Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cheapskate's Guide to Easy Backups in Windows 7

Image by ZuTheSkunk
Yesterday, an online writer friend of mine very nearly lost six months of WIP to a liquid spill on his laptop. He was able to boot and use an external keyboard to move the files, but still. Losing data as a writer is serious business, because it's not simply about the time it takes to reproduce the files. If you're like me, the loss of even a day's worth of words is enough to kill your writing mojo for a good long time, and that's even more dangerous than the file loss.

Last November, I had to recover from my own computer disaster. For about a week, my computer was running sluggishly, but I run a virus checker and a spyware checker every morning, so I wasn't too concerned. That was, until one night, when I had the awful, stomach-sinking experience of clicking on Google Chrome only to have it return:

"Chrome.exe not found." 

Then I tried to run my virus checker. The entire Symantec folder was empty. 

It was after midnight. I decided to go to bed and worry about it in the morning. By the morning, Windows wouldn't even boot. 

The long story made short; fixing the virus (Trojan horse, really) required wiping my hard drive and starting over with a new version of Windows. It could've been a disaster for my files. But I'd been preparing for the worst, and so aside from the time to do the fix, I lost very little in the way of content. So I thought I'd write up some of my tips for file management. AKA, Jessica's To-Dos to avoid disaster, Windows 7 version.

NOTE: There are lots of ways to keep your files backed up, and mine is considerably more manual than many. At the same time, it's a) easy, b) free, c) keeps your backup out of reach of the main computer, and d) has the added benefit of keeping your files organized for your own ease of use all the time. 

1. Keep Your Files in One Place

Windows loves to keep track of your stuff for you. Problem is, it's really bad at that. It will split your files into a bunch of different folders, then, in Windows 7 and later, group them back into "libraries" so that their location is obscured and you really don't know where they are. 

Instead, create one folder under which everything else is stored. On my computer, this is under C > Users > Jessica > Jessica's Stuff. Beneath that folder are folders for every single file I put on my computer that is not an executable program. There's a folder for my grad school stuff, one for my writing, one for my photos, one for my music, one for ebooks I've downloaded, etc. etc. I float the three folders I use most often to the top of the list by preceding their names with the @ symbol> @academic @writing @photos so that I don't have to go scrolling through 20 folders to find the draft of last year's NaNo novel.

What this allows me to do is to have one single folder to worry about when I want to create a backup of my files. I can click "Jessica's Stuff" and copy it to an external hard drive and have everything I've ever saved available to me. I set a reminder in my calendar to back this folder up once a month, so that my backup is never more than 30 days out of date. Yeah, it's a behemoth folder (over 100 GB) and takes a few hours to back up each time, but it's well worth it, and only having one folder to worry about means I can commit to backing it up with regularity because it only takes one click to get it going. 

2. Manage Your Downloads

This is the corollary to #1. Did you know you don't have to accept your web browser's default download location? In the settings of your web browser, you can either change the location where downloads land (perhaps to a "downloads" folder in your master folder), or, my preference, choose "Ask me where to put downloads each time." This means that each time you download a file, your browser will ask you where you'd like to put it. Downloading an ebook? Direct it to your ebook folder in your master folder. Downloading a PDF? Put it in your PDFs folder. Downloading an installer file? Well...

3. Create Your Own Temporary Folder

My favorite folder sits on my desktop and is called "Junk Drawer." This is where I direct all the slough that just accumulates from a life on the web--that photo I downloaded to fuss with in my image manip program, the installer file for the new little piece of freeware I'm going to use, etc. I direct all my "one-time use" files here. Then I can go through it periodically and delete everything out, or even better, automate it with a program like Belvedere.

4. Use the Cloud for Frequently Used Files

I'm a cheapskate (well, I'm a grad student--the venn diagram for these overlaps completely). So, I'm not paying for my Dropbox. But I love my 2 GB of free Dropbox space. Dropbox is a fabulous little utility that functions as a file folder on your computers and syncs all files within that folder (and any subfolders) between all computers which have Dropbox installed (and are signed on with your account). You could pay for enough Dropbox space to backup almost everything, but for me, the world isn't going to come to a halt if the worst happens and I lose a full month of PDFs and photos and other files I keep in my master folder. What will interrupt me, though, is if I lose a month of work on my WIP. So I keep all of my super-active files—the assignments for the course I'm currently teaching, the Scrivener projects for my WIPs, data for my dissertation—in my dropbox. They get backed up to the cloud every time I save them, and as an added bonus, I can open my WIP on my laptop or my desktop without ever transferring a file.  I also save down copies of my WIP into my master folder every few thousand words or so, but the working file is kept in the cloud. 

Similar programs are Google Drive, Microsoft Sky Drive, and iCloud. 

5. Backup Regularly 

If your files are in one place, it's much easier to commit to backing them up, since a backup no longer involves a bunch of decisions about what to backup and when. Set a weekly or monthly date on your calendar according to your paranoia preferences, and stick to it. The nice thing about the "master folder" method is that you don't need any sort of backup or sync software to manage it, although sync software makes it go faster. But again, I'm a cheapskate. You can literally just copy and paste the master folder onto an external hard drive, and Windows will do the rest regarding any file conflicts. 

You can also make an actual image of your hard drive using the backup programs in Windows (in the Control Panel). This is what Apple's Time Capsule software does, if you are a Mac user. The only problem with this, as I discovered in my attempts to restore my computer, is that the image can't be mounted in Windows Safe Mode. So if you get a virus as nasty as mine that completely obliterates your ability to use Windows, you're out of luck if you're relying on the native Windows restoration options.

6. Scan Regularly

Get yourself some decent antivirus software (I like ESET when I have to buy it, but my university gives away Symantec for free), and run it. I recommend daily for a computer that is constantly connected to the internet, but no less often than weekly. Look in your software help (or just Google!) for instructions on how to schedule a daily scan. 

The upside of the crash? It took me about 7 hours, but I got a new version of Windows installed, with all my applications, and the bonus, all those little things you install over a few years and never use again...all deleted. And once I was done installing programs, I simply plugged in my external HD and copied "Jessica's Stuff" back into the same place it was before. Sunk time, but no lost files. 

Take a second to look at your files. Are they where you want them to be? What would happen if you woke up tomorrow to a dead operating system? Where would your writing be? 

I hope it never happens to you. But let this be a cautionary tale and prepare now, while everything is humming along!


  1. I have two flash drives to help myself avoid the lost file dilemma. Excellent tips Jess.

    1. Thanks, Sheena! And may you never have to use your backups. :)


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