System image backups can save a lot of time and grief if your system goes belly up

A hard drive melting and going down a drainThink of your computer as containing three sorts of file:

  • Windows (or Mac OSX if you are that way inclined)
  • Your programs (eg Microsoft Word or Sage Accounts)
  • Your data (eg photos, documents, accounts data)

For the most part, we think of backups as containing the third of these categories. After all, if your hard drive fails you can find Windows or OSX files (known collectively as the “operating system”) and program files from somewhere else. It is your own data files that are irreplaceable unless you have made copies (backups).

To be honest, I find it difficult enough persuading my IT Support clients that data backups are essential, without making the whole subject bigger and more complicated with system and program files as well.

So why bring up the subject now?

Because of an experience with a client just a few weeks ago. This client has a Dell laptop that is less than a year old. It recently refused to boot up. Windows tried to repair itself but couldn’t. Eventually, we decided that we would need to re-install a fresh copy of the Windows files, a fresh copy of the program files, and restore his latest data backup. It turned out that the hard drive didn’t appear to have a fresh copy of the Windows files so we spent time downloading it from Dell (an easy enough process thanks to their policy of uniquely identifying each computer they sell by a “service tag”). However, the process failed. Dell’s own diagnostic program then told us that it could no longer find any hard drive at all. At this point, we concluded that the hard drive had probably failed and that it was a warranty job (luckily, with John Lewis).

Now, if we’d got a recent backup that contained all of the Windows files, the program files, and the data (plus all the correct configuration files) we wouldn’t have had to spend time finding a fresh copy of Windows (a waste of time, anyway, of course as the drive was failing). More importantly, when the machine comes back from Dell it will have none of his programs on and none of his data. Had the client had a special type of backup called a “system image” then one process would have been all it needed to put his system back exactly the same as it was when the system image was created – Windows, program files, configuration files, data, the lot.

Why don’t we routinely make System Images?

Time is the main reason. It can take many hours to create a system image. The other problem is that system images have to be restored all at once. You can’t just choose to restore a single file that you inadvertently deleted and then emptied from the recycle bin. The fact that it all has to be restored at once also means that it either works or it doesn’t. All or nothing. And there’s no way of knowing whether a system image is going to work until you try it (by which time it’s too late, of course, to do anything about it if it’s broken).

What’s the best plan?

Macrium Reflect logoCreate a system image periodically (say, every six months) and create data backups in-between just as you do now (don’t you?). Keep the last two or three system images that you make so that if one fails you can at least try to restore an older one.

The time problem of taking system images can be reduced by creating them with a program such as Macrium Reflect. This allows you to make full backups and then backups of only the bits that are new or which have changed (known as incremental backups). There is now a method of creating system images in Windows 10, but these are only full backups. You can’t create incremental backups.

Nevertheless, if you use Windows 10 I do urge you to take the occasional system image. You will need an external drive that’s at least as big as the drive you wish to back up. If you need the backup and it doesn’t work then you are not really any worse off. If it did work, then it could save endles hours and endless grief.

Carbon Copy Cloner logoIf you use a Mac, then its inbuilt “Time Machine” software will probably save you, instead of having a system image. However, some of your Time Machine files may have been automatically deleted if the backup drive has filled up (see my blog post “Will Mac’s Time Machine Always Keep Your Files“). Personally, I make system images of my Macs using Carbon Copy Cloner and I use Macrium Reflect for my PCs. Note that Carbon Copy Cloner is not a free program (and it’s also somewhat complicated to use).

Mac’s Time Machine seems to work so slickly that we may be lulled into a false sense of security

Time Machine LogoI admit that I used to assume that, once it had backed up a file, Time Machine would keep it – at least until it had to remove some old backups to make way for newer ones.

A few days ago, though, one of my IT Support clients specifically asked me whether Time Machine still keeps files deleted from the main drive, so I started doing some digging. Apple don’t seem to offer any technical information at all on exactly what the software does – this is all I could find on the subject.

The nearest I’ve come to anything that sounds in any way authoritative on the subject is from Király’s comments on this Apple discussion page. In Király’s opinion, Time Machine appears arbitrarily to decide which daily backup to retain as a weekly backup and it appears that no attempt is made by Time Machine to ensure that all the different files created and amended during the week are preserved in the weekly backup. So, if you created a file on Monday and then worked on it on Tuesday and Wednesday, it would be in the daily backups for those days. But if you then deleted it and Time Machine chose to carry the Friday daily backup forward as the weekly backup then the backup of the file worked on earlier in the week would be lost. Presumably, the same would apply when deciding which weekly backup is retained to become the monthly backup.

