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Technology Today Ė December 2008
By Robert Sanborn

Backing up this computer

Having seen a few dead computers recently, it was time to revisit this topic. Backing up your computer is unfortunately not an easy task or it would be automatically built into every computer right out of the box. And in fact, it is built into every computer. It is called Microsoft Backup and has been around since the beginning of Windows XP. Problem is that it just doesnít work that well and it is difficult to schedule and setup even though it comes with a wizard. So, what are you going to do?

One option is to install an identical hard drive inside the computer and mirror the data from one to the other. That way, if a drive dies, the computer still keeps going, and you replace the bad drive. I donít care much for this option for a few reasons. 1 being that you have to have a mainboard that supports RAID and if you donít have one, then you buy a controller card. 2nd is that if a virus or some other nasty piece of software kills your hard drive or wipes out your data, it is gone on the other drive as well. 3rd is that if you decide to change the RAID layout, not use the second drive, etc, you have to wipe out both drives and reset and reinstall software. 4th, is that it sometimes doesnít work right.

Another option is to use an external drive as a backup drive using imaging software that comes with them or something like Symantec Ghost or Acronis True Image. You make periodic images of your hard drive on the external drive. In the event of a crash, you need to use a restore feature of either program to restore your drive from the backup. Issue here: 1. You need to be sure the backups are done on a regular basis and check the results. Ghost it seems will make multiple backups but doesnít roll them off the backup as it should so you may find yourself without a current backup. 2. You need to be sure that the recovery process is setup properly. Io make sure you have the recovery CD that is created by the backup program and you might want to test it once. 3. Backups can be very slow with the very large amount of storage people are using. A Ghost of my main computer to a network took over 14 hours.

The problem using an external drive is that unless your system has an "eSata" connection or USB2 ports, your external backups are going to be very slow. Most Ethernet connected storage devices are at 100mpbs which is great for internet access but painfully slow for large file backups. My system uses gigabit Ethernet which is supposed to be 100 times faster than normal Ethernet and still the backup of the entire hard drive took many hours, granted I have 100 gig to backup.

Some of the external hard drives have backup software built into them that will make a backup of your hard drive, and then periodically backup the files that have changed so the subsequent backups are much quicker. If you go with one of these, make sure you strictly follow the guidelines on creating the recovery CD otherwise you may find that the backup is worthless. Because when the hard drive dies, you donít want to have to go and reload Windows just so you can plug in the drive and then restore files.

The final and least expensive do it yourself backup approach is to periodically burn CDs or DVDs with your data files and take the approach that if the computer or hard drive dies, you can replace it, and then reinstall Windows and your software applications. An advantage of doing it this way is that you can then decide which programs not to reinstall and remove a lot of clutter in the computer. Disadvantages are that you need to make sure you have backed up everything important and that is where the problem comes in. My Documents is easy to spot and backup unless you have gigabytes of photos or scanned images and then you need to cut and paste to make them fit on the DVDs. The other problem is if you have unique applications like Outlook for your email, Quicken for your finances, and some of these others, they donít store your files in a place that is easy to get to. In fact, it is a real pain to find Outlook or Outlook Express email files and even when you do, the email account settings will be gone. Even the desktop items you stash there could be difficult to find. Same for favorites or downloaded items.

So for a single home user, a backup device is probably the best way to go. Some reviews for you to look at:

http://www.pcworld.com/article/117817/top_10_external_hard_drives.html

http://reviews.cnet.com/best-external-storage-drives/?tag=rb_content;contentNav

If you were going to backup multiple computers, then a network storage device might be the way to go.

Weather Direct from La Crosse Technology

When I was at CES in January of this year, I sat through a presentation from Lacrosse Technology about their Weather Direct series of internet powered weather stations and they really looked pretty neat. See them at www.weatherdirect.com. Problem was that they were not available and havenít been until now as I just received the WD-3209U 4 day forecaster station.

Setting up the Unit was pretty easy. There is a Get Started page to get you going and what it does is after you setup your wireless gateway, it sends you to the website to get registered and to setup the rest of the unit. This unit comes with several parts and like complicated printers these days; you must follow the instructions completely to keep you out of trouble. There are mounting screws and anchors for mounting the remote sensor and the gateway device to get them out of the way.

It comes with a wireless transmitter that plugs into an Ethernet port on your router. That transmitter gets registered with the website and once it is connected, you then put batteries into the weather station and after a minute or so, it picks up the weather information from the internet. The only problem I saw was a strange error message when registering it and the fact that the first few times I used the wireless outdoor sensor, it did not work with the unit and they ended up shipping me a new one. Problem I had with the outdoor unit is that as soon as I get it more than about 10 feet from the station, it goes blank. My calls to tech support were quickly answered and they knew exactly what I needed to do, which was to not push any buttons on the unit until the sensors had time to synchronize. Once that was done, it worked just great. To find the manual, you have to dig through several layers on the web site and it is a 25 page manual that pretty much copies what is on the web as far as setup is concerned.

This unit is a pre-production model so it differs slightly from what I would expect to buy when available. For instance, I much prefer the blue LCD screen to the green one I have, probably because the green reminds me too much of old monochrome screens of yesteryear. Because it is a wireless device running off of two "C" batteries, there is really no backlighting and if the room is too dark, you wonít be able to read the screen.

I really like having the battery and wireless units. Put them anywhere for easy readability and the book tells me that the unit can be 300+ feet away from the wireless gateway unit so I can even put it at the other end of the house. Same with the wireless outdoor thermometer though I had a hard time coming up with a place for it to work but since I got the new one, have it mounted outdoors and it is just fine.

So basically, I have the weather forecast for the next three days as well on the display along with a scrolling text display which has a wealth of information from future forecasts to current conditions to the outdoor temperature from the sensor as well as sunrise and sunset times. The daily forecasts are easy to read and you can configure it to show a wide number of conditions including amount of sunshine, percent chance of rain, amount of rain, barometric pressure, wind gust speeds, and wind speed and direction. I am not sure how relevant the last two items are because the unit updates itself from the web only every six hours but it beats turning on the television to the weather channel and getting the same information.

Couple of quibbles would be the blue screen and the use of rechargeable batteries is not indicated anywhere and in fact, when I talked to them, they definitely donít recommend them because of the voltage differences. And so, as a stand alone unit, it works very well and has a rich set of features at no additional cost to you. But if you want more, you can get it. For this unit, you can add emergency weather alerts, monitor four more locations with the unit, and even receive text messages on your phone regarding weather alerts. All at a reasonable price.

Once I got the new remote outdoor thermometer getting it to work was pretty slick. When you take the batteries out, it resets the device, and in fact, since you have already connected online with it, it actually stores the settings on the Weather Direct website so you just pop the batteries back in and it is set to go after a quick synch with the server. So changing batteries after they wear out will be a snap. That part is nice. Technical support is also very good as well as I was able to connect with them immediately both by phone and via the web and they were very responsive and knew their product very well. Another thing I donít like is that with the variety of settings and buttons to push, you do need something other than the web to go by and so a better quick starting guide would have been helpful.

Take a look at the website and you will see a variety of units for all sorts of needs. So it is nice to have it on the book case in the living room to tell me at a glance what the weather that day and the next few days will be. Accurate and pretty much on target though updated only every six hours but nice not to have to turn on the television to wait and see what the outlook will be. Available from Amazon for around $110. It is already a part of our daily routine.

CES

The Consumer Electronics Show will be here before you know it and that means that the Christmas shopping season is over. Since I write this well before Christmas, I really havenít a clue as to how it will all shake out but it sure seems the consumer will be at a real advantage with prices lower than we have seen in a long time. As I get ready to head to Las Vegas, I am seeing a reduction in the hotel prices from the CES website and that is something you never see. Could mean that a lot of people are skipping out this year so it puts more pressure on companies to come up with something exciting and really innovative. If you want a sneak peek at what caught the eye of the CES people, look at the Innovations awards on the following page: http://www.cesweb.org/awards/innovations/2009honorees.asp. You may not be overwhelmed by what you see. For my money, it will be the shows within the shows that make it worthwhile and for me, I will find far more interesting things to write about within those separate shows than I will on the show floor surrounded by 100,000 other people trying to take a look at something.

Notebook Issues

According to Intel, more people will buy notebooks than desktops in 2009 and you better think long and hard about what will be inside that notebook when you get it. Helped a friend the other day that had just gotten a brand new Dell and I was not impressed. I have a four year old desktop computer that will run circles around this nice new Dell and that desktop has not been upgraded in those four years. Faster processor, same amount of memory, bigger hard drive, better graphics, and obviously, better sound. Yes, the Dell has WiFi built in (still "G"), and I think the Ethernet is faster. Someone got a great deal they couldnít resist and they will be unhappy for the next two years until they dump it for a new notebook. So, think hard about the memory, processor, graphics, disk space, what kind of wireless, size of the monitor, and what operating system you are going to get on it. It really will save you a lot of headaches over the next few years.


 

Robert Sanborn is a technology analyst for PC Lifeline. You can reach him through the net at robert@pcll.com


 

 

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