Hard Drive Disaster: A Cautionary Tale

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In a recent "Hassle-Free PC" I mention a hard drive tip. Read it in "Simple Fixes for Hard Drive and Folder Annoyances"; it's under the title "My PC Won't Boot (OMG!)." Here's the back story that I didn't have space for in the print column.

I bought my mother a PC probably eight years ago and loaded it up with the art and painting programs she wanted, as well as scads of games. Every year or so when I give my mom a faster, hand-me-down PC, I use Acronis True Image to clone the old drive onto the new system. With the programs on original CDs and, yes, floppies, I don't want to go through the horror of reinstalling everything.

Routine Backups

Once a week I scheduled Acronis True Image to automatically perform an incremental backup to a second drive in my mom's system. Then once a week I'd stop by with a portable Maxtor USB external drive. I'd create a fresh backup on her second drive and delete the incremental; I'd also do a full backup on the Maxtor and take that home with me.

Life was good--until her primary drive stopped booting. The message: "Hard drive not found."

I checked her PC, hoping for a quick fix. Maybe she'd just deleted a critical boot file, or perhaps a drive cable had come loose, or maybe the PC battery was dead. (A weak battery can create all sorts of problems; see "Download Manager Tips, Reader Q&A.")

No such luck. I couldn't get the fool thing to boot, so instead of wasting time, I decided to reformat the hard disk and do a restore from the backup drive. I'd have her system up and running lickety split. Right.

When Backups Go Bad

In the 90s I used to back up to a Conner TapeStor. I knew tapes were flaky, so I always verified my backups. It took forever, but that way I could be sure the tape was reliable.

Since I've been backing up to external hard drives, I've felt comfortable that the data was reliably backed up. Acronis lets me map the imaged backup--making it act like a virtual drive--so I can access every file, even on my mom's PC. I've never even thought of verifying the actual disk image. Boy, was that a mistake.

The hard drive on my mother's PC was a goner--but I had a backup, so I thought I was home free. I was wrong. Turns out, the second hard drive in the system that I used to back up my mom's system had one or more bad sectors. Incredibly, Acronis True Image didn't warn me that the disk wasn't in good condition.

Acronis screamed bloody murder when I tried restoring the drive image to the fresh hard disk in my mother's new PC, announcing that the image was corrupt.

A Painful Lesson

Validating the integrity of a backup is essential, as I've learned--and I hope you take my example seriously.

What ticks me off is that Acronis has the ability to validate the integrity of the backup, but doesn't do it automatically. In an absurd twist, you've got to set this critical option manually--and it's not obvious. As you go through the True Image wizard, you eventually face the "Choose Backup Options" screen; click "Set the options manually" and you're looking at a lengthy list. The validation option is clear at the bottom, and you have to expand the category to see it.

There's another issue: Acronis's Validation option is time consuming. I figure that validating a full backup--about 214GB--will take a while, and I'm fine with that. Yet it takes just as long to validate a 60MB incremental backup. That's because dumb-as-nails Acronis insists on validating the entire full backup as well as all the incrementals.

An Acronis representative said that he's told the head of product development about my gripes, and fixes will appear in the next release. I'm still using Acronis True Image at the moment; but I'm darn sure looking at other backup programs.

Time Wasters

Let's start with YouTube's 2007 Video Award winners. I have favs: The Original Human TETRIS Performance is brilliant; and of course, the Battle at Kruger is breathtaking.

Head back to 1980 and play some of those old arcade games--without having to drop a quarter in the slot every few minutes. Choose from Donkey Kong, Mario Bros, Pac Man, Centipede, and others. Just make sure you have your pop-up blocker at full alert.

At 10:45 a.m. last Friday I watched two ships, the Harbor Queen and the Zelinsky, making their way along the San Francisco coastline. Hi-Def San Francisco is neat, with time-lapse images, a gallery of ships, and a Google mashup showing current ship traffic. The time-lapse images are big, so you might see a blank spot while they're loading.

Wondering where to go for lunch? Stick in your Zip code and the Wheel of Lunch makes the decision for you.

Have you seen My Kid Could Paint That? It's a terrific documentary about a 4-year-old girl with the purported painting talent of Jackson Pollock. Her parents have sold some of her paintings for as much as $25,000 each. Now everyone's trying to get on the racket, including an elephant.

Steve Bass writes PC World's monthly "Hassle-Free PC" column and is the author of "PC Annoyances, 2nd Edition: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer," available from O'Reilly. He also writes PC World's daily Tips & Tweaks blog. Sign up to have Steve's newsletter e-mailed to you each week. Comments or questions? Send Steve e-mail.

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