I haven’t found anything else that precisely confirms this situation, but neither have I found anything that denies it. However, I did come across a more detailed critique of Time Machine at the Mac Observer. While not addressing my specific concern of deleted files not being kept in the backups, it does express other concerns about Time Machine.

So, assuming that (like me) you no longer have complete faith in Time Machine, what do you do?

Backup FolderWell, I don’t recommend abandoning Time Machine just because of this. It’s easy to set up and it seems to work well for most situations. Instead, I recommend taking manual backups of important files and folders as often as you feel it is worth it. So if, for example, you have a folder of important work that occupies, say, 10gb, and that folder contains files that are regularly changed and added to, then I would invest in 3 X 16gb USB flash drives (about £5 each from Ryman) and periodically copy the entire folder to one of those drives and rotate the drives that you use. It’s important when doing this to add the files to the USB drive without deleting the previous contents of the USB drive first. Otherwise, you are, once again, in danger of losing files that are no longer on the hard drive. If you are talking about large music or photo collections, then you might have to use external hard drives instead of USB flash drives.

Alternatively, you could “archive” huge chunks of the data that never change and only back up the more volatile files. Personally, I take “archive” copies of important folders periodically as well as my regular backups. Archive copies are ones that are never deleted or overwritten. So, if you take an archive copy onto DVDRs (not the rewritable DVDRWs) then you know you have a copy as long as the DVD is readable (we might expect this to be forever but see my blog on data retention). Many laptops nowadays do not have inbuilt CD/DVD players, but you can buy external ones that connect by USB cable when you need them (see my blog on external CD/DVD drives). Of course, DVDs can normally only contain about 4gb of data, so this strategy has its limitations.

Another possibility to consider is creating backups and/or archives onto SD cards. I currently take daily backups of my important folders onto a 128gb SD card (that I never bother removing from the machine). Since this is a separate drive from the internal (SSD) drive, it gives me some protection against SSD drive failure.

World Backup DayThe concept of backups is easy. It just means making copies of things so that you are not left bereft if something happens to the original. In practice, though, it can become very complicated. As a general principle, I would always recommend that backups of important things are taken in more than one way, onto more than one medium, at more than one time, and kept in more than one place. And it now appears to me that that principle holds good even if your primary backup method on a Mac is Time Machine.

By the way, did you know that 31st March is “World Backup Day“? I kid you not. Who decides these things? What happens if two different “causes” want the same day?

Yes, I know it’s a subject no-one likes to think about, let alone do something about

Backup Button

If only it were as simple as a key press ….

I feel that I walk a narrow line with a lot of my computer support clients between nagging them and ignoring something that I know is important – backups.

It’s easy enough for Mac users. Just set up the Time Machine and you can more-or-less forget about it (except that Time Machine won’t protect you against ransomware. Yes, that’s right, Macs are now vulnerable to ransomware – see this article from Malwarebytes on ransomware). For PC users, however, there is no simple, obvious way to “set and forget” a backup routine. The “File History” option in recent versions of Windows is a start, but it’s simplistic and very much a work-in-progress for anyone whose data filing is any more complicated than using the predefined libraries (Documents, Pictures, Music etc).

My own backup system has always been rather ad hoc, with lots of redundancy built in. The word “redundancy” in this sense means that there are different ways of achieving the same end. Any one method can fail without stopping the other methods from working. In this sense, redundancy is very definitely a good thing. It can help to give you cover, for instance, against those occasions when you try to open a backup drive and discover it’s dead (not a nice experience if you are trying to access your only source of backups).

A few months ago, though, I decided that it’s time to go on the hunt once more for a solution that’s good enough that I would trust it – both for myself and for my clients. The difficulty with backup solutions is that there is a constant tension between ease-of-use and flexibility. The more you have of one, the less you tend to have of the other.

Cobian logo

Cobian backup software logo

Anyway, I came across a name that seemed familiar – Cobian. I remember that this was a backup solution that I used to use for myself and my clients in the past (5, 10, 15 year ago?) but, for some reason that escapes me, have stopped using. I do remember that it was a bit of a pig to set up. That’s probably why I didn’t use it for all my clients. On the other hand, I can also distinctly remember at least one occasion when it definitely did save a client’s data. I’d set it up for her and she’d just left the external drive connected and let it do its thing for, I don’t know, a year or two I think. And then she had a hard drive crash and her data (and my reputation) were on the line. Cobian had been working perfectly all the time. I installed a new drive, then Windows and her programs, and then restored all of her data from the Cobian backup on the external drive. No problem.

