How to survive the bomb

You're facing the blue screen of death. You've lost everything - photos, tax files, your first novel. If only you'd protected yourself. Michael Pollitt shows you the way
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The Independent Online

Can you imagine how you would feel if all the work you had sweated over, all your precious family photographs and every e-mail you had received suddenly disappeared from your personal computer? Devastated?

Can you imagine how you would feel if all the work you had sweated over, all your precious family photographs and every e-mail you had received suddenly disappeared from your personal computer? Devastated?

We all know that everything can vanish from a screen because of a virus or even a less insidious computer malfunction. But no matter how many stories we hear - of parents losing irreplaceable digital photographs of children, of students forced to rewrite PhD theses, or of much-loved digital music collections falling silent in seconds - it isn't until it happens to us that we take it seriously enough.

Ron Fabbro, the managing director of Data Recovery UK Ltd, reckons that 90 per cent of home users don't back up any files. Gordon Stevenson, Vogon International's managing director, says bluntly that if users don't have a back-up, they shouldn't have anything of value on their computer. Fabbro says: "How long is it going to take you to recreate what you have just lost? Can you ever recreate family photos of three years ago or of your grandparents who are no longer alive?" The it-won't-happen-to-me excuse just won't wash.

It's hard to know how many people suffer such catastrophic data losses, though a recent poll by engadget.com gives some idea. The web magazine invited readers to send in their data disaster stories. Six hundred people responded - read their sorry tales at www.engadget.com/entry/1234000740032884/#comments. So how do you avoid becoming one of them? The simple answer is to back up regularly. That way, you can reload everything on to your repaired or - in the worst-case scenario - new PC. Here's how.

WHAT DO I BACK UP?

Anything you don't want to lose or would have to replace if you lost it. The obvious items include digital photographs, documents, letters, databases and financial records. Then there's the music and software files that you bought or paid to download from the internet. Lose them, and you'll probably end up having to shell out the full price again.

The not-so obvious files include: e-mail messages (back up everything in the Windows mail folder), e-mail address books (export them) and browser bookmarks (another export). Make separate notes of passwords, ISP settings and so on.

You don't need to back up any programs that you have on the original CDs, though you may have to reset your preferences when you reload them on to your new or repaired computer. If you've pirated any software, PC disasters will leave you in a very difficult, but well-deserved, position.

The key is to be organised. You'll find the back-up process much easier if, for example, you keep documents in well-named and well-ordered folders. The more organised you are (and ruthless about deleting stuff you don't need), the easier it will be to back up and, more importantly, to restore individual lost files. This also helps if you have so much data on your computer that it is impossible to save it on to a single CD.

WHERE DO I STORE MY BACK-UP FILES?

USB flash memory devices

Top of the list for convenience is a USB flash memory device. Called variously memory sticks, pens, key or flash drives, these are, in effect, portable blocks of memory and are available in sizes from 32 megabytes to 1 gigabyte (costing between £10 and £80). Simply plug one into your PC's USB port and it appears on screen as a second hard drive. Just copy all your data on to it. It's best to buy at least two memory sticks and to use them alternately. And, remember, like all back-up devices, carry them around with you and you risk losing or damaging them, so they're best kept in a safe place.

CDs, DVDs and external drives

Another good way of backing up is to CD and DVD rewritable disks. Avoid cheap write-once media such as unbranded CD-Rs, which can fail over time. Iomega ( www.iomega-europe.com) offers a range of products for computers without built-in CD or DVD writers, including increasingly popular small, external hard drives.

The online option

For people who have a broadband internet connection, one of the best options is using a web-based service that allows you to back up remotely. One of the newest services is DataFort's PCFort service ( www.pcfort.co.uk) which, for £1.99 a month, will back up a gigabyte of data (59p for 250 megabytes). BT's similar service, PC Home Backup, charges £6.99 a month for 600 megabytes (that's less than a CD's worth). Once set up, DataFort can take a daily back-up of all new and changed files automatically. And up to three copies of any changed files are kept in the system, allowing you to restore earlier versions of a file at any time.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO BACK UP?

Surprisingly, it takes only a few minutes to transfer information onto new optical media such as DVDs. You won't need special back-up software; you can use standard "copy and paste" or "send to" instructions to copy your work to external media for safe-keeping. For more automation, Windows XP Home users can install Microsoft back-up software from their operating system CD.

HOW OFTEN SHOULD I BACK UP?

Backing up properly is about getting into the right habits. Think about how many new or changed files you might lose between back-ups if disaster were to strike. Ensure copies of work in progress are to hand (flash drives are ideal for daily ad-hoc back-ups). Otherwise, put in place a reliable back-up cycle, so that copies are made at appropriate intervals, keeping at least two full system back-ups at any time. Check your back-ups thoroughly: it's no good backing up only to find, when trouble hits, that you weren't saving properly.

AND IF ALL ELSE FAILS?

OK, so your PC has crashed and you have no back-ups. What do you do? "Stop and call for help," says Stevenson, of Vogon, which specialises in data recovery. Any attempts to reinstall programs before securing lost data or adding data-recovery software, could be disastrous. And whatever you do, don't crack open a failed hard drive - that's a job for white-suited experts in a clean room. Microsoft Windows users facing the blue screen of death and a recalcitrant PC might try a knowledgeable friend with a live Linux CD such as Knoppix. This will harmlessly boot your stuck PC into Linux and allow otherwise inaccessible files to be copied.

If you're really stumped, specialist data recovery companies will help - at a price. Try firms such as Vogon International, Data Recovery UK Ltd, Disklabs, Ontrack Data Recovery and Data Clinic Ltd. "It's a lengthy and costly process to recover data," admits Date Recovery's Fabbro. And, while this usually works, in 10 per cent of cases files can never be recovered because of physical damage or because the users have tried to solve the problem, but without success.

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