The relief of a backed-up PC

After last weekend’s disaster with the dead hard disk, my PC is finally getting back to normal. Despite Mick’s recommendation not to buy a drive from a manufacturer starting with the letter “M”, I ordered a new 80GB Maxtor D740X from Scan on Tuesday. (Scan have a reputation for low prices, but relatively poor customer service–especially when it comes to returns. Their order tracking system certainly cannot be faulted: my order generated five emails informing me of its status at various points.) It arrived the next day.

Since then, I’ve spent a large amount of my spare time reinstalling Windows in various configurations, and shuffling files back and forth between drives. Some notes on this experience:

  • An external USB hard drive is wonderfully convenient, but it’s also kinda slow. (I think I see an external firewire HDD enclosure in my future…)
  • If you have a hard disk with Windows XP installed on it, and you want to put a new installation on a second, separate hard disk, remove the old hard disk completely. If you don’t, you’ll find that the new installation ends up on drive “E” or something weird like that. XP does give you a nice interface for changing drive letters, but it won’t allow you to change the letter of your boot drive, or your system drive.
  • If you’re using Windows XP Home edition, or Professional edition in a stand-alone configuration (not attached to a domain), you get a pretty startup screen with a list of users who can log in to the computer. “Administrator” is not one of these users. It can be useful, though, to log in as Administrator for performing system tasks (like installing new programs). To do this, you can press ctrl-alt-del twice at the startup screen, and you’ll be presented with a standard login box, which allows you to log in as any valid user (with login rights), not just the ones that appear in the list.

Also, I’m considering buying branded CD-Rs for “serious” backup purposes. Normally, we just buy a spindle of unbranded CD-Rs as cheaply as we can, but while I was reviewing some of our older archives and backups (redundant ones, fortunately), I found two that could not be read by my DVD-ROM drive. The CD writer drive could still read the data on them, but the DVD drive just gave up the ghost. Lessons:

  • Not all CD-ROM, DVD-ROM and CD writers are created equal.
  • Not all CD-R disks are created equal.

Tom’s Hardware Guide has an article about backing up copy-protected CDs that mirrors these sentiments. It makes me wary about entrusting “final” archives (stuff that we move off of on-line or nearline storage completely) to the cheapest CD-Rs we can find. But the main wisdom to take away from the whole dead disk experience should be: never entrust critical data to just a single location. Always make sure you have a copy elsewhere.

Of course, I should have learned this lesson about five years ago, when I accidentally reformatted my hard disk (yes, it does really happen) and then found that the tape drive we had was shagged. At that time, we were able to recover the data by running the tape drive in the dark. The problem lay with the LED and the sensor, you see… By completely eliminating all external light sources, the sensor was just able to function properly.

I’ve been lucky twice now. What are the chances of me being lucky a third time? In five years time, will I have forgotten how gut-wrenchingly awful catastrophic data loss feels? Time will tell…