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Computing With Bifocals
by Nancy Carroll Gravley

A column for people who remember what
the world was like before there was color.....




Backing Up Computer Information
February 28th, 2001

Today's column addresses saving information from two different perspectives - with a special thanks to Zeya Alikhan from Canada whose questions suggested the topic. The first part of the discussion deals with saving information related to your computer. The second part deals with saving information from an outside source such as your file cabinet.

I found that when I first started using my Mac that I was so enamored with the ease of use and the dependability that I never once considered backing up information saved to my hard drive. The whole computer "thing" was such an adventure and I was so busy learning new stuff that I never questioned for a moment the absolute infallibility of my beloved Mac. Reality check! No piece of equipment is ever infallible. Anything can go wrong at any time. However, I skated along, using my dear old Performa which never did anything more alarming than freezing up when I asked it to do too many things at once.

Then I got my new iMac. My first taste of reality hit when I realized that I had never saved the registration codes that allowed me to activate software for which I had paid. Of particular concern was my copy of Graphic Converter. Without that stellar application I had no way to deal with images for my column, my family newsletter, or anything else I wanted images for. Finally, I had to write to the author, Thorsten Lemke, who very graciously gave me the ID number I needed. I still cringe every time I think about having to ask for it again and how much trouble it must be for an author to do that over and over for people like me who didn't take the time to save it in the first place. From that time on I have very carefully maintained a binder that contains printed copies of each and every e-mail or snail mail I have received containing passwords and IDs As my computer use gets more sophisticated and I am able to use more and more applications I have found myself referring back to that binder time and again.

This is not to say that it is not convenient and helpful to have all that information saved somewhere on your hard drive because it is. I recommend though that you don't totally rely on your computer as a single back up source.

It is also important to make back-up copies of important data kept on your computer. Any financial information comes quickly to mind. Many people today keep their bank records on computer. There are also a lot of people who use tax programs. Even treasured photos should probably be backed up.

I went to visit my dentist today and, while I was there, heard her discussing with office staff the severe dilemma they were facing because of a crashed hard drive. First of all, they use computers from the Dark Side, and if theirs crashes as frequently as the one I use at work I feel for them. This was a big crash, but they weren't too worried about it because they thought they had everything backed up every night. The software ran every night all right. The only problem is that it didn't save any information. A whole year's worth of records, appointments, payments, etc. are gone. They were going to send the hard drive to some specialist in hopes that the information could still be retrieved. I didn't grin once, I promise! I did, however, suggest that if they were going to continue to use PC's they might want to consider getting a CD burner for backup which brings me to the second part of this column.

Backing Up Paper Documents

Many people have irreplaceable personal paper documents. The kind and number are as varied as there are people. I remember once in high school when a friend's purse was stolen. In her purse she had the only existing photo of her older brother who had been killed in a car accident. She was devastated and the photo was never found. In this day and age she could have secured that photo in any number of ways, using a computer.

The same holds true for any other important documents. The best way to retain legal copies of documents as a back up source is to scan them to your computer and then "burn" them to a CD. (Burn is one of those inside teckie words that only the really cool know and use. It means to save to a CD.) Certainly you can choose to save things to floppy disks, but they are notoriously unreliable. I lost a great deal of information when I moved last and the movers placed my stereo speakers next to a box containing floppy disks. The magnets in the speakers erased a couple of dozen floppies in the half hour it took to take the stuff from one home to another. Even without magnets floppies can easily become corrupted.

I don't own a CD burner and have never used one, but we have one at work to back up all the innumerable Medicaid records that we are required to keep. One of our secretaries was gracious enough to show me how it works.

First you will need to scan your documents assuring that any signatures, dates, etc. are captured in the scan. If you are backing up documents that you might need to prove something or another, make sure you save them as an image or a PDF file so that they get saved as is. Scanning with an OTR package, which turns text into editable text, will likely change the look of the document.

Once the pages are scanned you will have to save them in the format of your choice. May I highly recommend that you choose to save them as PDF documents. If you are not familiar with PDF you may want to refer to a previous column I wrote about it. To save documents as PDF requires software of course. The full Adobe software package includes the ability to work extensively with PDF, but it is very expensive and probably more than the average user needs. There is a simple and very inexpensive application available for saving files in PDF. It is called PrintToPDF and I have also previously covered it in a column. [Editor's Note: That link has been corrected.]

There are two primary reasons for seriously considering saving documents in PDF. The first is that PDF actually functions like a camera in that it reproduces a page exactly as it appears. That means signatures and other legal information is completely accurate. The second is that PDF is universal. Anyone, on any operating system, can download the free Adobe Reader that allows you to open and read the PDF files. If this is not an option for you, saving your documents as a JPEG would be the next best choice.

What do you do with them once you have saved them?

There are a number of options for backing up files: tape drives, external hard drives, Zip drives and other removable media, and CD burners are the most popular choices. Tape drives get used by a lot of businesses because they have enormous capacity and can easily be scheduled to run once everyone leaves the office. They tend to be slow, so that works out.

External hard drives are a great choice as they give users a much greater capacity for storing things in addition to backing up key files to a separate drive. You can get either FireWire or USB external hard drives, depending on which ports you have on your iMac (FireWire is much faster, USB is often less expensive).

Among the most popular solutions is the Zip drive, though as one of our columnists pointed out yesterday, they may be nearing the end of that popularity. You can get these in 250 MB or 100 MB capacities, which sounds small by today's standards, but can often be enough to save your important documents.

Lastly, there is the CD burner. This is a versatile option that has many other uses as well, such as making your own music CDs, for those interested in that. CDs also have the benefit of not being erasable like floppies or Zip disks, but the flip side is that CD-R disks can only be used once. You can burn CD-RW disks more than one, but not everyone seems comfortable with this. Burning a CD may sound complicated, but it's not that hard on a Mac. I may talk about exactly how to do it in a future column.

If you have any questions, comments, or tips, let me know and I may include them in a future column.


Copies of Nancy's book Tips, Hints, and Solutions for Seasoned Beginners Using Apple Macintosh Computers With OS X are available in PDF download versions  for US$9.57 and in print version for $18.15 plus $4.00 shipping.   To view sample pages and get ordering information visit the September 14, 2004 column.


Post your comments below.
Check out Nancy's complete index of all her columns for the most complete list of tips anywhere. The list is categorized and is a great reference when you are looking for help!

A Capacious Catalog Of Computer Tips

Talking to a generation that remembers what the world was like before there was color, covers issues for people who don't care how their computer works, but rather what their computer and the internet can do for them.

Nancy has a Master's degree in Human Services Administration and prior to her retirement she worked for almost 30 years in field of mental health and mental retardation. She has been a Mac user for 11 years, and has recently developed an avocation of teaching basic computer skills in both group and one-to-one settings.


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