How to Avoid Computer Disaster, Part 1: Protect Yourself Against a Hard Drive Crash

When it comes to computers, this has not been a good couple of weeks for some of our associates here at AWAI.

One of our top copywriters had his hard drive crash. I had a near disaster when we had a flood in our house. And some members of the staff had a few other glitches and problems with computers. So we decided this was a "sign" – a warning to share with you what we learned the hard way … BEFORE disaster strikes you.

Let’s start with the worst: What if your hard drive crashes?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a copywriter, travel writer, or graphic designer. Your life – as far as your business is concerned – is on your computer. If your hard drive crashes and you’re not prepared, you’re faced with a major business disaster.

Think it couldn’t happen to you? Ask any computer techie and he’ll say, "The question isn’t IF your hard drive will crash, it’s WHEN."

It’s bound to happen. And when it does, all your files will be gone. While there’s never a "good time" for this to happen, you can rest assured that it will be at the very worst possible moment … like the night before your first big assignment with a real client is due.

There are a few things you can do to postpone the inevitable, such as running periodic system and drive checks. But most computer techs will tell you there is only ONE WAY to completely protect your computer files:


The safest way to protect your data is to buy an external hard drive and software that automatically backs up your important files. You can purchase a reliable external 40-gigabyte hard drive for as little as $50. This should be big enough to do the job.

You don’t have to back up your applications (software), because when your drive crashes, you’ll have to reinstall them from scratch anyway. But you do want to back up your writing files, graphic design files, email, financial records, and any other documents that would be difficult or impossible to replace.

The easiest way to back-up files is with software that does it while you sleep (or whenever else you schedule it). The two best-known back-up utilities are Data Backup by ProSoft Engineering (for Mac only, around $50) and Retrospect (for both Mac and PC, around $100).

Both of these applications work automatically once you’ve set up a schedule. You don’t have to do a thing. They do it all.

The first time you run the software, you specify the folders that you want backed up and where you want them saved. (Your external drive.) You decide how you want the files backed up. The best way is to have it copy only files that have changed. It then copies all of those files to your external drive.

If you don’t want to put the money into software and an extra hard drive, you can manually back up your files by copying them to CDs. But doing it this way is time consuming. I guarantee that if you decide to go this route, you’ll give up eventually and be right back where you started – unprotected.

By the way, if you have one huge internal drive with a large amount of storage space on it, don’t think it’s a good idea to back up your files to it. I have a friend who did that. She felt safe, because every evening, without fail, she copied the files she had worked on during day to a different partition on the drive.

But when her drive crashed, she lost everything – including the "backups."

There’s another, much less expensive alternative to backing up to an external drive – backing up to what’s known as a "flash" drive.

Flash drives are similar to memory cards in digital cameras. They’re small and hold a fair amount of data. You can buy a 128 MB flash drive for as little as $20 online and a 256 MB one for $40.

While these drives are inexpensive, I don’t recommend using them as your only backup. They haven’t been around enough to guarantee the data will be stable for long periods of time. But I still recommend them as one final insurance policy for your important files.

Let’s say you’re working on an assignment for a client and you back it up on your external drive every evening. (Good policy!) But then, one day while you’re out of the house, a water pipe bursts and your computer and backup drive are ruined. What then?

If you’ve been backing up your work on a flash drive too, you simply borrow a laptop from a friend. Then you can finish – and get paid for – an assignment you might otherwise have had to scrap.

This is not an outlandish scenario. It almost happened to me. (See today’s Quick Tip.)

One more thing …

When your hard drive crashes (and it will), much of the data will still be there – and you can get some of it back. But if they are really important files, DO NOT TRY TO RECOVER THEM YOURSELF.

Even though there’s software available that will attempt recovery, it can actually make recoverable data inaccessible. In that case, your only option will be to take your drive to a data recovery specialist. And expect to pay a lot of money … as much as $500 or more!

Your best protection against the inevitable hard drive crash is to be prepared. BACK UP YOUR IMPORTANT FILES DAILY.

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Published: February 7, 2005

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