It just happened again last Friday: the type of support call I hate to get. First came a desperate message from a friend saying that his computer wouldn't boot. He reported the screen had some kind of a message like a "hard drive error."
Has that ever happened to you? Your computer won't boot because of some hardware crash?
It's a dreadful moment.
Your digital life passes before your eyes in a second.
You mind races as ponder all the project files you've been working on lately. Oh no! your important client information, where is that now? Your tax filing information that you had all neatly organized and saved, is it gone?? And then the big bomb hits, your precious photos and videos, precious memories, they can't be gone!!! ARE THEY GONE???
Then you take a deep breath. "Oh wow," you say, "I'm so glad I paid attention when I was encouraged do have proper backups of my data!"
And that's when the smile comes. You know that getting your computer repaired or replaced is going to be a bit of a pain, but you are not going to lose your precious files!
Don't Be That Person
You've been admonished before to have backups of your data. I know you've heard that and probably many times. But what have you done to follow the counsel? Don't be that person that says, "that's good, I need to do that... then you never get around to it."
If you are on a Mac, there's a fairly good chance you have an external drive plugged in and Time Machine is running. That's terrific! But I have two thoughts on that, have you checked it lately to make sure that it is successfully backing up? Secondly, how old is your time machine drive? If you've been running it for years and years, you may want to invest in a newer external drive. The older the drive the higher the likelihood of failure.
If you are on a PC, you can also use an external drive for backup using the built in system tool called File History. If you want to learn about either of these backup methods, use the links above to watch short explainer videos.
Traditional hard drives (HDDs) are pretty amazing mechanical devices. If you could look inside the sealed case, you'd be reminded of a record player. There's a disc (or several discs) spinning and at the end of a long arm there's a special tip to read (and write data) from the platters. However, unlike your 45 rpm single that you used to play, these discs are spinning at (crazy) high speeds, typically 5400 rpm or even 7200 rpm! I find it so incredible that these devices last as long as they do before failing with that kind of intense and constant activity going on in there!
Meanwhile, SSD (solid state drive) technology has become increasingly more popular in recent years. There are no more spinning platters inside this type of storage drive. There is some equally impressive engineering going on here. Data on these drives is stored electronically on flash memory, leveraging the technology of special transistors. One primary benefit of these drives is that they are significantly faster the traditional HDD drives. Their prices have come down over the years and most new computers have these types of drives now. Arguably, SSD drives can fail less often than HDD drives, but the point to underline is that they still CAN and do occasionally fail. Will you be the one looking at the dreaded boot error message on the screen without your data backed up?
The Cloud Can Be Your Guardian
The solution that I recommend to everybody is to use cloud storage for your data files. When you install a cloud app onto your computer such as OneDrive or Dropbox, you'll have a special base folder that you can then start putting all all your important files into. You will want to create various category subfolders under that base folder as needed to keep everything organized. Everything you put into that base folder and all of its subfolders will be instantly backed up to the cloud for you. Further, any edits you make to files in the future will be instantly backed up. Should your hard drive ever crash, you just have to get the cloud app installed on your repaired (or new) computer, and you are right where you left off!
There are various cloud storage providers, but the one I recommend is Microsoft OneDrive. You can start with 5 GB for free just to give it a try. That's a pretty decent amount of storage to get you started and to see how it works. Noteworthy point: If you are already subscribed to Microsoft for the office apps (e.g. Word/Excel/Powerpoint), then you also have OneDrive already in your bundle! The Microsoft subscription bundle gives you 1 TB of cloud storage.
Microsoft subscription plans are these:
- a 1-person subscription is $69.99/yr
- a family subscription (up to 6 people, each person gets all the apps and 1 TB each) is $99.99/yr
- If you don't need all the apps, you can step up from the free 5 GB to 100 GB for only $19.99/yr
Cloud Storage is More than Just for Backups
Backing up your data by using cloud connected folders is not the only advantage you'll benefit from. Another helpful aspect is that you can have the same files available on multiple devices. The files you are working on can be available to you on your phone and tablet as well. I have a desktop computer at the office and a laptop at the home office. My files are available to me wherever I am at.
Cloud files are also easily shared with others. You can share files and whole folders of files with others. (with the option to also edit those files if you want to give them that privilege if you are collaborating on a project together).
Hopefully the above benefits have you intrigued. When you are ready to learn more, this video by Kevin Stratvert gives a good demonstration of how to setup and use OneDrive.
Photo (and Video) Backups
When it comes to backing up a photo library on the cloud, Google Photos remains my go to choice in this category. When you install the app on your phone and turn on the backup option for the camera roll, your photos will be uploaded automatically for you. Using Google Photos means that you have easy access to your photos on whatever device you are on (phone, tablet, computer). The editing tools in the app are fantastic. Curating your best shots into albums and sharing with friends and family couldn't be easier. I highly recommend it. You can see my blog post on Google Photos to take a deeper dive. (*note: Google Photos has a free starting tier of 15 GB with your google account. Beyond that, you can ramp up in progressive steps of $19.99/yr to $29.99/yr as your library grows. As important as photos and video memories are, to me this is a small price.)
Two Factor Authentication
The more we come to trust the cloud with our valuable data, the more important security becomes. If some hacker learns your username and password, this is obviously bad news. For any important accounts, and cloud drive files are certainly important, you want additional security. The best thing to do to better secure your data is to add two-factor authentication mode on your account. This means that once you have entered your username and password, your phone will get a code (or pop up message) asking you to verify that it is you attempting the sign in. The hacker (who does not have your phone) would then be blocked from entry (because they don't have means to get the 2nd factor). Here's a short video on that topic to explain a little more.
The Predicament You Don't Want
If you choose to procrastinate having data backup and it turns out you have a hard drive crash, you are put in a very uncomfortable situation. Not too long ago, I had a workmate in this dilemma and came to me to help seek out a recovery service. I called around a bit to various recovery companies, but was not happy with much that I was finding. A fellow IT in my network suggested a well known company out in California and we shipped the drive out there for an analysis and quote. We were shocked at the price tag on the recovery. I knew it wasn't going to be cheap, but this was shockingly expensive.
In the meanwhile as we were waiting for that quote to come back, I had been doing some YouTube surfing because my technical mind wanted to know what was involved in a hard drive recovery and specifically a drive head replacement. I came across this terrific video that explained the whole recovery process. The video instantly elevated the trust factor that I needed with this company. When I called them on the phone, I talked to the owner of the company and we had a down to earth conversation about the drive fail and what the probabilities were of different crash scenarios. He gave me a quote over the phone of the worst case scenario head fail, and though expensive, it was much closer to the amount I expected to hear. I was also quickly gaining confidence that this was a company valuing integrity and if it proved to be a lesser tech issue causing the fail, they would charge only for the services rendered and not price gouge the consumer in a vulnerable situation. The company I discovered is called ACS Data Recovery.
Well the story ends happily. The drive came back to NY from the first company in California and we immediately shipped it out to ACS Recovery in Texas (this drive was earning some serious frequent flier miles!) ACS did their recovery wizardry on the drive and after replacing the heads, they were able to recover the majority of the lost files. A small percentage of the files could not be recovered because the failure was from the read head crashing into the platter causing a portion of it to become unreadable. My colleague was extremely happy to have the vast majority of her photos and videos back again. These were precious memories of her daughter from infancy through toddlerhood that should could not bear to have gone forever.
If you follow through on any of my above suggestions about having backups, you will never need a drive recovery service. And I hope that is your case!! However, you may want to bookmark this post to be able to help out your friends and family with a good referral in case they ever end up with this scenario on their hands.
A Second Chance
So my friend, the one that I mentioned at the outset, what happened in his case? I'm happy to report we had a successful outcome. The hard drive fail message turned out to be a system hiccup and we got the computer back online for him. But he had the momentary panic that I want none of you to have! We immediately got his important files setup on the OneDrive cloud service. Should his hard drive again give him any trouble, we have our insurance policy in place.
Now it's your turn!