Can a slow computer become a speed demon?

One of the activities at my kids’ summer camp during a camp wide competition is tug of war. It is said that a chain is only a strong as its weakest link.  I’m sure that there are always stronger and weaker members of the team in tug of war. I’ll bet that the stronger members of the team wish that they could replace the weaker members with super strong people! 

losing at tug of war can often mean a trip into a messy puddle!

The slowest part of your computer is also the weakest link in the chain. The hard drive has traditionally been the slowest part of the computer. This is because hard drives were a set of moving parts that contain all of your files. Memory and the processor are very fast so when you’re sitting there waiting for something to happen on your computer, it was usually the fault of the hard drive.

A slow computer doesn’t have to be the case anymore. Solid State Drives, known as SSD are hard drives with no moving parts. What this means for you is that they are very very fast.

The Little Computer That Couldn’t

A few years ago my cousin Gerry bought a little computer that he could use for travel, a HP Pavilion x360 Convertible. This was in addition to his primary home computer and using techniques like cloud storage he could still access everything from this small machine.

it looks small and powerful but one feature made it nearly impossible to use

After setting up the computer and installing things like Microsoft Office 365 and Dropbox, Gerry found the computer to be extremely slow. It took over 15 minutes for the computer to power on and get logged in and even then everything was sluggish. This was a new computer out of the box and it was painful to use.

Eventually Gerry got fed up with using it and while discussing it, I convinced him to get a cheap Chromebook. While a great solution for many tasks, Gerry still wanted a travel computer that could run Windows. I have had much success with replacing old, slow hard drives with SSD but this computer appeared very challenging to open. So we left it as is.

After about 2 years, we got to discussing this computer again and I decided that I was up for the challenge of opening it up to see if the hard drive could be replaced. There wasn’t much to lose as it was to slow to be of any use. I learned that modern computers are made to be hard to open. To be fair, on very thin computers, it’s quite a challenge for manufacturers to pack in all the parts in a small case.

I searched YouTube for instructions on how to open a computer like this. Several made reference to screws hidden underneath the pads on the bottom (red arrow pointing to them).

there are screws hiding inside!

The Assessment

I carefully pried these off and sure enough there were screws underneath. After removing all the screws, I gently pulled off the top keyboard and got access to the internals. If you’re wondering what the inside looks like, I’ll save you the suspense – here it is. The hard drive sits in that empty slot in the side so I realized it would be quite easy to replace it.

the top secret internals of a HP laptop

Inside was a slow, old 500 GB traditional, slow, with moving parts hard drive. There’s much better solutions, such as fast SSD drives so that is exactly what I suggested that Gerry do – get a replacement hard drive.

The Solution

Gerry ordered a new 1 TB SSD hard drive for $136 (CAD). Prices have really come down. The next part would appear to be the most difficult but was actually very simple – copying from the old to new hard drive. For that I used my hard drive duplicator. It looks kind of like a pop up toaster oven but instead of bread you put in the source and target hard drives. Press one button, and then wait awhile, and voila, your entire hard drive is cloned!

I think I’m a clone now

How the patient is doing now

The difference from before with the slow hard drive to the new SSD is like getting past a slow section on the highway and kicking it up to highway speeds! The computer now boots up and is ready to go in less than a minute. Everything is fast and smooth and will be a productive and valuable tool. With a 1 TB drive, Gerry can have a full copy of his Dropbox files on the computer. This means that while travelling and away from internet access, he can still have access to all his files. Gerry is leaving on a trip soon so I’ll have to get a full report when he gets back. There’s no excuse now for vendors to ship computers with slow hard drives. SSD drives have come down in price so every computer has the ability to have a speedy disk. And if you have an older slow computer, or even a new one with a slow hard drive, there is a cost effective solution to make your computer at a much faster rate.

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The Case of the Failed Hard Drive and the Files left Behind

When we think about data protection and backup, it’s easier to get an idea of what it’s all about if we can see an example in real life. Here is the first of hopefully a number of case studies of data loss and how to handle it.

