Blog Archives

UPS update: What’s new, what to remember

There are several products every computer owner should have, to protect their hardware, software, and data. On the software side, this includes anti-virus/anti-malware, a firewall, and other security software.

On the hardware side, a UPS — Uninterruptible Power Supply — to protect against power glitches and outages.

(And a backup, in case something does happen.)

UPS update: What's new, what to rememberProblems with electric power can do everything from scramble the data on your hard drive or interfere with current work to causing your hardware to wear out faster — or even destroy key components instantly.

And even in the best locations, the quality of electrical power is subject to events that can send bad power to your computer. It doesn’t have to be a lightning strike; big-motor gear like an air conditioner, or other devices, on the same circuit, can reduce the power or send noise down the line. Or something can cause the circuit breaker to trip, resulting in zero power to the outlet.

A UPS includes a surge protector to guard against “bad” power — surges, spikes, and noise. And it also includes a battery, allowing the UPS to provide power (“run time”) to your computer even when not enough, or none, is coming in.

In general, small office/home office (SOHO) UPSs are intended to let your gear keep working throughout brief power interruptions of a few seconds or less, and give you the time to close files and shut down the computer in an orderly fashion if there’s a longer power outage (minutes to hours). (A UPS may then keep your cable modem and router going for an hour or more — or it may not. But it’s not good for the UPS battery to be drained all the way down.)

Buying the Right UPS

For desktop/SOHO users, UPSs are available for anywhere from $50 to $200.

UPSs come in several main “topologies” (types), and also vary in two dimensions of capacity.

To vastly oversimplify, for SOHO users, the types of UPSs available are Standby, Line-Interactive, and On-Line.

A Standby UPS, a.k.a. Off-Line UPS, switches over the battery only when the wall current voltage falls below a certain level or goes out completely. This is the least expensive type of UPS, it’s what most people get.

A Line-Interactive UPS can supplement low power levels from the battery.
Affordable; a good choice.

An On-Line UPS is the most expensive — and best — type of UPS, always providing clean power at the right voltage level. Good if your power is subject to lots of interruptions, micro-outages, sags, or surges and spikes.

For most SOHOs in places where daily power quality is good, a Line-Interactive UPS should be sufficient.

In addition to “type,” to buy the right UPS, you need to:

  • Know how much power all the devices you want to provide backup power to would use, for example your a desktop, a flatscreen, cable modem, and home router. Many UPSs will detect if you are plugging in more devices than the battery can power and will refuse to work – so you won’t have the illusion you’re protected when you’re not.
  • Know how long you want device(s) to run.

Once purchased and installed, a UPS for home or office needs close to no upkeep — but there are few important things to know and do.

Taking Good Care of Your UPS

  1. Test the UPS. Once the battery is charged up, plug in a desk lamp or a radio, turn it on, and (gently) remove the UPS power cable from the wall outlet. Does the lamp or radio stay on? Now test again with the computer gear you intend to plug into the UPS.
  2. Make sure the UPS is well ventilated. Like any electrical device, a UPS gives off heat. Don’t leave paper next to it, make sure it can get good air flow.
  3. Label the UPS with when you bought it.
  4. If it includes USB monitoring software, consider using it. (For what it’s worth, I’ve never done this — so far.)

UPS batteries typically are good for two to four years. They don’t just fail all at once; over time — and the more your UPS is asked to provide its backup power — they’ll have less capacity (run time) — be able to power gear for even fewer minutes. You may be able to get third-party replacement batteries for a good price, but shop cautiously!

UPSs themselves should be replaced — there’s no standard answer, but the consensus is somewhere between five and seven years. Mark your long-term calendar! (And update the UPS label — and your calendar — when you replace the battery.)

Buying a good UPS or replacing the battery every few years translates to about a dollar a week. The cost of a problem — lost productivity or replacing hardware — for even one event during this time frame would be many, many times that — and the likelihood of at least one such event is high. So don’t be a misplaced optimist — go get that UPS today!

 

MozyHome

 

Reminder, basic quick fixes for troubled gear

Reminder, basic quick fixes for troubled gearEven the best of computers and other electronic gear hiccups occasionally. You want to save your electronics, but you don’t want to throw good money after bad with expensive new parts or paid support. Before you junk that old gear, here are some tips for spending ten or twenty minutes addressing the issue before asking yourself the “repair or replace” question.

While there’s a lot that we as end users can’t or shouldn’t do — or even attempt — to fix them, there’s still often a fair number of things we can try, and problem we can fix or otherwise make go away.

