When Your Computer Stops Working… May 1, 2011

When Your Computer Stops Working…

Wednesday night, my computer stopped booting up. Scared the hell out of me. (Well, I supposed it scared the hell in me first.) It went back to the Apple store on Thursday morning, and I just got it back last night. It looks like most of what I had on there is still there (*phew*)… but it never hurts to say these things again:

Make sure you back up your computer! (I had most of the material on an external hard drive, but I hadn’t saved stuff on there since last winter.)

Email your important files to yourself. It’s so easy to save papers you’re writing or spreadsheets you’re using on your hard drive… only to lose them. Use a Google doc, or just email drafts to yourself. I didn’t do that with a lot of important documents and I’m lucky to still have them.

It’s really hard to blog from an iPhone. Especially embedding videos or inserting links. (Yay for writing posts ahead of time and scheduling them for future dates.)

Rethink your desktop background. It’s embarrassing as hell when they turn your computer back on to see if it works properly and see Vince, the ShamWow guy. (Don’t ask…)

If you have any other advice for me before my computer crashes again, I’d love to hear it.

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  • lol, sorry Hemant, but, I HAVE to ask, what made you want to put Vince’s pic as your background?

  • WetMogwai

    Turn on Time Machine. It will copy everything to the external drive automatically, keeping old versions so you can roll back to a previous one if necessary. You don’t have to remember to do anything except have the drive connected.

  • MrCheese

    I have Windows PCs in my house, they’re all backed up every couple of days to the server. All documents are held on the server and accessed via mapped drives, the laptops are set up with offline files for when they are out and about. The folder that holds the documents should also be backed up, but isn’t at the moment.

  • Dean

    For important things you should have 3 copies…

    1) on your hard drive (working copy)
    2) on an external hard drive or usb stick etc in case your computer dies etc
    3) different location in case your house burns down or someone steals the computer and backup at the same time… e.g. carbonite.com

  • Charley

    Lately I’ve been using CrashPlan for backups, and I really like it. It’s free, cross-platform, and lets you securely back up all your files to your friends’ computers (or your other computers, if you have several). There’s also a paid version, but I haven’t tried that.

  • What the man said: Time Machine. Total no-brainer.

  • Urban

    I’m glad to hear you recovered most of your data. Backups using Time Machine (or similar solutions) is a good start, but local backups do no protect against fire or theft. You may want to look into some sort of off-site (“cloud”) backup, such as Dropbox or Crashplan. With the free version of Crashplan, you can backup your files to a friend’s computer. They are stored encrypted so only you have access to them.

  • Rick Longworth

    I do a lot of video. To back up terabytes of data I have an external hard drive, but I can’t rely on it. It sometimes goes down too. I also use bluray disc.

  • I second the vote for time machine. Once it’s set up you don’t have to do anything to have your computer backed up on a daily basis. You can restore anything from it, even a lot of applications.

  • As well as Time Machine, some kind of remote backup service is essential — what happens if someone breaks into your house or you have a fire?

    I don’t think I could sleep at night without using something like Dropbox, Backblaze or JungleDisk that automatically backs everything up remotely (plus Backblaze and JungleDisk both let you specify your own encryption key, which is always nice).

  • Brian

    Use Dropbox. You can keep 2GB of files on their servers for free and the limit goes up if you invite some friends. You get a magic folder on your computer and anything you put in there gets uploaded. They keep 30 days worth of changes to your files, if I recall correctly, and that includes holding onto a file for 30 days if you delete it. Also, it syncs between multiple computers. So if you get a new PC, you just need to install Dropbox, log in and ban! You have your files again.

  • Ben

    I use adrive.com to back up a lot of my stuff. 50 GB free, not too bad for documents and pictures. Wont work if you are storing a lot of video.

    Also, did they put the sham wow guy on your computer . . . was there something a little more embarrassing there to begin with?

  • Time Machine is great. But where do you backup to? On a desktop there’s room for an extra internal drive that can serve, but on a laptop you’d have to plug in an external drive, which you can forget to do. Over wifi you could set up a NAS that can take the backup – Apple make one specifically for this purpose, but some generic NAS can also serve as a time machine target.

