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Computer Central

First rule for computer users: Back up the data
by James Derk
Scripps Howard News Service

January 10, 2005

At the risk of reducing my own computer repair business somewhat, I feel compelled to offer some hints as to how people can save themselves some grief.

One of the more common ailments people are bringing us now is dead computers or dead hard drives with sort of doe-eyed looks (remember the cat in Shrek II?) pleading with us to bring them back to life.

Sometimes it is relatively easy; sometimes impossibly hard. But the first question I always ask, "have you backed up your data?" And 9 times out of 10 (maybe 99 times out of 100) it is, "um, well, no."

And truth be told, I bet it's been a couple of months since I have backed up my own main computer, too. However, and this is the important part, I always back up important data files that I am working on. (For example, I am completing a book about the adoption of my children; those files are located on about five of my computers and six CD-ROMs.)

So how hard is data recovery? For local repair shops like mine, there are various tools and software packages we employ to recover the data from a "dead" or dying hard drive. How can you tell if the drive is dead? You wake up one morning and you get the dreaded "boot device not found" error.

How can you tell one is dying? Most of the time you can't, but sometimes you will hear a whine for a while.

If a local shop can't get the data back, a professional outfit can take the disk apart in a clean room and place the platens in another device. The last bill I saw for that was about $1,500.

So how should you back up your files? Today it is rarely necessary to back up your whole PC. If the hard drive should die, all you care about is your data. Your applications you just reinstall from the discs (assuming you got them from the system maker.) We ran into that recently too. A client had never received her Windows license from her PC maker who tried to "save her money." So keep your discs in a safe place.

Anyway, I digress. The best way I have found to back up your PC is to an external hard drive. For about $120 you can get a 120-gig hard drive. Every weekend you can launch a full backup; a backup of 20 gigs took about six hours over USB 1.1 (the old kind). Over the new USB 2.0 it should take about 90 minutes. And that's backing up the whole thing.

For data files you can back up to DVD discs (4 gigs at a time) or CD (650 megs) or even technologies like the Iomega REV (about 35 gigs.) If you have some Web space you can even back up online.

The main thing, just to steal from Nike is, JUST DO IT!

WEEKLY WEB WONDER: Finding stuff on the Web is never easy. My buddy Tara makes it easy. Check it out at


James Derk is co-owner of CyberDads, a computer repair company, and a computer columnist for Scripps Howard News Service. His e-mail address is jim(at)


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