Sep 122020

Fences logoI have always thought that the Windows desktop (and the Mac one, as well) could be much better designed

I would really like to be able to do several things with the desktop that we can’t, such as:

  • Group shortcuts according to my own needs (eg by client, or by type, or by importance)
  • Change the size of individual icons according to my needs (eg to reflect their importance)
  • Have text-based menus of options instead of icons (much better for shortcuts to specific documents)
  • Have different background colours and/or images for different parts of the desktop
  • Automatically back up a desktop layout on a regular basis

I don’t know if there is some huge technical reason why this part of Windows and Mac OSX has never had much attention – or maybe it’s just me that thinks this is a glaring omission.

I’ve been on the lookout for a third-party program for a long time now. Every now and again the thought occurs to me to look again and I do another google search. The only program I’ve ever come across that seems to come anywhere near doing what I want (and which actually works) is called Fences. I installed it three months ago and have resisted the temptation to blog about it in case I decided subsequently that it wasn’t up to snuff. However, I think I can now say that Fences is probably going to stay on my computers – even though it only fulfils the first and last items on my wish list.

Desktop showing Fences

Fences is not freeware. We’ve become used to getting so much of our software free that a lot of people won’t pay for anything any more. Fences is free to try for 30 days and then costs £9.99. As far as I am concerned that is a perfectly reasonable price for a solid program that performs what is – for me at least – an important job. I should also mention that it is only available for Windows (7,8, and 10). As far as price goes, I would maintain that most so-called “free” programs are not free: we pay for them in terms of the data they steal from us.

I won’t go into un-necessary detail about how Fences works as this link to Fences takes you to their web page, where they clearly explain what it does. In brief, you create “fences” (or “boxes”) into which you place icons and shortcuts that make sense to you, rather than the somewhat arbitrary way that Windows normally orders them. This means that if you add new shortcuts, they won’t be buried in the middle of all your icons, and your other icons won’t move to accommodate the new icon/shortcut (except for those icons in the “Fence” in which you place the new shortcut). So you might have a fence for important programs, a fence for documents relating to a specific client, a fence with shortcuts to important pdf files, etc.

Settings in Fences

Automatic and manual backups of desktop layouts (called “snapshots”) are also built in. Very handy. And, finally, there is a bonus for people who switch between using a single screen and multiple screens. Those people will know that Windows has the endearing habit of messing up your desktop layout when you plug external monitors in and out if the resolution is different between different monitors. I often (but not by default) use three screens. Fences seamlessly adjusts when I connect and disconnect the external monitors.

Fences has proven rock solid during the 13 or so weeks that I have been using it. It hasn’t misbehaved in any way. The one very very tiny downside is that the machine definitely takes a few seconds longer to boot up and get the desktop sorted out than it used to without Fences – a price I’m prepared to pay.

Easy to get caught out – but easy to fix

meterOn Monday, I was working on a client’s computer when my phone pinged. It was EE (my mobile provider) warning me that I’d run out of data allowance for the month. I thought it was odd, but I’d got my Microsoft Surface laptop connected to the internet by the “personal hotspot” on my phone, so it wasn’t that strange. I simply moved 2gb of unused data from my mobile wifi account to my phone and carried on working. A minute later, the phone pinged again. Another text message saying the same thing. What? Sure enough, I was about to run out of allowance again. I’d just used another 2gb of precious mobile data.

wifi-settingsI hadn’t used my Microsoft Surface much recently as it’s the machine I carry when making visits to my IT Support clients – and we all know why that hadn’t happened recently. So, it hadn’t had much of an opportunity to install Microsoft’s latest updates. And – you’ve guessed – it was using my modest mobile phone and mobile wifi data allowances to download gerzillions of megabytes of Windows updates that could easily have waited until I was connected to my unlimited wifi at home.

manage-known-networksThe answer is actually very simple. On the Windows installation on the Microsoft Surface, I should have marked both my mobile phone and mobile wifi (a separate device with a separate data plan for providing wifi on the move) as “metered connections”. Had I previously done this, Windows would not have attempted to download the updates: it would have waited until I switched the Surface on at home, in range of my normal wifi. In fact, as soon as I made the changes to Windows, Norton Antivirus also popped up a message (that I didn’t read properly before it disappeared) suggesting that it, too, wouldn’t waste precious data when connected to a metered connection.

