Tag Archives: Hard disk drive

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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A Beginner’s Guide to Saving an Old Computer

(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)

What should you do with an old laptop that is so slow you have time to down a cup of coffee while it gets ready?

A reader wrote to me recently: “I would be very grateful for your advice on how to make my very old (1999?) Toshiba Satellite 2545CDS laptop work faster and less erratically.”

His symptoms may be familiar to you: “Composing this message in Yahoo Mail becomes a hardship. The cursor moves slowly or disappears, to suddenly reappear. The computer is always doing something other than what I want it to do — the hard disk drive light is flickering madly, the drive is whirring, but the cursor won’t move.

“Using the Delete or Back Space key is particularly exciting: you press the key many times and nothing happens until the machine wakes up and wipes out your whole sentence. Appending files to messages takes hours, and when you leave to go to the bathroom the computer has put itself on standby.

“It takes me a whole cup of coffee to wait for the laptop to get ready to do two things simultaneously like proofreading a document in PDF format while listening to AccuRadio Classical.”

The reader goes in a similar vein for several pages in the best description of a computer past its sell-by date I’ve come across. He concludes: “Other friends have told me it is time to buy a new laptop, and I now have a much faster Toshiba Portege.”

But understandably, he’s reluctant to let go of this piece of hardware, with plenty of hard disk space remaining, and better inboard speakers than its successor. So what to do?

This reader has done the first thing right — clean the Registry. The Registry on Windows machines is the place where all the information about your programs and settings is stored. Windows refers to this file a lot, so the bigger it is and the more messy it is, the slower your computer runs (and the bigger the chance of errors.) So you should keep it clean.

The easiest way to do this is via a program called CCleaner (no, that’s not a typo; the first C stands for something a family paper like this can’t mention.) CCleaner is free from here: http://www.ccleaner.com/. Download it.

Then, just to be on the safe side, create a Restore Point in your system in case you don’t like what CCleaner does (you’ll find System Restore under your Accessories/System Tools menu. CCleaner will also let you save a backup of your registry before making any changes).

When you’ve created a Restore Point, run the “Scan for Issues” on CCleaner’s Issues tab (it may take some time). Then click on the Fix Selected Issues button. When this is finished your Registry should be a lot cleaner — meaning the computer will be faster. A bit.

Next stop is to defragment the hard drive. This tidies up the files on your hard drive so they will load more quickly and new files can find a place for themselves without having to split into smaller bits. Think of it as cleaning up after a raunchy party: the files are the wine glasses and plates piled up in the sink, the kitchen cupboards are your hard drive where they all need to go.

Windows has a pretty good defragmentation tool called Disk Defragmenter in the same menu as the System Restore program. Run that — and drink another cup of coffee or six while it’s doing it. It could take some time.

This should speed up your computer. But it may not be enough. There could be several reasons for this. One is that the hard drive is overloaded. (If so, delete the big files until at least half the hard drive is empty.)

My reader is clearly not having this problem: He reports using only 1.5 gigabytes of the 4 GB hard disk. In this case, you may be better off cleaning the hard drive of everything and starting again.

This is not a step to be taken lightly: It involves backing up all your data, collecting all your serial numbers and installation disks for software you have, and then canceling all hot dates for a few days as you laboriously reformat your hard drive and install the operating system, the drivers for your external devices, software programs and settings, and then the files you saved from before.

It’s like war: boring and scary in equal measure. Boring because watching a progress bar move slowly from left to right isn’t fun, and scary because you occasionally get heart-stopping moments where you think you’ve lost an important file forever, or the whole process stops for no apparent reason.

I wouldn’t recommend it, but neither would I recommend you outsource it — at least until you’re absolutely sure you’ve backed up every single file, e-mail, photo and password you might need again. But if your computer is not responding to lesser measures, this might be the best way to go.

Another tip: If your computer is an old one, don’t try to force fancier operating systems onto it. If your computer was made in 1999, for example, chances are it won’t like Windows XP very much, for the good reason that XP came out in 2001 and was designed for faster chips than were available back then. Your computer won’t like it and will rebel.

Better to have an operating system that’s older than the computer. Even better, if the computer is not going to be your main device, ditch Windows altogether and install Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com), an Open Source (meaning free) operating system that looks a lot like Windows, but will run quite happily on older machines.

You could still play music files, write documents and e-mails or surf the Web on it, and you’ll be considered very cool by your friends.

There’s always another option: Ditch the laptop and just use the hard drive as external storage for your other computers. But that’s for another day.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

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A New Concept In Storage, Or Too Small To Matter?

It’s finally arrived: the USB flash drive that thinks it’s a floppy disk.

