Backing up hard to do, but worth it

This is an edited version of my weekly column for Loose Wire Service, a service providing print publications with technology writing designed for the general reader. Email me if you’re interested in learning more.

Sometimes it takes something like an earthquake to realize that you’re vulnerable.

Once the ground stops shaking and you’ve begun to sense that your life — and those of your loved one(s) — are not in imminent danger, your thoughts turn to the next most important thing in your world: Your data.

Well, of course, that may not be your exact train of thought, but it’s the general direction. So much of our lives are digital these days — e-mails, music, photos, social lives — the first thing we tend to clutch when we’re in trouble is our cell phone/laptop/external disk drive.

Or at least it should be. So what should you prepare for when things go wrong and you need to evacuate, pronto?

Here, in brief, is how to do it:

Whatever can be online, should be. E-mails, for example, should be on something like Google’s Gmail (or Yahoo!, who have launched a new e-mail service that’s at least as generous in terms of storage as Google’s.)

This doesn’t mean you can’t also keep your e-mails on your own computer, but make sure they are also online. Get in the habit of e-mailing important documents to yourself, as well, so you’ve got an extra copy online.

This means you can evacuate in a relaxed state of mind. Well, as relaxed as you can be fleeing a building that is burning/falling/swaying/no longer strictly speaking a building.

Same goes with photos: Get in the habit of uploading your favorite photos to an online photo album service like Flickr (www.flickr.com), because if there’s one thing you don’t want to lose it’s family snaps.

Sign up for the Pro edition if you’ve got the cash and a fast(ish) Internet connection, since at US$25 a year for unlimited storage it’s a reasonably cheap way of backing up.

Add photos incrementally: Just get into the habit of uploading photos to your Flickr account when you upload them from your camera/cellphone to the computer (I’m assuming you do this; you do do this, right?)

Of course, online options are only good if you’re online. And, tellingly, I’m not right now because there’s a problem with the Internet — and quite a big problem, since even my trusty backup connection is down — so you shouldn’t rely exclusively on connectivity.

(The other problem is that as more of us go digital, we can’t hope to store everything online, because there’s so much of it. Our iPods store 60 GB or more these days, which is still impractical to back up online.)

In which case you need to have a hard drive backup. There are several ways of doing this, but here’s the best one: Back up everything on all the PCs and laptops in your house to one big external drive the size of hardback book, which you can then grab as you exit the building in an orderly manner.

Here’s how to do that:

Maxtor offer a pretty reasonable range of backup hard drives — the cheapest are really just hard drives in a plastic casing (good to prevent damage: hard drives are not as tough as they pretend to be.)

Expect a whopping 500 gigabyte drive to cost you less than $200. Attach the drive to a USB port and you’ve now got a seriously large drive attached to your computer.

Then buy a program called Acronis True Image ($50 from here) and make a backup image of all the computers in your house.

(An image is a sort of snapshot of your computer. It’s faster than backing up individual files, but will still allow you to restore individual files or folders if you need to.)

It’s a little tricky to set up but you’ll get the hang of it, since you’re going to be backing up once a week. (Yes, you are.)

If you think this is too much for you and that the only data you really need to save are a few documents, then get a USB flash drive (those little sticks you can put on a key ring.)

Prices have fallen to the point where they’re a cheap option now for up to four gigabytes. I would recommend the SanDisk Cruzer micro, not only because they don’t have removable caps (which always get lost) but because they include software that make backing up important files easy. (Stick the drive in a USB slot and follow the instructions.)

A word of warning: Think hard about what data you’ve got and what you want to save. It’s easy to forget stuff hidden in an obscure folder.

Get into the habit of saving important files — whether they’re attachments, photos, spreadsheets or whatever — into the same folder. It’ll make finding them to back them up much easier and quicker.

Oh, and try not to wait until the building is swaying/filled with smoke/has moved down the street before actually doing the backing up.

Trust me: You can’t count on thinking as clearly as you might expect.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

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Seeing Your Files in Three Dimension

3d1aThis kind of thing has got to be the future of files and folders so long as we have files and folders: the Innolab 3D File Manager from Adam Miezianko, Kristopher Rambish, Karen Fung, Zavnura Pingkan at Boston University. (Thanks, visualcomplexity.com)

This design is like a ferris wheel which organises contents by their relationships rather than their physical position on a hard drive. Each spiderweb thread marks the ties between folders holding contents related to the open file folder (center, in purple).

The file manager runs on Linux. It’s actually old: 2003, so something of a shame this kind of thing hasn’t caught on. The closest, I guess, is 3D Topicscape and perhaps WinFS, the storage system that was dropped from Vista back in 2004.

Mapping Your Drive

I’m a big fan of treemaps, and a big fan of anything that keeps your hard drive organised (or any kind of media, really.) So treemap software that create a map of your hard drive are hard to resist, which is why I’ve written about them a fair deal. (For an attempt at an exhaustive list of treemapping software, check out this page.) Here’s a new version of SpaceMonger, one of my favorites, which is now officially out. Just to confuse you, it’s version 2.1, but that’s only because version 2.0 was never released.

