Easter Backup Tips

Easter Backup Tips

The long weekend is only hours away, so if you’ve got a few spare minutes over Easter, why not get your data in order & sort out some backups. Save yourself the dread of losing all your documents or photos, and then sit back and eat some chocolate eggs!

Simple Start

First, when people talk about backups, they actually mean just make copies of your files. It sounds obvious, but this is often misunderstood. If you have a few really important files, you can make a backup of them my copying them somewhere else. That could be a memory stick, SD card, CD, DVD, Dropbox, whatever. The important thing is when you’ve copied the file, do not delete the original. For a backup to be useful, it must be a copy of some data.

The Plan

If you want to take things a step further, you probably want a way to automate the backup process. That way, your computer keeps track of new & updated files, and you don’t need to think too much about it.

Step 1

You ideally want to have enough space in your main computer to hold all your important data. This may mean investing in a larger hard drive or SSD, but is by far the easiest way to stay safe. Now whenever you use the computer, you always store the files on the large internal disk. This means any backups you make can simply be copies of this main disk.

To sidetrack slightly, imagine if you instead stored photos on one external disk, documents on your laptop, and movies on another disk. This would be a nightmare to keep backed up, as you would constantly need to attach and reattach different disks.

Step 2

Now all your data is stored on the main disk inside your computer, backups are simple. On a Mac, point Time Machine at your external disk. On a PC, point Windows Backup to your external disk. Both will create a copy of your main disk, and then take care of scheduling future copies to keep you up to date.

Never store files manually onto the external disk, as you will lose them if the disk fails. Now, when you make new files on your computer they will eventually get backed up to your external disk too. Just remember to either keep it plugged in, or plug it in regularly to catch up.

Step 3

Once you have a single backup sorted, you might think of a few ways you could still end up losing data. For example, if the external disk is always plugged in, any spike through the power lines could kill off both disks in one go. It does happen, even if you have a surge protector! Also, what if there was a fire or flood. Both disks side by side could get damaged. Then there is also the risk of the computer and all the surrounding equipment being stolen.

Luckily, there are also ways to protect yourself here too. A simple way would be to use another external disk to make a backup, but then unplug it and store it in a safe somewhere. It could be in a family member’s house, or at work, or anywhere really. Ideally not in the same building as the other disks, to cut down the chances of all disks being lost at once.

There is another way to avoid the worry of storing another disk outside your house. Online backup. Sometimes known as cloud backup, online backups give you storage on a server somewhere, and a small program on your computer to send the data over. We’ve heard great things about Backblaze for online backups. Their ex-Apple engineers have created a really simple service, that’s super cheap with unlimited storage.


So now, with your backup disk humming away on your desk, and your files beaming over to a Backblaze server online, you can relax and stop worrying about losing all your files.

If you’re reading this too late and have already lost data, get in touch and we’ll see if there’s any way to get it back.

Apple Mail Blank Screen on Rebuild in Mavericks

Portsmouth & Southsea Mac Support

I had an issue in searching for content within Apple Mail. Every time I tried to search for any particular phrase the Mail application crashed and closed instantly. So I decided to Rebuild the Mailboxes. Before doing this I checked that my latest Time Machine backup had carried out successfully. (It had.)

Once confirmed I clicked Rebuild from the Mailbox drop down menu. Instantly all the mail disappeared and I was left wondering whether it was doing anything. I was patient and waited to see what would happen and sure enough after a couple of minutes all my mail re-appeared intact.

What worried me was that there was no indication that the rebuild was being done. No progress bar or spinning wheel, just an empty window. If I had been impatient I could easily have force quit the rebuild process thinking the application had crashed. That would have resulted in an Apple Mail restore to be sure.

On the Apple Website details are very basic. So, be patient, go for a walk and then come back and see if the rebuild worked.


What To Do When You Run Out Of Space

It’s a common problem that as we generate more data each year we start running out of space to put it. This is now even more of an issue in the smartphone market, where built-in cameras are generating increasingly large photos and videos, without providing much in the way of additional storage. The most common iPhones are still 16 & 32GB but the photos they now produce can be megabytes in size, with videos easily reaching 1GB.

What To Do When You Run Out Of Space
What To Do When You Run Out Of Space

It’s tempting to take that data and put it somewhere else, so either a laptop or external hard drive. Then once you’ve copied it all you delete it from the phone and gain back all that space. Problem solved.

Not So Fast…
If that copy on your laptop is now the only copy, then you could be one spilt coffee from disaster. If the laptop goes up in smoke, gets stolen, dropped or any of the myriad other ways of failing then it’s bye bye data.

The Fix

The key to making backups is redundancy. The key to making backups is redundancy. The key to making backups is redundancy.

