When disaster strikes do you have a backup?

dreamstimefree_1574304Early last month I wrote about my own backup strategy in my personal blog, little realising that I would soon be put to the test.

On Good Friday, less than 3 weeks after writing about my backups, my laptop would not start. At all. It being a public holiday I couldn’t get any technical support on the phone until the Wednesday, as Tuesday was the Anzac Day holiday. I was told it was the motherboard. I could pay $700 to extend my warranty so that someone would come and fix it in my house for “free”, or I could buy a new one. As the laptop is just on 3 years old, I didn’t see the point in throwing good money at it. It’s my third laptop and they just don’t last longer than 3 years.

And, of course, I had my backups.

I am currently using my netbook (or mini laptop/notebook) while waiting for my new laptop to arrive. I shopped around and eventually ordered a custom-built Dell which has a higher resolution screen than the standard off-the-shelf laptops. I usually only use my netbook for research trips and I regularly synchronise all the documents between it and my laptop, so recent versions of all my documents were already on it.

Backups

I use an online backup service called Mozy that backs up everything I use often without me having to remember to do it, including my Outlook mail file and my family tree databases. My mail file has 10 years of emails from family, friends and clients, and I would hate to lose them. Because my mail file is backed up to Mozy every night, I only lost a few hours worth of emails that had arrived on Good Friday after my backup ran the night before.

Mozy also backs up my family history databases, documents and photos every night, as insurance. I can easily download one or all of the files if I need to. I would hate to have to download 20GB of files at once, but it is very comforting to know they’re there, and to be able to download a single file that you deleted or corrupted by mistake.

I store absolutely critical files that I am constantly working on in Dropbox. Dropbox is a free service that allows you to store up to 2GB of data on the internet and automatically synchronise it with your other computers, or those of friends. I keep PowerPoint presentations and handouts for talks in Dropbox, as well as my thesis, so that there is a backup created automatically as soon as I finish editing and close the file.

I also use two separate external hard drives to back up absolutely everything – my family history research, my client files, my photos, music, and everything else.  I use synchronisation software called GoodSync to keep all these files up to date. I also use GoodSync to keep my netbook synchronised with my laptop.

So all my data is backed up.

What is missing from my netbook, though, is software.

Software

The version of Microsoft Office I use on my netbook does not include Outlook, so I can’t receive or send emails that way. I can receive all new emails by setting Gmail to pick them up for me, but I don’t have access to any of the previous ones. And I have to remember to copy any replies to my own email address, so that they will all be in Outlook when I eventually get it going. Emails are much easier to deal with if they are all in the one place so I can see the history of a conversation.

I have a backup of my accounting database but no software to run it on. I have the software on a CD somewhere but my laptop doesn’t have a CD drive, and even if I were to install it I can’t activate it without my registration key, which is in an old email in Outlook.

You see my problem? I am in limbo until I can run the software.

To make matters worse, I started using my husband’s laptop, which is only a few months old. I copied my email file to it from my backup and set up a new account in Outlook to pick up my emails. I was using Office 2007 and he is using Office 2010, so I had to be sure that I wasn’t going to be able to save my laptop before doing this, as once I was in Office 2010 there was no going back to 2007.

Unfortunately, after a day or two of using his laptop, it starting giving messages about the “imminent failure of the hard drive”. I copied my Outlook mail file back off it, now updated with recent emails, and we backed up everything else just in case. It has now gone off to have a new hard drive installed. It’s still under warranty, which is comforting, but we now have no full size laptop in the house.

So I’ve started playing with trial versions of software. Trial versions give you access to all of the features of the software for a limited time, such as a month or two. A month is long enough for my current crisis! I have downloaded a trial version of Office 2010 to my second netbook, which did not already have any version of Office on it, nearly 700MB. I didn’t want to overwrite the version of Office 2007 that was already on my “first” netbook.