Set-as-metered-connectionSo, if you are in the habit of using either a mobile wifi device or your phone to give a wifi connection to your computer, then I would definitely recommend making the simple change(s) as described below.

As an aside, this is also a way of preventing Windows from ever updating. Simply tell it that your home wifi connection is metered. This won’t prevent the updating, of course, if you also have a wired ethernet connection. Personally, I recommend allowing Windows to update at home in the normal way.

Anyway, changing a wifi connection into a metered wifi connection:

  • Open Windows Settings by clicking on the Start button and then clicking on the cogwheel, or by depressing the Windows key and tapping the letter “i”.
  • In the “Find a setting” box, type “wifi” (without the quotes).
  • In the list that comes up, tap on “Wifi Settings”.
  • Click on “Manage known networks”. You will then be presented with a list of all the wifi networks that your Windows device remembers you have connected to.
  • Click on the name of your mobile wifi hotspot, and then click on “Properties”.
  • Scroll down to the section entitled “Metered connection” and, under “set as metered connection”, slide the switch to the right.
  • Repeat for any other wifi connections that you’ve used before and which you wish to set as metered.
  • Close the Settings window by clicking on the “X” (top right) as usual.

That’s it!

You might think that the Windows Control Panel has disappeared – it hasn’t

Control Panel iconThe Control Panel is a set of “utilities” (or “applets”) that have formed part of Windows since Windows 2 in 1987. The Control Panel allows changes to be made to how Windows looks and works (see the illustration at the end of this post for a list of the options in it).

So if, for instance, you want to install a new printer or change the resolution of your computer display, then the Control Panel has, for many years, been the place to go.

Control Panel - Windows 7

The Control Panel is always available from the righthand column in Windows 7

Beginning with Windows 8, however, we have had a competing set of “utilities” in Windows called “Settings”. Over time, more and more items have been added to Settings and a lot of people (myself included) have assumed that Settings would replace Control Panel entirely. And yet, here we are, almost seven years since Windows 8 was introduced and we still have both Settings and Control Panel. What is even more confusing is that there are places in Control Panel where you are suddenly moved to a “Settings” screen and vice versa. Try going to “User accounts” in Control Panel and then clicking on “Make changes to my account in PC Settings”. That’s right, you will suddenly be dropped into “Settings”.

In Windows 10, Settings is easy to find. Just click on the Start button (bottom lefthand corner of the screen) and click on the cogwheel that is just above the power button. In Windows 7, Control Panel is equally easy to find – just click on Start and Control Panel is listed as an option in the second column from the left.

Control Panel - access from Windows 10 Start Menu

Start typing “control panel” at the Start Menu to see options and access the Control Panel

So, where is Control Panel in Windows 10?

If you’ve never looked for it before, the chances are that you would look in the alphabetical list of programs visible after clicking on “Start”. Nope. It’s not there. For a while, it was accessible in Window 10 by right-clicking on the Start button. There is still a list of options that pop up when you do that (a hotch potch of items, actually), but Control Panel has mysteriously disappeared.

There are actually lots of ways that do still work in giving access to it, but there’s no need to learn more than one or two.

From the Start Menu, Control Panel is actually a sub-option within “Windows Settings” and can be accessed that way.

Possibly more easily, it can be accessed by starting to type “Control Panel” (without the quotes) in the search bar of the Start Menu. After typing just a few characters, it will appear just above where you are typing. Note that, once it has appeared like this, you can click on “pin to Start Menu”. Thereafter, there will always be a “tile” on the Start Menu that will take you to it immediately. Likewise, you could pin it to the task bar or you could “open file location” and copy a shortcut to it onto your desktop.

If you are of a mind to do a bit of exploring in Windows to see what options are available that you’ve never known about, then it might be better to have a poke around “Settings” than “Control Panel” (since my guess is that Settings is going to be around for a lot longer). If you are looking for something specific and can’t find it in Settings, then have a look for it in Control Panel.