You need to make extra copies of your data to different types of storage. This could be an external hard drive, NAS, USB Pen, SD card, anything. But don’t just pick one of those. Make a few backups. Put one in a locked safe somewhere. Send photos off to the cloud. Store a copy of your music at your nan’s house. If any of those copies gets lost or broken you can just replace it with another copy.

So let’s run through an example. All those photos on your iPhone have filled it up. Here’s what I would do:

  1. Copy the photos to my computer. Check them.
  2. Backup the computer as usual. (You’re already doing that, right?)
  3. Make another backup, or copy the photos to an online storage service like Dropbox.
  4. Now it is safe to delete the photos from the iPhone and revel in all that fresh space.

Note: Deleted photo recovery is virtually impossible for all modern iPhone versions due to encryption. 

Here’s another example for when your computer runs out of space instead:

  1. Is it possible to upgrade the internal storage? If it is then you should do that.
  2. If this is not possible, or too expensive then you will have to get creative. It will be more fiddly but copy all data to two external hard drives.
  3. You always want to avoid just leaving your data in one place. All electronic devices can (and will) fail, and they have a terrible habit of doing so at the worst possible moment.

So, just remember that no single copy of your files are safe. Making extra copies is cheaper and easier than waiting until something fails.

Thanks to Alexander Armstrong for inspiring this post.

Time Machine Must Create A New Backup For You

Time Machine must create new backup for you
Time Machine must create new backup for you

The other day I got an error message from Time Machine that it wanted to start from scratch with the backups on my Time Capsule. As I only use the Time Capsule as one part of my backup routine that was no big deal. I made sure my other non Time Capsule backups were up to date and then clicked Start New Backup. But what if the Time Capsule had been my only backup? I’d have been running without a backup for as long as Time Machine takes to backup my machine from scratch. Somehow I’ve trimmed my work laptop down to 78GB but it still estimated 6-14 hours until completion. (Yes, over wireless. No, I can’t relocate my office for the day.) What if my laptop died in that time? I’d have a dead laptop, a deleted Time Machine backup and an unfinished Time Machine Backup. In other words I’d be stuffed!

Now don’t get me wrong, I think that Time Machine has been brilliant in getting people making regular backups and I applaud the ease of use. The problem I have is that the language they use in their warnings is not strong enough. People should be more scared of losing their precious family photos or business files. There’s no need to sugar coat it. Also instead of deleting the old backup first, Time Machine should start a new backup and then delete the old one after the new one is verified. As long as there is enough free space of course. In my case there was plenty of free space.

I have included the original warning text below, along with my own version. I’ve not gone totally overboard, and sure it could use some work, but little details like this could really costs somebody some important data. It’s worth spending some time on.

Original Message Text

Transcript: Time Machine completed a verification of your backups on “Time Capsule”. To improve reliability, Time Machine must create a new backup for you.

Click Start New Backup to create a new backup. This will remove your existing backup history. This could take several hours.

Click Back Up Later to be reminded tomorrow. Time Machine won’t perform backups during this time.

My Version

Time Machine must create new backup for you. Fixed
Time Machine must create new backup for you. Fixed

Transcript: Time Machine has found a problem with your backups on “Time Capsule”. First backup any important files, then click Start New Backup. This will create a new backup and then delete the old one. This could take several hours and you will be at risk of data loss until it completes.

Click Back Up Later to be reminded tomorrow. Time Machine won’t perform backups during this time.


There are a few interesting things to point out here. As you are starting from scratch with the backup, you lose any old versions of files that Time Capsule had stored. It’s bad practice but some people will happily delete files from their computer, safe in the knowledge that Time Capsule has a copy. In that scenario, deleting the backup would be a disaster!

I still don’t know exactly what caused the problem with my Time Capsule backup, but since starting again I haven’t seen that message.

When Backups Go Bad

When Backups Go Bad
When Backups Go Bad

We often hear from people that have lost their data, despite having some sort of backup. It’s important to remember that your backup is no-longer a backup if it becomes the only copy of your data. We usually suggest having at least two forms of backup to cover this problem.

We recently revisited this topic.


An example of a failed backup strategy came recently. A user had one server, and at the end of every day would duplicate the whole server to another server. This is OK for some scenarios and gives you a day-old server ready to bring out if your main server fails. We would have also suggested a second backup routine to run at the same time to some other storage. Preferably an external drive, accessible from a standard computer.

The system worked fine for over a year, until server 1 failed one day. Instead of replacing the disks and then restoring from the backup, it was decided to reuse the original disks and then load them from the backup. They overwrote server 1 with the backup from server 2.

When the restore was complete, it was discovered that the data on server 2 was actually corrupt. This corrupt data had also been written back to server 1. The client ended up with two corrupt servers, and no good copies of the data. Worst case scenario.

You will often hear that deleted data isn’t really deleted. This is kind of true, but only until you overwrite the data with something else. By writing server 2’s data over server 1, that effectively overwrote the original data, and left no possible avenues of recovery.

