My Computer Melted! - How to Avoid Digital Disaster on the Road

July 28, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Photographers, like event planners, often work on the road, and we rely on our computers to get our work done. Getting knocked out of action by a hardware or software failure is not an option. Now, because our computers are pretty reliable, it’s easy to just grab the laptop and head out the door without pondering the possible consequences if today is the day our tech goes south. However, as I was recently reminded, most of this stuff will one day bite us, and if we’re not ready, it could really hurt. So, I offer some simple steps you can take to keep damage and downtime to a bare minimum and get your work done.

What prompted me to write this article was a computer meltdown of my own while I was on a month-long trip. The prospect of being without my computer and all the information & photos therein for weeks was too terrible to contemplate. Now, many of you have probably lost the occasional document or photo or email, but in my case it was the entire drive in my laptop that just…stopped. No signs of life. No recovering the data with a utility. Silence. It was a 4-year-old SSD that decided it had done enough work, thank you very much, and was ready for The Long Sleep.

If it had held the only copy of my data, I’d have been toast. And, even though I had backups at home, they were thousands of miles away. Fortunately, I had created a digital doctor kit that had everything I needed to get back up and running as if nothing had happened. Here’s how you can create a digital doctor kit of your own that can stop Armageddon and fit in your pocket. I use a Mac, so I’ll describe the tools for Macs, but the concepts apply equally to Windows PCs.

What's in the digital doctor kit

A portable drive containing:

  1. An up-to-date mirror-image copy (“clone”) of your “boot” drive (the one your computer uses to start up),
  2. An incremental backup of changes to your data over time,
  3. Software utilities for repairing damaged data on a drive, and
  4. Installers for your operating system and mission-critical applications.

How I used the kit to get back to work

First, I plugged it into the laptop, started up while holding down the “option” key (this is specific to Macs), and selected Clone as the drive I wanted the laptop to boot from. I wanted to try to repair the original boot drive, and you can’t do that while booted from it. Next, I tried some disk utilities to see if they could repair the damage, but they couldn’t even see the drive - it was well and truly expired. OK, so, for the time being I could continue to use my Mac booted from Clone, and it was exactly as if I were working from the main boot drive at the time the Clone had last been updated (which had I set up to happen automatically every evening). If I were on deadline, I would just continue working.

How I used the kit to restore my computer

But, this was a temporary solution. I wanted my main boot drive back. And, some of the data on Clone was corrupted, as it had been copied from the failing boot drive. So, I needed a new drive to replace the expired boot drive. Now, if Clone were in perfect health, I’d just clone Clone back onto the new drive, but it wasn’t, so I needed both a fresh installation of the operating system (OS) as well as a restoration of all my personal data onto it. I bought a new drive and followed video instructions at MacSales.com to physically install it into my laptop, using a tiny screwdriver and a plastic card. Next, I started the computer from Clone, used Disk Utility to format the new drive, and used the Mac OS X installer to put a fresh copy of the OS on the drive. Once that was done, I restarted the computer from the new boot drive and used the kit to restore my applications and personal data from it onto the new boot drive. And that’s basically it. Several hours later, I was back in business and had lost nothing.

How to make your own digital doctor kit

So, how to create such a wondrous device? First, the drive. It needs to have storage capacity equal to at least 300% of your boot drive ’s capacity. So, if your boot drive holds 500GB, your doctor kit will hold about 1.5TB. More is better. Using a disk utility, divide the drive into three volumes (“partitions”), each of which appears on your desktop as a separate drive. The first volume (I name it "Clone”) should have the same capacity as your boot drive so that it can hold an exact duplicate of it. The second volume (“Time Machine”) should have at least 200% of the capacity of your boot drive, so that it can hold all that data plus copies of the various versions of documents as they are deleted or changed over time. The bigger this volume is, the more historical data it can hold, allowing you to go back in time further to retrieve earlier copies of things. The third volume (“Installers”) is where you can keep OS and app installers that you might not want clogging up your boot drive. I keep an installer for the latest version of OS X and for the main applications I rely on frequently. 50GB should be plenty.

Second, the “Clone” mirror-image copy of your boot drive. In the event that your boot drive croaks, you can use Clone as an alternate boot drive to start your computer and either repair or restore the original boot drive. On Macs, you can clone your boot drive using a third-party utility such as Carbon Copy Cloner, SuperDuper! or Déjà Vu. Note that you cannot create a bootable clone by simply dragging the contents of the boot drive onto the Clone volume, as the OS will not recognize this as a bootable volume and you won’t be able to start up from it. You must use a cloning utility.

Third, the Time Machine backup. On a Mac, when a new empty volume appears on your Mac for the first time, a message pops up asking if you want this to be used as a Time Machine volume. Just say yes. From then on, as long at the volume is mounted on the desktop, Time Machine will back up the latest changes to your data every hour, without you having to do a thing or even think about it. Now, Time Machine is a Mac OS X feature, but I’m sure there are Windows backup utilities that will similarly keep what's known as an “incremental" backup.

Final thoughts

It’s worth having both a clone backup and an incremental backup. You can boot from the former but not the latter. You can recover older versions of documents from the latter but not the former (which has only the latest version). And, if one gets damaged (as happened to my Clone), you can recover your data from the other.

I won’t bore you here with the many pages of tedious step-by-step procedures involved in using these tools, but you can find instructions on Mac- and Windows-related sites. My goal here was to give you an overview of the possible issues and solutions and the basics of creating your own doctor kit to take with you when you travel so you can keep working when digital disaster strikes. Or better yet, to win eternal friendship by rescuing your colleagues when digital disaster strikes them. I hope this helps. Feel free to ask questions via email or the comments section at the bottom of this page.

 
Jacques

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