30 September 2007

#39. Get Your Back Up

Today’s meal at the Tool Bar & Grill comes with a lecture from the chef. You know you should back up your important files frequently, right? You brush your teeth every morning, you wear clean underwear, you eat a healthy breakfast (don’t you?) – so why don’t you run regular backups? Is it because your mother didn’t drill the lesson into you in childhood?

Mothers of the world, take note. Today’s children are tomorrow’s disk failure victims, unless you indoctrinate them now. Safe computing habits are as essential as good hygiene. That goes for backing up as well as careful Web surfing and social networking.

Your chef believes in public service, so today I will help you moms teach your kids to protect their data pro bono. I’ll explain what to look for in specialized hard disk backup programs, with some recommendations. In my next post, I will review more choices in local backup software. (For my roundup of Web-hosted backup services, see posts #26 and #27.)

Backup Essentials

To make sure your vital data are safe, you need a backup system, which includes:

  • A storage medium (CD, DVD, flash disk, floppy disk, tape, hard disk, networked computer, or the Internet)
  • Backup software
  • A well-organized scheme, covering backup method, schedule, and medium rotation

When planning your backup scheme, follow Stephen Covey’s advice: begin with the end in mind. In this case, that means plan your backup scheme for easily restoring your data tomorrow, as well as for convenience in backing it up today.

There are various approaches to the mechanics of backing up, and all have their adherents.

  • Some advise frequent mirroring your entire hard disk; if the disk goes kablooey, you can restore its exact, complete image, with operating system, software, data, and all. However, this requires a lot of space on the backup medium, and restoring a disk image is overkill if you only need to recover a few files or folders. Acronis True Image is the recognized leader in commercial disk-imaging software, but the free Runtime DriveImage XML is also quite good.
  • Another approach is continuous backup software, which constantly monitors changes in designated files or folders and copies them to the backup repository in real time. However, this means corrupted files, viruses, and other undesirables also can be backed up (versioning mechanisms can help you find the last good copy, though), as well as a slight drain on your computer’s resources. IBM Tivoli Continuous Data Protection for Files (starter edition for individual PCs) is a prime commercial example of this genre.
  • Most commonly used, however, is local backup software. These utilities create incremental or differential backup files of important data files and folders, after an initial full backup. This results in quicker, smaller backups and relatively easy restoration of individual files or folders. (Differential backup copies all changes since the last full backup; incremental backup copies all changes since the last incremental backup, so you can end up with many incremental files.) If your entire disk is trashed, however, you will have to find and reinstall the operating system and all your software before you restore your backed-up data, and then you’ll have to restore the full backup followed by the last differential backup, or each incremental backup.

Two basic types of software facilitate the latter approach: specialized backup programs (several of which I will review in part 2 of this post, next week) and synchronization programs (such as Allway Sync, reviewed in #27, and followed up in #28).

(See Wikipedia for a fairly thorough, though slightly geeky, explanation of the entire subject of backups.)

For this backup software roundup, I looked for programs with these capabilities (and so should you):

  • Select files, folders, or entire drives for backup.
  • Select or exclude files according to file extension masks (for example, *.doc, *.xls, *.dat, etc.). The built-in mask should already know how to find Outlook, Outlook Express, and other common applications’ data files (for instance, *.pst and *.pab).
  • Support multiple backup “sets” or “profiles.”
  • Either incremental or differential backup or both, in addition to full backup.
  • Set up an automatic schedule for unattended backups.
  • Back up the Windows Registry.
  • Automatically save and close open files so they can be backed up.
  • Copy files as they are, or archive them using ZIP compression. (Use of this universally accepted file format ensures that you can restore your files even without the backup program that created them.)
  • Protect backup files using ZIP encryption.
  • Protect backup files with a stronger encryption method (such as DES, AES, Blowfish, etc.). (Warning: Strong encryption can require the backup program for a restore… and don’t lose that password!)
  • Copy to CD or DVD, hard drive, flash drive, networked computer, or an FTP site on the Internet (even if not secure).
  • Keep a log of backup and restore operations, and send email notifications on completion.

Other desirable features include enabling you to specify other programs to run before or after the backup, excluding already-compressed files (such as *.zip, *.jpg, *.mp3, etc.) from compression, and verifying the integrity of backup files. Some also include synchronization functions, and a few can also create disk mirror images.

Stay Tuned

In my next post, I will review a number of freeware and shareware backup utilities that passed my tests, and recommend my favorites.

Oh, all right. I can hear you moaning. So you don’t like cliffhangers? Here’s a sneak preview of the next post: If you want to get started backing up your files right away, start with the free Simply Safe Backup. For an even smoother experience, try shareware Insofta Document Backup.

Be sure to check back in a few days for details about the great backup utilities I have reviewed, and how I picked my favorites. (By then, I’m not sure Simply Safe and Insofta will still be my favorites.)

xplorer2 Updated

My favorite file manager utility, xplorer2, was recently featured in Lifehacker and Windows Secrets, both wonderful sources of computing information. The paid version of xplorer2 was updated to version 1.7 this summer. Now xplorer2 lite, the free version (for personal use only), has been updated to version 1.7 too. You can try out the paid version at http://www.zabkat.com/, or click the “Learn about the free lite version” link toward the bottom of the page.

