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Backing Up Your PC Data

Tips & Techniques By Martin Russ
Published April 1994

Computer disks are notorious for crashing. Martin Russ suggests some protection against data loss.

Back it up, or you will lose it. It's true. Computer disks are notorious for crashing at exactly the wrong moment. Few working musicians can afford to have their computer go wrong at a critical moment, so here are a few quick hints and tips to keep mishaps at bay. A little effort now could save your career tomorrow.

Disk Copies. Whenever you save a file on a floppy, save it twice. It's easy, quick, and you get two chances to retrieve the files later. Make this a habit, not a chore.

Verify. Most computer operating software comes with a utility program that lets you safely check your hard disk — for example, on a Mac it is called Disk First Aid. Run it now and check that your hard disk is OK. Try it again every six months or so thereafter.

Backups. Do you store files on your hard disk? When did you last make a copy of them? What would you do if your hard disk stopped working today? Have I worried you enough into considering making a backup?

How To Backup

For small capacity hard disks (10 or 20 megabytes) you could archive data onto floppies, if you have the patience and lots of time, but no cash. Assuming that you have already made backup copies of the original disks for all your main programs, then you only need to back up your own data files, since you can re‑install everything else. For larger drives, the options become more expensive.

For hard disks between about 40 and 120 megabytes (where you have no ambitions to fill anything else), it probably makes sense to just buy another 'no‑frills' hard disk the same size and then make a copy of your main disk every so often — like at the end of every day perhaps. Because the trend is for bigger and faster drives, small drives can often be obtained at very low prices. For a couple of hundred quid, this is probably the most cost‑effective way of making a safety backup. Specialist backup software is available which will do this 'mirroring' of disks for you automatically, but it may well cost a significant fraction of the cost of the drive!

For 150Mb and upwards, then things get expensive. Buying a second drive just to make a copy begins to feel a bit silly — even with the '£ per megabyte' pricing, which happens from about 300Mb onwards. Unfortunately, the alternatives are also expensive. For example:

  • Tape Cartridge Drives (160Mb upwards; various formats) — from about £300 upwards. A huge range of widely varying (and mutually incompatible tape formats). Media starts at around £20.
  • DDS DAT Tape Drives (2 Gigabytes or 8 Gigabytes; not compatible with audio DAT) — cost around a grand! One standard format. Media costs around £25.
  • 5.25‑inch Optical Drives (650Mb) — around a couple of grand. Several mutually incompatible types are available. Media will set you back over £100 each.
  • Write‑once CD‑ROM Drives (600Mb) — three grand and more! 'ISO9660 compatible' CDs can be read in just about any CD‑ROM drive. Blank recordable CDs can be found for around £20, less in quantity.

The prices indicated usually include backup software and the hardware drive itself. You do not always get any blank media included, so check when buying.

The best option all depends on your needs. If you have a hard disk with 500Mb of data on it, and your work is all MIDI Files on floppies, then you may not need anything other than a duplicate‑sized 'mirror' hard disk to match your main hard disk. Buying anything else would be an expensive luxury.

If you decide on an Optical or another type of removable drive, you may still need a 'mirror' hard disk drivel. Here's why: you can store your working files (samples, scores, MIDI Files, SysEx dumps etc) on the backup drive, but how do you back up the backup drive? You can't copy it onto your hard disk, because that is likely to be full of programs already. You often need a second hard disk just so that you can make copies of the files on the backup drive, and thus back them up! In the case of DDS DAT and Tape Cartridges, a second hard disk can still make sense, because copying onto the hard drive speeds up the access time.

If you have just bought a computer with a large capacity hard drive and you are wondering how you will ever fill it up, then all the fun is about to happen. Happy disk‑filling!