Elaine is a retired social worker. She has used a computer for many years, mostly in her working life and also for keeping journals writing memoirs. Elaine is also very artistic and enjoys creating greeting cards for family and friends using her computer.

Several months ago, Elaine’s computer starting making loud noises and then Windows wouldn’t start. Since the computer was 10 years old, I advised her that this was a good time to look at getting a new one. Even if the computer didn’t start properly, we could could still possibly retrieve some or all of her files from the old one. Elaine ended up buying a new laptop and was able to get it up and running. Since she had subscribed to Dropbox a few years ago, most of her files were right there waiting once it was installed. But not all files – more about that soon.

The Diagnosis

Elaine brought over both her old and new laptops. I started up the old one and sure enough heard the fan motor loudly humming away. Windows did not start up so I was able to get to System Recovery. I chose Startup Repair.

From here it ran a scan trying desperately to find an installation of Windows to fix. Unfortunately, it came up empty, as you can see from the image below. If there were an installation of Windows to repair, it would have shown up in the list.

This meant that there wasn’t much to do on this computer. There are recovery tools that can be run that are booted up from a USB stick or a CD but I decided to try something else – take out the hard drive and attempt recovery from another computer.

I highly recommend keeping one or more extra hard drive enclosures in your computer supplies. These allow you to pop your hard drive into a box that turns it into an external hard drive. These usually come with USB cables so you can connect it up to any computer.

The Search for Files

Once connected, it didn’t look good for Elaine’s hard drive. I ran Windows Disk Management and looked at the hard drives listed. The following image shows a bunch of healthy, normal disk partitions. The one shown in red is RAW and this means that data corruption has occurred. Built-in tools for Windows will not let you look at or retrieve files from RAW partitions.

I did some research and found several programs that claim to recover files from RAW partitions. Several have free trials that will show you what files can be recovered but you have to pay to recover them. MiniTool Power Data Recovery will not only scan a RAW drive and show you what files it can recover but it will recover up to 1 GB for free. This is very helpful if you have a small amount of data to recover or want to test the software first to prove if it will work.

The Recovery

When I installed this software, it scanned the drive and came up with a many folders that it could recover. Elaine spotted several folders that weren’t in Dropbox, and therefore weren’t on her new computer. Since Elaine had less than 1 GB of data to recovery the free version of MiniTool was sufficient. Now that I have seen the program in action, I would recommend either the free or full version to anyone requiring data recovery.

Additional Data Loss Prevention

Elaine was very pleased when I found her numerous journal entry files and memoirs. She had saved all of these to folders not in Dropbox, therefore they were never backed up. Elaine had already invested in the paid version of Dropbox that provides 1 TB of data. I relocated all of her files to Dropbox and then reviewed where all the files were located. I then launched Word which is the primary program she uses for her writing. By default, Word saves its files in your documents folder. I changed this to Dropbox to ensure that all future created files are automatically saved in Dropbox. This should be repeated in all programs.

Elaine also brought over her digital camera as she wasn’t sure how to transfer files from a camera to Windows 10. I showed her how to put the SD card from the camera into the computer.

I then launched Windows Explorer and went through the process to import pictures from a memory card. The key take away here was not to use the default settings. I set the destination for copying the pictures and videos to Elaine’s Dropbox folders. This way the pictures would go directly to Dropbox. Elaine mentioned that she wanted to use the SD card as a backup for her pictures. I highly recommend against this. First of all, if you always keep your pictures on the memory card, how will you know what you have and have not copied to the computer? This makes for lots of duplicate photos.

Second, think of the memory card as your temporary storage for pictures. By emptying out frequently, you will always have lots of space for taking more pictures and videos. Of course, all of this assumes you are using a traditional digital camera and not a Smartphone.