Note to readers: Since starting the Tool Bar & Grill, I have usually succeeded in posting a new review every Sunday. But occasionally, real life gets in the way of this labor of love. In the last couple of weeks, due to various personal events, my posts have been less regular. I intend to return to my clockwork schedule very soon. Meanwhile, I ask you to bear with me, and to check back here frequently to catch my reviews whenever I can post them. And bring all your friends!

Please feel free to share your thoughts with me and all my readers by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

23 September 2007

#38. Synchronize Your Clock in Linux

Note to readers: If you use Linux, as more and more people do, you're in for a special treat today! Special guest blogger, Linux wizard, and long-time FOJ (friend of Jonathan) Mark Lautman follows up on my earlier column about setting your Windows computer's clock. Take it away, Mark!

Jonathan's Tool Bar and Grill is a place where friends come to drink a few brews and watch soccer or baseball games on a plasma television over the well-stocked bar, or where intimates can catch a few minutes of privacy in a secluded booth toward the back.

However, lurking in the dark matter permeating this festive establishment is a crowd of Linux users. You can't always pick them out, because they "look and feel" like Windows users. There is one sign you can use to spot them: they don't order off the regular menu. If you listen closely, you might hear them ask the waiter for "grep" or "awk" or "gzip." I know, because I'm one of them.

The owner of the Tool Bar and Grill has granted me space to provide some Linux side dishes to the utilities he serves to the regular customers. We'll start with one of the earlier postings, on synchronizing the computer's clock (#3, 25 September 2006).

There are many distributions of Linux. If I had time, I would use KNOPPIX, Puppy, and Yellow Dog, mostly because I like their names. However, most Linux desktop users prefer Ubuntu, and that's the distribution I'll use for my examples.

Waiter, Where's My Food!?

Have you ever been in a restaurant, fuming because your order doesn't come as fast as you think it should? Maybe you've said something like, "Waiter, I ordered my eggs and toast twenty minutes ago!" The waiter replies, "No, it was only five minutes ago." Who is right?

It's the same thing with computers. Your computer says that its 8:35:00, but the news sites you visit say its 8:37:00. Who is right?

If you're running Ubuntu Linux, there is a good chance that you're wrong. When you install a fresh plate of Ubuntu piled high with strawberries and whipped cream, you don't automatically get the background process that synchronizes your computer's time with an NTP server.

To see if you have the NTP synchronization running, open a terminal and check for the ntp process.

>ps -A | grep "ntpd"

If you get a response, something like 3514 pts/1 00:00:00 ntpd, then you're in business. Your computer's clock is automatically synchronized. If you don't get a response, then you're computer's clock is in its own time-space warp, unaware of the universe around it. Just for kicks, let's check how far off my computer is using the ntpdate command with the q option.

>sudo ntpdate -q pool.ntp.org
server, stratum 2, offset 116.856912, delay 0.13678
server, stratum 2, offset 116.851198, delay 0.13593
server, stratum 3, offset 116.854724, delay 0.06856
rver, stratum 3, offset 116.850088, delay 0.11681
server, stratum 2, offset 116.853743, delay 0.08235
server, stratum 3, offset 116.853282, delay 0.13957
server, stratum 2, offset 116.850962, delay 0.11897
server, stratum 3, offset 116.854568, delay 0.04176
server, stratum 2, offset 116.857820, delay 0.14392
server, stratum 2, offset 116.852686, delay 0.14960
server, stratum 2, offset 116.856700, delay 0.07793
server, stratum 2, offset 116.851880, delay 0.10410
server, stratum 2, offset 116.855086, delay 0.13277
server, stratum 1, offset 116.847096, delay 0.26810
21 Sep 07:18:33 ntpdate[8019]: step time server offset 116.847096 sec

The offset indicates that my clock is slow by 116 seconds, or a tad under two minutes. That's not too bad, because it took me three months to read Anna Karenina. Nevertheless, two seconds is a lot in networking, so we should rectify this situation.

NTP for Control Freaks

Personally, I'm suspicious of background processes. I don't like "services" and "daemons" running on my computer, because I just don't know what they're doing when I'm not paying attention. In fact, if I had my way, I'd turn off the autonomous signaling on my spinal cord and control my own breathing. That's why I like to synchronize my clock whenever I feel like it with the ntpdate command we used before, but without the q option.

>sudo ntpdate pool.ntp.org
21 Sep 06:55:50 ntpdate[6512]: step time server offset 116.841196 sec

This changed my clock forward 116.8 seconds. Since this is a one-time update, the computer's clock will eventually drift.

NTP for Couch Potatoes

Most people are, unlike me, normal, and they would rather have the computer automatically update its clock against an NTP server. To do this, you need to install the NTP daemon. On Ubuntu, use the following command:

>sudo apt-get install ntp

During the installation, the following prompt appears:

Configuration file `/etc/ntp.conf'
==> File on system created by you or by a script.
==> File also in package provided by package maintainer.
What would you like to do about it ? Your options are:
Y or I : install the package maintainer's version
N or O : keep your currently-installed version
D : show the differences between the versions
Z : background this process to examine the situation
The default action is to keep your current version.
*** ntp.conf (Y/I/N/O/D/Z) [default=N] ?