It was like this: For years stuff — data, programs — was moved around via a floppy disk. First they were big 5” things, then they shrank to 3”. Iomega tried to win people over with ZIP drives but they never really penetrated much deeper than a few suckers like me who invested hundreds of dollars in stacks of them. (Tip: Never buy a storage device where the intellectual property is held by one company.)

Then the CD-ROM came along, and got so cheap it became simpler to just burn data onto them to hand around as one would a floppy disk. The problem is that they’re not all reusable, meaning lots of CD-ROMs sitting around useless and old. Then the USB flash drive started making headway, getting smaller, easier to use and cheaper. Folk started carrying them on a keychain, or around their neck, and swapping stuff like in the old days. But they were never so cheap that you had more than half a dozen of them, so they never quite became floppy drives. A sentence you rarely heard was: “Here copy the data onto my USB drive and take it; I’ve got thousands of them in the cupboard.”

Now you might. Verbatim/Memorex has today launched the 16MB FlashDisc. At £14 or $20 for a 3-pack, the “new media is set to revolutionise the way in which photos, music and other digital data files are exchanged,” the company hopes.

It certainly looks cute. I can immediately see problems plugging one into crowded and cramped USB ports but the circular thing and colors make it appealing. And there’s some sense in making these things so cheap that people will stock up on them in the same way we used to stock up on floppies. Indeed, “we’ve brought this new product category for sharing digital files to market because our research shows a significant demand exists for low-capacity storage media at a reasonable cost,” Hans-Christoph Kaiser, Verbatim Business Unit Manager, is quoted as saying in the press release. “512MB, 1GB and larger USB drives will remain popular but with FlashDisc we’re providing an entirely new flash-based solution at a low cost that’s within everyone’s reach so providing an ideal solution to everyday needs for storing and sharing electronic data.”

I think the problem is whether 16 megabytes is enough. Nowadays that doesn’t get you very far: four MP3 files, say, or 10 photos of questionable quality. Given the old floppies could hold 1.4 megabytes, the size sounds generous, but that was back in the days of 100 megabyte hard drives. Nowadays they’re 100 gigabytes, meaning these FlashDiscs should store about a gigabyte to make sense. Or is my math all wrong?

Either way, I don’t expect these to raise eyebrows until they come out in capacities that make sense: at least 100 megabytes and I think we might start to listen.

Why You Should Never Give A Company Your Data

Here’s a great example of why you can never really entrust your information to anyone but yourself.

The Register’s John Leyden reports that Pointsec Mobile Technologies, a data security company, has obtained via eBay a hard disk apparently owned by ”one of Europe’s largest financial services groups”. On the hard disk were, in the words of Pointsec, “pension plans, customer databases, financial information, payroll records, personnel details, login codes, and admin passwords for their secure Intranet site. There were 77 Microsoft Excel documents of customers email addresses, dates of birth, their home addresses, telephone numbers and other highly confidential information, which if exposed publicly could cause irrevocable damage to the company.” The disk cost Pointsec £5 (about $8).

The purchase wasn’t just a one-off, either. Pointsec says they bought 100 hard drives as part of research into this kind of problem, and found they were able to read 70% of them, despite the fact that all had supposedly been reformatted to wipe off data. They also visited airports in Sweden, the U.S. and Germany where laptops lost in transit were being auctioned off. In one case, using password recovery software, Pointsec was able to access information on the laptops even before purchasing the laptops. In Sweden the company bought a laptop on which they found ”four Microsoft Access databases containing company- and customer-related information and 15 Microsoft PowerPoint presentations containing highly sensitive company information.”

Ouch. I can’t find anything on Pointsec’s website about this but John’s report gives us enough to show this kind of problem is not an obscure one. Not only does it raise serious questions about company (and government) data security, but it also highlights how stupid we are to give any of our information to a company unless it’s absolutely necessary. This would, sadly, include folks like Plaxo, who may be sincere when they say they’re doing their utmost to protect our data. But what happens when they replace one of their hard drives?

Personally I think Pointsec should name the companies whose data they have retrieved: The Register says they won’t, and they’ll destroy the hard drives. This kind of research may prove to be good for Pointsec’s business, since they can take the data to the companies in question and offer to fix the problem, but what about all the thousands of other companies that don’t think it’s their kind of problem? Unless they are named and shamed I don’t think there’s enough incentive for companies to double check their data security and privacy policies.

This week’s column – Visualizing Tools

This week’s Loose Wire column takes a look at programs that visualize your hard disk.

ONE OF THE CRAZY THINGS about computers is that the more we use them, the more of a mystery they become. Think of all the things you’ve done with your computer: reading and writing e-mail, browsing Web sites, downloading (and making) music, editing and watching video, storing photos. All these things take up valuable space, but are impossible to find without a team of forensic experts to help. In short, finding what’s valuable and what’s not is easier in your loft, basement, garage or den than on your own hard disk.