In Conclusion

Elaine now has a new computer that contains all of her files. She was very fortunate that the files on her old computer were able to be recovered. Professional recovery services charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars for recovery. Software like MiniTool doesn’t work in every case so it’s helpful to try it first before engaging with data recovery professionals. By properly setting up save locations and having a proper system for using Dropbox or another cloud based service, you can make a computer failure more of a minor annoyance where you have to replace the computer instead of a disaster where your critical files are gone forever. Like the old cliche says, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The long and short of it – what data to keep and what to delete

My parents are in the process of downsizing their house to a smaller one. Part of the process is going through years of papers and memorabilia to determine what to keep and what to throw out. That seemingly important file from 20 years ago doesn’t look so critical when you look at it now. The collection of National Geographic Magazines might seem valuable but do you (a) need it and (b) do you have anywhere to put it. With digital data, there are many of the same issues and it’s important to be able to determine what is important for long term vs short term.

An important distinction to be made between physical and digital data is the amount of space it takes to store both. Having to find place for 500 magazines is not quite the same as having a big enough hard drive to store 500 digital copies of the same magazines. Hard drives continue to drop in price so it’s feasible to keep buying larger hard drives as your quantity of data increases. And it’s also like that your current hard drive purchase will be cheaper and higher capacity than the previous one.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it should help you think about what you should and shouldn’t keep.

This view of the Cabot trail in Nova Scotia is definitely a keeper

Photos and Videos

This summer we went on vacation in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. We took lots of great pictures of the scenery. When we returned from the trip, I went through the hundreds of photos that we took and DELETED many of them. If there are 10 pictures of a statue then only the best one needs to be kept. The key thing here is to do your purging of pictures as soon as possible. If you wait until the end of the year then there’s a good chance you’ll never delete anything. The same goes for videos. Check your videos after you record them and if they’re no good, then get rid of them!

Financial Documents

These include all your digital bills and statements, receipts for products purchased and everything to do with taxes. I’m not one to give financial advice but I have been told to keep all tax related documents for 7 years. I have also heard that when there’s a tax problem, the tax department might go back even further. The reality if you save copies of documents then the files are not too big, at least compared to photos and videos. If you don’t do much else in digital filing, at least have a folder with files for years. Put everything in each year’s folder. Take it further by having folders for bills, statements, receipts, taxes, etc. This way if you decide to get rid of certain years, you know that the files are broken up by years. And it has the added bonus of making it much easier to find what you’re looking for.

Documents created in word processors and spreadsheets

Some of these documents are related to taxes or finances and should be filed along with the statements. Others are quick letters or notes that you might take that are never needed again. These too should be kept in folders by year so that you can quickly check through them at the end of the year to see what you actually need. Many of these are also small files that over time do not take up that much space on our ever increasing sized hard drives.

What to do with files that are kept?

The key take away here is to have an effective filing system so that you can better locate what you want to keep and what to get rid of. In future posts, we will talk about various methods for long and short term archiving. You should be able to actually find what you choose to keep!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Hard drive preventative maintenance means less data loss

A device with many mechanical parts like a computer is a failure waiting to happen. That shiny new computer you just bought is edging its way to the day that parts start to break one day. Hard drives are rated for MTBF which means mean time between failures – how long until it fails. It’s not just a matter if it will fail but when. We can’t prevent failures from happening but with effective preventative maintenance, we can better handle the outcome of the failure.

All parts of a computer will eventually fail, but some matter more than others. The CPU / main processor or power supply failing means that the computer will stop running but if the hard drive is intact, it can easily be moved to another computer to recover the data. Memory chips failing can cause strange issues where programs crash all the time, but when the memory is replaced then the computer runs as good as new.  The problem is when the hard drive fails you may or may not be able to recover data. Some data recovery companies can get back your data but this could cost thousands of dollars.

Hard Drive Failure Warning

The first step in preventative maintenance when it comes to hard drives is running some type of diagnostic tool. A free one that I have used for several years is Crystal Disk Info. All modern hard drives have built in sensors that are able to report to software if the hard drive is showing signs of failure. A program like Crystal Disk Info will show you visually about your hard drive health. It looks like this:

A few notes about how to read the above information:

  • Health Status is the most important – if it says good then the hard drive is in fine health. An orange warning mean start considering getting a new hard drive and copy over your data. A red warning means it’s close to failure.
  • Power on Hours tells you how long it’s been in use. The above is from a very new hard drive so it has few hours powered on
  • The long list of attributes is likely more technical detail than you need to be concerned with. Just remember if any are orange or red (as opposed to blue) then start being concerned with the health of the hard drive

Crystal Disk Info can be configured to pop up an alert when it senses a problem. This is a very good option to have enabled so that you can take action when this occurs.