If you are a dyed-in-the-wool old codger like me (who still regrets the passing of DOS) then the starting place for tweaking Windows will always be Control Panel (well, it will be for as long as I can still find it, anyway).

Control Panel

To see all Control Panel items, select “small icons” or “large icons” in the dropdown next to “View by” (top right)

You don’t have to rename files individually if you want them all to have more-or-less the same name

Light Bulb ClipartI’ve recently been transferring TV programs that I have recorded from DVDs to a Seagate “NAS” drive. “NAS” means “Network attached storage”. At its simplest, this is an external hard drive that connects to the router so that all computers on the network can access it. It also, however, acts as a “media streamer”. In other words, it can deliver content stored on it to (for instance) a Smart TV.

This transfer means that I’m going to end up with loads of files on the NAS drive with similar names. As an example, there were eight episodes in the series “The Planets”. In transferring them to the NAS drive I have put them all in a folder called (natch) “The Planets”. The filenames they started off with are shown in Figure 1. If this setup is replicated with many other series of videos, then I’m going to end up with loads of files called “1DVD_VIDEO_RECORDER.MP4” etc. Admittedly they will be separated into folders that are more meaningfully named, but I’m odd enough to want things better organised than that.

So, how do you rename files without doing them all individually?

Multiple File Renaming - Figure 1

Figure 1

Begin by selecting all the files. If you are selecting all the files in the folder then the easiest way to do this is to click on a single file and then hit Ctrl a (ie, depress the Ctrl key and, while it is depressed, tap the letter “a”). All files will then highlighted. If you are not selecting all the files in a folder then click on the first file and “shift-click” on the last file.

Then right-click on the first file and left-click on the rename option (see Figure 2). This is exactly the same as if you were renaming a single file (except that you can see that there are other files that are highlighted). Go ahead and rename the file and then, as normal, hit the “enter” key.




Multiple File Renaming - Figure 2

Figure 2

You will now see (as in Figure 3), that all the selected files have been renamed with the same name, followed by an incrementing number in brackets. It is important to note that the numbering aspect of the renaming uses the same file order as the files started with. So, in my case, I had already made sure that each episode was given the correct number (1-8) when transferring from DVD. Since I was displaying the files in filename order, this ensured that the final renumbering followed the same sequence as my original numbering.


Multiple File Renaming - Figure3

Figure 3

Suppose, however, that you had 20 spreadsheets that all related to “household budget” and you had given them lots of different names over time. Renaming and numbering according to the alphabetical sequence of these various names may not make much sense. It would probably be more logical to order your files by date before renaming them. That way, the number part of the filename would increment with time (assuming you had sorted them older down to newer and not the other way around!). Of course, if the files you wanted to renumber were mixed up with lots of other files, you might need to copy them to their own folder before changing the order and renaming them.

And in case you hadn’t realised it, sorting files by different columns (eg filename, date modified) is easy: just click on the column header itself (eg “Name” above the actual file names). Click on the column header again to sort it in the other direction (A-Z or Z-A etc).

This renaming works for at least Windows 7 onwards. If you are using anything older, then it’s time to think about updating (particularly if you are still using XP!!!)

Next time I will look at how you rename multiple files on a Mac. It’s more sophisticated than on a PC.

Windows doesn’t readily allow you to drag folder shortcuts to the taskbar – but it can be done

Shortcut SignIt is useful to be able to drag desktop shortcuts onto the taskbar so that they are easily found whether or not the desktop is being displayed. If, however, you have desktop shortcuts that are shortcuts to folders, then it doesn’t work. Dragging the folder shortcut to the taskbar simply creates another shortcut to File Explorer (known as Windows Explorer in earlier versions of Windows). Admittedly, you can right-click on this shortcut and find that your folder is “pinned” for easy access, but this isn’t as convenient as having a taskbar shortcut that you simply have to click on once in order to open one specific folder.