When I re-acquainted myself with Cobian last year I found that it’s now got a much simpler interface – but still with all the flexibility that’s needed. I set it up doing different routines on two different machines and it has worked flawlessly for about three months. It even flawlessly backs up files that are open at the time the backup takes place (eg Outlook data file and Evernote database).

It still has a complexity in setting up that some users might find daunting, but my experience of the last few months has given me the confidence now to recommend it for any Windows user looking for a solution that needs more flexibility than the inbuilt File History. I would be happy, of course, to set it up and configure it to your needs (probably half an hour or so).

Ransomware Screen

You do not want to see this on your screen

If you think that your data is safe from disasters because you use cloud services – and especially if you think you are safe from ransomware because it’s “all in Dropbox” or “all on OneDrive” – then you should be aware that files encrypted by ransomware can over-write your (unencrypted) cloud copies. If you use free versions of cloud services there is every chance that previous (unencrypted) copies of files will not be available in a crisis. Peronally, I wouldn’t risk it: one of the things that Cobian backs up for me locally is a copy of my OneDrive and Dropbox folders. Some of those backups are then held “offline” (ie the drives are only connected to my system at the time that Cobian is doing the backup). Ransomware can not encrypt files on drives that are not connected to your system at the time of the attack.

I’m not one for new year resolutions, but if you are thinking of making one this month then sorting out a backup system would be a good one.

Should I schedule continuous or daily backups?

My brother, Laurie, has requested a credit for inspiring this week’s blog by asking this question, so “thank you, Laurie, consider yourself credited”. What does the question mean?

Backup Drive on a Laptop

If you leave it connected, how often should you back up?

Actually, this is a different slant on a recent blog post called “Should you leave backup drives connected?

A lot of external hard drives now come complete with their own backup software. Unfortunately, they are never “plug and play”. They need to be configured according to your own preferences. We are talking of Windows computers, here. If you have a Mac then just use the inbuilt “Time Machine” option in System Preferences.

One of the choices to be made on a Windows PC is “how often do you want the backups to happen?” The usual options are:

  • Continuous – files are backed up as soon they are newly detected or whenever they are updated
  • Hourly (not always available as an option) – additions and the latest version of changed files from the last hour are all backed up at once
  • Daily – as above but only once per day
  • Weekly – as above but only once per week

Seagate External Drive in a Box

Seagate include backup software with this 1tb USB 3 external drive.

Let’s dismiss the “weekly” option to begin with. Why would you go to the trouble of buying a backup drive and then configuring it, only to leave your data exposed for anything up to a week? There is hardly any more cost or effort required to back up daily than weekly.

If you’ve got a new(ish) computer that’s very quiet, you may not like the external drive whirring up every few minutes or so. If you have it on continuous or hourly update the noise might irritate you.

Continuous update will also use up the drive space on your external drive faster, of course, than a daily backup, but if the drive is at least twice as big as the initial (full) backup then that’s unlikely to be a problem.

Another argument against continuous (or hourly) backups is that the process of backing up might slow down your computer for anything else you are doing at the time. This isn’t a problem with daily backups as you can schedule the backup to take place at a time when the computer is switched on but you are unlikely to be using it (during a mealtime, for instance). In practice, a new(ish) mid-specification or high-specification machine is unlikely to be bothered by backups going on, but an older machine might be. If you think your computer is already slow, don’t hamper it further with continuous or hourly backups.

If you tend to do a lot of work in one day on the same file or several files, you may prefer continuous or hourly update to prevent losing loads of actual work all done on one day. However, my own way of dealing with that (when putting together proposals for computer support clients, for instance) is to keep saving different versions of the file as I go along (using “save as” instead of “save” and giving each file a different version number as part of the name). I then delete the interim ones when I’ve finished. Yes, this does mean that all the versions are equally exposed to hard drive failure, but that’s a risk I will take in exchange for ease of use.

Backup Strategy Joke - version 2Something else you may need to consider is how your backup software deals with backing up your emails. If you use webmail it’s not a consideration, of course, as your data is all at the server end and not on your computer. If you’re using an email client (program) – and particularly if you are connecting via POP – then you will have large data files on your computer and, since these constantly change throughout the day, you could end up with your backup program spending all its time backing up the latest version of a “pst” file (for instance). Some backup programs get over this by only backing up such files a maximum of once per day. With other programs, your email backup might not happen at all anyway as some backup programs can not back up open files. So, you would only have a backup if you remembered to close your email for at least 90 minutes at a time (if performing continuous or hourly backups) or if you closed it some time before the scheduled backup time (if performing daily backup).

