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Backups!

I don't know where I went wrong, but my files are gone, and I just can't get them back.


Before we say much about making changes to your computer's hardware or software, and before you sneak away and do it on your own, there is something we feel you should attend to.

One of the most important things you will ever do with your computer, even more important than running a successful business, chatting, solving the mysteries of the universe, or winning a game of solitaire, is the often neglected, unglamorous procedure known as the "backup".

Oddly, many "computer literate" (?) people don't bother with backups!  That's why this is a Trade Secret.

As the bumper sticker says, "Undesirable Events Happen"; or something like that.  There are all kinds of causes, some of which can be reduced or eliminated; but when you're rushed or sleepy, or a program malfunctions, important stuff can end up in the bit bucket, or it can be changed in ways you cannot fathom and which may be bad for your computer.

Yes, there are tools to retrieve deleted files from your hard drive - sometimes - if you, your programs, and/or your operating system have not yet written any new data in the same spaces that were occupied by the deleted files.

Problem 1:  You don't know where that is, or when it will happen - and the retrieved files are often corrupted.

Problem 2:  Some of these tools can seriously corrupt other files - possibly critical system files - and can even erode the hard drive.  This is especially dangerous for your System drive because it's constantly in use by the system.

Don't bet the farm on "sometimes".  Bet on backups.

There are some other applications which replace the built in Windows Recycle Bin with a "deleted file vault".  These applications may have problems such as the inability to actually delete files from the vault (gradually filling your hard drive), inability to uninstall the vault and restore the Windows Recycle Bin, corruption of the vault space, corruption of the Windows Recycle Bin (with related file system errors), and failed backups due to inability to read the vault space.

Many of these vaults only capture files from manually issued Delete commands.  Files deleted by other means, such as internal program code, will not be saved.  All these issues are solved by a product called Undelete.

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Essentially, you perform a backup by making a copy of your stuff in another storage location.  That's a loaded sentence ...

You don't move the originals ("source" files), you only make a second copy of them elsewhere.  "Elsewhere" should be as far removed from the originals as it is practical to do:

In another folder on the same drive.  If this is the best you can do, it at least provides insurance against accidentally deleting or making undesirable changes to the originals.

On separate media, such as another hard drive, a CD or DVD, an online backup service, a flash card or drive, or even a floppy disk if your stuff will fit.  (Never store your originals on a floppy disk - it is not trustworthy.)

If you store your backups on separate media, then store the media in a secure location so someone else can't read your sensitive data.

If you are running a business, you should consider storing your backups off-site as insurance against catastrophic events.

You will want to backup your entire system, or at least the entire System drive (normally drive "C:"), but not as often because:

It requires special software which can copy files that are in use by the system.  This software will backup gigabytes of data.  This can take many minutes to hours to complete.

Normally, you will spend far more time working with (and accidentally deleting) your own data, which you added to the computer, rather than tinkering with the system itself.

Before you start modifying your computer or its operating system, you are going to do some serious study:  perusing your manuals and our Trade Secrets(yeess ...  yoouu wiillll ...)

All Windows operating systems after Windows 98SE (from Windows ME to Windows 10) have a built-in rescue package called Windows System Restore.  Later, we'll tell you more about setting System Restore Points (and other mini backups) before making system changes.

Normally, you will be taking "snapshots", including "incremental backups" - copying just the stuff that has changed since your last backup.  As the term implies, snaphots can be done quickly, even automatically; and this greatly improves the motivation to keep your backups current.

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When & What

The following schedule should be adequate for the average home computer user.  Make the initial effort to set it up properly, and thereafter it should be low to no maintenance.

If you're running a business, if you have an abundance of hard drive space, and/or if you can automate your backups, you may want to adjust this schedule by moving the broad scope backups into the shorter time frames.

Monthly or more

Create a "full system backup" (or at least a full backup of your System drive) in a new backup file, using "Microsoft Backup".

Monthly or Weekly

Add an "incremental system backup", of new and modified files, to the previous full system backup, using "Microsoft Backup".

Daily, Hourly, or thereabouts

Run snapshots of your new and modified personal files and folders.  If you have plenty of hard drive space, do this:  run on-demand snapshots to one location whenever you reach "a good stopping spot" throughout the day.  At the end of the day, or as an automated daily Scheduled Task, run a snapshot to another location.

Minutes (we're not pulling your leg)

Many editing applications have a "Save" button (it may look like a picture of a floppy disk) on the toolbar.  Find it and make it your friend.

If the application has an "Autosave" feature, we recommend turning it off (under "Options", "Preferences", or "Settings") - it is often turned on by default.  If you've made a real mess, and if Autosave is off, you can quit the file (if prompted to save your changes, just say "No") and then reopen it to the way it was when you last saved it.

Seconds (no kidding)

There are applications, such as MOGware's File Hamster, which watch for activity in the File System.  Then, when a file is created or changed, the application backs it up in multiple versions.  This can use a little more CPU power and extra disk space, but it's automatic.

Before System Changes

At the very least, run snapshots before changing, installing, or removing any hardware or software, or changing major system configurations or settings.  Trust us, the reasons are many.  For example:

Why on Earth would you back up when you want to remove something?  Because it might remove something else that it shouldn't.  For example:

You really want to get rid of some buggy, idiotic program.  The program's uninstaller - since it is idiotic and buggy - erroneously deletes a couple of your critical operating system files along with its own junk.  Got backups?

