Dec 172009
Authors: Ryan Gibbons and Glen Pfeiffer

It’s 2 a.m., and you’re on page eight of a 10-pager you’re writing for your 8 a.m. Soil Nutrient Parasites of Rural Kansas course. Sorry, all the slots for that class are already filled for next semester. You get up to grab a Monster from the fridge.

When you sit down again, your cursor has become the dreaded Colorful Spinning Pinwheel of Death. You’re afraid it will be a sleepless night now.

This scenario is scary at first, but thanks to newer editions of Word, which you are probably writing in, your paper will be mostly auto-recovered when you open the program again after restarting. But this scenario is tame. What do you do in the case of massive computer failure when your computer, let alone your info, won’t be accessible?

We have personally experienced two such meltdowns just this semester — you see, even the Binary Boys are not immune. But these were fortunately almost painless thanks to forethought. The first step, before being able to recover, is to prepare for all eventualities.

The No. 1 most important thing to do is keep a full-system backup that updates itself automatically. This is something every computer owner should do. If you don’t, there’s no excuse whatsoever to complain to your peers when you lose your data, or worse, blame it on your ailing technology. Do you yell at your grandpa when he gets senile?

Since we’re lookin’ out for you, here are the quick and easy steps to laughing in the face of system failure.

Buy an external hard drive to back up to. We recommend the 250 GB Passport drive from Western Digital. It runs only about $80 on

Plug it in and set up your computer to back up it’s whole system to this drive. On Apple Macs, this is as simple as opening up the Time Machine application, selecting your drive to back up to, set how often to back up, then just leave it plugged in to your computer and forget about it. In Windows 7, open up Control Panel, click System Security, then click Backup and Restore. A wizard will run that allows you to select your drive to back up to and what to back up (select everything). This will only back up once a week, unlike Time Machine, which can be set for every 10 minutes.

If you want to go further, you can create another copy — called a bootable copy — which will not only store your system, but allow you to boot your backed up system from your external drive on a different computer. See our video for more info on this.

Now the inevitable happens. You power up, your CPU makes a horrible clicking/grinding noise and then dies. For those of you who don’t heed our warning or are reading this just a little too late, don’t hurl your computer off the roof of Durward just yet. There might still be hope.

The first thing you should do is try and diagnose your problem. Don’t panic. Computers aren’t quite as complex as we geeks make them out to be — just don’t tell the cute girls. Start by trying to figure out if it’s your software that’s acting up or if you’re talking hardware failure (such as clicking would-be hardware, but go along with us).

Corrupt software will usually show itself in the form of an error message during start-up known as the “Blue Screen of Death” (BSOD) on Windows, or the “Kernel Panic” on a Mac. For some, these software problems can be fixed with a simple tech support call (we keep them on speed dial). Often you’ll end up reinstalling your operating system (which erases your data). This is where you can use that shiny backup drive.

Rather than installing the operating system from the Restore CD it came with, you can plug your hard drive in and after some copying you’ll have your old computer up and running as it was at the time of your last backup. Once again, see our video this week for more info.

If you’re looking at a computer with fried hardware, it’s going to need to spend some time in the repair shop (hopefully you’re under warranty). If your hard drive was the problem, you’ll be able to copy your backup over to the new one, and you’re good to go. If you made a bootable copy, you can still have your system stored with you to use on another computer while yours is being repaired.

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