All computer backups are analogous to insurance policies in that the more you pay in premiums (or the more time and effort you put into backups) the better the cover (or the less data you are likely to lose).

If setting a daily schedule actually works most of the time (ie the computer is switched on and capable of doing the daily backup most of the time) then I would probably favour daily backups.

Whichever method you decide on, I would strongly recommend checking the contents of the backup drive a few times to make sure that what you think is being backed up actually is being backed up. In particular, check for email backups if you use an email client (program) to handle your email.

Finally, I think I’m right in saying that some backup programs can work while the computer is asleep. By all means test this out if you prefer to do daily backups, but do make sure that you check to see that the backup is actually happening.

Checking your backup files may be simply a case of viewing the contents of the backup drive in Windows Explorer (now called File Explorer), but if the backup program has created its own proprietory backup file type then you would need to check the backups using the backup software itself. I’m afraid there’s also another potential complication in that Windows may be hiding from your view the folders that contain your emails and/or their backups on the external drive. There’s no room to go into that today, but give me a call if it’s a problem.

In these days of ransomware, isn’t it dangerous to leave backup drives connected all the time?

Backup Drive on a LaptopVery slowly, data backups are becoming easier to keep up to date. If you buy a Seagate external drive, for instance, it will probably include backup software that you can “set and forget”. Once you’ve made your initial decsions about what you want to back up, how many copies to keep and so on, the software just keeps doing it as long as the backup drive is connected to your computer (usually by USB cable). Yes, it can be a bit inconvenient having an external drive permanently hanging off the side of your machine – especially if it is a laptop that spends a lot of time on a desktop but some time on your lap. It’s just not good practice to forget the drive is attached and yank it around by the cable when moving the laptop! If it goes crashing to the floor then it could easily be “goodnight Vienna” and back to PC World for another one.

That aside, I think a lot of people have actually started to get used to the idea of having backups automatically taken and updated. This is especially true, of course, for Mac owners who just have to set the inbuilt “Time Machine” software to use an external drive and then forget all about it.

And then along comes ransomware. This is malware that encrypts data on your computer and demands a ransom to decrypt it for you. See this previous blog post on CryptoLocker, for instance. There is obviously a very strong argument that says you should never ever give in to blackmail, but if the only alternative is to lose invaluable data then it’s not difficult to see why people pay up. Now, the problem with ransomware is that it can encrypt data that’s on your external drive as well as your internal drive if the external drive is connected at the time that the malware attacks.

On the face of it, then, you are between a rock and a hard place. If you don’t keep your external drive connected you risk losing data that’s not backed up, and if you do keep it connected then the data is backed up but is vulnerable to being snatched away from you by ransomware.

Time Machine Settings

As you can see, I back up my MacBook Pro to a 750gb drive and also to a 1 terabyte drive. This dialog box shows me when I used the drives, so I know which one to use next.

If you’ve got a Mac then it’s actually quite easy to resolve this dilemma. Not only is the inbuilt Time Machine software easy to “set and forget” but it’s also flexible enough to let you use more than one backup drive. So, you simply alternate the drives as often as you wish. If one should fail or be compromised then the other – although probably not completely up to date – will take almost all of the pain out of the situation. This is actually a very good and simple practice. An external drive only costs £40-£60 these days. Just buy another one and alternate them. It’s a no-brainer. For the sake of completeness, I’m just going to mention one more practice that you can adopt if you really want to be responsible about your data backups. And that is to take a second backup onto an external drive and then remove it from the premises. Ask a friend or relative to keep it for you and periodically swap it for a later backup. This may sound like overkill, but it does provide a layer of protection against something disastrous happening not just to your computer, but to the entire location – eg fire, theft, or flood.

To be honest, I don’t know if swapping drives would work when taking continuous, incremental, backups using software such as Acronis or Seagate’s on a Windows PC. It’s just possible that files are marked to say that they’ve been backed up, so wouldn’t get backed up if a different backup drive were substituted. This is almost certainly one of those IT situations where the quickest way to find out is probably to “suck it and see”. In the meantime, you can ensure that a second backup will definitely work by doing a full backup instead of an ongoing incremental one.

Backup Strategy JokeWhether it’s worth bothering about the possibility of falling victim to ransomware is, of course, your own decision. And I should add that, as far as I know, Cryptolocker still only attacks Windows PCs. It’s very difficult to assess the chances of such disasters happening. I recommend that you imagine the situation you’d find yourself in if such a disaster did happen. Go on – really think about what you might lose and how inconvenient it would be. That should then give you some idea of how much effort you are prepared to put into creating and following contingency plans.

