Some intermittent PC problems, followed by a serious crash and some toasted devices, and work associated with reconfiguring a new PC have consumed more of my time lately than I care to admit. All the while, a pile of photography gear has been staring at me daily, crying out to be reviewed. Computers, in their various forms, have become rather ubiquitous. Most of us tend to take them for granted, at least when they are working properly. One cellphone provider recently advertised that upgrading our smartphones wasn’t just about improving technology, but rather an improvement to our very lives. That’s a bit of a stretch, but it is fair to say that some of us indeed identify too much with our technological toys!
“A Little Neglect May Breed Great Mischief”
“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of a horse, the rider was lost.
For want of a rider, the battle was lost.
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”
– Ben Franklin
Poor Richard’s Almanac
When things go awry, however, we are reminded just how important technology can be to both our professional and personal pursuits. The following post details my recent experience and some insights that may help you prepare for the worst.
Attempting To Resurrect The Dead
Having had every model of PC since the original IBM PC produced in 1981, including a few I custom-built, and a number of Macintoshes along the way, I am pretty comfortable dealing with all manner of both software and hardware issues. I have successfully brought a few PCs back from the proverbial “dead.” As such, I have a healthy sense of paranoia regarding PC technology and realize that if anything can go wrong, eventually it will!
Over the past few years, I have been relying on Acronis to backup my various drives. When my PC crashed, I was fairly confident that I could eventually retrieve all my data. But when I attempted to restore my C: drive back to the original drive, I ran into a brick wall. I don’t know that it was Acronis but rather my PC that was at fault. My backup and restore disks had failed too. I finally got an old trial version of the 32 bit version of Windows 7, but a number of my USB-connected devices didn’t seem to work. These included an iPod, a Spyder 3 calibration unit, a Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse, and a Delkin SD/CF card reader. The devices wouldn’t work on my wife’s PC either. Unfortunately, each of them was “fried.” Yikes! A number of the PC’s USB ports were also inoperative.
I began to have the sinking feeling that Mr. PC was not going to successfully recover from life support. Although it was hobbling along, enabling me to get to the internet and access some of my external hard drives, I knew that a power problem within the motherboard circuitry would likely to be fatal. It had already proved to be expensive.
After calculating the cost of my fried equipment, I quickly realized that I wasn’t thrilled about taking a chance of attaching more expensive PC add-ons to this PC only to find them toasted as well. And I knew all too well that it made little sense to haul my PC into the Geek Squad or other repair service and start an expensive diagnostic and repair job that would likely prove to be expensive as buying a new PC. Decision made.
I began considering the usual suspects – Dell and HP. I narrowed it down to two configurations from each company’s website. Before placing an order however, I decided to do a bit more investigation into PC reliability ratings. I was pleasantly surprised at how well Asus polled relative to the others, landing second only to Apple in a well-respected review. I decided to look at B&H to see if they carried Asus. Sure enough, they did. I have long-considered B&H for photography-related purchases, but never for buying a PC – until now.
I wanted to get a PC with Windows 7, since I have not quite warmed up to Windows 8… yet. I contacted B&H and spoke to a very sharp sales associate. It is not often that I am impressed with a PC sales or customer service representative, as most are used to dealing with novices and know little more than their customers. But this young man listened patiently to my concerns and questions, and provided some excellent insights regarding the models I was considering.
He suggested buying a slightly less expensive model than I was considering, and using some of the savings to purchase a solid state drive (SSD) to get better performance. He even recommended a different monitor than the one I had selected, and had some very solid technical reasons to back up his choice. After approximately 15 minutes on the phone, I was sold on both buying an Asus PC from B&H. Since all the items were in stock, I would have my new PC and components within 3 days. Soon my wandering in the technology desert would be over!
Dealing With PWS – Photoshop Withdrawal Syndrome
I have always found photo processing to be rather therapeutic. There is something magical about taking a rather bland looking RAW file, determining what you can do to enhance it, experimenting for a bit, and seeing it transform into its final version. When my PC problems kicked into high gear last month, I found myself a bit lost without my daily Photoshop “fix.” It first began with a bit of mild “twitch,” but I soon found my hands shaking uncontrollably.
I thought about loading an older copy of Photoshop Elements, but reconsidered lest I stray too far away from the task at hand – determining what to do with my crippled PC and getting my data back. After I was able to load a version of Windows 7 onto the PC and at least get it to boot-up, I decided to download a copy of Google’s Picasa and tinker with its various options. Picasa is not Photoshop C6 – not by a longshot! And it doesn’t even do a good Lightroom or Photoshop Elements imitation either. But all things considered, Picasa is not a bad tool for storing photos by date and providing some rudimentary processing tools. Surprisingly, it was able to read my Nikon D800’s RAW files. And the price is right – free. For those not quite as obsessed with photography as some of us, Picasa might be as much as they ever need relative to storage and post-processing capabilities.
Picasa helped me deal with my PWS until I could get Photoshop and Lightroom, along with my Nik, Imagenomic, and Topaz plugins, up and running. I can imagine Google adding a few more bells and whistles to Picasa in the future (e.g. leveraging their Nik Software purchase) and making it a great all round program that would meet the needs of many photographers that don’t feel compelled to invest in and master Photoshop. And in a pinch, it may even help tide you over should your PC crash and you need a bit of a “fix” for your post processing habit. ;)
Backup Preparations – Something We Put Off Until…
It is too late. Having learned this lesson a time or two, I was well prepared with my Acronis backups. But as prepared as I thought I was, I failed to consider a few things that would have made the recovery process go a bit smoother:
Organize Your Program Disks
Make sure your major program disks located in a safe place. This may sound rather straight-forward, but I found that I had to do a bit of hunting, as I had put some of my program disks on a common storage area, and had forgotten that I squirreled a few of my photography-related programs on a bookshelf behind some of my photography magazines and books. Putting these disks in a place you can easily remember and access will make the process go a bit smoother should you need them.
Software Purchase Confirmation
Many of us now purchase software online. Storing email confirmations of our purchases along with license key information in a common email folder may help in the event of a PC crash. Most software vendors also provide the opportunity for you to sign up for an account on their website. If such an option is available, take advantage of it. In addition to your email, you may also manage your subscriptions/purchases from the vendor’s site. In a worst case scenario and everything is lost, you can always log onto the vendor’s site, download your software applications, and access your license key information.
Fortunately, I had emails with this information and had signed on to some of the software vendors’ websites. But some of my information was scattered in my email folders, and even with email search capabilities, I had to do quite a bit of hunting and pecking to get everything I needed.
When I originally installed Photoshop and loaded my various plugins from Nik, Imagenomic, and Topaz, and customized my menus, brushes, actions, colors, and fonts, I knew where everything was located, and what I had to do to have everything work correctly. With the passage of time, I forgot how all the pieces fit together and which directories held which information.
Take some time to jot down some notes regarding your configuration and where you have each of these plugins and customized items stored. You may be surprised at how much you forget when you don’t access such configuration information on a regular basis. A page or two of notes may help you quickly reinstall your programs and waste less time later on when you have long since forgotten such information.
Run – Don’t Walk – And Buy A Good Backup Program
If you get nothing out of this article, make sure you purchase a good backup program that takes incremental snapshots of your operating system and program information, personal correspondence, business and financial records, music, and of course, your photos. There are many solid programs on the market. I happen to like Acronis, as it is an acknowledged leader, is feature rich, and is very reasonably priced.
Can you go the shareware route? Absolutely. Of course, if you run into an issue (and you will always run into an issue!), it is nice to be able to reach out to a customer support organization that can help you resolve problems. Acronis charges $9.95 per incident – pretty reasonable for a program that cost $39.95. Sure enough, I ran into an issue that I needed some assistance to resolve. I spent a good 5 hours on the phone with Vineet, my Acronis representative, as my issue proved to be rather difficult to resolve. Vineet, was very professional and determined to make sure the issue was completely resolved to my satisfaction. He even followed up with me on two occasions to ensure that there were no further complications and my PC was operating as expected.
When a company shows that type of willingness to work with me and resolve an issue, I am not going to attempt to save a few bucks and go with a cheaper solution. Trust me – when you need assistance getting your data back, the pleasure of saving a few bucks on a freebie program will soon be lost when you find out that there is no one to call for help. Acquaint yourself with the various options of your backup program and make it a practice to review the reports it provides regarding its scheduled operations and alerts.
