drives cost upwards of £140 and can hold 5 or more gigabytes of compressed data. However, all tape-based recording systems are slow and because data is stored in a 'linear' form -- along a length of tape -- it can take a long time to retrieve a particular file or group of files. Since there are many different types of magnetic tape cartridge or cassette file swapping is restricted to other PCs using the same system.

There are also lots of different magnetic disc formats on the market, you could even install a second hard disc drive, though it won't be much use if the PC is stolen or damaged in a fire. Removable drives solve that problem but a far more convenient solution is a high-capacity floppy disc system, like Zip, Jaz or LS120. Zip discs hold 100Mb of uncompressed data (a 250Mb Zip drive is also available) whilst its larger cousin the Jaz has a 2Gb capacity. LS120 discs hold 120Mb, the drives can also read and write to 3.5-inch floppies and like Zip drives they are relatively inexpensive. Basic internal Zip and LS120 drives cost around £80 and the discs sell for £8 to 15 each when brought singly. The recently introduced Zip 250Mb model costs  £170. Jaz drives are a little dearer at just under £300 whilst the discs are a quite pricey at £60. File swapping is still a problem unless all of the PCs in question are fitted with, or connected to compatible drive mechanisms.

Optical and magneto-optical disc recorders are now an increasingly affordable alternative to magnetic media and are ideal archiving large picture or video files. The cost of recordable CD-ROM drives has plummeted in the past year and the newly introduced DVD-RAM format is not far behind. However, a CD-ROM writer is still the best option for most PC users and home made discs can be read on any PC with a CD ROM drive, so file swapping is not an issue. In most instances the new drive is installed alongside the existing CD-ROM, so you end up with two drives on your PC, which is quite handy if you routinely need to access more that one disc.

CD-ROM writers can now be brought for as little as £170 and blank discs that can hold up to 650Mb of data cost from as little as £1 each. In fact there are two types of recordable CD-ROM disc, CD-R discs can only be recorded once, files can be added at intervals but once the disc is full that's it. CD-RW (read-write) discs cost around £10 to £15 each but they can be erased and re-written many times. Recordable CD-ROMs are not quite as robust as their non-recordable counterparts but properly stored the data on them should be safe for several decades. Most recordable CD-ROM drives can do other tricks, like duplicate data CD-ROMs and copy or create audio CD compilations of your favourite tracks.

Needless to say there are copyright implications in duplicating commercial recordings but it is interesting to note that CD-ROM writer manufacturers, such as Sony and Philips, are also major music software publishers, and include audio CD copying software with their drives…

Installing an internal CD-ROM writer only takes a few minutes. The mechanism slots into a spare drive next to the existing CD-ROM drive and plugs into the same cable (there's usually a spare connector) and a spare power lead.  The set-up software on CD-ROM is read from the first drive and Windows 95/98 automatically installs the new hardware. Once the new drive is up and running it becomes a second CD-ROM with its own drive letter. A simple utility program supplied with the drive prepares discs and files for recording using familiar Windows file copying methods. Backing up 650Mb of data on a typical 2 x speed drive takes only a few minutes but it could save you days or weeks of disruption!

Next week -- finding long lost friends and relatives




A technique to reduce the size of a file, to make it smaller, more manageable, easier to store and move around


A tape cassette, similar to an audio or video tape. (Some tape backup systems use DAT and 8mm audio and video cassettes)  


Digital Versatile Disc - new high capacity optical disc system with a capacity of up to 5.2Gb per disc (at the moment), DVD drives can also read CD-ROMs. DVD recordable or 'RAM' drives have just come onto the market



There is probably at least one or two Internet web sites that you visit frequently -- search engines or a particular home page etc. Rather than waste time opening your browser, manually selecting the address from the favourites list and making the connection, just create a simple keyboard short cut, it's easy! Pressing the keys will take you straight to your chosen web site from within any application.

On the Start menu click Favourites, right-click the site you are interested in then select Properties and the Internet Shortcut tab. In the Shortcut Key box you will see 'None', click in a cursor and type a single letter -- choose one that relates to the site and you can easily remember, such as 'Y' for Yahoo, etc. -- the field will now display the assigned shortcut, i.e. 'Ctrl + Alt + Y'. Click OK and try it out. Internet Explorer opens automatically and takes you straight to the web site. (If IE is not your chosen browser you will have to open it and manually add the web site address to the Favourites list).

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