BOOT CAMP 279 (10/06/03)


Survival Strategies


If you’ve just bought your first PC you can be sure of two things; you will suffer at least one catastrophic crash resulting in the loss of important or irreplaceable data and – assuming that you don’t give up -- eventually you will want to upgrade your computer.


Ironically both events are connected and being well prepared for a crash actually makes it a great deal easier to transfer your data to a new PC. Crashes are all but inevitable, (and don’t let Mac owners tell you any different), but even the most reliable PC will eventually wear out or run out of puff and need to be replaced or upgraded.


The key to surviving a computer crash is to make frequent back ups and these days it couldn’t be easier now that most new PCs are fitted with CD writers. There are plenty of backup strategies and lots of software to do it all for you but when it comes to the crunch none of them is any good unless you actually use them. The other problem is that the first time you’ll use a backup system in anger is in the aftermath of a crash, at which point you have no way of knowing if it is going to work, or even how to use it if you’ve never done it before.


Whatever method you use your backups should always be on a separate storage medium that is easily removable and readable on another PC without the need for any additional hardware. In other words, even if your PC is damaged in a fire, blows up or is stolen you should be able to resume work on another PC in as short a time as possible.


Fortunately computers rarely self-destruct these days but if you use your PC for business or it is vulnerable to theft and damage or it is a laptop then ‘off-site’ backup storage is essential. That means physically moving your backup discs to another secure location, uploading data to a remote server if your PC is connected to a network or even making use of your ISP’s free allocation of web space.


When it comes to the choice of physical backup media there are really only two options for most users: recordable CDs or a removable hard disc drive. Tape backup systems are slow and can be temperamental and in common with other ‘non-standard’ disc formats, depend on dedicated drive mechanisms. Recordable DVD is a possibility but at the moment it falls down on readability since DVD-ROM drives are still comparatively rare and there are a some compatibility issues with the various disc formats.


CD-ROM is near universal; discs can hold reasonable amounts of data – up to 700Mb – moreover they are cheap, reliable and robust. A second hard disc drive has the advantage of even higher capacities and although not as portable as CDs, can be easily installed in a second machine as a slave drive and a ‘caddy’ or cradle arrangement simplifies removal and off-site storage.


There is an on-going debate over exactly what you should backup. Some favour the whole disc/total system method where the entire contents of a PC’s hard disc is copied to another drive. This requires specialist software that ‘mirrors’ and preferably incrementally updates the disc’s content, as files are modified or new ones created. It is theoretically possible to use recordable CDs for whole disc backup but I advise against it, it is time consuming and notoriously unreliable.


A complete disc backup, containing the operating system, programs and data files promises to get you back up and running in the shortest possible time, but if the problem that killed the main drive – a virus for example – was also copied to the backup drive, then that too could be affected.


The alternative is to only backup your data files. In the case of a hard disc failure it will mean re-installing the operating system and programs but there’s less chance of something going wrong and if the backup files are on CD they can be quickly transferred to another PC. This technique is also low maintenance and it’s easy to verify the integrity of backed up files.


Automated backup software works well for a lot of users but since most of these programs operate in the background they are easily forgotten. You might not be aware if it stops working or you could miss scheduled backups if you change your working patterns. There are a couple of other points to bear in mind when auditioning backup software (see also Tip of the Week). Avoid programs that save data to a separate partition on the main hard disc drive, this is just asking for trouble if the main drive fails or suffers a virus attack. Programs that compress data, to save space, introduce another layer of uncertainty and complexity into the recovery process so wherever possible backup your data in its raw unadulterated state.


Backing up your files up manually makes sure the job gets done but it does require a certain amount of discipline. There’s no need for any additional software and if you are backing up to recordable CDs you should investigate your CD burner’s UDF/Packet Writing format (Adaptec/Roxio DirectCD or Nero InCD, etc.) facilities. This turns a recordable CD into a huge floppy disc and you can drag and drop your files and folders onto it moreover it can be nominated as a destination drive in applications that have an automated backup facility. Blank CDs cost only pennies when bought in bulk so you should get into the habit of swapping your backup disc on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, depending on how much new data you generate and in part two next week we’ll look at the sort of data you should be backing up.


Next week – Survival strategies, part 2





Removable container for a hard disc drive, enabling it to be quickly extracted for storage or installation in another PC



Once a master backup has been created, to save time only new files or files that have been changed are added to the backup



Method of organising data onto a recordable CD so that files can be added or removed; however the disc has to be ‘finalised’ before it can be read on another PC that doesn’t have appropriate software




Choosing the right backup solution can be difficult. No two PCs are alike and the almost infinite variations of hardware, operating systems, applications and user requirements means that you should do some homework before you purchase any software. You can get a feel for the market at the Tucows web site where you will find more than fifty commercial, shareware, freeware and demo programs (, with potted reviews, user ratings and links to download the programs.

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