Recent publicity seems to have woken people up to the dangers of Cryptolocker

I’m still seeing lots of references to the security measures we should take to protect ourselves against Cryptolocker and a lot of my computer support clients are also asking for my advice as to whether they are adequately protected. If you don’t know what I’m referring to, have a look at these two blogs:

GameOver Zeus and Cryptolocker

The main area of inadequate protection that I am finding amongst my computer support clients is the lack of an “offline” backup.

What is an offline backup? We refer to stuff being “online” if it is connected to your main system – ie directly connected to your laptop or desktop computer or connected to your local network via your router. Stuff that is “offline” is likely to be either:

  • A USB thumb drive (also known as a “memory stick” but that is actually a proprietory name of a Sony device) that is not plugged into your computer at the moment
  • A DVD or CD
  • An external hard drive that is not connected to your computer at the moment
  • In “the cloud” (eg on Skydrive, or iCloud).

CryptoLocker WindowThe point here is that Cryptolocker is capable of detecting drives that are currently connected (“online”), so this would include a currently connected USB drive or external hard disc. Your backup needs to be detached from your computer at the time of an attack by Cryptolocker to ensure that it remains safe (ie it must be “offline”). The only exception that I can think of is that anything you have burned to a CD or DVD is safe even if the disc is in the CD/DVD drive, provided that the media is of the “read” type rather than “read/write”. This is because, by definition, data can only be burned once onto a DVDR or CDR disc, so Cryptolocker won’t be able to replace your data with an encrypted version.

Backups that are “in the cloud” are probably not directly accessible by Cryptolocker.
I am not certain about this, but I can’t find any reference to cloud backups being vulnerable by virtue of them being “online”. However, there is a very big “but” here in that if your backups to the cloud are managed by a programmed schedule (as opposed to backups only being created manually on an ad hoc basis) then your backups could be at risk as a result of the schedule deleting your previously good backup and replacing it with files that have been encrypted by Cryptolocker.

Lifebelt in the SkyOne way to get over the problem of cloud backups being overwritten with encrypted files would be to establish another cloud account and then to periodically copy the backup data from the first cloud account to the second cloud account. If this backup is not created by a schedule then files encrypted by Cryptolocker will not over-write a good backup with an encrypted one.

Another step that can be taken to add a layer of security to your backups is to take a backup onto an external drive (hard drive, USB “memory stick”, or even CD or DVD) and then ask someone to keep this safe for you in their premises rather than your own. I advise doing this. It has always been a good practice, but, in reality, I’ve only ever been able to persuade a very few of my computer support clients that it is a practice worth adopting. This “off-premises” backup becomes, in effect, an “archive”. An archive is a backup that is not over-written with a later backup. So, for instance, you may archive your annual accounts. This means that whatever happens in the future you should always be able to access that particular year’s accounts because the backup never gets overwritten with a later one.

Locked Laptop

How safe is your data?

These “archives” don’t get updated (that’s what distinguishes them from backups), so they probably won’t include the very latest data if you suffer an attack from Cryptolocker. Nevertheless, they do provide you with a “worst case scenario” of the very least that you can expect to be able to recover if you should have a disaster such as a Cryptolocker attack. The other main reason for taking an “offsite backup” is that it also provides a layer of security against something disastrous happening to the location of your main system and backups – eg fire, theft, or flood.

However many levels of backup you introduce, you will only be absolutely sure that a usable backup exists if it’s there and it works when you need it. I’m afraid there are no absolute guarantees in this area. I think it’s one of those areas of computing where you have to make up your own mind how much time and effort you put into safeguarding your data. My own impression, though, is that – on average – my computer support clients probably do not pay enough attention to creating adequate backups and I suspect that it would be quite reasonable to extrapolate from that to say that most people, generally, are probably more vulnerable to losing data to the likes of Cryptolocker than they would like to be. As they say up North – think on!

Macs have long had a backup system (called “Time Machine”) that the user simply “sets and forgets”

I’ve often wondered why Microsoft can’t do something similar as the whole area of backups is one that a huge number of users find too complicated, too confusing and too tedious to engage with. All the advice I ever give about the importance of backups is probably ignored at least half of the time because it’s just too complicated a subject. Beyond Microsoft’s offerings, I’ve also been looking elsewhere for years for a simple, trustworthy backup system that manages to square the circle of combining simplicity with flexibility. I have yet to find such an animal but it seems that Microsoft may now provide an adequate solution built into Windows 8.

