8 Tips for Surviving PC Failure

By Craig Buckler
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PC explosionI have been lucky with computers. They have died on me but only after they’ve had a long life and I had replaced them with something better. My main PC had never blown up … until last week.

Losing a computer can be traumatic. We store our lives on them: contact details, financial accounts, family photographs, music collections, videos and more. Here are 8 tips that could help you survive a PC meltdown…

If you have never backed up your data, stop everything and do it now! External hard disks and NAS drives are cheap and easy to use.

Try to automate your backup process or make it as easy as possible. There are several free Windows applications that could help, including SyncBack Freeware, CloneZilla, Allway Sync, ezback-it-up, or FullSync.

2. Keep a spare PC
A spare PC is vital. It may be old or underpowered, but it will keep you working whilst you hunt for a replacement. I survived on a lumbering 8 year-old PC and a netbook – it was not always an enjoyable experience, but it allowed me to keep in contact with clients.

3. Purchase a hard-disk enclosure
Even if your PC is irreparable, the hard disk may be intact. It is relatively simple to remove the device, slot it into an enclosure, and create a USB hard drive. This allows you to retrieve data that had not been backed up, but do not rely on this as your only backup method.

4. Use online synchronization
Online storage is unlikely to be practical for all your data, but it could certainly be used for vital files such as password databases, important accounts, or current documents. I can personally recommend Dropbox; it is available on Windows, Mac and Linux and just works.

5. Install Foxmarks
Foxmarks backs up your Firefox bookmarks to a central server so they can be accessed online or synchronized with other PCs. It was a relief not to lose 15 year’s worth of website links.

6. Automatically forward your emails
Emails can be instantly forwarded to a GMail or any other webmail account. This allows you to check messages from anywhere and provides a historical record of messages you may have lost otherwise.

You can define filters in GMail so forwarded messages are labeled and archived rather than remaining in your inbox. Click Settings, Filters, then “Create a new filter”. In the “To:” box, enter your email address or domain name. Finally, click “Next Step” and define how you want the message handled:

GMail filter

7. Move your work into the cloud
Although there have been a number of high-profile failures, cloud computing is here to stay and most applications will be more resilient than your own PC. Online applications such as Google Docs, Zoho Office, Buzzword, and ThinkFree offer viable alternatives to desktop suites.

8. Use “no-install” applications
Reinstalling your essential programs on a new PC is no fun. However, many applications provide ZIP, USB drive, or XCOPY deployment versions that can be installed by copying the files to an appropriate location and creating a shortcut. If the configuration files are also saved locally, your whole environment can be available within seconds.

Have you ever experienced catastrophic PC failure? How did you cope? Would you do anything differently?

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  • Samuel Linde

    Get a Mac. ;-)

  • I usually have a backup in dvd discs, and a image made with Norton Ghost in case that i need to re-install whole software in my pc… but i will follow some of these tips for sure. Thx!

  • curtismchale

    I haven’t had a failure yet but started planning for it about a year ago. I use dropbox for all current client files (is also does version control on saves). Delicious stores my bookmarks. Evernote keeps many notes for me. Mozy does a backup of all files I just don’t want to loose but I could do without for a few days (pictures, music, movies). I do have a very old laptop that could do some of my job and my wife has a macbook. So i suppose I would be okay but i would love to have a cloned bootable drive that I could just drop into a machine and be up and running. When I get a Mac this year I will add that to my list of backups.

  • Brian D

    We had a complete failure of all electrical kit a few years ago when we had a direct lightning strike on the house. it fried everything apart from the washing machine!

    Had 4 pcs and 2 macs take up smoking and it was only the backups on external hard drives which kept our business going.

    We still backup to external drives and to a central windows home server, but also keep one set offsite so if anything bad happens again, we will have our weekly backups.

  • Nice series of tips. I wasn’t aware of the synchronization / backup apps (granted, SyncBack SE isn’t free… after the trial period, you have to buy it if you want to continue using it). I gave Allway Synch a shot and like what I see.. certainly makes backing up my localhost site to an external drive quick and easy. Thx!

  • sanderhartveld

    Tanks for the reminder, I’m going to buy a 1TB backup hard drive tomorrow. I have to backup all my 750GB.

  • F.Danials

    I’ve recently had a USB Hard Drive failure. It was fine until one day everything closed down, and the disk started making annoying clicking noises.

    Lucky, I was able to get it working for a while, allowing just enough time to copy my files to a different HD.

    What would be handy though is to know how to create an ISO of my os with my installed programs included, as it’s extremely boring to have to add all my programs again, once a HD format has been carried out!

  • SpacePhoenix

    Once a PC has all the required software, drives, etc installed create an image of the disk, then if you need to restore all the software you can restore the software all from one disk instead of having to hunt around for where you placed all the install and driver disks.

    Keep documents at least on a separate partition, ideally keep them on a separate physical drive and back up to cd/dvd every so often (checking that the backups work).

    Also another tip, if SMART detects a possible imminent hard drive failure, copy any data you can’t afford to lose over to a different physical disc straight away.

  • sanderhartveld

    i could also use a tip for a good tool to make a image backup. I have seen some open source but I have not tried. Any recommendations?

