Crash-Proofing Your PC

We’ve all heard about the importance of backing up your PC regularly. But if you’ve ever had to restore a disparate set of week-old or month-old data onto a new computer, and reinstall all your software (and probably have to buy the big-ticket software again — productivity, antivirus, etc.) you know how difficult and messy it is, and how much time it wastes and anxiety it creates. Even if your hard drive is fine and it’s the shell, monitor, power supply etc. that goes, do you think you can just plug your hard drive into a new machine? Hah!

Consumers’ Union consistently reports that PCs rank second only to lawn tractors in rate of major repair in the first three years of use. A crash of your PC is not just a risk — it’s a probability. The sad reality is that software and hardware changes so quickly that PCs become obsolete in three years and hence most consumers are unwilling to pay the premium for a machine that will survive longer than its useful life.

So I’ve concluded that the only sensible crash-proofing program entails getting all your data and applications off your hard drive. Keep your data in cyberspace (use a flash drive for when you’re offline) and use apps that are web-based rather than residing on your machine. Then you don’t care when your PC crashes — you can just go to any other machine and resume working immediately.

So how would this work? Let’s take a look at the major apps and types of data, and see how we might get most or all of this stuff into cyberspace and off our hard drives:


  1. word processing, spreadsheet, presentation software – I’m not ready to use Writely or any of the other web-based ‘office productivity’ tools yet (they’re still awkard and buggy), but neither am I willing to fork out any more money unnecessarily to Microsoft, so if my hard drive crashed I guess I’d download EasyOffice
  2. e-mail – If I could figure out how to migrate my Thunderbird mail and address book easily to my Gmail box, and forward all my messages to my Gmail, I’d have done it already (now that Gmail finally allows rich text format messages)
  3. IM – I’m currently only using IM as a supplement to VoIP conversations and groupware; anyone have an opinion on Gmail chat / Google Talk?
  4. VoIP – I still like Skype, so even if there was a web-based VoIP tool, I’d probably still download Skype if my hard drive crashed
  5. blogging – I’m still hoping against hope that is going to migrate us all from Radio Userland (which requires you to upload from your hard drive, and syncs what you see on the blog with the ‘master’ on your hard drive — really scary when your machine goes down) to some blog tool that is fully web-based; I’m not tech-savvy enough to migrate myself and not rich enough to pay someone to do it for me
  6. HTML page composition – Right now I’m using the free WYSIWYG tool nVu, which is still better for some apps (like tables, and graphics formatting) than any of the web-based WYSIWYG HTML page composition tools I’ve seen (like Writeboard), and still really easy to use for non-HTML types like me
  7. scheduling – I use my handmade Getting Things Done table (in Word), and it works just fine, but I’d like to put it out in cyberspace so I could access it when I’m away from ‘my’ PC
  8. project management/groupware/web conferencing – Never found a tool in this category I like, though lots of them are web-based; anyone tried Basecamp?
  9. desktop search – Now here’s the irony: if you get everything off your ‘desktop’, how do you search across all the stuff you’re storing in various places in cyberspace?
  10. antivirus & anti-spyware – But on the other hand, if you get everything off your ‘desktop’, you don’t need to worry about viruses and spyware anymore
  11. graphics & mindmapping – I use simple, free tools for graphics and mindmapping, and even if there were web-based tools, I’d probably still download my favourites if my hard drive crashed
  12. photo and music management – I think the days of keeping these on your hard drive (except for backup copies) are limited; keep ’em on your MP3 player, flash drive, on flickr etc., though you still have to download iTunes, Picasa etc, to manage these files if your hard drive crashes; no biggie though
  13. file-sharing & torrent – I use simple, free tools for these, and even if there were web-based tools, I’d probably still download my favourites if my hard drive crashed
  14. peripherals software (camera, webcam, printer/scanner/fax, etc.) – getting to be less of a problem with most modern operating systems (and free tools like Picasa) able to handle peripherals plug-and-play


  1. productivity documents (‘My Docs’) – There should be some place that will store all of this stuff in cyberspace for you free; if there isn’t already there will be soon, so your hard drive will just become your backup (but see point 9 above)
  2. e-mails, address books – see point 2 above
  3. blog posts and web pages – see points 5 & 6 above
  4. photos and music – see point 12 above
  5. mappings (to peripherals, networks) – see point 14 above
  6. software downloads and settings – if you get everything off your ‘desktop’, you don’t need to download software anymore, nor do you need to keep bookmarks, cookies, templates, themes, skins, clip-art, software settings, browser settings, extensions etc. on your hard drive — they sit out in cyberspace with the related software and documents

So we’re getting there — maybe a year away from liberating ourselves from carting around hardware and software and relying on it to store our critical data. Freedom!