If you do one thing today to prevent future data loss, install Crystal Disk Info! If you have a Mac, look for S.M.A.R.T hard drive diagnostics for Mac.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Don’t Forget about Maintenance

I listened to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts, Freakonomics, recently. This one was entitled In Praise of Maintenance. The idea here is that as a society, we always want to build and create new things but we neglect the maintenance of the structures and creations that we already have. Governments talk about building new highways and public transit, but it’s not so exciting to provide funding to fix existing roads or subway tracks. The same can be said be said for our own digital life.

plumber holding wrench

Computer and smartphone manufacturers market to us constantly to upgrade to the latest and greatest devices. High resolution screens, fast processors and huge hard drives are very enticing as compared to our ‘old’ two year old computers! If we aren’t taking proper care of our data, then buying new doesn’t solve the existing problems that effective maintenance would alleviate.

In previous posts, I’ve talked a lot about being mindful of where your data resides and ensuring that it’s backed up. With regular maintenance of our data, we can have our cake and eat it too:

  • we ensure that all of our data is safe and protected
  • we can get that exciting new computer or smartphone and be confident that all of our data will seamlessly move over to it

So what kind of maintenance should we regularly be doing? Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Check that backups are actually running on schedule
  • Do test restores to ensure that we can actually get back our data
  • Check how much free space is on our hard drives and online storage to ensure there is enough room for future growth
  • Evaluate if our existing backup needs are still appropriate, such as health of external hard drives and is our online backup service still the most cost effective
  • Do we have new types of data that we haven’t been backing up? This could be files related to a new project or old family videos that were recently converted to digital format

There’s many more that could apply. What types of maintenance do you need to do with your digital data?

Leave your comments here or fill out our survey / backup assessment.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

How I backup and store multiple copies of my pictures and videos

In a previous post, I talked about a folder structure for storing pictures and videos. Now let’s look at the methods I use to do the following:

  • create additional copies of pictures and videos at home
  • backup pictures and videos online

The primary copy of my pictures and videos is located on an external hard drive that is generally connected to my laptop computer. This makes it easy to bring it anywhere but if something were to happen to the hard drive, such as losing it or having it fail, I would lose everything. That is why I have multiple copies.

Copy to another hard drive at home

A few years ago, I set up a device similar to this one. It is a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. This is a device containing a few hard drives that does not require a computer. It provides hard drive storage space on your existing network.

During the writing of this article, I reviewed the settings on my NAS. When I logged in to check it, I discovered that one of the hard drives in the NAS had failed. This NAS device was configured with 2 hard drives, each 2 TB in size. The NAS is set up as RAID 1, which means that the hard drives are set up to be clones of each other. This is transparent to the user – when you copy files, it keeps the drives in sync. It was just a matter of purchasing a new hard drive, telling the NAS device to detect it, and then it automatically copied all of the data from the good drive to the new one. Having a system like this gives you extra protection from failure. With hard drives, it isn’t a matter of if the drive will fail – it’s when it will fail.

Below is the display on my NAS device showing the failed drive.

It is important to note that I should have known about this failure. This NAS device is set up so it can send emails to notify about problems like this. My email password had changed and I did not update the NAS device. Keeping on top of dependencies like this is important!

Keeping the NAS device in sync

I use a program called FreeFileSync to sync up my pictures and videos from the external hard drive connected to my computer to the NAS device on my home network. This can be either run on demand or scheduled to run every so often. What I like about a sync program is that it only copies what has changed, not the thousands and thousands of pictures that I have. The combination of my external hard drive and backup to the NAS drive means that I don’t have to worry if while I’m out that something happens to my photos and videos.

a screenshot of FreeFileSync

Online Backup

But what if the NAS drive fails? That’s why we need to backup away from the primary location, which in my case is my home. There are many different online backup services and I’ll have more to say about how to choose and what to choose in a future posting.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail