Your computer won’t last forever. Eventually, you will need to replace it. It may no longer be able to handle the software or web sites you need to use. It may slowly accumulate problems or infections that get too complicated or expensive to fix. Or it might suddenly stop working, get damaged by accident, get stolen, burn up in a fire, or get vandalized.
Ask yourself this: “If my computer stopped working today, what would I do? What if all of my data and software can’t be recovered?”
This may happen to you sooner than you think! My computer repair buddies (both Windows and Macintosh) tell me, “If your computer is more than three years old, you’re living on borrowed time.”
If you’ve put off thinking about this, or you simply hope that nothing major will go wrong, an investment colleague of mine likes to say: “Hope is not a strategy.” Don’t hope–make a plan!
Also, this discussion also applies to any electronic device that contains data or software that matters to you, including your iPhone, Android, or other smartphone, your iPad or other tablet, Kindle, etc. Rather than write “computer or other device,” I will save a few virtual trees and simply use the term “computer.”
The cheapest and easiest steps you can take now
The best and least expensive way to minimize the effect of a potential disaster is to set up a system now to protect what’s on your computer:
Backup: Set up a daily, scheduled (so you don’t have to do it manually), thorough backup system. Have a method to confirm that it’s working, e.g., email notification, you check it manually, etc.
Improve your existing backup: For example, if your backup goes to an external hard drive or flash drive, get a second one and alternate between them, and store the inactive one off-site.
Secondary backup: Set up another, independent backup system in case the first one fails. If you’re like me and like having a primary backup that goes to an external hard drive, consider an on-line backup service as your secondary, or manually click-and-drag your user folder or Documents to a flash drive once a week.
Please note: Simply buying an external backup drive or flash drive and plugging it into your computer does nothing to protect you. Would you expect to automatically get milk by simply putting a bucket under a cow? A “backup system” must not only have a source (your internal drive) and a destination (external drive or online service), it must also have software (or you) in the middle to actually do the copying from the source to the destination.
If your computer is dying or dead and you have a good, recent backup, it may be stressful but you’ve got a number of clear and straightforward repair-or-replace options that are likely to get you to a good solution.
If your computer is dying or dead and you have no backup, then you’ve probably got an expensive, complicated, and uncertain emergency on your hands.
Which situation would you rather have?
Additional cheap disaster-prevention steps you can take now
In addition to setting up a good backup system, I also recommend all of the following:
Surge suppressor: If you can’t remember when you bought yours, replace it now. Why? Their ability to protect your computer slowly (and quietly) wears out over about 3-4 years. Be sure to buy a surge suppressor, not just a “power strip,” and ideally confirm that it is plugged into a properly grounded outlet. As you set up the new one, write on it “Replace me in 2016” (or whatever year is 3 years from today).
Warranty: Find your computer’s date of purchase and length of warranty, so you’ll know whether a problem might be covered or not. If you bought your computer recently and didn’t get an extended warranty, consider buying it now if possible.
Repair: Ask friends and colleagues for a recommended computer repair person, keep their number handy.
Email: In the event of a disaster, do you have an alternate way to get your email, such as webmail or your smartphone?
Passwords: Where do you store your passwords? Could you get to them if your computer dropped dead? Are they stored securely so someone else does not have easy access to them? For example, are they encrypted with a master password on another computer, or on paper and under lock and key?
Is there some other critically important program or data on your computer that you could not live without during the time it might take to recover from a computer disaster?
Hardware maintenance: Overheating can be caused by internal dust accumulation. Has your computer been professionally dusted out in the past year or two?
Software maintenance: Has someone checked your computer for unnecessary software that is not just present, but actively running and contributing to slowing it down?
Windows Antivirus: Do you know which antivirus program you’re using? Is it up to date? Is it doing a complete scan at least once a week?
Windows Infections: Antivirus software is necessary, but no longer sufficient to protect you. Are you scanning your computer with additional “antimalware” software every month or two?
Macintosh antivirus: Macs are NOT immune from infections (don’t believe anyone who tells you that they are immune!), and the chances your Mac will get infected are increasing. Seriously consider buying an antivirus/antimalware program for your Mac.
Spare computer: Depending on your situation and your budget, buying a spare computer (or dusting off a working older computer you’ve already got) could be a good idea to consider.
Does having to do this bother you? Try to think of this as “the cost of doing business” or “the reality of having a computer.”
Repair vs. replace:
If your computer works but it’s slow or you’re having other problems with it, I recommend having someone look at it now. Having the “repair vs. replace” discussion before major problems occur means that you might catch a small problem early and fix it, or you might decide to buy a new computer and, with some additional careful planning, move over to it in a calm and orderly fashion. Don’t wait for small problems to develop into an expensive, disruptive emergency!
Things to think about when you buy your next computer
In addition to the standard things you should always consider when buying a computer (will your software and peripherals work? laptop vs. desktop, capacity and speed, local store vs. online purchase, new vs. used, etc.), a “disaster prevention and recovery” perspective would also suggest:
Extended warranty: The terms might be a little complicated, but take a few minutes to find out the costs vs. the benefits, especially when the base cost of the computer will probably be less than your previous one.
Backup: What primary method are you going to use on the new computer? What secondary method? For example, after using your external backup hard drive to restore your stuff to your new computer, I suggest you retire it and buy a new one (or two!), which will probably be larger in capacity, faster, cheaper, and physically smaller.
Surge suppressor: Retire your old one and buy a new one now, then tape a note to it to remind you to replace it in 3-4 years.
Dust: Tape a note to the computer, “Have me professionally dusted out in August 2014” (i.e., a year or two after purchase), then every year or two going forward.
Shorter lifetime: Manufacturers are using cheaper and cheaper parts to keep prices down, so your new computer probably won’t last as long as your previous one.
Setting up a thorough, scheduled backup system now is the best and cheapest way to minimize the effect of a disaster. If you only do one thing from my list, do this!
While each of these ideas will cost you some time and money in the short term, they will probably save you much more time, money, and aggravation in the long term.
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