Can’t happen soon enough for me.

Graphic: This spoof is all over cyberspace, and I have no idea where it originated.

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11 Responses to Crash-Proofing Your PC

  1. Doug Alder says:

    During the Internet bubble in the late 90s ASPs (Application Service providers) were a hot item and a lot of people got on the wagon train and shifted their data online. When the bubble broke in 2000 and all those ASPs went under much of that data was lost. There are significant risks involved in storing your data online. You have no guarantee you will get it back if the service provider goes under and even if you can get it back you have no guarantee that it will be in a format that you can reuse or convert to a standard format. Even if your provider does not go broke you still have the proprietary format problem to deal with if you decide to move to a different provider. You may have to pay your current provider extra to get it converted to .csv or .doc or some format that can be imported.

  2. Doug Alder says:

    Oh yes and let’s not forget you can not control your data security if it resides elsewhere. It’s wide open to being stolen or pried into.

  3. Dave Snowden says:

    Of course, you could start in a different place

  4. MLU says:

    Basecamp: I used it to administer a statewide program with staff in three locations. We thought it was wonderful. Not feature rich but virtually no learning curve. We upgraded to the $15 month version so we could have more projects. We uploaded the files that all of would use occasionally. We often used writeboards to create the documents that we collaborated on. The “notes” made keeping all our brief comments and feedback on ongoing topics effortless to keep organized.For my own stuff I use the smaller “backpack”. The free version doesn’t include some things that I wouldn’t use anyway.

  5. Keith says:

    I don’t usually pay much attention to this topic on your blog (prefer the philosphical/environmental topics,which are superb), but I can’t resist.Dave – get a Mac. My current one (now three years old) has never crashed, and crashes with previous models were extremely rare.A reliable machine helps simplify your life. Keith

  6. MkaGGL says:

    In the meantime, there’s Mozy–although that’s no substitute for CD / DVD backup snapshots. Mozy really is “set it and forget it.” I haven’t had a crash. But I have tried restoring various directories that I would have to if there were one. Works perfectly.Mozy–2 gigs for free, and a lot more for not much:’s how to save your data. I leave the world to you.

  7. Gary J Moss says:

    I second the motion: Get a Mac. OS/X is very reliable. The OS design is pretty nice too!

  8. Mark says:

    For web-based project management, check out Vertabase Pro. It is built a “bigger” application than BaseCamp, targeting more complex processes or projects. But its still quite easy to use. [Disclaimer: I work for Vertabase.]. You can read about the differences between BaseCamp and Vertabase Pro on the blog on Vertabase to help people choose the right software for their projects.

  9. Al Kostiuk says:

    Your article outlines a serious problem with using computers … the many, many applications you need to use to manage your life’s contents. I saw something about “Parakey” soon to come out from one of the contributers to FireFox. Sounds like it has promise if it can deliver.

  10. Max says:

    Putting your data in the big cloud works fine when the electricity and wires are all humming fine, and your data sets are small. I generate 1-5 GB of new data every day, and this is up from 5-10 years ago when it was a manageable few MB a day.Hence, I’d have to wait days for a single day’s backup to the cloud or to a thumbnail-sized USB drive to finish, if it were even possible. Then there is the privacy considerations… do you really want some freakin criminal (or evil competitor, or random psychopath who hates your guts because of some comment you made on your weblog) who just figured out how to eavesdrop on your ethernet|wireless|bluetooth connection to capture a snapshot of all your data? And then there’s the gov folks who may have a warrant to listen in to everything that flows down the wire. But I’d agree that unconscionable design decisions by people who should know better at biege box and monopoly software companies made the current fiasco inevitable on popular PCs. Max

  11. medaille says:

    I agree with the others, you leave a lot up to chance by leaving your stuff in the hands of others. Just look at all the important institutions that are just losing peoples’ SSN and other important information because someone left an opening that they either just forgot or didn’t know about. Just assume that if it’s online it’s gonna be seen by somebody. The government (at least in the US) will have access to everything stored by a company in case it decides you are a terrorist. You can get your stability and security elsewhere. Both Apple and Linux are much more crashproof than Windows. Of course Linux is completely free, has lots of compatible free software and works with existing PC hardware, but still requires solid computer knowledge which most don’t have. It’s definitely worth playing with.The most important thing (at least I think so) for Windows users is to have a seperate hard drive for all data. It is just unwise to store it on the same hard drive/partition as the operating system files. You can almost always get it back even if the operating system becomes unusable. I tend to use a flashdrive to backup stuff that I’m still working on and CD/s DVD’s for archiving stuff.

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