This isn’t new to computers. If you’re old enough and have lived in cold climates, you may remember hearing your car fail to start, instead making an odd clicking sound — which, if you were knowledgeable and lucky — could be fixed quickly with a few whacks of a hammer, wrench or other solid object. How? If the problem was that the solenoid (relay switch) on the starter motor had frozen stuck, whacking it often unstuck it. (For dramatic effect when helping a friend, you would tell them to turn the key before you strike.)

With electronics, physical force is rarely the solution. Instead, there’s other things to try — obvious things in theory, but easy to lose track of if you haven’t had to do it to a given device lately.

1.) Check the power, power cord, and power switches.

Is the power cord fully plugged in at both ends? For example, the router in my home office is placed such that it’s easy to unseat the power cord and not notice — which in turn whacks wireless connectivity.

Is the wall outlet on? Some are connected to light switches; it’s easy to forget this. Check by plugging in a radio or light or something.

Are all the power switches on the device on? Many computers, printers, and displays have a power rocker-switch in the back, where it isn’t visible. This includes many computers that have a front-side on switch.

Ditto for any intermediary UPSs, surge protectors or power strips — are they plugged in and powered on? Again, check using a light or radio or some other device.

2.) Check the fuses. (More common with stereo and home theater gear.)

This may involve opening up the chassis — don’t do this if you don’t know how to do it safely! And make sure you use the correct fuse to replace one that you think has blown.

3.) For battery-powered devices, check the battery.

If you have a spare that you know has a charge, try that. If you can recharge the battery, try that.

Also, if you can, take the battery out and look at the battery contacts. If they’ve become corroded (typically from a leaky battery), for example, have green or white powdery gunk on them, clean the contact off (carefully).

4.) Check all the non-power cables.

It’s easy for a cable to have come loose — or be damaged. Unplug and replug them. If everything was previously working, the odds are low that a cable has gone bad, but keep this possibility in mind if other fixes don’t work. And sometimes it’s one of the connectors.

5.) Power device(s) off, wait 30 seconds, and reboot.

This works astonishingly often. As my friend and colleague Michael Dortch said years ago, “If rebooting fixes it, it wasn’t a problem.”

6.) For Windows devices, try booting to SAFE MODE.

Sometimes you need to reboot several times, first two or three times to Safe Mode, and then one or two times to regular mode. From SAFE MODE, you may then want to try rolling back to a previous RESTORE POINT.

Here are some other quick tips that I have found helpful:

  • For devices with a backup battery you can access, check, and if possible and necessary, replace.
  • For devices with a BIOS, boot to the BIOS, and check the configuration.
  • For computers, if it boots but you can’t use it, try a spare keyboard and mouse, if you have any (which you ought to).
  • For WiFi problems, if there’s a physical switch on your device, check that. Either way, also check the settings in the BIOS.
  • Leave the device alone for an hour or two.

And of course, invest the money or effort to have a professional look at it. Often, like with cars, it will work fine when you try to demonstrate the problem to somebody else.

 

Mozy Stash

 

Making your important info available to you online

We’ve all got personal information that we don’t carry around with us but regularly or occasionally need to find. Often it’s also information we are concerned that we don’t lose, e.g., in the event of a computer crash, house or office fire or theft, etc.

For example:

  • A copy of our driver’s license, passport, or other identification documents
  • Copies of credit cards
  • Passwords for key online accounts, including account numbers for financial ones
  • Key personal documents, like Power of Attorney documents (our own, or one giving us PoA), Health Care Directives and Proxies, wills, marriage license, etc.
  • Medical history, including current prescriptions, health insurance, and list of physicians
  • Inventory list of computer, camera, phone and other gear, including serial numbers
  • Software license keys
  • Travel itineraries.
  • Photos of yourself, family members, pets.

Some of this information is important but not “sensitive” — meaning that when you need it, you need it, but if somebody else were to get hold of it, no big deal. My guess is that software license keys might fall into the “less sensitive” arena. But even where information isn’t inherently sensitive, it might lead to some other aspect of your work or personal life being compromised, through savvy “social engineering” (phishing or other personal identity attacks). Some file types allow themselves to be individually password protected, such as PDF and ZIP files (depending on the tool being used to create it).

Secure Your Important Information OnlineOnce digitized, it’s possible to put this on your smartphone, tablet, or on a USB flash drive on your keyring — carefully protected, of course, by an encryption tool like TrueCrypt or 1Password. But this assumes you have the device or your keyring with you — which, depending on circumstances, may not be the case.

Fortunately, with the ever-greater accessibility of the Internet, you can park one or more copies online, often at no cost.