It is called “File History” and is available from the Control Panel.

File History Main Menu

The main menu is reasonably straightforward

It provides flexibility and ease of setting up by assuming that you will wish to back up all data found in your libraries plus the contents of your desktop, contacts, and favorites. If you always save your data in the recommended locations (eg in “My Documents” or “My Pictures”) then your data will be backed up without any further ado. If you keep data in folders that are not contained in libraries then you can add those folders to existing libraries or create a new library where you can place all of the extra folders that you wish to back up.

But – and it’s a very very big “but” – there are folders that could contain absolutely crucial data that would not be included in the backup unless you knew about them and dug deep to find them and add them to the backup schedule (by adding them to a library). The most obvious of these that comes to mind is the “pst” file if you use Outlook. Why on earth do Microsoft hide this most important of data files in a folder that is not only kept apart from other data files, folders, and libraries, but which is also hidden by default? The “pst” file contains all of your email messages, calendar, contacts, and task lists. As far as my own business is concerned, my Outlook PST file is the most important file I have (together with my Clients database). The same applies to other “email clients” from Microsoft. Outlook Express and Microsoft Mail also set up your data files, by default, in a hidden place that’s really tricky to find unless you know what you are doing.

Select a drive for File History

External drives, USB flash drives and network drives can be used for backups

File History is quite flexible in letting you choose where your backup is going to be made. You can not create the backup on your main “c:” drive (as a hard drive failure could lose you your backup as well as your normal files) but you can use USB flash drives, external hard drives, and even network drives. You could also back up onto a different partition of your main drive, but that’s risky, of course, in the event of a total hard drive failure. If the backup location isn’t available when the backup is made then the program caches the backup on the hard drive ready for when the backup drive is available. Personally, I don’t like this as it could lull you into a false sense of security about the state of your backups. I’d rather be told if a backup is not possible because the backup location is not available.

You can choose how long you wish to keep your backups (weeks, months, forever while there’s still disc space) but I need to do more digging to see if backups are automatically removed when they get to a certain age (very very bad) or removed when they reach a certain age provided that there are newer versions available (much better).

You can choose how often backups are taken, ranging from every 10 minutes to once a day. The backups then take place quietly in the background, without (apparently) causing any noticeable effect on the performance of your computer for whatever else you are doing.

Exclude from File History options

Folders and libraries can be excluded from backups as well as being added to them

From what I’ve found out so far, there are other weaknesses in File History. For instance, if you change the name of a file then that name change is not applied to backups: it’s as if you’ve created a new file. For now, though, I’m so pleased that Microsoft have, at last, built some kind of simple data backup system into Windows that I would encourage you to use it if you are not doing any other kind of backup. I could probably help you to set it up by remote control (using Teamviewer), but remember that it is only available in Windows 8 – not in either Vista or Windows 7.

File History Restore Menu

Restoring files just requires “stepping forward or backward” through time and then “drilling down” to select the files(s)

If you don’t take backups then it probably means that you’ve never had a serious data loss yet. And that’s the key word – YET. I’ve seen a few heart-breaking data losses over the years, but I know that it’s difficult for the average user to get their head around the subject. Looked at from that perspective, I think File History in Windows 8 is certainly better than nothing.

I’m going to be testing it in the coming weeks and months by running it side by side with my normal backup routines. I’ll come back to the subject if I find any fatal flaws or useful tweaks.

Dropbox stores previous versions of data files (for 30 days) that you thought had long since gone to data heaven

I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog on Dropbox, but I’ve recently had a couple of queries from users who know it’s possible, but who can’t work out the mechanics. So, here’s how to do it.

The secret is to remember that your Dropbox files are available in two distinct ways – via the Dropbox folder on your computer and via a website interface. I think what happens is that we get used to using the Dropbox folder just like any other folder and assume that old versions of our files are stored in the local Dropbox folder – if only we could find them. This is not how it works. Only the most recent version (ie the “current” version) is in our local Dropbox folder. All the previous versions are “in the cloud” on Dropbox’s servers. However, providing that we have an internet connection, it’s easy to access them.