Basically, treemaps create a box-like map of whatever it is you’re mapping — in this case, your hard drive. In the illustration above, you can see the bigger rectangles as folders, with the subfolders inside them. What’s the point? You can see at a glance how much space you’ve got left (the grey bit) and which folders, even which files, are taking up space. You can even use it as a file manager, since by clicking on a folder that zooms into the folder in question, and by clicking on a file you can launch it. Right clicking allows you to do things to the file, including delete it. It’s all pretty intuitive stuff.

SpaceMonger isn’t the only one out there doing this, but I like the way it does things.

 

TaskTracker’s Virtual Folders

Interesting how different people get different things from the same software. I love TaskTracker (and listed it in my top 10 programs) because it remembers what files I’ve been using, even if I don’t. Makes finding something real easy. But one reader gets something quite different from its latest incarnation:

…much more useful on a daily basis is TaskTracker because of its Virtual Folder feature. I work on numerous projects simultaneously, drawing files from my long-standing Windows Explorer hierarchial folder arrangement. TT’s file lists enables me to drag shortcuts to those files into Virtual Folders. The Virtual Folders can be converted to permanent folders thereby maintaining all the project references in one file. If the project is a bust, just delete the Virtual Folder. None of the ‘original’ files are disturbed.

I must confess I don’t use that feature very much, but maybe I should.

A Directory Of Windows Explorer Replacements

I’m always amazed at the inadequacy of Windows Explorer and how most users just seem to accept its limitations. The good news is that you don’t have to. Here’s a list of programs that seek to replace, one way or another, Windows Explorer (not to be confused with Internet Explorer) used not only to view directories/folders and move files around (otherwise known as file managers), but to view the contents of files without having to open them, manage photos etc. In no particular order (although I must confess I use ExplorerPlus):

  • ExplorerPlus
    The price: $40
    The blurb: This file manager offers built-in file previewing, multi-pane folder views, instant access to often visited folders, and a large collection of file, document, multimedia and picture management tools, making it easy for you to perform any file management task. Screenshot
  • PowerDesk Pro 
    The price: $50
    The blurb:  PowerDesk® Pro 6 is a simple, fast and fun way to organize and manage files, digital photos, MP3 music files and web images on your PC. It’s convenient and it saves time! In just one, two or three clicks, you can customize your PC: move, copy, zip, label, color code, search, view, prioritize, convert, and use your files the way you want to use them. Screenshot
  • Directory Opus 8 
    The price: $65
    The blurb: Powerful File Manager & Explorer Replacement Screenshots
  • A43 File Management from BG’s Home 
    The price: freeware
    The blurb: A43 is a freeware file management utility for Windows 2000/XP. Screenshot
  • ExplorerXP
    The price: freeware
    The blurb: ExplorerXP is a very fast, small, compact and innovative FREEWARE (for non – commercial use) file manager for Windows 2000/XP. Unlike the regular Windows Explorer, it displays the total size of each folder and allows you to browse multiple folders from a tabbed interface. Screenshot
  • xplorer²
    The price: $30 (there’s a free lite version, and a free earlier version, called 2xExplorer)
    The blurb: All the shell goodies from windows explorer — none of the hassle! Plus all the features you would expect from a powerful tabbed dual-pane file manager, including Omni-Finder, a find files module that simply outclasses all known search tools. Don’t take our word for it, seeing is believing! The screenshot
  • JExplorer
    The price: freeware
    The blurb: JExplorer is a dual-panel type file manager and web-browser as well. It is similar to widely used Norton Commander, WinNC, or Windows Commander. It provides many advanced features such as compressor/decompressor, FTP file transfer, POP3 mail/SPAM mail monitor, MAPI mail sender, directory comparator, and Dial-up Networking (DUN) interface. It runs under Windows 95/98/ME and Windows NT4/2K/XP. The screenshot
  • FileAnt
    The price: freeware (welcomes donations)
    The blurb: FileAnt is a Windows File Manager (like explorer) on tabs (like UltraEdit-32), it is also a cool Ftp Client (like leechftp) and has nice features such as folder pie charts, and a viewer for commonly used file formats. It loads quickly from the tray and uses very little memory to achieve what it does. The Ftp Client is multi-download (you can keep browsing while downloading lots of files). The Pie Chart features 2D telescopic browsing. Advanced tools let you modify file dates, sync folders, and change file attributes en masse. There is also a nice little mp3 player in the tray. Screenshot
  • MeeSoft Commander
    The price: freeware (welcomes donations)
    The blurb: File management utility and image viewer. The program has an effective split screen interface with two directory views or a directory view and a file viewer. The image viewer can launch MeeSoft Image Analyzer for editing images. Screenshot
  • Total Commander
    The price: $34
    The blurb: file manager for Windows® 95/98/ME/NT/2000/XP, and Windows® 3.1 Screenshot
  • Magellan Explorer
    The price: $40
    The blurb: Magellan Explorer is an advanced, yet easy to use, Windows file manager based on the powerful dual window pane concept. Previous users of the Norton Commander file manager software and similar tools will feel right at home. It can also act as a Windows Explorer replacement with a tree view on the left. Or you can enjoy a combination of both! Screenshots

I’m sure there are more out there. I’ve tried to limit this to file managers which might be suitable for the ordinary user, but I’m very open to including more. Let me know (along with any errors on pricing etc).