  • MiykaelPoly

    Keep everything off the system drive, I dont mean backups, I mean in general dont save anything important to the same drive that has the operating system. This way, you can safely format the whole system drive and start from scratch, and no matter what OS it is you wont lose anything important.

    Backups are important, but this way you wont have to rely on them as much, in case of sudden failures.

  • Carbonite, Dropbox, and Time Machine. My rule of thumb – if it isn’t in three places (prefer 5), and over half of those are not local physical storage, then it is actually backed up.

    You own a Mac, Time Machine is your friend!

  • This is a hard lesson. Glad it turned out well for you. I was much less lucky with a hard drive that had irreplaceable business data on it. Cost me $2,000 in a clean room, with no guarantee that the data was actually undamaged.

    Fortunately they were able to save every byte of data, but that was an expensive lesson. It won’t happen again – to me, anyway.

  • Dan

    Syncing to web storage is good advice. I myself use Windows Live Mesh but others may prefer Dropbox.

  • dwasifar

    Emailing files to yourself won’t always help you. You need to be sure your mail client doesn’t download the mail and then delete it from the server; and you need to be sure the mail server allows you lots of space.

    If your mail client is using IMAP, or you use webmail, you’re probably fine. But some older mail accounts or mail clients use POP3 and are set to keep the mail on the local machine.

  • ACN

    Others have said it already but I have to reinforce Dropbox.

    It is amazing for backing up your important documents and gives you 2 GB of storage space for free!

  • Vince rules! I wish I had thought of him as a background image. But yes, I have plenty that I wouldn’t be thrilled about the computer tech seeing.

  • Bradley

    you should try out dropbox for important files. you get 2GB free and you can access your most important stuff from anywhere. iphone, and any web browser. on your computer you just drop files in a folder and they’re synced to your account.

  • JD

    Dropbox isn’t really secure, their employees can see everything you store there, and presumably, any hacker if they get hacked. And government can get access to your data without a proper court order.

  • It’s been said before, but Dropbox for sure – it’s a MUCH cleaner solution than emailing things to yourself. If you take a lot of notes, Evernote is also worth checking out, and I’ve heard good things about Amazon Cloud for backing up your music. I had this same thing happen to me 4 times before Apple broke down and just gave me a new laptop, but I’ve been paranoid about backing things up ever since.

  • Stephen P

    People have mentioned fire and theft: you can also lose everything on your computer and all drives connected to it if there is a power surge. This can be caused by a lightning strike or a screw-up by the power company.

    I’m not quite sure how much I’d trust web-based backups, especially free ones. Organisations not infrequently vanish abruptly or terminate services without warning. And certainly I would not put sensitive personal data there.

    So yes, use a variety of backup methods.

    I do my offsite backups with an external drive that I drop about once a month with relatives who live a few kilometres away.

    As for desktop backgrounds: I recommend astronomical photographs such as galaxies and globular clusters. Totally non-embarrassing and your icons are easy to read against the black background.

  • Steven

    I’ll say what many others have said- CrashPlan (or Carbonite or one of the others that does the same thing) for silent offsite backup while you work,

    plus all the methods you already use. Very good stuff.

  • I’m scanning my entire collection of paper, keeping probably 1% of it and recycling the rest. I have several backup plans, but I find it easiest to 1) upload scanned files to one of my Google Docs accounts (I’m using it just for backups) and 2) backup stuff on my free Dropbox account. I do that as soon as files are created under the theory that everything could die before scheduled backups occur.

  • confuseddave

    I don’t want to be a dick about it, but I always get a warm fuzzy feeling of schadenfreude when I hear about Mac’s crashing. *innocent look* I thought that kind of thing never happened with a Mac? (I had to use an expensive and buggy iMac at work to control the microscopes, which was a lesson in exactly how reliable they aren’t).

    My only contribution, learn how to get information off your hard drive if you need to. It won’t help you if the HDD itself has gone kaput, but if you can mount your laptop’s HDD in an external caddy, you can get at it from another computer even if it won’t load your OS.

    I’d second all the other stuff (both positive and negative) about backups and dropbox. I favour an external, but if your house burns down with both your laptop and your external in it…

  • I’ll second and third and forth and fifth… Time Machine. Even if you turn it off and manually do the backups it’s pretty easy. If it’s turned on and you are hooked up it will backup every hour.