That’s the problem. Here’s the solution: Software that allows you to view your hard disk as if you were X-raying it. These programs take a close look at your hard drive–or whatever disk you want it to, from a USB drive to a CD-ROM–and present it as a graphic, broken down into little coloured blocks that represent the files and folders that make up your data. The size of the blocks depends on the size of the files and folders they represent, and their colour depends on whether they are photos, music files, documents or whatever. Your hard drive will look like mosaic, with the various files and folders all separately adding little rectangular bits to make up the whole picture. Such programs, for want of a better term, are called disk-visualization tools

Full text at the Far Eastern Economic Review (subscription required, trial available) or at WSJ.com  (subscription required). Old columns at feer.com here.

How Long Do USB Thumb Drives Live?

Had my first USB thumb drive (sometimes called USB flash drives, or USB key drives) die on me today.

They’re a great way to move stuff from A to B, and to keep an extra back-up in your pocket, but don’t rely on them too much. I’ve had several over the years (they first started appearing in this part of the world in 1999, if I recall) and this is the first time one has just refused to give up its secrets.

It’s not a well-known brand, but I guess it’s true of all these devices, which use flash memory to store up to half a gigabyte of stuff. I’ve read they live for “up to one million rewrites and can retain data for up to 10 years”. Not in this case they don’t. This one hadn’t been much further than my pocket for the past couple of years, and my pocket hasn’t been anywhere exciting since the Great Drinking Session of 1996.

My advice: Don’t treat them as any more substantial than floppy disks. Keep them for moving stuff from one computer to another, or as a second back-up (after hard drives, online backup and/or CD-Rs). Assume that you could lose the data, and plan accordingly. They’re wonderful little gadgets, but I just realised they’re not the trusty friend I thought they were.

The Smallest Hard Drive In The World

Small is beautiful.

The Guinness World Records has certified Toshiba’s 0.85-inch hard disk drive as the smallest HDD in the world (it’s not actually out yet; expect to see it in September).

Toshiba say it’s the first hard disk drive “to deliver multi-gigabyte data storage in a sub-one-inch form factor”. (The 0.85-inch measurement refers to the diameter of the magnetic disk.) It comes in capacities of 2 to 4 gigabytes and will probably end up in mobile phones, digital camcorders and portable storage devices.

The Guinness folks offer some historical perspective: The first hard drive came out in 1956, and needed 50 two-foot disks to store 4.4 MB.

Of course, with hard drives the size of your thumb, this is going to have a very interesting impact on PDAs, cellphones, laptops and MP3 players. My tupennce worth: Marry these very small drives with thin displays and what else do people need?

Say Hi To The 400GB Hard Drive

Are we far away from terrabyte hard drives?

Hitachi said today they have “the world’s highest capacity 3.5-inch ATA hard drive, the 400GB Deskstar 7K400”. The new drive has been designed for audio video The Deskstar 7K400 provides enough capacity to store the following:

  • 400 hours of standard TV programming
  • 45 hours of HDTV programming
  • More than 6,500 hours of high quality digital music

That’s quite a lot of data. Although I have to say that despite having plenty of hard drives around the place, I’m still out of space. When is 400 GB going to sound like not very much, if it doesn’t already?

I guess sometimes I feel like this: The bigger hard drives get, the more we put on them. If you start putting video on a hard drive, it’s not going to be long before it fills up. Make a big hard drive, we’ll want to put all our DVDs on them. Then we make a bigger hard drive, we’ll want to put our whole life on them. Sadly, we’re never going to get to the point where we think ‘no worries, we’ve got more than enough space here.’ That, I fear, is never going to happen.

News: The Dark Side of Backing Up

 From the We Should Have Known This Dept comes news that CD-ROMs degrade in months, even at room temperature without sunlight. Dutch magazine PC Active tested data disks from 30 manufacturers that were recorded 20 months ago. Several data CDs developed serious errors, or became virtually unreadable, The Register reports.
 
It’s perhaps too early to tell, but the word seems to be: different dye systems used for CD-R disks are the root of the evil and that you’re better off storing your stuff on the more expensive disks. My tuppennies’: Keep backups of your most important data on different media — hard drive, online drive, CD-ROMs, DVD — in several copies.

News: Hard Times For The Hard Drive

 Just when you thought hard drives couldn’t get any bigger…. they don’t. Interesting piece called Midlife crisis for the hard drive by CNET’s Ed Frauenheim says growth in hard drive capacity, after doubling annually during some periods, is beginning to slow “as engineers run into technological obstacles and many PC buyers feel they have more than enough space”.
 
 
Speak for yourself: I have five hard drives now and still seem to be short.