Two quick tips, first:

  1. Include an inventory document of what documents/information you’ve put together.
  2. Make a list of where you do end up parking copies — so when the master set of information gets updated, you can propagate the new version to all the places you’ve parked copies.

Ways and Places to Park Your Data and Documents Online

  1. Email them to yourself. Leave them in your INBOX, or in a mail folder that you can get to from web browser. This requires remembering your email password, but that’s the one you’re most likely to remember.Caution: If you use a mobile device or notebook to check your email, include encryption on the attached document(s), and/or other safeguards, like requiring the email password for each session.
  2. Park them in a password-protected directory in your web site.
  3. And don’t forget the directory name or password. Consider putting a hint in a file that you can find to bootstrap you in.
  4. Park them in a password-protected directory on your cloud storage space. (Again, be sure you’ve encrypted the actual files, individually, as well).
  5. If you have set up remote access to your computer, meaning you can access it from another computer, tablet or smartphone, e.g., using a remote desktop tool like GoToMyPC or LogMeIn.
  6. Send them to a friend or family member (again, as encrypted attached files) — pick someone who’s online often enough that they’re likely to respond quickly to a “Please send me those files ASAP” request.

And I’m sure there are lots of other places, ranging from social 2.0 accounts to “online safety deposit boxes.” Do a web search for “online safety deposit boxes,” for example, and, in addition to ones intended for your own immediate use, you’ll find ones designed to provide access only in the event of your death.

One final suggestion: Even if you do park the data online, you might still want to carry a password-protected encrypted copy with you — for those times when you’ve got your wallet, smartphone or keychain, but don’t have Internet access.

 

MozyHome

 

Obsolete tech accessories to keep one of: A short list

As computers, home stereo/theater, and other technology products continue to change, so do the accessories they use, and the tools involved in fixing and maintaining them.

This means adding some new accessories and tools — but that doesn’t mean getting rid of all our old inventory, just pruning them. After all, many of us still have older devices we’re still using — or are asked by family and friends to help them with their older devices. (Or we buy them at yard sales, or get them from friends and family.)

Floppy DisksFor example, I’m still working on helping somebody do a full save from his old desktop computer, which is running Windows 95 and has a parallel port but no USB ports. I also have several similarly old notebooks from friends that are potentially salvageable and my own not-yet-resaved archive of hard drives and of floppy backups.

Things I’m hanging on to for fun projects like these include:

  • USB cables: These pile up, but it’s good to have a bunch, especially with USB now the way that many mobile devices charge. Also, many printers that require USB cables don’t include them, and store prices are often whacky-high, so I hang onto the extras that accumulate. My pile currently includes “Type B” ones for connecting to printers, and cables or adapters for the smaller-size (mini and micro).
  • VGA video cable(s): Two or three, since sometimes I get/find monitors that don’t have any; having spares makes it easier to find new homes for these displays.
  • Computer power cables: Ditto — having several spares makes sense. Also some of the two and three-connector ones used by many stereo components.
  • Ethernet cables: A bunch, from short to medium long.
  • Parallel cable: One of these is plenty.
  • USB floppy disk drive: One should be enough, but it’s nice to have a spare to lend out. And some floppy disks.
  • USB CD/DVD drive: I occasionally need it myself, for use with my new 3-pound Lenovo ThinkPad, which doesn’t have a built-in optical drive., Similarly, I’ve lent this out to a friend who needed to install software on a netbook.
  • Adapters: I’ve got a box of video, USB, PS/2, serial, and other cable/port adapters that I’ve built up over the years, from buying sprees at computer stores, and from yard sales. My computer stash includes “gender-menders” (male-to-male, female-to-female), type adapters (e.g., USB-to-PS/2), pin adapters (e.g., VGA 9-to-15). I almost never need these adapters — but when I do, it was worth every penny to have the right one at hand (or several from which I assemble the right combination).
  • OS disks: I’ve got a shoebox full — licensed retail copies often turn up at yard sales for a few bucks — ranging from Windows XP back through DOS, along with a Linux or two. Again, rarely used, but invaluable when needed.

I also have a mouse, keyboard, and small LCD, along with video and power cables, for my “testbench” to check out notebooks and desktops.

And I’ve got a few old hard drives, some “sanitized,” some not (yet), for possible re-use.

Things I don’t hang onto, since I’ve got my limits as a tech geek, include hard drive ribbon cables or power supplies. I enjoy disassembling computers, but I’m not interested in building or rebuilding them. I’ve also recently discarded printer and SCSI cables, among other things.

The same logic applies to stereo gear. I’ve got a modest handful of RCA cables, sundry plug adapters, radio antennas, and power cords, plus a small tin of stereo fuses, and a meter to check speaker impedance.

In general, if anything needs anything more complicated than an adapter, cable and fuse, it goes off to tech recycling, or to somebody else who wants to play with it.

I try to periodically — every year or three — go through my stash, and cull the triplicates and the so-obsolete-I-no-longer-care stuff.

But even the old stuff — and the knowledge of how to use it — comes in handy still, for helping people with computers that are way old, but not ready (or their owners aren’t ready) to be disposed of.

 

Mozy Stash Free

 

Inventorying and IDing your tech stuff: quick tips

Inventorying Your Tech StuffLike all material possessions personal or business, tech stuff accumulates. It doesn’t actually multiply (except, perhaps, for the calculators) but it doesn’t take long to end up with a pile of stuff.

None of us want to end up on Hoarders. To keep A&E cameras from showing up in tyour driveway, it’s essential to be organized — which includes IDing and inventorying what you’ve got.

WHY IDENTIFY WITH ORGANIZATION

One reason is simply so you know what goes with what. Increasingly, power and data cables are near-universal — thankfully, nearly all manufacturers have moved to USB. Even Apple has standardized its device-side connector, so you can pack one Apple cable (“i-cable”?) for use with both an iPhone and iPad. But some devices still have proprietary data cables and AC adapters. Many battery chargers for digital cameras, for example, remain unique.

This means it’s easy to end up with a box — or boxes! — of AC adapters, wires, and assorted cords, and not be sure what goes with what.

Not to mention being able to find software CDs that went with devices. Yes, most of this is available online — but not always, or not always as usefully. For example, I’m trying to set up a Dell printer, and the file I downloaded from Dell was Zip files within Zip files, and seems to be “turtles all the way down,” never resulting in actual install files I could run.

Fortunately, I found the CD — amazingly, in the first place I looked. It’s easy to claim that a success for my organizing system, but there were at least three other places it could legitimately have been, not to mention somewhere within a foot or two of where the printer has been resting.

HELP INSURE YOUR GEAR

Another reason to ID and inventory your tech gear is for insurance purposes.

If you’re covering through a computer rider on your home policy, or getting a separate Business Office Policy (aka BOP), part of the policy cost depends on how much coverage you’re looking for.

And that, in turn, means knowing how much the stuff you’re insuring cost. Of course, if you do have a loss — easy to do, when you’re toting mobile devices around — it’s easier to make a claim if you have the item name, serial number, purchase price and date, etc. Tech support is yet another good reason — and one you’re likely to run into — to have this information easily at hand. Typically, the first product information you’re asked for when you contact Tech Support is the product name, serial number, and maybe when you purchased it.

For larger objects like desktop computers, printers, and flat screens, that information is often at the back or bottom, hard to get to without a fair amount of effort. That’s why I recommend copying this to a label or small piece of paper you then stick on front or side of the machine where it’s visible.

MAKE A LIST

Being organized starts at the beginning. Part of the challenge will be that, like travel luggage, over time, the stuff you’re organizing evolves, and so will how you do it.

Create a document or database to record acquisitions. I’m use a simple Excel spreadsheet with an easy-to-search-for name, since I only need to access it every few months. For example, mine is called DERN_INVENTORY_OFFICEGEAR.

The data I record for each item is:

o Item: Vendor/Product Serial/Key Number Purchased from

o Date of purchase

o Cost

o Estimated current value (updated every so often)

o Tech support phone number

o Warranty

o Misc notes

I’ve separated my items into Computers, Cameras, Audio/Video, and Phone/Mobile. . Give your insurance company a copy.

When you get a new techno-toy (or business purchase), once you’re sure you’re keeping it, add it to the list; when major updates happen, send a copy to your insurance company.

Consider printing this out, for when you need it and your computer isn’t working. If nothing else, make sure a copy gets stored in an off-site backup (such as a cloud backup). One of my friends puts his information into an email message and simply leaves it in his inbox.

For insurance purposes, you might also want to take (digital) pictures of your gear — being sure, of course, to save copies off-site or on the cloud.

LABEL AND BOX

Nothing beats a label to help you keep track of what the heck something is — and to help identify it as yours.

If nothing else, once you’re sure you’re keeping something, label its AC adapter. If this is the only tip you act on, you’re already ahead of the game.

If it’s just an AC cord, label that — so you can tell what’s plugged in on your power strip or UPS.

For the main device, put a label with the serial number (again, while it’s easy to get to), date you got it, and maybe also the main tech support phone number. This is particularly important for printers.