A second netbook, you ask? It’s the original one, that I bought too early, before netbooks had evolved sufficiently to be really useful. It’s got a great high resolution screen and a metal case, but it’s slow because it runs Vista, it gets very hot and the battery only lasts an hour or so. I bought a new onelast early year when the prices had come down and the batteries lasted longer. The old one has been sitting in the cupboard waiting for me to decide what to do with it.

So now I have all my old emails accessible again. I’ve also downloaded a trial version of the latest Quickbooks, my accounting software. I can now see what clients have paid and create new invoices. This will mean that I will have to upgrade my software when I get my new laptop, as I will not be able to go back to the old version. More money!

I’m still struggling a bit with the smaller screen and keyboards on the netbooks but at least I am able to keep working.

Lessons learned

I can’t begin to imagine what a disaster the sudden death of my laptop would have been if I hadn’t had backups of all my data. In the past I had always replaced the old one before it was too late, enabling a controlled transition from the old one to the new one. Not this time!

Here are some lessons I have learned during this ordeal:

  1. If you buy Microsoft Office off the shelf instead of pre-loaded on your computer you can install it on a second, portable device such as a netbook. It’s more expensive but you get two for the price of one. I found this out the day AFTER I ordered my new laptop with Office pre-installed. You may not need Outlook on your netbook, and you will have a problem keeping them in sync if you use it on both computers at once, but it will be there as a backup if you need it.
  2. If you download and install a trial version of Office 2010 on a computer that already has Office 2007 that includes Outlook, it will NOT install Outlook 2010 and it won’t warn you. I learned this from experience on an old laptop that was too unstable to give away when I replaced it and has been sitting in the cupboard. That’s when I went to the old netbook.
  3. Don’t assume that all software you use keeps its files in a place that will be backed up. Some programs keep the data in the same folder as the program, under Program Files, which is not usually backed up automatically. The current version of The Master Genealogist, which I use for my family tree and those of clients, stores its files under My Documents by default, but older versions did not. I have lost my timesheet data because I didn’t check to see where the data was stored.
  4. Make sure you know how to set up your email accounts in a new program in case you can’t go back and look at the old version.
  5. Make sure you know your IDs and passwords to all the websites you use. Most web browsers will remember these for you on that computer, so if you need to start using a different computer you at least need to know your ID so you can ask for your password to be sent to you by email if you can’t remember it.

This blog is usually about research, but I think that backups are so very important that I wanted everyone to learn from my experience.

Backup your data, and have a plan for when you need to use the backups. Sooner or later, your hard drive or something else on your computer will fail.

 

Which is the best family tree program?

I am often asked this question, and it is a difficult one to answer. This is an expanded version of my most recent answer.

The answer depends on what you want to get out of the program. There are some things you need to think about:

  • Ease of use – is the layout easy to understand, and is it easy to work out what you are supposed to do to enter and change your data?
  • Output – what do you want to do with the data once you’ve entered it? Reports, charts, websites and screen display are all ways of seeing the data you have spent all that time entering, and if one is more important to you than others you should look for a program that offers more in this area
  • Flexibility – will you want to change it to suit your own requirements – how it looks, what types of data it can handle

Trees and clouds

All programs will do the basics – allow you to enter and change data, and give you basic reports and perhaps charts. I personally prefer the more fully featured programs that have many different options and are flexible enough to cater to whatever you want to do with it.

I also prefer programs that allow you to download a trial version for free. You never really know how a program will suit you until you try it out, and many programs allow you to do this. I have used Family Tree Maker in the past and found that it was limited in many ways, although it has changed a lot since then. It is NOT available to try out for free, although it is the most popular.

If I was buying a program today I would look at The Master Genealogist, Legacy, and Family Historian. All three are customisable and allows proper citing of sources, and have a long list of features.

There are some free programs around too – PAF and Brother’s Keeper are examples. If you’ve never used a program before try 2 or 3 of the free ones to see how you like them – whether they do what you want, and how easy they are to use. You may find that you are perfectly happy with these and don’t need to spend any money at all.

Then there are the internet programs that allow you to enter your data and share it with others, or not. Examples are MyHeritage, which has its own program that runs on your own computer, and TNG (The Next Generation).

There is a new Australian book out that goes into the subject in some detail, which gives a detailed description of many programs and compares them using comprehensive tables of features. The book was written by an Australian researcher and teacher, and is available here.

Most people who ask the question want to be told the name of a single program which they can confidently go out and buy. I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that because everyone is different, and has different needs. I can’t tell you which car to buy, or which breakfast cereal is best, or which cookbook you should buy. Family tree programs are the same.

Take a couple out for a test-drive and see what you think.

Top 10 Social Media Sites for Family Historians

I think that social media was made for family historians. We are different from other people – we actually enjoy finding distant relatives and keeping in touch with them! Social media helps us to find relatives and old friends in ways that were not possible in the days of mailing lists and message boards.

Here are 10 social media sites that are not directly related to family history (except one) but are nevertheless important for communicating, sharing and collaborating with other family historians, and family in general.

In alphabetic order

Blogger is the best-known of the free blog hosting sites. Writing a blog about your family history and the discoveries you make is one of the best ways of getting young people interested. It’ is owned by Google so you can use your Google ID to log in and create as many blogs as you like.  The address of your blog will be yourchosenname.blogspot.com. You can choose from a large number of designs and options, and posting is quick and easy.

Delicious is a social bookmarking site. You can save bookmarks to sites as you find them and categorise them however you wish. You can also find sites that others have similarly categorised, which can save you a lot of time when researching a topic or place.

Facebook is a social networking site used by 500 million people around the world to connect with friends and family. It is easy to find people and for them to find you, if you want them to. As long as you change the privacy settings as soon as you join, and don’t click on anything you don’t understand, you will be safe from harm.

FamilySearch Wiki is a collection of over 40,000 articles on many aspects of genealogy research around the world. Articles can be added and changed by anyone, making it progressively more comprehensive.

Flickr is a photo and video sharing website. You can share as many photos as you like (within reason) with as many or as few people as you like. Photos of ancestors and places of historic value can be made public to attract others interested in the same people and places, and uploaded to the National Library of Australia’s Picture Australia.

Google Docs is a free office suite of applications that allows you to share documents and collaborate with others. Word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, drawings and forms are all available. They are accessible to you anywhere as long as you can connect to the internet. You can keep them private or make them available to others to view or edit.

Google Reader is the most popular method of reading the blogs to which you have subscribed. You can open it in a full page in your web browser or in a small corner of your Google homepage, and quickly whip through a lot of posts from many different blogs in a short time.

Skype is a free program that allows you to make secure voice and video calls to other Skype users anywhere in the world over the internet. You just need an internet connection and a computer with a microphone and speaker such as a laptop, or an inexpensive headset. You can also buy a Skype phone to use like a regular phone, and make calls to regular phones, although they charge for this service.

Twitter is a ‘microblog’, where you can make short posts of 140 characters or less to give links to photos, websites, blog posts, or just ask questions and hold conversations. Twitter posts, or tweets, are searchable so you can find people interested in the same things as you. So many people and organisations use Twitter to let us know what they are doing that you can always learn something useful.

YouTube is a video sharing site that allows you to upload videos and share them with a few people or with everyone. You can search for videos on family history and other topics from archives, libraries, genealogy record companies and many other organisations.

I use most of these sites on a day-to-day basis. Many of them are now part of my daily life. I talk to my immediate family; share documents and photos; save bookmarks; read blogs and check Twitter on a regular basis. Although my own blogs are not hosted by Blogger, prefering to use my own hosting, I recommend it highly for first-time bloggers.

Try some of these out; do some searching; and see what you can find. You might be surprised. And hooked!

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