What Files Should I Backup?

I am constantly reminding people to keep regular backups of their files, but what does that really mean? There are hundreds of folders and sub folders on your computer, so which ones should and shouldn’t be backed up?

pcoverhaul-files

 

First of all,  let’s talk about the software you can use to run the backup. There are lots of programs you can use to back these files up. New computers often have some sort of backup software installed and some external hard drives come with pre-installed backup software as well. A backup feature is also sometimes built in to some of the large antivirus suites. But if your computer or external drive doesn’t give you a backup option, don’t panic. If you have Windows 7 or Windows 8 or Windows 10, a backup feature is built in.  And of course there are several great free backup tools out there, like Redo Backup & Restore, Create Synchronicity, and Free File Sync. It’s not important which backup software you use, just be sure to get one that you are comfortable using and use it or schedule it to run regularly.

Free File Sync's interface. The 'Source" drive is shown on the left, the "Target" on the right.
Free File Sync’s interface. The ‘Source” drive is shown on the left, the “Target” on the right.

 

And one more important note-  one backup is never enough. That external hard drive you are using to back up your files is likely going to be in the same location as your computer in order to run these backups. If you have a theft, a natural disaster like a fire or flood, or a power surge fries your computer, chances are the backup drive will meet the same fate. So the key is to have a backup that’s not located wherever your computer is. Most people use a cloud backup for this. If you are confused about the cloud, it basically just means it’s kept on a server outside of your location. Free services like DropboxGoogle Drive, Box,  JustCloud, and Microsoft’s Skydrive (soon to be Onedrive) may be enough if you only have a few Gigabytes of data to back up. If you have a large amount of data, paid services like iDrive, SOS Online backup, or even Amazon’s Cloud backup solution are a better option. They allow you to upload very large document, photo, video and music collections (or whatever else you need to store) to a secure account and usually the cost is under $10 a month. Spending $100+ a year to backup your data may seem like a lot of money, but when it’s compared to the $1000-$1600 data recovery companies usually charge to attempt to get your files back after a hard drive crash, it’s a very good investment. DVD or BluRay media also make an excellent backup for files that won’t be changing, like years of older photos. these can be put in a fireproof safe, safety deposit box, or even given to a friend or family member to keep at their place so you will always have a copy “offsite” so to speak.

 

Carbonite's different plan options for home users.
Carbonite’s different plan options for home users.

 

Before we select the folders to back up, there are some hidden folders we need to be able to see, so you should change your settings to make them visible. You can do it manually, or I have a handy little script you can download that will do it for you.

You can manually show hidden files too.

Click on START->COMPUTER->TOOLS and then select the Folder option button.

To show hidden files in Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8, select Tools, then Folder Options
To show hidden files in Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8, select Tools, then Folder Options

 

Then choose the VIEW tab, and under HIDDEN FILES AND FOLDERS, choose the radio button for Show Hidden Files , folders and drives.

Then choose the VIEW tab, and under HIDDEN FILES AND FOLDERS, choose the radio button for Show Hidden Files , folders and drives.
Then choose the VIEW tab, and under HIDDEN FILES AND FOLDERS, choose the radio button for Show Hidden Files , folders and drives.

 

Finally, the files you should backup.

Files to back up for Windows XP
Files to back up for Windows XP

 

♦  Documents: Your documents folder is an obvious choice. This folder can be a catch it all for some people, with files of various types from actual documents, resumes, tax forms, to downloaded exe files, photos and subfolders created by programs on your computer. Depending on which version of Windows you have, this may also be called “My documents”.

♦ Photos & Videos: The “Pictures” or “My Pictures” folder and the “Videos” or “My Videos” folder are the most important folders I back up. Most of us have been using digital cameras for at least 10 years now and don’t have any negatives to fall back on if we lose these originals (like we did in the old days). Unless you are a professional photographer these have no monetary value, but preserving these memories is priceless. I back these up to disk and the cloud, but also burn a DVD at the end of each year as a set of permanent negatives. Mine are BluRay discs, which cost roughly $1 each but it’s well worth it knowing every photo ever taken of my children are safely stored away.