For any accessories that you don’t expect to use most of the time, put them in a baggie — and label that baggie, perhaps by putting some of the packaging with the product name in it. And then put that baggie into a labeled box, like “iPhone stuff” or “Digital camera stuff.”

And if you’ve got the storage space for it, consider saving the box and packing for your monitor — because if you do have to send it back to the vendor (which I did, for one of my flat screens), it will be difficult and/or expensive to get alternate packaging.

THINGS I HAVEN’T TRIED — YET

Now that I’ve got an iPhone, which should be able to work as a bar code scanner, I’m considering trying to use that as an inventorying tool.

The challenge is to find a bar code-driven database, either for my iPhone/iPad, or for Windows. It’s worth doing — not just for my tech gear, but also for stuff like my books and CDs and comic books.

 

 

Small tech stuff (too) easily lost or mislaid, some thoughts

From Bluetooth headsets to SD cards, and even cameras and phones, it’s getting easier to misplace things, even in a home office.

To be fair, my home office and adjacent hallway space is, well, enough of an Over-Clutter Central that even largish things — like notebook computers — can stay hidden if I’m not careful.

But it’s even worse for the small techno-doodads, both the ones I use daily, and the ones I use infrequently.

The first instance of this trend was close to a decade ago, when a 1GB IBM MicroDrive (a CF-card sized hard drive, about half an inch squared by one-eighth of an inch) went AWOL. “How can I misplace a gigabyte?” I wondered, once I realized I couldn’t find it. (This was back in the day when a gigabyte was a significant amount of storage, and not cheap — this 1GB Microdrive was about $340. Now, of course, solid-state CF cards are about two dollars per gigabyte up through 32GB, you can get a professional-photographer-class 128GB CF card for about $600, and 256GB CF cards should be available — not cheaply — by summer 2012.)

My cell phone was the next major offender. I finally decided that, like my glasses, I needed a standard place to put it when I wasn’t carrying it, and, a few years later, dedicated a small box to “stuff that goes in my pockets.”

This strategy has, for the most part, helped me keep track of my cell phone.

But it’s not always good my Bluetooth headsets – they’re a little too small for that pile, so I’ve started a separate, smaller box more or less just for them.

Nor has it helped for my pocket digital cameras, which I don’t use as often. Even worse are their associated AC adapters/battery chargers and cables. Some of these have spent up to a year in hiding. Again, creating a dedicated box is helping — when I remember to use it.

Then there’s the pile of flash drives, SD cards, and other storage media. Again, a dedicated box helps — to some extent.

The worst offender, and biggest nuisance, is cables-and-chargers. Regular USB cables, no problem, I’ve got lots of those. But there’s at least three smaller-size USB cable plugs used for headsets, cameras, and other devices. I know I have lots of each…but where?

Notebook accessories, too, continue to plague me. I don’t have a lot of this, but I don’t some of the accessories that often. My external CD/DVD drive, for example, which recently went on a three-month vacation near my desk. Dedicating a notebook carry-bag to the machine helps keep some of this together.
Part of the challenge is whether I’m solving by category or activity. I’ve got a few small bags I take on trips, with USB adapters, chargers and the like. (I know, a medium-size box marked “Tech Travel Stuff” would be a big help here.)

Another part of the challenge is that, like travel bags for clothes and toiletries, my tech travel needs keep shifting and evolving. Two years ago, I was still using my Nokia “dumbphone.” The only accessories were a wall charger and a car charger. Now, with an iPhone and iPad, I’ve got a handful of accessories to take with me. But as the tech I use changes, so do the associated piles of cables, chargers, accessories, and whatnot.

I also have additional challenges that most people don’t: as a technology journalist who does some reviewing, I’m surrounded by a sometimes-depressing sludge of trial devices and left-over cables, plus, from trade shows, all the free USB flash drives, cables, hubs and whatnot given away at the booths.

One answer, in theory, is to continue to clean and purge. But a surprising selection of that older stuff still comes in handy. And cleaning and organizing takes time. I enjoy it, but it takes time. Plus I have to remember what I did.

So, like many, for affordable things, I often end up buying another of whatever it is. Or I spend an hour or two excavating my desk or digging through my closet.

Probably the most important lesson I’ve learned is to LABEL EACH AC POWER ADAPTER WHEN I GET IT. Not necessarily for the USB ones, but all others. Especially for notebooks.

OK, and to have a place for each thing or category, and to put stuff away in the same place each time. And to keep getting rid of stuff.

Because next thing you know, I’ll be misplacing terabytes.

 

 

How To Select a Backup Service: Start By Identifying What Files You Have

Back up Computer FilesBefore you can choose a backup solution, you have to know what files you want backed up.

In order to decide what files you want to back up, you have to know what files you’ve got on your system as well as various information about them:

What programs and peripherals are creating the files that you want backed up. Where — as in, where on your computer’s storage, or possibly, where on a network storage device — are these files are created and saved to.

It’s possible that the backup utility you use will a.) ask you the right questions, and b.) find the directories and files that you care about. But if you don’t know the answers, you can’t tell the utility what to do and you can’t be sure it’s doing what you need.

What programs and peripherals create files?

It’s easy to lose track of what creates/saves files to the computer.

Every time you use an office productivity application, such as Microsoft Word/Excel/PowerPoint, or OpenOffice, you’re creating, and presumably saving, files.

Other programs and activities that create files include:

o Creating documents on NotePad, WordPad Scanning documents

o Creating PDF files (e.g., “printing to a PDF”)

o Saving web pages Getting receipts from web transactions (e.g., for airline, hotel, car reservations)

o Purchasing or downloading digital media (iTunes and other music, ebooks, video, etc.)

o Using digital media editing programs, e.g., Picasa, Flickr, Audacity

Also, other devices that connect/sync to your computer may create/transfer files. For example, your smartphone, tablet, digital camera, or MP3 player may create files that can be backed up.

Where are the files?

In order to tell a backup service to backup your files, you have to know not only which ones you want — e.g., documents, music and photos you create, but not documents you’ve downloaded — but also where on your computer they are.

On Windows PCs:

“Windows 7 uses libraries,” according to Ed Bott, author and a blogger for ZDnet on Windows and other technology issues. “By default, Documents are stored in the Documents folder within your user profile. You can add a separate location to a library (and optionally make it the default save location for that datatype), or you can change the default local Documents folder to be a location of your choosing.”

On MacOS:

For MacOS users, places in your directory structure that are likely (keeping in mind that I’m not a Mac user, this comes from consulting a MacOS-using friend plus some searching) to have files you may want to back up include:

o Your “home” folder, which is /Users/[yourname] — often abbreviated as “~”, e.g. /Users/grumpy/helloworld can be done as ~/helloworld

o Your home directory includes data for applications, like ~/Music (for iTunes), ~/Pictures (for iPhoto), ~/Movies (for iMovie)

o Bookmarks and other configuration data (as opposed to actual content) created/used by programs, like iCal calendars, Mail accounts and rules, Address Book contents. These are mostly in ~/Library, e.g.

~/Library/Safari/Bookmarks.plist

~/Library/Keychains/

~/Library/Application Support/AddressBook

~/Library/Calendars

o Shared Folders and Public Folder — if you’ve put anything here you want to save.

As somebody still using Windows XP on my primary machine (my new notebook is Windows 7, though), I’m still accustomed to Windows saving to My Documents by default, which in turn by default is part of the top Explorer view of “Desktop” or “My Computer.” My desktop machine has multiple hard drives, and I try to use the C: drive for software, and the D: and E: drives for data — currently, about 250GB of data, including multimedia (photos, video, music).

Even so, my C:/Documents and Settings folder has (after close to four years of using the computer) slightly over 50GB — 50,000+ files in it. Of this, about 14GB are in the Application Data subdirectory, 30GB in My Documents, and 5GB in Local Settings. (For comparison, there’s only about 30GB of software on my C: drive.)

And you may have files to backup from multiple external hard drives, NAS devices and removable media.

Once you’ve determined what files you have, and where they’re located, you’re ready for the next steps in deciding on a backup strategy and selecting a backup solution.

 

 

Yard sales – A good place for tech bargains

Tech Deals at Yard SalesStore prices for technology keeps getting cheaper — but even the prices you can find online or at retailers forrefurbished and remainder products may be more than you want to spend on some things.

Fortunately, there’s an even better-priced market out there, if you’re a savvy, patient shopper. No, I’m not referring to eBay, Craigslist, or other web-based shopping sites. I’m talking about the live in-person ever-changing marketplace of yard sales, a.k.a. garage sales, tag sales, and flea markets.

With the right combination of luck, timing, and product savvy, you can pick up some remarkable bargains, on everything from parts and accessories to entire systems.

My friend Howard, for example, says he has purchased some nice flat-screen monitors and TVs for $10 or less. (“Why on earth do people let these things go so cheaply?” he asks. If possible, he adds, get the remote — and the manual if they’ve got it, although those are available online.)

