Chris Bigelow

Disparate thoughts and musings…

Archive for Gadgets and Toys

Do You Back Up Your PC Data?

Backing up the data on your PC ranks right up there with getting a root canal.  Or so you’d think based upon how few people have a good backup system in place for their irreplaceable data.  Yet today, with so much of our lives in digital form, it’s more important than ever.

312621611_3799208e09This issue was brought sharply into focus for me on 15 October when I returned home from a meeting to find the screen of my eight week old laptop black with the ominous message: “No OS found”.  I tried numerous times to get it to boot but to no avail.  Diagnostics confirmed that the hard disk had failed.  I guess I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was, as electronics typically will fail in the first 90 days or they’re good for years.  But my heart fell when I saw that message.  Why?  Because I had not yet backed up any of the data on my “new” laptop – I figured I had time to do that later.

Fortunately for me, I was able to start the laptop using a bootable Linux CD (from Knoppix).  And, though the laptop’s HD would no longer boot, it spun up and I was able to copy all of my data off onto another network computer (“and there was much rejoicing”).

I got lucky.  This time.  I should have had a backup system in place.  I do on my other PCs but had not yet set something up on the laptop.  Valuable life lesson learned.

Backing up data is not unlike saving for retirement: both are most successful if automated.  I use a simple system to do this: I have each PC on the network copy any new files to a different PC on the network every night using one of two free utilities: Abakt and Cobian Backup.  It’s simple and automatic.  Large media files I back up manually every so often to writeable CDs or DVDs.  I do the same with any downloaded software I wish to back up.

But what if you don’t have multiple computers or, even if you do, they are not networked together?  As I see it you have two decent options: utilize an online/internet backup service (PC Mag has a review of several here) or a removable external drive.  Several of the former services offer a free option with 5GB of storage; cost of the latter option has plummeted to where you can now pick up 640GB of external USB storage for about $70.  Spending a little more will typically buy you a drive with included, automatic backup software.  Trust me – automatic is good.

raid1One final backup option I’m partial to is a network attached storage (NAS) solution employing either RAID 1 or X-RAID® (to be fair, there are RAID solutions available for inside your PC but that gets much more complicated).  These RAID configurations write your data to two physical hard drives which are mirror images of each other.  When one of the drives fail (which it will do – drives are electromechanical devices with a lifespan of 3-5 years) you just replace the failed drive with a new one and the RAID software will mirror the data on the good drive onto the new one and you are back in business.  To insure the safety of your data if you go this route, you must either save all of your critical info only on this drive array OR you must use one of the previously discussed back up software programs to copy key data to the RAID system on a daily/nightly basis.

It has gotten so easy and inexpensive to automatically back up your data that there is no excuse to not have a system in place.  Don’t wait until it is too late.

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Virtual Vinyl

IMG_2909-retouchedI have a confession to make.  I love music.  A lot.  I can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but I love to listen to music.  Lots of different genres but especially 60’s and 70’s rock.  Back when the guitar work was the focus and so amazingly expressive.  Some folks might argue with me, but in my opinion there are very few people today who can play as well as some of the lead axemen (and axewomen!) from this time period.  Legends like Mark Knopfler and Nancy Wilson quickly come to mind, but there are so many others.  I know, I know – I’m generalizing and there are certainly exceptions.  But not that many.

So it’s no wonder that over the last few years I have been really pining to listen to my vinyl album collection, which has sat unplayed and unloved for, well, far too long now.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to hang onto my old Technics turntable and Lafayette receiver (with a built-in phono preamp), keeping them safely stored away in their original shipping cartons in a dry basement. So more than a year ago now I carefully unpacked them, wiped them down, and hooked them up.  With some trepidation I turned on the power and, lo and behold, everything still worked!  Mostly.  The ravages of time had exacted a toll on the turntable drive belt, drying it out to the point of brittleness and impending failure.  And dirt and oxidation had accumulated on the various receiver audio pots and turntable speed pots, creating some dead spots.  But a replacement belt was easily purchased off the internet and [AllCDCovers]_the_who_the_kids_are_alright_1999_retail_cd-frontinstalled, and a liberal application of spray tuner cleaner resolved the dirty pot issue.  Time for the acid test: “The Kids Are Alright” by The Who.  Very nice!   Lots of memories.  I saw The Who in Buffalo in 1978.

Funny thing about memories, though.  We idealize them.  Remember the good and forget the bad.  That’s why people refer to “the good ol’ days.”  Don’t get me wrong – listening to The Who was still great.  Tommy Smothers asks Pete Townshend, “Where’d you learn to play guitar like that?”  Without missing a beat he responds, “Bowling”.  Great stuff.  But playing albums requires work.  Almost a ceremony:

  • Pick which album you want to listen to (NOT which song or songs)
  • Carefully remove the album from it’s jacket and sleeve
  • Put it on the platter
  • Start the turntable and clean the album surface
  • Cue and drop the tonearm
  • Sit back and enjoy
  • Oh – and flip and repeat in 18-21 minutes when Side A is done

CDs, on the other hand, are incredibly convenient.  And pretty skip resistant.  MP3 players are even more so.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have all that classic music in digital form?  You bet it would.  But replacing my 150+ album collection with CDs, assuming they are even available, would cost between $1,000 and $1,500.  Ouch!

Luckily, our good friends in the tech industry have provided some alternative solutions.  If you have a turntable and receiver with preamp as I do, all you need is an A-to-D converter to plug in between the receiver tape output and your PC.  I purchased just such a device called the Xitel INport (see http://www.xitel.com/USA/prod_inportdl.htm).  $80 got me the little hardware unit, a USB cable, recording and editing software (for a PC), and a 30′ long stereo RCA cable with gold plated connectors.  Everything you need in one box.  There are other similar devices out there, but I can only personally vouch for the quality of this one.  If you no longer have a turntable, some other companies now offer USB turntables with a built in A-to-D converter (see http://www.knowzy.com/usb-turntable-comparison.htm#LP2CDSoftware).

While time consuming, the process of recording an LP to your PC is pretty straightforward.  Each side is recorded as a single WAV file, which you can later split into individual tracks using the provided software.  Xitel does not provide any software for audio cleanup (Remember scratches, ticks and pops?  Yep – the little rascals are still there), though a quick search will yield many available packages designed specifically for this purpose.  For the moment I am happy converting my analog vinyl recording to digital ones, complete with all the associated vinyl noise imperfections, and burning the resulting files to audio CDs.   I am thrilled to be able to enjoy my album collection in my car.  Maybe some day I will buy a declicking package and take it to the next step.

Now I have my eye on that old tube amp sitting on a shelf in the garage.  They say nothing beats the warmth of the sound from a tube amp.  I wonder if it still works…

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(There is insufficient space to go into a lot of detail on vinyl ripping in this post.  Besides, others have done a far better job at covering the details than I ever could.  Two thorough resources I recommend are http://www.delback.co.uk/lp-cdr.htm and http://www.a-reny.com/iexplorer/restauration.html.  Another terrific place for all things audio is http://www.hydrogenaudio.org.  Give it a go – – you might be pleasantly surprised how easy it is to rediscover some terrific music)