3 Internal Drive System
It pays to have another internal drive that is an exact mirror of your primary drive and stores your operating system and programs. My configuration now includes a solid state device (SSD) as my main drive. I added another high speed internal drive that is a copy of the SSD in case it should fail. Every few months, I will schedule another snapshot of the SSD to ensure that, in the event of a crash, I can boot my PC from the secondary drive with all my programs intact.
I have my personal data on the original hard drive. I store my photographs and associated information such as Lightroom catalogs on external USB-attached hard drives. Each drive has a corresponding backup drive with a differential Acronis backup scheduled nightly.
Although I have long-been familiar with RAID (redundant array of independent disks) technology in my professional pursuits, I considered such configurations to be overkill for my personal needs and too expensive. Given the size of the digital files produced by my D800, lower prices for hard drives, and the number of external USB hard drives I have accumulated, I am reconsidering my thinking. Each external hard drive seemed to be a minor expense on its own, but when considered together, my 7 external drives easily approximate the cost of a RAID controller and some internal drives. Multiple USB drives also present other issues given limitations of the number of USB devices that can be reliably attached to each PC.
Netgear, Drobo, Western Digital (WD), and Buffalo make quality RAID units, have solid reputations, and offer a variety of configuration options. You can’t go wrong with any of them. If you are shooting RAW, accumulating tens of thousands of images, and relying heavily on post processing software that can significantly increase file sizes, you should at least consider the cost of a RAID solution relative to purchasing a series of independent external hard drives.
Into The Cloud?
The infamous “Era of Cloud Computing” has been ushered in more times than Microsoft and other companies care to admit. Each of these predictions has turned out to be premature. 2012 was different. Rapidly falling prices of hardware, proliferation of the Internet, new software applications, and changing perspectives regarding information systems infrastructure have finally made the Cloud a reality.
Many of us rely on Gmail, Hotmail, and a myriad of other programs that we access via the internet. Most of us don’t store emails locally, but rely almost entirely on being able to access them from our desktops, laptops, iPads, and smartphones from anywhere where we have an internet connection. Likewise, many of us are used to using a variety of other web-based applications such as facebook, twitter, and others which simply require a browser and an internet connection. Apple, Amazon, Google, and others now offer the ability to have all your content stored in the Cloud and accessible anytime from any device. Such innovations free us from having to be in front of our home computers to enjoy our various forms of media and content.
Many companies are also providing Cloud or online storage for your personal data at reasonable rates. Online storage represents a significant opportunity to reduce the risk of a hardware failure, particularly a more catastrophic one such as a flood or fire that destroys all your computer equipment. While I have been considering a Cloud-based storage system for backing up some portion of my files, my recent PC crash convinced me that it is time to take the leap. I will likely be a bit selective regarding what I backup to the Cloud. Even with online storage prices plummeting, backing up a terabyte of RAW and processed photos can be a bit costly if you select a reputable firm.
Cloud-based storage alternatives are all over the map relative to pricing. I would suggest reputation and the financial stability of the firm – not price – be your major considerations when selecting a storage vendor. The last thing you wish to find is that you have entrusted your data with “Big Bob’s Discount House of Cloud Storage,” only to find that Bob has closed-up shop unexpectedly or worse, failed to safeguard your information. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the companies offering dirt cheap online storage options bite the dust in the next few years. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. As the saying goes, “Buyer beware!”
Rather than rehash the various online storage vendors and their services, I would refer you to a summary provided by Tom Fisher on about.com. Nasim also wrote an article last year on “Cloud Storage for Photographers” – give it a read.
Take some time to reflect on how well you are positioned to weather a serious PC problem, what additional steps you might wish to consider to safeguard your information, and how you can better equip yourself to quickly restore your data and programs if called upon. Despite having a few devices toasted and needing to purchase a new PC, I did not fare too badly – no personal records or photography-related data was lost. I realized, however, that with a little better planning, I could have saved quite a bit of time and avoided a few headaches along the way.
What about you? If you have any other tips and insights that you believe would benefit our readers, please feel free to pass them along.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and best wishes for a healthy and prosperous 2013!