Yard sales have the advantage of instant gratification, no shipping costs, and being sure that you’re getting what you expected. The downside, of course, is the possibility it won’t work, and there’s no warranty or refund.

Don’t expect to find the newest products (although you may). Yard sales are where you go for last year’s — and last decade’s — stuff.

For example, you can find “classic-format” flat-screen displays, at $5-25; USB floppy drives for a buck or two; Unopened copies of Windows XP and Microsoft Office for $5-20; and keyboards, mice and USB cables for a buck. You can also find a range of computer desks and office chairs to outfit your home office.

And yard sales are a great place to find spares of niche products that you use, like trackballs, phone-to-audio connectors, adapters of various types, and the like — even if you already have one, stocking up on a spare or two at the right price never (well, rarely) hurts.

If you’re still listening to music through stereo gear, yard sales can also offer great bargains, especially as everybody else is discarding theirs. CDs and movie DVDs often for a buck or less. Good pre-BluRay CD/DVD changers are commonly available in the $2-5 range, good tuners and receivers for $5-20.

Great stereo gear costs a little more, anywhere from $25 to $200. Caveat emptore:you have to know what you’re looking at, and, if you can’t test it before you buy, be prepared for some to have problems.

Some things to avoid, or at least be cautious about: digital cameras and notebooks. Make sure they work. Think carefully before spending more than $15; these items become obsolete quickly, you may be able to do better through store/web remainder bins. The same is true for printers; I’ve given up buying them at yard sales.

Of course, not everything you buy will work. As a rule, yard sale purchases are “as is,” so if possible and appropriate, see if the item is working before you take your wallet out — if it’s an AC-powered device, see if they’ve got an outlet available.

You will, inevitably, buy some things that you decide weren’t worth it, or simply don’t work. But that’s part of the game; you have to decide whether, overall, you’d be better off sticking to the stores.

To know what’s a fair price, it’s helpful to periodically visit a computer store or scan the ads, so you know what new stuff is going for. (And you might do a quick check on the spot, from your smartphone. Be sure to pull the item from the pile so somebody else doesn’t grab it while you’re researching.)

And don’t hesitate to bargain! That’s half the fun of yard sales, after all. My rule of thumb is to offer one-third to one-half of the asking price, and be ready to go one more round after the counter-offer.

Another tip: if you’ve selected three or more items, make an aggressively lower offer “for the pile.” Remember, most yard sale runners are more interested in getting rid of their stuff than getting the most money.

And, of course, after a while, it’s probably time for you to do your own yard sale.

 

 

How to Select a Cloud Backup and Recovery Vendor – Part 3

(This article is the third in a three-part series exploring how to evaluate and select a cloud backup and recover service. Previous articles explored how to evaluate your data needs and how different data types are treated by backup services. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

Selecting a cloud backup vendorBackups, whether they’re local or to the cloud (or “hybrid,” doing both at the same time), can be done in a variety of ways. Just like if you’re planning to buy a car that can accelerate quickly–like driving on New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway, whose entrance ramps are often very abbreviated)–you need to know whether a cloud service’s operation matches your needs. Some services do schedule backups, e.g. daily at 2 a.m. This means if your hard drive crashes at 4 p.m., you’ve lost everything you’ve been working on all day.

Other services apply a more frequent schedule, perhaps every six or three hours–again, possibly not good enough for your needs. Other services do backups continuously, meaning they check your files for changes. Even here, there are various ways this may be done. Some services do backups only when you exit an application, e.g., close down Microsoft Word. Some backup services back up a file when you save and close the file, which still may not be good enough if it’s a spreadsheet or other file you typically keep open all day long. (Or you have to change the way you work.) Other backup services save changes to a file every few minutes, or however frequently you specify, or even every time the application does “writes” to the computer’s disk.

Incremental and versioning

Obviously, continuous or very frequent backups offer the most protection for your data.

But you also need to know two important aspects of what the cloud backup is doing.

One, does the backup have to upload the entire file each time? For big files, like an Outlook .PST file, this can take a long time, and consume a lot of bandwidth. Or does the backup do an “incremental” backup — upload only the changes, applying them to the cloud backup?

And you also need to know, and be able to set, backup “versioning.” What if you want to get back a file the way it was the day before, for example? Does the service offer “versioning”? If so, how many “versions” will it maintain?