    Another suggestion to help with disaster recovery (and it’s a good idea anyway) would be to use a ‘password wallet’ program like KeePassX. You have to remember one strong password to open the password file, then you can create unique passwords for sites that are 12 characters long of gibberish. The password file (which is encrypted) can be backed up to a flash drive and kept in your car in case your place burns down, and to a DropBox account. There is also an iOS app that will read the file so you can get to your passwords while you are away from the computer (search for MyKeePass).

    Also check out InterFaceLift and MacDesktops.

  • Duo

    A lot of people have been suggesting DropBox. I used to use it, but I have stopped, and this is why: it isn’t secure. They originally claimed that your files and communication would be encrypted, however, they also keep a copy of the encryption key for themselves so that they can decrypt your stored data at any time. Also, DropBox contains a single configuration file that is unencrypted that can be copied to another PC and that PC will instantly impersonate yours and have access to your stored files.

    Use Carbonite for online backup.

    If you have a failing hard drive, use SpinRite to restore data on it. (drive must be mounted in a PC to run SpinRite, but the drive can be from any computer hardware) I’ve seen MANY hard drives repaired with SpinRite that function long enough to get vital data off of them.

    Time Machine is great and all that, but it needs top be set up to use a redundant RAID array for its storage, as most of the Time Machine Capsule units are just a single drive, and storing backups to your computer’s hard drive is no good if that thing itself fails. 4-drive redundant RAID storage on a separate NAS box is invaluable.

  • delzoup

    I heard about a grad student who lost his dissertation at the final stage, and would have to start all over again. He had been backing up his computer faithfully, but was unprepared for both his computer and external hard drive to be stolen.

    That’s when I started using online back-up. I use Carbonite, since it’s been around awhile, easy to use, and I only have one computer to back up, but PC mag has reviews of many to find one that best fits your needs. Automatic saving is one of the best uses of technology.


  • You’re absolutely right about backups. As a two-decade IT guy I’ve been preaching the virtue of backups forever, it seems, only to have a lot of people ignore that advice. Most business users are willing to back up, but most consumers are not. And that’s unfortunate for them.

    The good thing about Macs running Leopard (OS X 10.5) or Snow Leopard (10.6) is that there’s a built-in feature called Time Machine. Plug in an external hard drive (the size of your internal drive, or larger), make it a Time Machine partition when you plug it in (it should ask), and let it do its thing (zero intervention is required, the backups are automatic). It backs up your entire drive just as it is, and it saves older versions of your files (how many of each depends on storage space).

    I’ve used TM to restore my Mac after its hard drive had to be replaced. I’ve also used it to retrieve documents I’d deleted but decided I wanted back, as well as older versions of documents.

    Lots of IT pros will tell you a TM drive is not a “true” backup because, if your house is destroyed by a fire, lightning strike, earthquake, etc., your TM drive will be taken out right along with your Mac. And that’s very true. But it’s still a whole lot better than nothing, and it’s just so freaking convenient that I wouldn’t want to be without it. For files you wish to “back up” according to a “true” glass-house IT definition of “backup,” you can burn files you want to save on DVD and keep them offsite in a safe, safe deposit box, etc.

    For Windows users there are tools available that will back up your drive, too, but a lot of that is “paid” software, or drive-imagining utilities that consumers may not have the knowledge or desire to fool around with. Even so, you guys can still keep an external drive attached and save files you want to preserve to it periodically, and burn to DVD and store those in a safe, too. You just have to do it.

    For me it’s an old story: Someone’s drive is hosed and needs to be reformatted or replaced. I tell them it’s necessary, but they immediately protest: “But I’ve got my financial records on there! And family photos! And my music! And my kids’ school projects!” I say, “Fine, where are your backups?” More often than not I hear there are none. There are times when I can save those files anyway … but sometimes they can’t be rescued. And there isn’t anything I can do about it. Even though, since I’m an IT guy, I’m nonetheless expected to possess the “magic” needed to save files from a damaged drive. Sorry, but that magic does not exist in this world.

    Sure, buying backup media (e.g. external drives and DVDs) costs money. Having to do the backups takes time you might prefer to expend elsewhere. And those are the usual reasons most consumers don’t bother backing things up. All I can say is, it’s YOUR data. If you don’t care about your own data enough to preserve it, that’s YOUR problem, not mine.

  • Jon Peterson

    I adhere to a different theory: Nothing can’t be lost.

    I actually just finished starting a clean slate on my desktop (a nasty little virus wiped out two of my partitions, and then the Windows one… drives were fine, but data unrecoverable), and you know what? No stress. There was nothing on there I cannot replace, and nothing on there that was important.

    There’s a difference between work and home computers of course… I’m anal-retentive about data security at work… but at home? If I can’t lose it, it doesn’t belong there. Either I make a hard copy, or I store it elsewhere.

  • qtip

    I recommend testing to make sure your backup is sufficient for you to RESTORE all your data.

    If you haven’t tested/practiced this with your backup method of choice, you could be in for a surprise when your hard disk dies and you need to start from ‘bare metal’ and rebuild your system.

    By this I mean several things: do your backups happen often enough, do they capture all the relevant files, do they happen at all (i.e. did you misunderstand the settings in Windows Backup / Time Machine), etc.

    Some of this is pretty tricky. For example, on Windows Outlook stores your auto-complete email addresses in a folder deep under AppData in a file named Outlook.NK2. You’d need to back this up if you want this to be available during your restore.

  • For the PC users out there, if you’re looking for a scheduled backup solution (rather than a continuous one), Acronis TrueImage is fantastic.

  • Dark Jaguar

    Be careful what you install. Many web sites out there, shadier ones mostly, have some special cartoon or whatever that you can only see with their own specially crafted add on. Generally speaking, about the only addon you should ever bother with is Flash. You can safely ignore web sites that demand something else.

    Along the same lines, watch out for “security alert” web pages. They are all, every one of them, fake. A web page can’t tell if you have a virus, so if some strange alert that doesn’t look like the antivirus you know you are using pops up in a browser window, ignore it. It’s a trick.

    Watch out for junk software. Along with those things, a lot of software that actually can be useful makes a poor assumption, that you want it running in the background at all times. There are tools out there that can remove auto running programs. I recommend “autoruns” from Systems Internals, but ONLY if you know what you are doing, because a lot of that stuff is actually necessary.

    This all brings me to the single best tip, but hard for many to actually make use of. Learn about your computer and how it works. Read a lot of web sites about how your operating system functions and the order startup applications are run in and how to handle those. This is the best way to manage a computer. The best way to deal with a crash is to avoid it in the first place, and educating yourself is the best way to do that. Now not everyone has time to do this, you may be too busy, but a few articles here and there a week and the desire to experiment yourself go a long way.

    Learn how to manually remove an infection should it occur, how to remove your hard disk and attach it to another machine, how to restore lost data, how to load a “live cd” or secondary OS to browse files on your main OS, and all that sort of thing. It’s a lot to pick up at first, but it’ll save you a lot of headaches in the long run.

    Mistakes will still be made, but much less often. You can go for years without a crash with the right knowledge, and the only major data loss should result from hardware failures, which is where your backups will come in handy.

  • Erik T

    Why is it that iphone users always call their phones “iphones” while everyone else just calls their phones “phones”?

  • kindofabuzz

    Two words for you, “use Linux”.

  • Scott Rowed

    A couple of suggestions to get your data off a failing hard drive:

    Remove the hard drive and put it into an external case, preferably with eSATA rather than USB for greater speed. Don’t run it any more than necessary.

    Put the HD in the external case into your freezer. Not sure of the validity of this, but many IT experts use it. Google it. It saved my butt on a couple of occasions.

    Boot up another computer, then attach the frozen drive in the external case, and copy the most important files to the internal HD. Then copy the less important files – you may not have very long.

    If the problem is not with the HD itself, but rather with a corrupted operating system, or virus infections on a Windows machine, you can ignore the freezing part and boot up from a Linux USB stick.
    Then just copy your important data files to an external drive. After that reformat the corrupted drive and reinstall the OS.

  • Me

    HAHA at the Sham Wow Guy.

    I had him as my Blackberry profile picture for a while.

  • The Talented Chimp

    There’s also an open source solution called iFolder. If you have some tech savvy, you can set up a private Dropbox-like solution without the 2GB restriction.

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