What we have to do instead is to create a desktop shortcut that opens File Explorer with the special instruction that File Explorer is to open the folder of your choice. Since that shortcut opens a program, it can be dragged onto the taskbar, where it will perform exactly like other taskbar shortcuts that open programs – ie it will open the program File Explorer at the folder specified in the “special instruction”.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Right-click on an “empty” part of the desktop (ie somewhere other than on top of an existing shortcut)
  • Left-click on “New” and then left-click on “Shortcut”
  • Left-click on “Browse” and locate the folder for which you would like to create the shortcut
  • Click on the lefthand end of the folder name as it now appears in the box and add the text “explorer” (without the quotes) and then a space (as illustrated below)
  • Click on the “Next” button
  • (Optionally) rename the shortcut to the name of the folder. Note, though, that you can not include “special characters” in the name of a shortcut, so you can not rename the shortcut to the full “pathname” of the folder (such as “d:\downloads”). You have to settle for something simpler (like “Downloads”)
  • Click on the “Finish” button
  • Drag the shortcut down onto the taskbar

Folder Shortcut
However, before taking the last step above, you might like to change the icon of the shortcut as, otherwise, your new folder-specific Explorer shortcut will just have the default Explorer icon, making it indistinguishable from the normal, default, File Explorer shortcut that has always been present on the taskbar.

To change the icon of a shortcut:

  • Right-click on the shortcut
  • Left-click on “Properties”
  • Left-click on the “Shortcut” tab at the top of the dialogue box that has now opened
  • Left-click on the “Change Icon” button
  • Left-click on a desired icon and then click on “OK” twice to close both the open dialogue boxes

You can now now drag the shortcut onto the taskbar.

Green Windows FolderIf you want to get even more clever with it, you can choose from a much bigger range of available icons for your shortcut. After clicking on the “Change Icon” button (above), if you click on the “Browse” button, you can select any “.exe” or “.dll” file on your computer to see if it has icons in it that you can use. Not all dll files have icons, so just try another if you select one that doesn’t have any. Possibly the largest selection of icons are to be found in the file C:\Windows\System32\shell32.dll. Changing the icon of a shortcut in this way won’t affect the functionality of the shortcut and it won’t affect the dll or exe file from which the icon has been “lifted”.

I think you will find that this method of creating a taskbar shortcut for folders works in Windows 7, 8, and 10.

Help! My screen’s turned upside down!

Yoga and LaptopYou probably won’t find this blog of use today (unless you are an office wag – see below), but if ever you see that the contents of your screen have turned upside down (or sideways for that matter), then just remember that you read about it here. You can then just visit and use the search facility on any web or blog page to find “inverted screen”. That should find this blog post for you.

Probably once or twice a year I get a panic phone call from a computer support client saying that they can’t understand what’s happened, but their screen has turned upside down. When this happened just a few weeks ago I facetiously suggested to the client that he might like to stand on his head to use the computer. He replied that he had thought about it, but he would need his arms and hands for support so wouldn’t be able to use the keyboard or mouse. That makes sense, so here is the more appropriate solution.

It happens from time to time that a user types a combination of keys accidentally that have unintended consequences. Since, by definition, it happened by accident, there isn’t any way of relating the action to the consequences so the solution to the problem – typing the same or similar combination of keys – doesn’t occur to the perplexed (and even panicky) victim.

This can happen on both Macs and on Windows PCs. I’ll leave it to you to work out why it isn’t a problem with tablets and smartphones.

Cursor Direction Keys

The two sets of cursor direction keys on my Samsung laptop

Windows PCs

The orientation of the screen contents is changed by depressing the Ctrl (“control”) key and the Alt key at the same time and then, while these are depressed, hitting one of the “cursor direction” keys. Some keyboards have two sets of cursor direction keys. In such cases, there will probably be one set of keys dedicated to the direction function (ie there will be nothing else on the key tops) and one set will probably share the function with the numeric keypad (ie the number keys towards the righthand side of the keyboard (not the number keys near the top of the keyboard)). In such cases, trial and error will show which set of cursor direction keys you need. On the Samsung laptop I’m using at the moment, it’s the “dedicated” cursor direction keys that do the trick.


I don’t think anyone’s ever appealed to me for help with this problem on a Mac and maybe it’s not so easy to do it by accident. Nevertheless, it is possible to change the orientation of screen content on a Mac so let’s cover it here. To change the orientation:

  • Depress the Cmd and Option keys at the same time and keep both keys down
  • Go to System Preferences (by clicking on the apple at the top left and then left-clicking on the System Preferences option)
  • Click on “Displays”
  • You will now see the Displays options exactly as you would have done without the digital gymnastics of holding down keys at the same time, except that there will be a new option that you don’t normally see – “Rotation”. You can now let go of the other keys and simply click on the up/down arrows next to that option to reveal the four orientation options. The normal one is called “standard”
  • Close the Displays window in the usual way

Normal Mac Display Options Window

The normal window with Mac Display options does not show the option to change the screen’s orientation

Mac Display options with rotation

The Mac Display options window including options for rotating the screen’s contents

Even if it’s not possible (or, at least, it’s very, very difficult) to turn your screen over by accident on a Mac, it’s worth knowing about these techniques as the world is full of office wags who think that turning someone’s screen over when they’ve left their desk for a minute is rather a jolly jape.

And if you are such an office wag, don’t blame me if you get a biff on the nose for playing a trick that you just learned here!

Microsoft appear to be pushing their weight around, attempting to foist Windows 10 on users whether they want it or not

Microsoft BootA few weeks ago Microsoft were accused of heavy-handedness in downloading the installation files for Windows 10, irrespective of whether the user had actually asked for the upgrade. The upgrade didn’t install automatically, but the download (in preparation for the installation) could be anything up to 6gb.

Now they’ve gone one step further. The upgrade to Windows 10 (ie its installation – not just the downloading of the files in preparation) is “soon” going to become a “recommended update” alongside other “recommended updates” that you are probably set to receive automatically (because that’s how Microsoft have been encouraging us to receive updates).

So, if you are currently running Windows 7 or Windows 8/8.1, and you do NOT wish to upgrade to Windows 10, then you are going to have to turn off automatic updates and manually pick and choose the updates that you do wish to install. I can’t see a lot of “normal” users doing that.

To quote Microsoft themselves:

“We will soon be publishing Windows 10 as an “Optional Update” in Windows Update for all Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 customers. Windows Update is the trusted, logical location for our most important updates, and adding Windows 10 here is another way we will make it easy for you to find your upgrade.”

Or, to put that another way, “We’re going to slip Windows 10 past you without you noticing it happen, because we know that most of you will not learn – until it’s too late – that we’re re-categorising it as a recommended update to Windows 7 and Windows 8.”

Windows Glassy LogoIt is true – as Microsoft point out in the above-quoted article – that you can revert to your previous operating system any time within the first 31 days after installation of Windows 10. But they are not daft: they know that inertia will play its part. Once it’s a fait accompli that you’ve got Windows 10, they know that few people will either want to bother putting it back to Windows 7 or 8, or want to risk breaking something in the attempt.

I appreciate that we can’t blame Microsoft for wanting their new operating system to be as successful as possible, but do they really need to abuse their power by manipulating us in this way?

If you decide that you don’t want to be strong-armed into installing Windows 10 by default, then you need to check, and possibly change, your Windows Update settings. You can read more on this by clicking the appropriate link below:

Windows Update for Windows 7 Users


Windows Update for Windows 8 Users

Windows Vista with haloFor what it’s worth, though, Windows 10 does seem to be being accepted and liked in a way that Windows 8 never was. My own experience is that, apart from initial problems mentioned in earlier blogs, it is stable and seems like a smooth progression from Windows 7. If you happen to have bought a new computer recently and are experiencing Windows 8 for the first time, my advice would definitely be to upgrade to Windows 10 rather than get to grips with the peculiarities and annoyances of Windows 8.

If, on the other hand, you are happy with Windows 7 or 8, then you will need to make an effort to resist the juggernaut that is Microsoft’s bullying, or be run over by it.

Isn’t it ironic that users of the one operating system that was deemed a bit of a disaster (Windows Vista) are the only group of Windows users unaffected by all this? They can carry on using Vista, knowing that it’s still supported by Microsoft, but can’t be updated to Windows 10.

What does it take to re-install a Windows computer?

Keep calm and Reinstall WindowsIf a mis-behaving computer can’t be fixed by narrowing down the problem and applying a specific solution, then you would expect any software problem to be sorted by applying the most drastic action – re-installing everything.

I’ve been asked the question so often – “what would it take to re-install it from scratch?” – that I’m surprised that it’s never occurred to me before to set out the major steps in a blog, so here goes..

It’s very likely that you do not have master Windows discs for your system, or essential driver files for things such as the graphics card, wireless adapter etc. However, there is almost certainly a “recovery partition” on the hard drive which can be used to take the computer back to the state in which it left the factory. This is a destructive process that will lose your programs and data. It also needs the hard drive to be working.

Assuming the drive is ok and there is a recovery partition, then we can proceed as follows:

  • If possible, take photos of your Windows desktop (eg with a smartphone) before beginning work. This can be used as a “list” of things to re-install later. A more thorough step is to go into Control Panel and “Programs and Features” (or “Add or Remove Programs” in older versions of Windows) to take pictures of the entire list of installed programs. You may not need to re-install them all, but this acts as a good list to work from when re-installing everything.
  • You will need the password (passkey) for your wifi as well as knowing what your router is called as far as your computer is concerned – this is known as the SSID. It may be written on your router. If you connect to the router by an ethernet cable, then no SSID or password is needed.
  • Back up your data. As well as normal files (documents, music, spreadsheets, photos, etc), it’s important to consider your email data. If you are using one of the Microsoft email “clients” (Windows Live Mail or Microsoft Outlook) then your data is quite possibly not being backed up in the normal course of events. This is because Microsoft sometimes “hides” your email data so that you won’t break it. If using an email client (as opposed to webmail), copy all your email account settings for use when re-installing (but you will also need to know your email password, and that isn’t revealed in your email settings).
  • In order to re-install your programs, you will need the original master discs (if provided), or a copy of the downloaded installation files, or the account details (almost certainly the username and password) on the software publishers’ websites from where the downloads can be repeated. A lot of the software we use is, of course, nominally free and can be downloaded again – eg browsers (Chrome, Firefox etc), iTunes, Skype, Adobe Reader, Adobe Flashplayer, Malwarebytes.
  • Your antivirus program could have been sourced in several ways:
    (a) It may have been provided with the computer – in which case it should be re-installed if the computer is taken back to factory settings. It may then need program updates to be applied and it will certainly need the virus definition files to be updated.
    (b) It may have been sourced separately, either from a disc or downloaded from the internet. Again, program updates are likely and virus definition updates are inevitable.
    (c) You may be using Microsoft’s own, free, antivirus. Depending on your operating system, this may need to be downloaded again (no account name or password required) or re-enabled in the Windows Control Panel. Once more, virus definition files will definitely need to be updated.
  • When Windows has been restored, there will be many updates that it needs to do to bring it up to date with security patches, bug fixes, etc. This will almost certainly require several re-boots and two or three checks of “Microsoft Update” before all updates are installed. This is because some updates can not be installed until after earlier ones have been installed. It is tempting to leave the Microsoft updates until later, on the basis that the updates can happen automatically and in their own good time. This is fine, except that if something doesn’t work it could be because you currently have outdated Windows files. It’s better, therefore, to update Windows as soon as possible – and definitely as part of troubleshooting (should any be needed).
  • Drivers and software for peripherals may need to be installed. If the software needs to be downloaded then no account name or password will usually be needed. Peripherals you may need to consider include printers, cameras, mobile phones. Drivers for things like mice, USB flash drives, external CD/DVD players, are usually automatically installed when they are first connected after a re-installation.
  • Programs need to be re-installed and your data files replaced.

Keep Calm and Call DavidThis may not be a full list of the things that need to be done to re-install a Windows system from factory settings, but it should give you an idea of why it takes 3-7 hours (or more) to carry out.

It is very tempting to say “why not start again with a new computer?” Indeed. It is a question you definitely should ask yourself. However, apart from the re-installation of the Windows files as they were originally supplied, all of the other steps will probably be required whether you are setting up a new computer or re-installing an old one. It could well be that a new computer is indicated as this will save repeating the process when the computer would otherwise have been replaced.

