Eric Baker

Hints & tips

v7.6  28 November 2019  © Eric Baker

But are backups really necessary?

So many people get the message about backups only after they've had a disaster. It could be a burglary, a hard disk dying, an encryption ransomware attack, a fire or just Windows getting scrambled. If you use a computer for more than browsing the net then surely you've got stuff you'd really hate to lose - photos, notes, plans, spreadsheets, whatever. Maybe you even still store your emails locally too. And it would be such a pain to have to rip your CD collection to the computer again.

So get paranoid - I always like to think that if we were away and a meteorite reduced our home to rubble then it would not be a disaster in data terms. We might have a laptop with us but even if not we have online backups of all our data (photos, videos, documents, music). So to get going all we'd need to do is get a new computer or two, check up access password hints via our Googlemail email account or OneNote, re-install applications and download all the data. Uploading (before we got fast broadband) was pretty slow but downloading would be pretty fast. We get 70+mbps downloads nowadays.

Here's a diagram showing how very paranoid (or thorough) I am about backing up data as well as the Windows system disk - I've never lost anything significant:
Backups diagram
I also now upload full sized version of almost all the photos I keep to my flickr pro account. The laptop has a rather small SSD so I set Dropbox Pro to synchronise just some of our data folders and have extra photos and music on a 64Gb SDXC card. At top right the ticks show folders that have been synchronised with Dropbox.

Note that it's not just data I back up. I also have mirror images on a USB3 external drive of the Windows partitions/drives on our two computers. That way, if everything gets really scrambled or the disk drive fails physically I can get back to exactly where I was a few weeks ago, including all my applications installed and running. On both computers the data is on a separate partition or drive so would be unaffected if it's merely refreshing Windows 10 from a mirror backup. I've used Acronis True Image on the laptop and O&O Disk Image on the PC. Make sure that you've got a way of booting a dead computer, eg via a memory pen.

Our phones and tablets are not part of the backup scheme. They mostly get data pushed to them, eg contacts, calendar, favourites and docs sent via Gmail, Chrome, Dropbox or OneNote and we never do anything like online banking from them. They've all got Avast protection but if one got infected or scrambled a factory reset would be fine as a fix and we'd lose nothing of note, maybe a few old texts.




How do I make backups?

People used to back up to CDs then DVDs and memory pens. But none of those can hold much data, especially if you have your photo and music collections to back up. So now it's basically to an external USB hard drive, to another computer or online.

There are all sorts of programs that will manage your backups for you but if making data backups to an external USB drive I prefer to simply copy all my data folders across using 2 copies of File Explorer. That way I can plug the external drive into a different computer and get going at once. If I'm looking for a file in OurDocs\Holidays\Asia\Rajasthan that's where it will still be, ready to view or amend. Using a backup program instead often means you need to have that program installed to retrieve anything from the backup. And since music and pictures and videos are already compressed you rarely save significant space by making a compressed backup. There is also little speed advantage to complicated incremental backups now we've got USB3. A 160Gb data backup from a SATA SSD via USB 3.1 Gen 1 takes around an hour and a system image just 15 minutes (and it only takes a few minutes to validate it).

There are lots of people offering online storage, which is very secure compared with an external drive in a cupboard somewhere in the same house as the computer. I used to use Carbonite's online storage plus Allway Sync for local synchronisiation of data folders. Now that we've got very fast unlimited broadband it was much simpler to switch to Dropbox Plus. It was just over 100 pounds for a year and synchronises our data beautifully. Everything on the main PC is mirrored in the cloud, with file version history in case of encryption ransomware. The laptop gets selected folders mirrored and our phones and tablets can see everything via an internet connection and can store selected files and folders offline. Brilliant! Make sure the uploads to the cloud are not going to make you breach any monthly download/upload data limits with your broadband supplier. I've got an unlimited broadband deal so I even back up many GB of ripped CDs in MP3 format.

Some people use a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive to hold their data but I can't see the point - it's not much use when you're away from home and is vulnerable to theft, fire or ransomware attacks.

How to back up my photos on holiday?

The image to the right shows my new Xiaomi A3 connected to a memory stick via a cheap USB-C to OTG cable. It makes getting anything on or off the phone's internal storage (128GB main storage plus a 128GH microSD card) so much easier than wireless solutions. It's incredibly easy and quick, via the excellent CX File Explorer app.

My new Huawei tablet (coming for Xmas) also does OTG so that's going to make picturesque holidays so much easier. In Rajasthan I was quite nervous about having such a lot of wonderful images on my two cameras, not backed up.

When we went on safari a while back we didn't want to take our little laptop, just our 8" Android tablets. I found that with a dirt cheap OTG cable I could plug in a card reader with a camera memory card or a memory pen to one of our tablets. In the picture below the the tablet is showing some images still on the camera's SD card via the OTG cable. It was really easy to review photos on each camera card on the tablet screen and delete the less good ones. Then I'd copy each day's photos from two cameras onto the tablet's storage and thence to a memory pen. That way I had three copies of every image we kept. All that was with no wifi much of the time. So I really would not want a tablet that wouldn't give me access to its file system - I want to be in charge! It also shows the value of being able to expand storage with a cheap micro SD card. I always had plenty of storage despite having films, music and hundreds of photos on the card.

External drive - pic from Freecom



How do I get an accidentally deleted file back?

It may well be in the recycle bin in which case it's easy to restore.
Recycle bin

If not it's quite easy to drag files or folders accidentally onto others - if you let go at the wrong time they quietly move into the folder you were hovering over at the time. It's not deleted - just hidden.

If a file is really messed up and you cannot get back with an undo option then it's back to backups. So back up often! Don't forget that if it's a photo it might still be on your camera's memory card. I once got back an image that had been messed up on the computer and deleted from the camera card with Recuva.

How do I back up my emails?

If your emails are purely online, accessing Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo etc through a browser, then you're in their hands. They will back up your emails OK but there are always dangers. If you don't use an account for a while or if some automated software doesn't like something you said in an email (eg "that really went down a bomb") there's a risk that they will just arbitrarily close your account and you may not be able to get back in. I exported all our Gmail content (emails, contacts and calendar)a while ago using Google Takeout to create an mbox backup file that Thunderbird read OK.

If I have some particularly important emails to back up I'll print them to pdfs with Primo.

If you still use the old Windows Outlook program you've got problems. It stores all your emails in a weird semi-hidden location on your local disk, making them very vulnerable as well as almost impossible to share with your phone and tablet. Confusingly Microsoft now call what used to be Hotmail

Google Takeout

How to get large files somewhere else?

Email is often very limited in the size and type of attachments you can send. I work on a rule of thumb that if you attach more than 5Mb of photos to one email it will only reach some people.

Putting files online can work well, eg my collection of photos on flickr - much neater than constantly inflicting heavy emails on friends around the country and world. For transferring large files to someone else I use WeTransfer, which works very well.

If you're on a network (eg you share the same router) you can make the relevant folders shared and move files as if on the same computer. And many companies use shareable document repositories using Microsoft Sharepoint, Xerox Docushare etc.

But sometimes sending physical media is simplest. You can get a lot of photos on a CD and nowadays memory pens can be very cheap too. Or you could physically transport the files via an external disk drive.

We Transfer logo

Memory pen from Sandisk