uru David Shinkfield gave a class at the Computer Learning Center of Ewing about how to make sure that when your computer dies, your important files live on. The key is to back up the data stored on your hard drive — family photos, writing, music collections, and all the rest of your digital hoard. But in the four short years since he gave that talk, almost everything about it has become obsolete.
Shinkfield will give a free “tips and tricks” talk with his new tricks Tuesday, September 2, at 2 p.m. at the Computer Learning Center at 999 Lower Ferry Road in Ewing. There is a Q&A session beforehand, starting at 1:30.
Shinkfield grew up in Dover, Great Britain, where his father owned a company that made cardboard boxes. His life before retirement did not lead him to computing in any way. Shinkfield admits he used e-mail and little else during his career as an electrical engineer. He earned his degree at the University of Salford in 1962 before working at AEI Ltd., where he managed the building of electrical substations. He joined PA Consulting Group in London in 1966, and moved to the United States in 1979, working with pharmaceutical companies to reduce the time it took them to get drugs to market.
Shinkfield didn’t start learning about computers in earnest until 2000, when he began teaching himself how to use them. Now, he is an expert to the point of being able to give lectures to the mostly senior-oriented group at the Computer Learning Center.
Forget the stereotype of the tech-clueless retiree. Shinkfield says many of the people who attend his classes come toting a wide array of the latest electronic devices, from smartphones to tablet computers to laptops. “There has been a major increase in the number and range of electronic toys that we all have,” Shinkfield says. “When I gave this talk in 2010, most of the people I was talking to had one computer: a Windows PC desktop running XP. In 2014, people have got an old desktop — maybe that same one — a laptop, they may have iPads or Android tablets, and they are walking around with smartphones. The universe of products has changed dramatically and it makes the number of things you have to know to be a bit more complicated.”
Shinkfield says most experts recommend having three copies of your device at any given time, at least one of which should be outside of the computer. Fortunately, most operating systems make this an easy task. In the past, specialized software was required to make an image — an exact copy — of computer’s hard drive. Now, that feature is integrated into all the major operating systems. It’s a piece of cake to make a copy, automatically updated on a schedule you specify. That makes restoring your computer a snap if something goes wrong on the software side of your computer. But what if your device is lost or destroyed, or there is a major hardware failure? What if you drop your iPhone in a sewer, and all your selfies are washed away on the evening tide? That’s why an off-site copy is necessary. For this, Shinkfield uses a Western Digital Passport, a $60 hard drive the size of the pack of cards that connects to a computer via a USB cable, and is big enough, at 1 terrabyte, to save an image of most computers. Like every other technology, external hard drives have gotten extremely cheaper and better over the last several years, he says.
Apple sells device called a “Time Capsule” that is both slicker and more expensive at around $150, that does the same thing for their computers.
The second option is to use cloud services such as Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, and Dropbox. All of these services offer free accounts with various amounts of free storage space, and more for those who are willing to pay. Google gives out 5 gigabytes for free, and Microsoft gives you 15 gigs — enough for most personal documents short of movies or massive photo collections.
Of course, this solution puts your data into the hands of large companies whom you may or may not trust.
“I’ve always wanted to keep at least a copy myself somewhere that I knew where people could get at it,” Shinkfield says. Shinkfield has had two computers fail completely in the past 10 years, to the point where the data was un-recoverable. Fortunately, he was able to restore them from backups.
“The first time, I had to go and find my data I had stored on an external hard drive, re-install the operating system and all the software,” he says. “That took a day and a half. The second time, I had recently made an image. Once I got the computer back working again, it took 20 to 30 minutes to reinstall.”
For mobile devices, Shinkfield uses a $4.99 commercial program called Helium that allows you to automatically save your phone or tablet data on an SD card or on cloud servers.
With more and more data moving to external servers — a.k.a. “The Cloud” — backup is becoming cheaper and more seamless all the time. For those with good data backup, a hard drive exploding is little more than an inconvenience. But how resilient to catastrophe is “the cloud” where so much data lives now?
“Although none of these cloud situations have ever collapsed completely,” Shinkfield says. “If they did, it would be annoying.”