When not to backup.  Precaution is good; obsession isn't.  Time and storage space may limit your options.  You probably don't need to backup before:

creating, modifying, or deleting your personal folders and files;

using "hot plug" devices - plugged in or unplugged while the computer is running - such as audio and USB connected devices (disk drives, printers, etc);

changing minor settings which determine how information is displayed.

Operating instructions should accompany each device.  A User Guide or on-screen Help should accompany each application.  If you don't have them, you can usually download guides from the manufacturer's website.  Read and understand them - see Using Documentation.

Applications, for which you have the installation disks or files, can simply be reinstalled.  There is usually no need to give special attention to backing them up, other than to include them in a general system backup.

Experience is the best advisor of the scope and frequency of backups; but when in doubt, just do it!

data longevity in storage media
 
MediaRetentionMain causes of data loss
Optical2-7 yearsLaser impressed dimples relax due to time and exposure to ambient heat and light.
Magnetic2-7 yearsIn service - mechanical wear and storage management errors.
Magnetic10s yearsDormant - ambient electric and magnetic fields and occasional high energy particles.
Paper10s-100s yearsAbrasion, flexing, shearing, and exposure to air, chemicals, heat, light, and moisture.
Oral Tradition100s-1,000s yearsGenerational loss, laziness, memory lapse, or loss of designated memory keepers.
Fired Clay1,000s yearsAbrasion, corrosion, fracture, moisture, or loss of interpretive context.
Stone10,000s yearsAbrasion, corrosion, fracture, or loss of interpretive context.

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Methods

First, it is most helpful to have a logical folder structure for your original (source) files.  This not only reduces the complexity of your backups, but also ensures they are more thorough.

Tip:  After you set up a backup procedure and run your first backup, make sure you verify that the backup worked as intended.  This means checking the backup files against the source files, either in the backup display provided by your backup application, or by checking the file dates, times, and sizes in the source and backup folders.

While there are a multitude of backup applications, there are four which adequately cover your backup needs and cost you nothing extra.  We won't write a cookbook here on how to set up and use them because each comes with complete documentation.  If you're feeling mystified, give us a call.

If free and adequate isn't enough:  Acronis provides superior backup and recovery of your data, installed applications, partitions, drives, and the entire system right down to bare metal.

Microsoft Backup, also called "Backup", is provided with Windows.  It can back up

anything from a single file to the entire system (except on Vista);

files which are currently in use;

multiple versions of the same file;

hidden and system files;

the system registry - be sure to backup the "System State";

a disaster recovery set (which may help you recover from catastrophic system damage if you have previously installed Microsoft Recovery Console).

MS Backup takes some extra time to set up, but you can save profiles as "jobs" to backup the same sets of data.  MS Backup backs up your data in a single, massive, compressed file which only MS Backup can read.  If you want to recover a single file, you must wade through the ponderous MS Backup interface.

For these reasons, MS Backup is most effectively used to backup critical operating system components on a monthly basis.

Access:  click Start > Programs > Accessories > System > Backup

SyncBack is available from 2BrightSparks.  The free edition backs up files and folders which are not in use.  It's advantages are:

its numerous options provide greater control of what is backed up, and how;

unless you specify a compressed archive, files and folders are backed up individually, simplifying retrieval;

it handles wildcard characters ("*.txt" backs up all ".txt" text files);

it creates profiles for distinct backup sets, which can then be combined as a group profile;

it can run another program before and/or after each profile;

it can run simulations, without backing anything up, to show you what the results would be;

it provides a results summary for each profile;

with both simple and advanced modes, it's easier to set up for manual or scheduled runs.

Therefore, SyncBack is ideal for backing up your personal data in a daily or hourly timeframe.

Windows System Restore is provided with Windows, from Millennium Edition (ME) forward.

It quickly and easily backs up all system components, settings, and more as "System Restore Points", and can help you undo harmful changes to your system.

In addition to creating restore points on demand, it is designed to create a daily "System Checkpoint".  Applications, such as Windows Update, which are conversant with System Restore may also create restore points before making changes to your system.

System Restore keeps a rotating pool of only the most recent backups, depending on how much disk space you give it.

It does not back up certain folders, such as My Documents, to avoid replacing your personal data with older versions.

It does not uninstall software.  Uninstall that software first, before restoring your system; otherwise, the uninstaller likely won't work and you'll be left with extra junk to clean up.

Best use:  always create a System Restore Point before installing or removing software, and other system changes.

Warning:  Some people advise disabling System Restore to save resources - we strongly disagree.  Leave it running and adjust its disk space allocation to a tolerable amount.  Considering System Restore's scope of protection and ease of use, disk space is cheap.

Access:  click Start > Programs > Accessories > System > System Restore

ERUNT (Emergency Recovery Utility for NT) is available from Lars Hederer.  It does exactly one thing, and does it well:

It backs up the system registry, either to a specific folder, or to folders named according to date and/or time.  It does less, but it's faster than System Restore.

Generally, we advise that you do not edit your system registry (and never use "registry cleaners"), but there are times when editing is necessary.  Before doing so, ERUNT provides a nice safety net.

Also, since many system settings are stored in the registry, ERUNT is often all you need to correct problems caused by experimental "tweaking".

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For an excellent and inexpensive way to recover accidentally deleted files, including files that bypass your Recycle Bin, get a copy of Undelete.

We want to emphasize one thing.  You cannot restore anything that wasn't already backed up before the problem occured.

If you aren't practicing a good backup plan, now is the time to begin.


now reading: Backups - Protect & Recover Data & Your System
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