It’s not easy to weigh these options against each other, but I would certainly suggest that if a computer is more than three years old then you should give serious consideration to replacing it rather than re-installing, and if it is more than five years old then it is almost certain that it is better to replace it than re-install it. All of these judgements are based on the assumption that you need to pay a professional (hopefully me!) to carry this out for you.

Is It Gonna Blow Cartoon

If you do it yourself (with little or no obvious financial outlay) then re-installation of an existing machine becomes a more favourable option. Re-installing a five year old machine can be very satisfying as all of the software crud and rubbish that’s accrued over the years will have disappeared and your system will probably run much better than it has for some time. Do bear in mind, however, that if it would take me (say) six hours to re-install for you, it might take you two to three times as long, and it can be a long and stressful journey.

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.

I’ve written previously about the useful free program called Gadwin PrintScreen that I use to “grab” a copy of either the whole screen or part of the screen. In fact, it’s the utility that I use to grab the bits of screens that I often use to illustrate these blog posts.

Since I’m now trying to make more use of my MacBook Pro, I have found several times recently that I wish Gadwin had a Mac version – they don’t. However, I have come across a similar utility that certainly seems easier than trying to remember the Mac shortcut keys that capture all or part of a screen (and which, incidentally, don’t need the fingers of a concert pianist to execute).

This little gem is called DuckLink Screen Capture. It’s available for both Windows and Mac.

So, now I have the ability to capture screens from any proper computer, but I often find that I want the captured image on a different machine from the source machine. Dropbox to the rescue…

I have a folder in my Dropbox called “Screencaps” (natch). It is easy enough to configure both Gadwin and DuckLink to save the captured screen images in a specific folder – in this case, the Screencaps folder in my Dropbox (which is present on all machines, of course, as that’s the point of Dropbox). Et voila, all my screen captures – from all computers – are now available on all machines and I don’t have to remember anything complicated about where I should save them, what I should call them, or anything like that.

As well as configuring the capture software to direct its output to the correct folder, it’s also possible to specify a naming convention for the files that will be created. I take advantage of this to start each filename with the name of the machine that originated the capture and then to add the date and time.

To configure Gadwin to place the screen captures in the right place and with the right name:

  • Right-click on the taskbar icon (it’s a small camera)
  • Left-click on “Show Options”
  • Left-click on the option to the left that says “Post Capture Actions”
  • Configure Capture Folder and File Name Template (there’s some help in naming the capture file at the bottom of the window (not shown in the accompanying image))
Gadwin Options

Gadwin Options

To configure DuckLink Screen Capture to place the screen captures in the right place and with the right name:

  • Click on the icon on the top row of the screen (again, it’s a camera – this time on a green background)
  • Left-click on the option to Show Main Window
  • Left-click on Advanced Options
  • Left-click on Output File tab
  • Configure folder and filename
DuckLink Options

DuckLink Options

There’s a tiny flaw (it’s not really a bug as they do warn you about it) in the DuckLink filenaming in that you can’t use a letter in a filename that’s already reserved for something else. For example, I tried to start my filenames with “MacBook”, but it saved the file with “03acBook” at the beginning as it interpreted the “M” as meaning “month number”. Doh! That’s why I chose “Apple” instead as the beginning of the filename.

Screen Capture File Listing

A listing of screen capture files in my Dropbox Screencaps folder. Note the two entries starting with “03”, before I realised that DuckLink was interpreting the “M” in “Macbook” as “M for month”.

Finding a particular screen capture later on is made even easier since I use FastStone Image Viewer to view the image capture files and it’s very easy in this program to add “favourite” folders that are easily accessible from the menu bar. So, I’ve added the Screencaps folder as a favourite. If I’m looking at the Screencaps contents on the Mac, I haven’t yet found the perfect viewing program so I’m using the inbuilt “preview” program for now.

So, with the help of three or four free programs (Dropbox, Faststone Image Viewer, DuckLink Screen Capture, and Gadwin ScreenPrint), it’s possible to tame the business of capturing and retrieving screen images on lots of machines on the same local network, even if you have a mixture of PCs and Macs.

© 2011-2019 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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