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November 1999
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Small & Home Offices

How to Survive (and Avoid) 2 a.m. Computer Crashes

Even the best equipment sometimes fails, and always at the worst possible time.

By Anthony Paonita

YOU'RE JUST about to fall asleep when the perfect argument pops into your head. So you head downstairs to your home office, turn on the computer, fire up the word processor and you're cooking. Legal points are flowing. This is going to look great, you think when, zap. With sickening suddenness, your computer freezes. Nothing moves. Nada. Zip.

For more information about the products in Small Office/Home Office, please use the Reader Response Card enclosed in this issue.

Norton Utilities: Circle no. 344.

Norton Disk Doctor: Circle no. 345.

Zip Drive (Iomega) : Circle no. 346.

iMation Superdrives: Circle no. 347.

@Backup.: Circle no. 348.

Atrieva: Circle no. 349.

McAfee Office 2000: Circle no.350.

You think you've been saving the file to disk all along, but just in case, you scribble down the few lines you see on the screen and hope for the best. You turn off the machine. You turn on the machine. The computer doesn't reboot.

Abort, retry, or suicide?

None of the above: With a cool that surprises even yourself, you pull your Norton emergency startup disks out of the top left desk drawer and manage to start the computer.

The next thing to do is run Norton's Disk Doctor. It finds some damage to the hard drive, but says it fixes it. You check your directories and yes! The file is still there, time-stamped to right before your disaster struck.

You reboot off the computer's hard drive and there's your brief in all its glory. You make a silent prayer to the deity of your choice and save it to your external Zip drive, just to be sure.

Just think: You did it all yourself, without anyone from the help desk of the big law firm you left last year to start your practice.

Of course, that's the best outcome. In the real world, you might not have saved the file at all. You don't have Norton Utilities; you meant to buy it, but forgot the last time you picked up some floppy disks and printer cartridges. Or your hard drive decides not to be revived.

But take heart: By following just a few simple procedures you can keep disaster at bay. In short, practice safe computing. Assume the worst and go from there. You have insurance, don't you?

First, foremost, and most important: Save, save save.

Forget "om" -- "Save" is your mantra. Don't just start a new document and type away without saving.

Develop a ritual. Name your document immediately, and put it in a folder right away. Hit the save keys regularly. Program your "auto-save" to trigger every five minutes.

Why? Because if you do crash, you'll be only a few minutes from your most recent version. Remember, you can't rescue something that doesn't exist.

Backup Regularly

Besides saving, backup regularly. No one should have only one copy of his or her important documents. In the old days, this meant you kept hundreds of floppy disks that gathered dust or ended up being coffee mug coasters.

But with today's larger, more graphic- intensive files, you need better protection. Buy a Zip drive and copy your important files regularly to the removable cartridges (from Iomega).

Depending on your computer, it will either be a cinch to install, or you can expect to take the better part of a weekend. But consider the alternative.

If you're upgrading to a new computer, make sure it has some sort of removable, rewriteable storage. Zip disks are a defacto standard, although many people, especially iMac users with USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports, are buying more and more iMation Superdrives that can accommodate both standard floppy diskettes and "Superdisks," which hold 120 MB (iMation).

A lot of pros swear by digital audio tape (DAT) backups, but unless you're a power user, restoring lost data from one could be difficult and time-consuming -- not something you want when you're in a hurry to get that precious brief back.

More adventurous types might choose Internet backup, such as @Backup and Atrieva.

They work like this: Either via the Web or using proprietary, downloaded software, you send your files up to the file server of an online backup service. This might work out well for you, but it's only good if you have a spare working computer lying around when the one you usually use decides to die.

Alternatively, you can zip out to your local computer store and shell out for a new one, get connected to the Internet and download. In other words, forget about instant gratification -- or fast restoration of your brief.

These services typically cost about $100-$150 a year, for anywhere from 50 to 100 MB of storage.

Word to the wise: Now might be the time to get that laptop you always thought you needed. It can come in handy in meetings, court -- and if that desktop computer dies on you.

Easy Access

Besides having hardware backup, make sure you have the right software repair tools in an easy-to-reach safe place. You don't want to be tearing your office apart when disaster strikes at 2 a.m. That means you should buy a computer disk-repair utility, such as Symantec's Norton Utilities (available in various configurations;) or Network Associate's McAfee Office 2000.

With a Windows PC, the utility software will guide you through building a bootable floppy disk, (a floppy that will start your computer.) Be sure to include software drivers for your Zip or other backup drive, so that if and when the emergency disk accesses your hard drive, you can copy that all-important file to removable media.

On a Mac, use the Norton CD or operating system CD that came with your computer. If you have a PowerBook laptop, buy an Ethernet "crossover" cable. That way, if your main machine goes down and you start from a CD, you'll be able to copy important files to the laptop easily and quickly. Keep any startup CD in an easily accessible, safe place and make sure it works from time to time.

Run your disk repair software regularly, say, once a month. Make it a part of your computing routine. While this won't guarantee that you'll never crash, it will improve your odds.

Support Network

Finally, develop an informal support network. Remember, you don't have a help desk to call. Both computer manufacturer support and the local superstore are not open all the time. Besides, who wants to talk to someone who asks for a credit card number before any help is offered? In my experience, long-distance help is a hit-or-miss proposition.

Instead, find a computer-savvy friend or small computer-store geek whom you can call in a pinch.

I've spoken to small-town computer consultants who have literally driven through blizzards to rescue an important client from a bad crash. One recounted a madcap mid-winter dash through the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts to find a backup tape that might have been stashed in someone's living room. Some of these folks might not even mind being interrupted by a frantic call at 2 a.m.

Remember that bad computer days will happen. We're not quite there yet when it comes to the bulletproof computer. But smart maintenance routines and regular backups could keep you from losing your best work.

Anthony Paonita is director of desktop publishing for American Lawyer Media Inc., based in New York City.

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