Backup considerations

Other important things to determine about a cloud backup provider (by reading their website, and, if need be, asking a sales person) include:

  • If you delete a file from your hard drive, does the backup service delete its copy? Or does it preserve these files, and if so, for how long?
  • Recovering files: can you do it through any web browser on any computer (assuming you haven’t lost your password)? How long does it take to recover a few files, or a few directories?
  • Recovering large amounts of data: How long to recover a gigabyte, or many gigabytes — how long does it take the cloud service to get the recovered data available, and how long will the download take? And for very large recoveries — many gigabytes or tens-to-hundreds of gigabytes — can you request them sent to you on a DVD or hard drive? And if so, how much extra does this cost, and how quickly can it be done?
  • How much does the cloud backup service cost, and how are charges determined? Are charges based on the amount of data “being protected” — what’s on your hard drive(s) — or the size of the stored backup? Can you backup several computers to a single account, and if so, are there per-computer charges? Are you charged for retrievals? Customer service calls?
  • What operating system(s) and version(s) does the cloud backup service support? For example, if you’ve got a Mac, and they only support Windows, that doesn’t do you any good.
  • How long does it take for the first backup — which, if you have a lot of data, can take a long time? Can you “prime the pump” by sending in a copy of your data on DVD or hard drive (make sure secured with encryption and a password!)? And if so, what does that cost?

Once you know what a cloud backup service is doing, you can see if it’s a match for all, or some, of your data backup needs. If you’ve done your homework, you’ll know when you look at cloud services which ones may be a match, and which ones clearly aren’t.

Then you look at which of these is the best match based on the way you work and your back up needs.

 

 

How to Select a Cloud Backup and Recovery Vendor – Part 2

(This article is the second in a three-part series exploring how to evaluate and select a cloud backup and recover service. The previous article explored how to evaluate your data needs and the future article will cover the different backup methods. Read Part 1 here, and Part 3 here.)

Selecting a Cloud Backup VendorIn terms of backup requirements, not all of your data is the same.

One way of looking at your data is by importance: What data can’t you live without? What would be unable to reconstruct or rebuild? For example, you can re-rip new copies of your audio CDs or re-scan your old photographs, if you still have them, but you won’t be able to rewrite your project report or your novel manuscript from memory; you won’t be able to re-take pictures of your dog from five years ago.

Another question: what data do you need back as soon as possible, and how soon is “as soon as possible”? This is what backup experts typically refer to as “Recovery Point Objective” (RPO) and “Recovery Time Objective” (RTO).

For example, I’m a freelance writer; the files for my active projects, plus some key calendar, to-do list and other files, typically total to maybe a quarter of a gigabyte. My “archives” — files for projects I’m dealing with — and other less-critical files represent maybe a gigabyte or so.

Not prepared to lose

But I’ve also got 50+ gigabytes of photos, 25+ gigabytes of video, some audio, dozens of scanned images, and gigabytes of assorted sundry stuff.

And when I get to digitizing my older photos and negatives, record albums, and CDs, I’m sure I’ll have a terabyte or so of additional multimedia files.

None of which I am prepared to lose — so it all must be backed up.

For you, essential data you need available may include three large databases, many spreadsheets, several presentations, the past three months’ worth of email, and client billing and payment data for the past six months. If you’re a professional photographer or designer, you may need a ready archive of tens, even hundreds of gigabytes of photos and images.

And you may have lots of personal multimedia — photos, video, scans, etc. — that you don’t want to lose.

RPOs and RTOs

So I’ve really got several sets of RPO/RTOs and yours might look similar to mine:

  • For the RPO consisting of “Projects that I am actively working on, plus roughly half a dozen files of to-do, calendaring, etc.” my RTO would be “two to three hours at most.” Ideally, for the half-dozen or so files relating to projects I’m working on immediately, I’d prefer an RTO of “one hour or less.”
  • For the RPO that also includes other current projects, along with marketing and pitching, I could probably live with an RTO of 1-2 days.
  • For all my other files, I’m sure I could wait a week, even weeks to months — as long as I knew for sure that I’d get them all back.

All this, of course, is just for data. I’d also want a working computer with my core productivity applications on it. (Having recently bought a new, small notebook computer, I’ve got that covered — although there’s more I could be doing in that area… but that’s straying from “data backup.”)

Create and change

The next question: How often do I create or change files — and how much do I care about saving these changes.

For example, my multimedia files are pretty “static” — once I’ve created, organized and named or tagged them, I don’t expect to edit or change them, as a rule.

But the files for whatever I’m working on are created or changed throughout the day. If I lose a file that I have been working on all day (and my most recent backup was at midnight) I’ve lost hours of effort.

So you not only have to know how much data you have, but also how much of it changes frequently, and which and how much data you need near-continuous access to versus what you can wait a few days or even weeks to regain access to.

Now you’re ready to look at cloud backup services, and see which of these match your requirements.