Computer Column #341
John P. Reid, [email protected]
Computer backup is revisited, and Adobe Acrobat as a universal document format is discussed.
Our parents said, “Look both ways before crossing the street.” Computer columnists said, “Back up your computer.” We do not hear that as much these days, but the advice is still good. Anyone who has lost irreplaceable computer data knows the pain.
I have previously mentioned a friend who was working on a book about local vintage dairies and their milk bottles. His computer full of records and his bottle collection were washed away in an unexpected flash flood. The government decided the flood was caused by uncontrolled industrial development upstream. It bought out the entire housing development but could not replace lost data. Most computer data losses are not that dramatic. A simple hard drive failure can lose an e-mail contact list or an antiques dealer’s inventory and sales records just before tax time.
The number of computers regularly backed up is increasing but still low. It is a hard statistic to get a handle on, but one survey in 2015 indicates that fewer than 10% are backed up weekly, fewer than 20% monthly, and fewer than 40% annually (www.backblaze.com/blog/backup-awareness-month-2015).
Backup has changed in the last decade. Suppliers of software for local backups are not all the same. Online backup companies are also different. However, two factors have improved. First, auxiliary hard drives for local backup are getting dirt cheap. Second, available Internet transfer speeds have increased up to a hundred times. Online backups, which once chugged away for days, now may take only minutes.
For the greatest protection, a copy of any local backup should be stored at a remote location to be available in case of theft, fire, or flood. The simplest way is to keep a local backup on an external hard drive while making a simultaneous online backup. Some backup software manages both.
Local backup will require one of the many USB external hard drives. A look at online sources and office supply superstores will find, for example, a Western Digital 1 TB (terabyte) drive for about as little as $52. This is big enough for most of us, but a Western Digital 5 TB drive is about $122. There are dozens more to compare.
Local backup on an external hard drive will require software, which may be available from the computer’s operating system. In Windows 10, go to Control Panel and find “file history.” If Control Panel is not already pinned to the start menu, ask Cortana to open it. Plug in a USB external hard drive that can be left indefinitely and tell the control panel to use it for file history. Once an hour, new and recently revised files will be added to it.
A rather complicated list of file categories to be saved can be reviewed and modified. A few files might be missed. For example, I use Mozilla Thunderbird for e-mail. Old e-mails are saved in it, including research correspondence for this column and hundreds of e-mails about family genealogy. Firefox has an add-on to generate an e-mail archive. I made a point of automatically storing the results in its own folder in Windows Documents, which is archived by default in file history.
Apple Macintosh has a similar file history application called Time Machine. When an external hard drive is plugged in, the computer probably will ask if you want to use it for Time Machine backup.
There are many brands of online backup advertised on the Internet. Start with this year’s reviews at PC Magazine (www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2288745,00.asp). Online backup subscriptions run from approximately $50 to $130 a year. All require a high-speed Internet connection that will probably cost far more than the backup subscription, but it will also handle e-mail, web browsing, and even downloading movies. Features of online backup products vary greatly. Some do not supply the online storage space, which you must provide. Read the online reviews carefully.
Once set up, the software will save existing files in cloud storage. As files are revised or new ones are added, they will be saved. If a computer crash occurs, recovering files may be a little time-consuming and possibly an expensive process.
If you plan a radical change to your computer, such as installing a dual boot Windows/Linux system, consider making a clone of your entire hard drive with disk image backup software. If the big plans go wrong, a disk image will get the computer back to where it started. Windows 7 has disk image capability. It is available in Windows 10 computers, both those upgraded from Windows 7 and those manufactured for Windows 10. The process is confusing. A good illustrated guide is available (http://lifehacker.com/how-to-back-up-your-computer-automatically-with-windows-1762867473).
An alternative is buying Acronis True Image listed in the backup service reviews above. It costs from about $49.99 to $149.99 depending on how long it will be used and the number of features.
Disk image backup is a possible defense against ransomware, a type of malicious software designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money is paid.
On another subject, Adobe Systems Incorporated released Acrobat in 1993 to create, edit, convert, digitally sign, encrypt, export, and publish documents as PDF (Portable Document Format) files. Documents can include elaborately formatted text and graphics. It has become the universal file format, readable using Adobe’s free reader on virtually all computers and mobile devices.
If a document is to be distributed to a group of people owning various digital devices, Adobe PDF is the format to use. For years, organizations have battled format problems. If a memo was distributed online in the latest Microsoft Word format, recipients with older Word versions could not read them. Apple Macintosh users were often out of luck, too. PDF files solve that problem. Most word processors today can export files as PDFs. Many commercial printers accept PDF files.
There is one remaining problem. The recipient cannot easily edit the PDF document to create a new version. This, however, is becoming less true. The document could be revised in an Adobe editor (https://acrobat.adobe.com/us/en/acrobat.html). Acrobat Standard DC for Windows is $12.99 per month paid annually. Acrobat Pro DC for Macintosh, Windows, and all online devices is $14.99 per month paid annually.
There are third-party suppliers of PDF editors (www.pcworld.com/article/2096946/5-cheaper-alternatives-to-acrobat-for-pdf-editing.html). They run from free to $140, but editing capabilities are somewhat limited. In a pinch, they could create a PDF layout from scratch, but they are mainly useful for revising an existing PDF file.
The major word processors have tried for years to edit PDF files. One recent success is Microsoft Word 2016, introduced with Windows 10. It will do the job except where graphics and text formats are extremely complex. Forms in which the reader can enter data are also difficult to create and not usually PDF compatible. It is not perfect but give Word 2016 a try before spending money on other software. As a trial, I opened the PDF user’s illustrated manual for a kitchen coffee maker in Word 2016. I changed the subtitle from “Programmable Coffeemaker” to “Really Great Coffeemaker” in Word and saved the file as a PDF. Only the type font needed a little twiddling. All the text, drawings, and charts remained the same.
Originally published in the May 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest