Copyright © 2006 by Barbara Brabec. All rights reserved.

How to Prepare for and Recover
from a Computer Crash

How well you prepare for a crash will determine how stressful and costly the experience will be.

by Barbara Brabec

IF YOUíVE NEVER HAD a total computer system crash, count yourself lucky, because all the gurus say it's not "IF" your computer is going to crash, but "WHEN." Having had three crashes myself over the years, I can confirm that statement. How well you prepare for this inevitability will determine how stressful and costly the crash experience will be.

When my computerís operating system was fried one year (curiously during the night of Friday the 13th), I braced myself for the stress that was to follow. My computer was only about three years old and was probably killed accidentally during one of Microsoft's automatic downloads in the middle of the night. The reason given on the "black screen of death" I got the next morning was that perhaps I had temporarily lost my cable Internet connection or the power had failed momentarily during installation of an update or during the reboot. (For that reason, I have now instructed Microsoft to download updates to my computer in the middle of the night, but give me the option of installing them when I choose.)

Not wanting to put any money into a three-year old computer I'd bought refurbished to begin with, I trekked over to Tiger Direct the following Monday to see what my options were. I was VERY happy to learn that I wasnít going to be stuck with Vistaís operating system, and that I could buy a Hewlett-Packard computer with a free ďdowngradeĒ to Windows XP Pro; further that Microsoft would continue to supply critical updates for years to come. (In fact, I was told they are still issuing critical updates for Win 3.1.)

Coming back from a computer crash is going to be stressful, no matter how you carve it. But if you have prepared for a crash by taking steps to insure that you have everything you need to get back up and running as quickly as possible, your stress will be manageable. Then, your primary concern will be the time it's going to take you to shop for a new computer (if necessary) or reformat the drive and begin all over again to reinstall the software programs you normally use, plus all the time it will take to download the latest updates to the operating system, browsers, software, etc. If you use Outlook as your email server, you will need a current .PST backup file containing all your email messages and contacts (see below).

Backing up and Restoring Files

Getting all your documents and files back on the computer again can be easy or difficult, depending on what backup system you use and whether you back up files regularly. The thing that gave me the most comfort when my computer crashed was knowing that all my documents, website files, pictures, music, and programs I had downloaded from the Web but did not have CD-ROMs for were waiting for me on a remote site. For just $59/year, I have total peace of mind that, the minute I complete a new file, or update an old one, it is backed up offsite. If I accidentally delete a file, I can quickly access my account and restore that file to its original location. And if the computer crashes, or blows away in a tornado or burns up in a fire, everything thatís important to me on my computer is protected and can easily be downloaded to another computer with a few key clicks. (For more information on the backup program I use, read my report on Carbonite.)

Outlook is the only fly in the ointment (see below). Knowing how to back up Outlook and actually doing it on a regular basis are two different things. It's easy to "forget" to back up Outlook, even when you've got the automatic backup program in place. I get busy and think I'll do it tomorrow, and before I know it, it has been a week or more since my last backup. I was lucky the last time my computer crashed in that I lost only four days' email messages and whatever changes I had made to my CONTACTS folder in that period. Iím now being very good at backing up Outlook every other day at least, and especially when Iíve got unanswered email messages in the Inbox at the close of day.

Tips for Getting Everything Back Up Again

Before your computer crashes, do these things:

1. MAKE A LIST of all the software programs you have on your computer, which ones you have CDs for, and which ones will have to be downloaded again. And keep all your computer program disks together in a safe place, such as a fireproof file drawer in your office, or in your safe deposit box. (I've been amazed to learn how few computer users actually do this.) If you buy a program that you download and then install from your computer, make SURE you put that .exe file either in a folder that is backed up to a remote location, or on a CD disk to be stored with your other program disks.

Free programs such as Adobe Reader, File Zilla, etc. can always be downloaded from the Web, but you may need a reminder list to remember all that you want to restore. For example, the last time my computer crashed, I had forgotten that I had to download Microsoftís "backup tool" in order to get the backup option on the FILE button so I could make regular backups of the .PST file. Now that file is in my downloads folder, which is always backed up by Carbonite. (Go to Microsoft.com and search for the Outlook backup tool, along with instructions on how to do regular backups.)

2. EVEN IF YOU HAVE a current .PST (personal folders file) for your Outlook email and contacts list, you will have to manually set up all your email addresses again. This will be easy to do if you go into the settings for each email address you have now, and then copy that information into a document you can print and save. (Be sure to protect your email passwords; you donít want them in a document on your computer.) If you regularly archive sent messages, youíll need to figure out how to save this file and restore it too, as it's not included in the .PST file.

3. ALWAYS HAVE A PRINT COPY of all your passwords and contact information for everything related to those passwords. If you keep this information only on the computer and you lose access to your hard drive, youíll really be up the creek without a paddle.

4. IF THERE ARE SOME DOCUMENT FILES you absolutely must have to keep your business going in the event of a major computer crash, put those files on a CD that can be used on another computer. For example, I'm an Amazon Marketplace seller, and I normally include customized cover letters with outgoing orders. When my computer crashed, I could temporarily access my Amazon orders from a computer at the library, but I couldn't include my usual package inserts because I didn't have a CD backup of those important file folders I could use on my laptop.

Know Who to Call When You Need Help

My latest computer crash (lockup, actually) occurred near the end of May 2011 when My CA Internet Security Suite virus/firewall/malware protection was allowed to expire without my knowledge. Although I had authorized that it always be renewed automatically and had a current credit card in place, sometime after the software license had expired I got a pop-up message telling me I had to renew. I had no idea how long I'd been without a firewall or virus protection, so I was naturally upset by this. I immediately tried to renew, authorized the credit card charge ($70), got the download link . . . and then nothing. "Sorry, that link isn't working; try again."

That was late on a Friday and I just shut off the computer for the weekend, figuring I'd try to get technical help from a live person on Monday morning. It not only took forever to boot up my computer that morning, but the bottom button bar and some of the icons on the desktop didn't load. But the reminder box to renew the virus software was in the middle of my Desktop, and I couldn't close it, reboot, or open any of my programs. After manually shutting off and turning on the computer two more times and having the same problem after an incredibly slow boot-up each time, I threw up my hands, shut down, and began to worry about what to do next.

The thought of having to haul the computer to a shop, wait for maybe days to get it back, and then pay big bucks for the repair had me thinking I should just buy a new computer and be done with it, even though my HP Compaq is only three years old. Thankfully, the friend I called for help had recently met a computer guru in my area, and when I called him, he said not to worry; whatever the problem was, he could fix it, and I certainly wouldn't need to buy a new computer.

It took three hours for him to find all the bad stuff (much of which he said was just "Microsoft crap") on my computer. Using several free and very powerful shareware programs, he cleaned my Registry several times as he removed this or that file, ultimately finding 956 Registry errors. After uninstalling my CA Internet Security program and all the files it had left in the Registry (they did reverse my credit card charge without question), he installed a powerful free anti-virus program he said he had used for years with no problems. After doing virus and malware scans and a defrag, my computer was "blazing hot" and my Internet speed had doubled. My printer was also printing pages so fast and with such power that they were almost flying off the rack.

Finally, my new computer friend, Al Karman, installed his powerful computer tools on my computer so now I can easily and very quickly use them to do weekly virus and malware scans of my hard drive and keep the Registry clean. He also installed a defrag program (better than Windows') that runs in the background all the time. He turned on my Windows' firewall program, but agreed that I should download Zone Alarm's more powerful (and free) firewall program for maximum security.

I urge you to look in your own community for the kind of help Al is now giving me and have him "on call" so you'll know where to get fast help when you need it. If you happen to live in the Naperville, Illinois area, visit Al's website. For me, finding him was like getting manna from heaven. I highly recommend his services.

In Summary

If youíve never had a computer crash before, donít assume that it canít happen to you. If my experience is any indication, a computer crash is going to come when you least expect it, and preparing yourself for that inevitability will make all the difference in how stressful and costly the experience will be.

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