♦Music: “Music” or “My Music” folder.  –My Mp3 collection is huge and includes stuff I ripped from CD years and years ago, songs I converted from cassette of my old high school bands, and download music. If you use Itunes, this is where the Itunes data is stored for your music, playlists and apps.

♦Application Data: “AppData” or “Application Data” folder. This is that hidden folder we need to back up. The subfolders inside here contain settings and preferences for your software, as well as your PST file for Outlook that is used to store all of your Outlook data, including your emails, contacts, calendar, and more.

♦Bookmarks: For Internet Explorer, these are stored in “Favorites”. If you use Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome, there are in a subfolder of your AppData folder.

Of course, you can always just back up your entire User profile. The downside to this is you use more space and end up backing up lots of temporary files, but it’s one way to make sure you get every file you need without missing anything. This could be found at C:\Users\Username in Windows 7, 8  or Vista, and C:\Documents and Settings\Username for Windows XP.

You can back up the entire user profile. This is the default Administrator profile in Windows XP.
You can back up the entire user profile. This is the default Administrator profile in Windows XP.

 

Don’t bother backing up the “Windows” or “Program Files” folders, since you can’t restore your Operating System or your programs without completely reinstalling them.

 

 

 

Support Ending For The Windows XP Version of Security Essentials

As I mentioned in a previous post over the summer, support for Windows XP is ending on the 8th of April. This also means Microsoft will no longer be supporting its free antivirus product, Microsoft Security Essentials, for anyone who is still running XP. I have recommended this antivirus for many people who have Windows XP systems, but this is the end of the line.

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From Microsoft:

Microsoft has provided support for Windows XP for the past 11 years. But now the time has come for us, along with our hardware and software partners, to invest our resources toward supporting more recent technologies so that we can continue to deliver great new experiences. As a result, after April 8, 2014, technical assistance for Windows XP will no longer be available, including automatic updates that help protect your PC. Microsoft will also stop providing Microsoft Security Essentials for download on Windows XP on this date.

The good news is there are still plenty of free antivirus products out there.

 

 

Free Antivirus Software

That’s right, there are several companies that offer 100% free antivirus software. So what’s the catch?

Free antivirus products provide absolutely no technical support if you have a problem. They won’t offer advanced features like parental controls or identity theft prevention tools like paid antivirus.  But they do provide  a bare minimum level of protection against infection and they will scan for malware in real time, and perform automatic scans, too.

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So which free antivirus is right for you? CNET has reviews for each antivirus as well as editors picks, which you can find here.

If you just want to download an antivirus for free, I suggest using Filehippo. The download links and clean, with no hoops to jump through and it doesn’t try to install any junkware or toolbars, and there’s a good amount of info on each antivirus there.

 

 

 

 

VLC- The only Media Player You Will Ever Need

At some point, everyone runs into a problem opening a multimedia file (usually a video) . VLC player can solve most of these problems. It has a simple interface that’s very user friendly, but also enough extra features to keep you happy if you’re an advanced user. You can drag and drop music or videos into the player, use the file menu to open them, or click on them in Windows explorer once you have selected VLC as your default player for that file type.

The basic VLC interface. You can drag and drop any audio or video file right into the player or use the File menu.
The basic VLC interface. You can drag and drop any audio or video file right into the player or use the File menu.

 

Multimedia files are coded a certain way when they are created, and your multimedia software decodes them. This is done using software called a CODEC, which stands for CODE/DECODE. Widows comes with some codecs by default for the file types most used by windows. As you install other multimedia software, like CD and DVD burning software,  Itunes, or other media players,  you pick up new codecs and expand the file types your computer knows how to open and play.

There are all-in-one codec packs out there on the internet that try to provide all the codecs you will ever need for every possible file type, but they often come bundled with toolbars and other unwanted software. You don’t want that junk cluttering up your computer.

VLC player comes with a slew of codecs built in, and no configuration is needed to get them to work. VLC will open all the common audio and video filetypes and includes support for subtitle files.

A list of video file types VLC will play for each Operating System. Courtesy of videolan.org
A list of video file types VLC will play for each Operating System. Courtesy of videolan.org

 

VLC includes support for subtitle files if your video includes them. Even if you’re not going to watch something in a different language the subtitles can be useful. I’ve used them when my infant son was asleep and I couldn’t have the sound at my normally preferred earth shattering volume. They can also be used to decipher the dialogue in scenes that are just plain hard to hear.

Turning on subtitles is easy. Right click on the video and navigate the menus to Subtitle->Sub Track-> and then your language,
Turning on subtitles is easy. Right click on the video and navigate the menus to Subtitle->Sub Track-> and then your language,

 

One of my favorite features is the equalizer, under the extended settings button. There are separate controls for both audio and video tweaking.  I use this for brightening up older videos or home videos that are not the highest digital quality, but there are dozens of options starting with the basic brightness, contrast, saturation, hue and gamma controls. But it was also let you make the image negative, turn it sepia, rotate it, and even add a logo or watermark to it. Not bad for a free program!

Before the equalizer is used, the picture is fairly dark.
Before the equalizer is used, the picture is fairly dark.

 

The above image is before using the equalizer on the video. You can see the difference below after a few minor tweaks to brightness, contrast, gamma and saturation.

The red arrow points to the equalizer button. You can see a notable difference once I've tinkered with the settings.
The red arrow points to the equalizer button. You can see a notable difference once I’ve tinkered with the settings.

 

In the event that your audio and video are not matching up, there’s a submenu here for synching them together.

Easily fix audio and video that are out of synch
Easily fix audio and video that are out of synch

 

And VLC player give you the option to take a screenshot of any part of your video. Just go to the video menu and look all the way at the bottom.

Capture an image of the screen by using the Take Snapshot option in the Video menu
Capture an image of the screen by using the Take Snapshot option in the Video menu

 

You can set the default save location, file type and naming scheme for your snapshots under the Tools -> Preferences -> Video menu, shown highlighted here.

Snapshot settings
Snapshot settings

 

There are literally hundreds of other features to explore if you are into that sort of thing. Or maybe you want to simply watch a  movie and not have to do anything but click and drag. Either way, VLC player is the best free media player to suit your needs.

 

 

Help, My Hard Drive Failed!

Why do some hard drives crash and others seem to run forever? Most of the time you probably replace a computer before your hard drive stops working, but if you let them run long enough every hard drive will crash, fail or die.

There are 3 types of hard drive failure you have to concerned about.

First, there’s a physical problem with the drive. The most common things that fail are the PCB board, or the chips or power connector on the board, but there are dozens of moving parts in a typical IDE or SATA hard drive and they can all fail. I explain this kind of failure in more detail here. Symptoms vary. If there’s certain physical damage you may hear a loud clicking noise. Sometimes if the heads are stuck on the platter you’ll hear more of a buzzing or beeping noise. Or if the power connector is damaged, you may hear nothing- no spinning, no whirring- and the drive may not be seen by Windows at all.

The green circuit board seen on the underside of this hard drive is the PCB board. The little black chips contain the firmware. At the bottom right you can see the gold data and power connectors.
The green circuit board seen on the underside of this hard drive is the PCB board. The little black chips contain the firmware, which is the software that tells the drive how to function. At the bottom right you can see the gold data and power connectors.

Your hard drive can also crash if it has too many bad sectors. Sectors are small clusters of storage space that hold your data. When a sector goes bad, software on the drive is supposed to try to move the data to a good sector, and mark the bad one so it never gets written to again. In some cases, sectors can become so damaged that the computer can have trouble reading the data, lock up, refuse to boot or crash.

in this example, the hard drive shows problems with the reallocated sectors count, the current pending sectors count and the uncomfortable sectors count. Each variable has exceeded the allowable threshold, so the data on this drive needs to be backed up right away.

CrystalDiskInfo has reported sector problems with this hard drive.
CrystalDiskInfo has reported sector problems with this hard drive.

The second possibility is called logical failure. This is not a problem with the physical drive itself but with the file system on the drive. Imagine your hard drive is a library, and the files on it are books. Your computer has its own version of a card catalog to find the books, called a File Allocation Table, or FAT. If the FAT is corrupted, Windows can’t find the files it needs to run Windows, and you will be unable to boot. This can be caused from a virus infection, system driver conflicts, damaged Windows files and other software issues. In most cases I can perform a data recovery if this is your problem. I can back your files up to a good hard drive or flash drive, wipe your drive and reload windows with a new FAT. Then I can transfer your files back over to your new Windows installation. I can backup any user created files (photos, documents, music, videos, etc) but not your programs – I would need the software and licensing information or serial numbers to reload your software.

One of the most common errors when your hard drive has a logical error,
One of the most common errors when your hard drive has a logical error,

External hard drives are susceptible to physical and logical issues as well, but they also have a potential problem that doesn’t exist in internal hard drives.  External drives are really just an internal hard drive in a fancy enclosure so you can connect them with a cable and move them around from place to place. The enclosure has its own power supply and data connector and sometimes these die or break after dropping the drive. In that case, the hard drive itself may work perfectly and the enclosure itself may be the issue.

 

Two different external drives. The one on the left has a larger desktop hard drive inside which requires a power adapter and the one on the right contains a USB powered laptop drive inside.
Two different external drives. The one on the left has a larger desktop hard drive inside which requires a power adapter and the one on the right contains a USB powered laptop drive inside.

 

With all ways your hard drive can fail, this is a good time to remind you, please keep an updated backup of your files. Spending $100 on an external hard drive or a cloud backup service can save  $1000 in data recovery fees, so backup, backup and then backup again.

Whatever issue you may be having with your hard drive, or if you need to create a backup plan for your data, feel free to contact me for help.

 

Clicking Hard Drives

Probably the most common symptom of a failing hard drive is that distinct clicking noise – sometimes called the click of death.

If you have ever had this problem in the past, chances are it was diagnosed as a hardware failure. And in some cases it is. Unfortunately, I can’t fix this type of problem, but I can do what other local places will do and ship it off to a place with the appropriate tools to fix it for you.

Traditional IDE and SATA hard drives have lots of little moving parts inside. Your information is stored on magnetic discs arranged in a stack. Imagine an old record player, with a big stack of records instead of just one. And in between each record is a separate needle. That’s exactly how the platters that store your information work inside your hard drive. You ask the computer to read a file, and the platters spin to put the file under the correct head  so it can be read. There are motors and other parts in there too, but the point is, any of these parts failing or breaking down is going to cause your hard drive to crash.

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If it’s a physical problem, the clicking noise is usually caused when one of the heads can’t find the first sector on the drive and it goes into a loop looking for it. If you let the drive run and it clicks for a long period of time, the platter itself can get warped. Since the platters are where your data is, that’s not good. If your drive is clicking and you want to be able to possibly recover data from it, shut it down as soon as possible.

But sometimes, your hardware is functioning exactly the way it should, and the drive is clicking anyway. Newer, large capacity hard drives have a language they use to communicate called micro-code, which is stored on the green circuit board underneath your hard drive (called a PCB board).  If the firmware fails, the drive can do all kinds of strange things, including clicking.

The green circuit board seen on the underside of this hard drive is the PCB board. The little black chips contain the firmware.
The green circuit board seen on the underside of this hard drive is the PCB board. The little black chips contain the firmware.

 

If it’s a physical problem, you’re looking at an expensive repair, starting in the $1000 range and running to $1600. The drive needs to be shipped to a facility with a cleanroom so it can be opened without dust and debris damaging the platters. usually the process involves transferring good parts using a donor drive that’s the exact model of your hard drive. Once your drive is working, they can copy the data to a brand new hard drive that you can either purchase from them or ship to them. The  the donor parts are removed and your damaged hard drive is disposed of properly.

You can see the chips on the PCB board a little more clearly here, slightly raised off the surface of the board.
You can see the chips on the PCB board a little more clearly here, slightly raised off the surface of the board.

Luckily, if the problem is with the PCB board or the chips that are on the outside board, no cleanroom should be required and the cost is usually less than $500. One place I recommend checking out is 300 Dollar Data Recovery. They can diagnose your drive for you and if the problem does require cleanroom facilities they can even forward it along to one of those companies if you are interested. If you’d be more comfortable, I can handle the arrangements and ship it off to 300 Dollar Data Recovery for you.