If you still have a “current” version of the file in your Dropbox folder, then click on the file to highlight it and then right-click on it. A menu then pops up as in Figure 1

menu for "previous versions"

Figure 1 – Menu for Previous Versions

The options on this menu will depend on what programs you have installed on your own computer, but somewhere on the menu you will see “Dropbox” with a right-pointing arrow. This arrow indicates that there is a sub-menu that pops up when you hover over the option. So, if you hover over “Dropbox” the submenu pops up that includes the option to “View previous versions”. If you click on this option, your web browser will open, take you to your Dropbox account online, and show you the list of previous versions of the file you initially clicked on (see Figure 2):

The List of Previous Versions

Figure 2 – The List of Previous Versions

Select the version that you wish to restore (ie the version that you wish to become the new “current” version). This is done by clicking in the round “radio button” next to the relevant version. Then just click on the blue “restore” button below. Be aware, though, that you don’t get any warnings or confirmations about what is about to happen. As soon as you click on the “restore” button it does just that: replaces the old current version with whichever version you selected to restore. You can, of course, repeat the process to restore a different version if the one you’ve restored is not the correct one.

What happens, though, if you’ve deleted the file?
Obviously, you can’t restore it by right-clicking on it if it’s not there!

  • In this case, launch the Dropbox website by right-clicking on the blue Dropbox icon in your taskbar (bottom righthand corner of screen) and left-click on the option that says (natch) “Launch Dropbox Website”.
  • Navigate to the folder where the deleted file used to reside
  • Click on the rightmost icon in the strip near the top of the screen that looks like Figure 3
Strip of Commands including "Show Deleted"

Figure 3 – Strip of Commands including “Show Deleted”

This is a dustbin, but clicking on it doesn’t throw things out. Rather, it displays the files that have previously been thrown out. In the example in Figure 4, the second file (diltest.txt) has been deleted.

Showing the Deleted Files

Figure 4 – Deleted Files Now Accessible

Click on the filename to reveal a list of versions that Dropbox is holding:

Showing the Previous Versions of Deleted Files

Figure 5 – Showing the Previous Versions of Deleted Files

Note that Dropbox can’t offer you the option of restoring the version that was deleted. It can only offer you the most recently saved versions. This may or may not be the same thing, depending upon whether you had made any changes between the last save and the deletion of the file. So, select a previous version by clicking in the round “radio button” and then click the “restore” button.

After all that, you might be saying “why not just look in the Windows recycle bin and restore the file from there?“. Fine, If it’s there, then go ahead and do that, but you may have emptied the recycle bin, or want a different version. The main advantage of having the Dropbox option is that it does keep all these different versions going back 30 days.

I don’t use Dropbox as my main method of backing up files. I’d feel a bit queasy about trusting any outside organisation to be in sole charge of the backups of my important data. However, knowing that Dropbox is adding an extra layer to my backup routines definitely makes me feel more secure about my data – and it doesn’t need me to do anything to maintain it.

Dropbox logoYou can get Dropbox for free. The free version starts you off with 2gb storage space. However, clicking this link to the Dropbox website will get you (and me!) an extra free 250mb of space.

Let’s suppose that you’ve finally decided to buy an external drive to back up at least some of your important files. Maybe you’re doing this just because you know it’s a good idea or maybe you are a computer support client of mine and you’re tired of me dropping very heavy hints about backups.

Windows Explorer Drive Capacity

How Windows Displays the Drive Capacity

I’m going to use a 160gb drive as my example for the rest of this blog. So, you connect the new drive to your computer, you open Windows Explorer to see what it makes of it and, lo and behold, it looks as if you’ve been sold a pup. Windows tells you that this is not a 160gb drive but a 149gb drive and although it’s brand new there’s less space available than the size of the drive. The difference between the 149gb (the capacity reported by Windows) and the 160gb (the capacity that the nice people in PC World sold you) is almost 7% of the total and that’s enough for a grumpy old man like me to feel cheated.

Actually, there are a number of things going on here. The most important is that the drive manufacturer and Windows are not agreeing on what constitutes a “gb” (gigabyte).

These days, 1gb = 1000,000,000 bytes (or 1000 megabytes). This is the designation that drive manufacturers use when labelling and selling their products. So, a 160gb hard drive means 160,000,000,000 bytes.

1gb used to be thought of as something different. This was derived from the fact that 1kb was not 1000 bytes but 2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2x2 bytes – ie 1024bytes. Calculating it this way, 1gb is actually 1,073,741,824 bytes. Strictly speaking, this unit is now called a gibibyte (GiB) but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use that word.

So, I can multiply the 149gb that Windows thinks it has  X 1.073741824 bytes and get back to the 160gb which PC World claimed to have sold me.

Notice that Windows is reporting only 148gb of the 149gb as being available. There’s nothing I can do about that. It’s just pinched some space for its own use.

Seagate GoFlex 2.5 inch Drive

A Seagate GoFlex 2.5 inch Drive

Actually, your own brand new drive may be showing less space available for another reason. The drive may include free backup software. Defintely worth looking out for if you want a reasonably straightforward backup solution.

Does all this talk of space available on your new drive actually matter? Not really – unless you are paranoid or grumpy and think that the drive manufacturers are trying to cheat you.

So why am I telling you this? Mainly because you may have noticed the anomaly and wondered what was going on. I’m also taking advantage of the opportunity to emphasize that one of the best bits of computer advice I can give is that it’s a very good idea to have backups of at least your most important data files. Over the 27 years I have been providing computer support I have seen several instances of people losing their data because of something like a hard drive failure or virus attack. It can be very upsetting, and potentially serious if your livelihood is involved.

Another reason why we needn’t try to be too pedantic in working out how much space we’ve got available on the new drive is that we always need to leave a fair chunk of it unused. We need to allow a minimum free space of about 15% “wiggle room” if we are going to be regularly reading and re-writing the files on the drive. If any drive gets filled beyond about 85% capacity then the performance starts to degrade as the operating system struggles to effficiently store the data and read/write it from/to the drive. So, it’s always best to buy a drive that’s larger than your apparent needs.

Finally, the main reason that it doesn’t really matter too much about accurately measuring capacity against your precise needs is that the capacity of external drives is going up much faster than our need for all that space. It’s hard to buy a drive of smaller than 340gb nowadays and the best value in terms of “£ per gb” is probably a 500gb drive. The only thing that’s likely to use up that kind of capacity is a large movie collection. A large photo collection and a large music collection added together with all of your normal data files are unlikely to be a problem.

I know I’m always banging on about backups but there’s another reason why it may be a good time to act – external hard drive prices (in fact, all hard drive prices) may go up in the coming months. Floods in Thailand have wiped out a significant percentage of the manufacturing capacity and this could have a serious impact on prices.


Dropbox Re-visited

Dropbox logoA while ago I wrote favourably about Dropbox and the way that it copies files of your choosing to one or more other computers automatically. I am still using it all the time to ensure that I have the latest versions of important files with me on my netbook when I am visiting clients. There are two things that I would like to add:

  • There have been concerns that Dropbox is not as private as we might like. Their previous privacy policy suggested that employees of Dropbox were not able to view files stored using Dropbox (the files are stored on Dropbox’s servers as well as distributed among your own computers). It now appears that that is not the case and that they would reveal our data to relevant authorities (in the USA) if subpoenaed to do so. Moreover, since Dropbox do have the ability to view files it means that customers’ files are vulnerable to mistakes or malpractices of its own employees. See here for a good exposition of the situation. Like the writer of that blog, I am considering leaving Dropbox, but am reluctant to do so as I have come to rely on its usefulness.
  • I recently password-protected an (existing) Excel 2010 spreadsheet and then promptly forgot what password I had used. Although I definitely had unprotected backups, they were not current. Then I remembered that Dropbox keeps previous versions of files. By logging on to my Dropbox account I was very easily able to restore an unprotected version of the spreadsheet from just before the time I locked myself out of it. Magic! That’s another reason I won’t drop Dropbox easily.

Email Netiquette Re-visited

Some aspects of what is considered polite and proper in emailing are important – such as not revealing email addresses in the “CC field” when the recipients do not know each other (see Shouty Emails and Email Address Fields for my previous posts on this). Others are less so. I was recently amused by an article on the BBC website about how we greet each other and sign off our emails. Reading through the mountain of comments that the article attracted, I concluded that there is no universal way of either starting or ending emails that will not offend or upset someone. It seems that every single variation has its supporters and detractors.

For instance, some people say it is only common politeness to start an email with “Dear Fred” (assuming, of course, that it is Fred you are emailing). Others say that that is an archaic and irrelevant hangover from letter-writing, and someone else even thought that that form suggested an intimacy that may be inappropriate. Likewise with ending emails: some people like to sign off with “Cheers”, whereas others (including me) loathe that word in that context.

I have concluded that there is no generally accepted manner of either opening or closing emails, so I will carry on as I have always done – which is to adjust my wording slightly depending on the situation and to stick with forms that do not make me squirm with embarrassment if I see them again two weeks later.

……. and, finally

If you would like to re-visit any of my newsletters/blog posts (they are the same thing, the newsletter being the emailed version of new blog posts), the easiest way to find what you are looking for is to look at the sitemap on my website. Just scroll down the page to the “Posts” section, where the links are listed with the title and publication date (in chronological order).

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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