Press N to keep the current version, and we'll configure it later.

Let's run the time utility on Ubuntu:

>sudo time-admin

Click Select Servers and locate the server of your choice. Selecting more than one server will give your computer a more accurate time, but selecting too many will clog your network connection.

If you want to go back to manual updates, select Manual from the Configuration list.

In this case, you're back to manually updating the clock by yourself or through a one-time synchronization with an NTP server.

That's all for clock synchronization on Ubuntu.

Thanks for checking in at the Tool Bar & Grill. Come back often for hot tips on the best free and cheap software and useful Web sites, and now for related Linux recommendations too! Feel free to comment below or write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

09 September 2007

#37. Staying Up To Date

Note to Readers: Due to a holiday, your Tool Bar & Grill chef is taking a week off. Visit this site again next week for a special double issue on local backup utilities! — Jonathan Plutchok, 16 September 2007.

When you’re packing to move to a new home, you discover all kinds of things you forgot you had. Some you pack, some you sell, some you just give away. I moved house last week, which left me very little time to write this column – but also turned up some valuable odds and ends that I’d like to share with you, my loyal readers. These tips are all about keeping up with the times.

Karen’s Tools Refreshed

Karen Kenworthy is a computing journalist who also writes clever little Windows utilities and publishes them for free. I featured Karen’s Directory Printer in an early post (#4, 10 October 2006). Her other great programs include Replicator (for backups and synchronization), Show Stopper (quickly shut down, restart, suspend, and other actions, and run a program automatically before any of these), Calculator, Once A Day (run a program once when Windows starts or a user logs on), and many more.

Karen spent the last few months updating and improving many of her free utilities. They are well worth checking out. You can find them all at http://www.karenware.com/powertools/powertools.asp. Karen’s utilities are donationware, so if you like and use any of them, please support the author with your contributions.

Music Utilities Improved

I usually use MP3DirectCut to edit MP3 files (reviewed in #9, 10 January 2007). And I often listen to a folder full of music through 1by1, a simple media player that steps through a directory, playing each song in turn. The publisher of both these free programs, Martin Pesch, recently updated them. So if you already use these utilities or want to try them out, get the latest versions at http://mpesch3.de1.cc. And send a donation if you can (though the author accepts only bank transfers, not PayPal or credit cards).

Keep Your Software Up To Date

Sometimes your software is updated, often to improve security, and you don’t even know about it. So it’s good to use the free Secunia Software Inspector periodically. This free Web-based service (http://secunia.com/software_inspector) scans your computer and alerts you to security updates of about 40 popular titles, as well as Windows (up to XP but not Vista).

Even better is the new Secunia Personal Software Inspector, a free downloadable program that scans your disk for about 4,700 programs and identifies those with security updates, and those that have reached the end of their lives (i.e., are no longer supported). This program is a beta version and does not work perfectly (and does not support Windows Vista), but it’s way better than using obsolete, insecure software. Get it at https://psi.secunia.com.

Another useful update service is VersionTracker from C|Net. The VersionTracker Web site, http://www.versiontracker.com, lists and links to the latest updates for many Windows, Macintosh, and Palm programs (though it could benefit from a usability makeover). A paid “pro” version even downloads the updates automatically. You also can subscribe to the VersionTracker newsletter to receive update notices in your mailbox.

I hope this has been helpful. Please feel free to comment below or write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com. And do come back next week for more valuable recommendations!

02 September 2007

#36. Stupid Email Tricks

Welcome, friends, to another hearty meal at the Tool Bar & Grill. Today let’s try to find good uses for some interesting new Web sites that integrate with email.

Send Your Emails by Post

eSnailer prints out your email and mails it to the recipient through snail mail (that is, the regular postal service). This service is free (including the postage), and sends mail throughout the United States. This could be great if you correspond with people who don’t have email, but you don’t want the fuss of envelopes and stamps. However, your messages might carry advertising. http://www.esnailer.com

ePostIt provides a similar service, with coverage in the US, Canada, UK, France, Denmark, Finland, and several Far East countries. http://freepostit.com

Manage Email Groups

9cays is a Web site that manages email groups for you. After you create group of, for example, you camping buddies’ email addresses, you can use 9cays to send an email announcement to all of them at once. =snore= But wait – there’s more! Each email “conversation” has its own email address and Web page. 9cays stores conversations so you can review email exchanges with members, and it can store attachments for access by all members (“here are the photos of our last trip”). Now just what does “9cays” mean? http://9cays.com

Nag, Nag, Nag

Monkey On Your Back, from the makers of 9cays, saves you the trouble and discomfort of reminding people to do things you asked them to. Monkey On Your Back emails reminders to them for you. It also reminds you when the task deadline passes. http://monkeyon.com

Thanks for bearing with me. I hope you’ll be back next week! Meanwhile, please feel free to comment below or write to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.

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