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How I wasted six hours and why you shouldn’t.

“My hard drive has crashed. I can’t do my work.”

His voice was desperate. His IT guy was away.

He hurried his laptop over. When I started it, it hung. It wouldn’t load Windows.

I removed his hard drive, joined a cable to it and tried to access it from one of my laptops. I had hoped to suck his data off. No such luck.

I loaned him a spare laptop running Windows 7, as his had. Mine also had several browsers and Microsoft Office, including Outlook, Excel and Word —  all he needed to do his work.

Now where were the back-ups of his working files?

It was on something called IDrive, a cloud-based service that automatically backed up his working files every evening. We logged onto IDrive.

We asked it to “restore” (that’s their word)  all his data — except his photographs — to the new laptop. That was 4.5 gigabytes of data. It took over four hours — despite running on my very fast 45 meg upload/download Verizon FiOS connection. It should have taken 15 minutes. IDrive was painful. I don’t know why. I couldn’t speak to anyone. Their customer support is only open from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM PST. I won’t comment on the idiocy of a urgent, emergency backup place being closed when you most need them. (You can read about IDrive here.)

Anyway, when the data finally appeared (in the middle of the night), the most important file, his Outlook.pst, wasn’t there. This 1.4 gigabyte file contained all his emails of the last several years and all his contacts. He desperately needed them. Outlook was the filing cabinet for his life.

The next morning I called IDrive support. They were sweet. They checked and checked and checked. After 25 minutes on the phone, they said they didn’t have a backup of the Outlook.pst file. Sorry.

IDrive support could feel our pain.

Then I asked, “When you sign up to IDrive, do you have to tell it which files and folders to back up each evening?”

The answer was Yes.

Is it possible that  my friend’s IT guy who had set up the automatic nightly IDrive backup had simply forgotten to tell it to back up the precious Outlook.pst file?

And the answer? Yes.

Yesterday evening, my desperate friend FedExed his old, busted hard drive to a place called Kroll Ontrack, which used to be called Ontrack Data Recovery. They’re the best in the business for recovering data from hard drives, from SD drives and pretty well from any place you store your precious data. I have used them several times. They aren’t cheap. I’ll be surprised if my friend spends less than $1,000. But they’re good. Ontrack is here.

There are obvious lessons:

1. Don’t rely on the cloud. Imagine if IDrive’s computers had failed? No one can wait four hours only to find that what was “restored” was not what they really wanted. I personally use a couple of Apricorn drives. Look at my writeup on the Apricorn Aegis Padlock in the right hand column. There is software to automatically copy my files through the day as I work. I use simple software called FreeFileSync and copy the files manually every evening or whenever I’ve made major changes. Or just before I leave on a trip. If you insist on using the cloud as a backup, then do a Restore before you really need to. Had my friend tested IDrive before he needed his files, he would never have used them. He also would have seen he wasn’t backing up his Outlook.pst. Remember my old motto: CHECK. CHECK. CHECK.

2. Don’t forget to copy your most important files, like Outlook.pst. Long ago, I organized my hard drive such that all my work (including my Outlook.pst) was in one folder which I called “AllHarry.” Every evening I simply copy the new files and the changed files in my AllHarry subfolder over to my Apricorn. FreeFileSync figures which files are new and which are changed. Backing up takes less than a minute. If I had to restore my entire life, it would take about three minutes — not four hours. Microsoft puts Outlook.pst in a strange place. You need to find it and move it.

3. Don’t use old machines running spinning-platter hard drives. Use a solid state drive. They’re much faster and more reliable. If your laptop is your life, you should replace it at least every two years.

4. You need to learn enough about all this stuff to understand what’s happening with your life. My friend actually believes that this stuff is too hard for normal people to understand. And believing that gets him into trouble. In this case, his computer “whiz” was out of town. My friend’s laptop is his business tool — his only one. It’s got his negotiations. It’s got zillions of Excel spreadsheets analyzing his many investments. It’s got all his emails to me.

He should actually own two identical machines, with identical software. If one fails, he should be able to jump on the second one in minutes. He should learn enough computerese not to crash his only computer. His crash was his fault. He should have known he wasn’t backing up his most important data. He was very lucky to find me at home. He owes me one.

Harry Newton, who eyes the market going up, for now. I have no idea why, and neither do my friends. Some are even out of the market, “safely” in cash. Yesterday I met with three nice folk from UBS. They showed my a strategy they have called Dividend Ruler Stocks. They buy stocks that pay nice dividends, and consistently grow their nice dividends. It’s the consistent growth they’re interested in, not the absolute size of the dividend yield. A high dividend yield could reflect a company in trouble. They showed me their numbers. From the beginning of their strategy on October 17, 2003 to July 3, 2014, they had achieved a 205.8% cumulative return versus 136.8% for the S&P 500 and 142.4% for the S&P Global 1200. Friends with UBS on this program report happiness. I was impressed.


  1. Ron says:

    While I like and accessibility factor of the “cloud” for storing data and being able to access it anytime from any device or any place, I prefer storing my backup files within my control. For less than $100 one can buy a 1TB portable drive like the Passport or the Aegis without having to keep making monthly payments to rent space in the “cloud” based on the size of data you store. The best part is that you have 100% control of your data and do not have to rely on others for access or security.

  2. Karch_Buttreau says:

    other step – as soon as a hard drive shows any signs of failing (like
    bad clusters), it’s just going to get worse, so I’ll clone the drive to a
    new one using clonezilla and set up clonezilla so that it will ignore
    read errors. Other cloning software like Acronis won’t let you do that.

    Then I try to get the data off the cloned drive.