  • SyncBack SE isn’t free

    It looks as if 2BrightSparks have moved things around. There is a free version – it’s called SyncBack Freeware V3.2.19.0.

    Cloning your hard disk is a good idea and helps cope with major OS failures or re-installations. However, it may not help if your hardware fails and you need a new PC.

    Thanks SpacePhoenix for reminding me about separate partitions, e.g. Windows on C: and data on D: – it makes everything much easier to back up and allows you to re-install the OS without losing documents.

  • Anonymous

    One point to add, is that of course you could buy a Mac. Sorry, but someone had to make that suggestion.

    I went through 3 pc’s in 1 year (and I do not surf dodgy sites, and always kept antivirus up to date). 2.5 years later I’m still on my MacBook and happy. Of course, Macs are awesome, beautiful and stable, but they’re still a COMPUTER. So naturally backups are done to an external HD, and many of your tips could be taken to safeguard ones Mac against failure (unlikely) or worse, theft!

  • khuramyz

    Great Tips. I am gonna write my work on CDs for backup.

  • Using recordable CDs are fine, but it takes discipline to back up regularly. Automate the process to a USB drive and you can forget all about it until PC doomsday.

  • i could also use a tip for a good tool to make a image backu

    You could try the (confusingly named) DriveImage XML. It is free for home users.

  • There appear to be a number of Mac aficionados, but are Macs any less prone to failure than PCs? Apple controls much the hardware and software which should make the OS more reliable. However, Macs still use standard components from major manufacturers – surely they are just as likely to break down?

  • essexboyracer

    Another take – have handy a linux distro on bootable cd-rom (or dual-boot from HD), that way if you have O/S failure at least you can boot into something to get access to files/internet/email. Remember to keep files on a FAT partition as NTFS write is flaky in linux

  • Ya know, this really got me thinking about how I’ve moved away from keeping a lot of vital stuff on a specific computer. Between BaseCamp/Backpack/Google Docs/Google Calendar/Gmail/etc I really can work from pretty much any PC which is cool and a lot better than life in the 90’s. Last time a computer crashed, all I really had to reinstall to get back to work was Firefox, Filezilla, UltraEdit and Photoshop. That was kinda refreshing for a change!

  • Anonymous

    Life is great, but keep a backup for yourself, you never know when this will happen. Computers live in a different world than us, one small step either side of the knife edge and they go tumbling

  • AppBeacon

    @Samuel Linde : I’ve got Macs. I still use DropBox.

    @ khuramyz – Really? CDs? You will probably do it for about 2 weeks. A month at the most. Then, they will be out of date. Use DropBox. I year of “pro” is $99 for 50GB. Use DropBox as your “My Documents” or Documents folder on a Mac. Then, DropBox automatically copies all the files to the cloud and also to your other computers that have DropBox installed.

    I used DropBox to backup my work PC to the cloud and to my Macs. Then, my password programs are accessible on Mac or PC.

  • xxparanormalxx

    macbook/pc, hardware failure is hardware failure. although i love macs because its unix backend. i’m a command line junkie at heart still.

    i guess having an IT background is good. this is what i recommend. although seemingly complex, it’s really not that bad. just draw some pictures and it all makes sense…kinda like how wireframes are so great for web development. =]

    but here’s my setup.

    -blend cloud computing (gmail/dropbox) with local network accessible via VPN. many routers these days support it. You can also use remote desktop/logmein to connect to your local computer. i do this all the time. dropbox to share critical things like pw database (still skeptical and considering setting up my down dropbox server at home. not aware of anything free so i would have to develop my own.).
    -personal computer running RAID 1 (because i hope that that single drive won’t fail right after i do my critical backups. if one fails, i simply replace it another harddrive. mirror rebuilds automatically. life continues on).
    -file server running RAID 1 – again mirror your disks for redundancy!!! it’s so cheap these days. (this isn’t quintessential if you’ve got RAID 1 running on your primary. i however share data between 4 PC’s, 3 laptops, and a few Virtual Machines.. yes i run them all and pay a hefty electricity bill.)
    -UPS!!!! can’t state this enough times. keeping computers running free of power surges/spikes is vital to increasing longevity. my computer is 4 years old and is still a beast.
    -Clean your computers! Open it up and dust it out. poor ventilation leads to dust build up which ultimately leads to heating issues. this equates to decreased machine longevity.
    -OS partition separated from data partition in case you ever need to re-Ghost. However I never get viruses because I just use a separate computer for any “dangerous” surfing I might do (you can also do this in a VM).

    Sure it seems a bit difficult and seemingly expensive but I come from an IT background gone web developer madness. i’ve had the same setup for over 4 years so i’m not spending all that much as opposed to upgrading pc’s every year or two.

  • lionbit

    I already have this problem. I usualy do backup manualy( copy folders and files to a external hard drive.
    I do it in this way so i can use de information on the external device in any pc.
    Last time that hapens i havent´s done backup since three moths…. Lost three months of my work!:(

    Now i am tring to backup weeckly. the problem is after reparing pc or hard drive i have to install all again…..

    good bits!