RAID Mirrors

RAID Data Recovery
RAID Data Recovery

Another common problem we see is with external RAID cases like the Netgear ReadyNAS. These can be setup in a mirror mode which keeps the same data on both disks. Theoretically when one disk fails, the other can still be accessed. In reality the failed NAS will often end up in an unusable state where access to the data is not possible anyway. Even if you plug the hard drive directly into a PC, the NAS drives use a non-standard format so the data is not accessible.


The best way to avoid getting caught out by your backups is to never trust them. Be more paranoid. If you think you have a solid backup system then add another backup, just in case. Then next year add another. Most of the time it will seem irrelevant, but when your server and backup drives all get struck by lightning or end up flooded under six feet of water, you’ll be glad you spent the extra few pounds on an extra backup.

Extra Credit.

If you’re already using a Time Machine backup on your Mac then why not supplement that with a monthly whole-disk copy to a different drive. Carbon Copy Cloner or SuperDuper! can take care of it. This also has the advantage of being instantly bootable in an emergency and can even be stored in a locked safe, or at a friends’s house.

Data Survival Guide Mac

Many hard drives we see have been more damaged by a failed recovery than they were in the first place. We have released the Data Survival Guide to help people avoid some of the common mistakes. This first version is for Mac users but we have more on the way.

Why not print this out and keep it in your laptop bag in case of emergency!

Data Survival Guide Mac
Data Survival Guide Mac

SSD Data Recovery

SSD Data Recovery
SSD Data Recovery

SSDs (Solid State Drives) may one day become the standard form of storage in computers. Apple laptops are already heading that way. There are certainly many advantages when comparing SSDs to HDDs (Hard Disk Drives), however they do bring their own problems, which are often not well reported. We don’t care how good SSDs can be. We care about how they fail. It’s common to hear things like: “I’m replacing my hard drive with an SSD so I won’t have to worry about it crashing again.” While this is technically true – there are no moving parts to crash – there are plenty of other ways an SSD can fail. Whether it’s technically crashed or not doesn’t matter at all when you can’t access your files. It’s a shame but an SSD does not get you out of the boring task of running regular backups.

There are some pros and cons which specifically affect data recovery from SSDs. I haven’t listed things like battery life or read / write speed as they are not relevant when it comes to recovering data from them.

SSD Data Recovery Pros:

  • Shock resistance. No moving parts to crash.
  • Just as susceptible to filesystem issues, deletion, reformatting, bad sectors etc which can be recovered using existing equipment.

SSD Cons:

  • False sense of security. The word reliable comes up a lot in SSD marketing with phrases like “More reliable, faster, and more durable than traditional magnetic hard drives.” Maybe research exists that shows SSDs are less prone to failure but it doesn’t seem to be the case at the moment. Anything that holds your valuable data runs the risk of getting drenched, getting stolen, getting lost, and that’s before we even take general failures into account.
  • Susceptible to electronic failure, Maybe more so than a hard drive as the storage and electronics are combined in SSDs. Some of the most common hard drive failures are caused by errors in the firmware which controls the performance of the drive. SSDs have very complex firmware, which opens the possibility of firmware corruption. In most cases firmware corruption will block access to your data.
  • Encryption. Most modern SSDs encrypt the data at a hardware level, which makes it impossible to remove data chips and extract data from them externally (you can do it, but the data is encrypted). The keys to the encryption are often stored within the controller chip, so if that fails, you could be locked out of your data for good. Modern encryption works well. You can’t get round it.
  • Wear-levelling algorithms. Which move the data around the SSDs to improve performance, can make recovery difficult as these algorithms would need to be taken into account when accessing a failed SSD. They don’t store data in logical order like hard drives do.

Hard Drive Crash During OS Upgrade

It is common to hear of hard drive problems happening as a result of a system update, or operating system upgrade. We have a theory that could possible explain this.

First of all, you should always make a full backup of your system before installing an update. It’s not unheard of for updates to go wrong, so this is crucial.

Hard Drive Crash During OS Upgrade / Update

During a software update, a large amount of data gets read and written to and from the hard drive. If the hard drive is functioning fine, this happens without issues. Installing updates is a normal (and necessary) part of computing.

If the hard drive is not quite 100%, then maybe running a software update is the last straw. It puts the failing drive under a bit of extra strain and bang. The hard drive fault which had been lying dormant for months, now rears it’s head and the hard drive gives up, leaving you stranded from your data. Bear in mind that the drive would have failed eventually anyway, but the heavy disk usage probably accelerated the failure.

There are a couple of things to look out for, that may predict an imminent hard drive failure. (Please don’t wait for these signs before backing up. Do it now!)

  • Warnings or messages during boot up
  • Computer being unresponsive / slow at times
  • The dreaded beachball animation (On the Mac)
  • Clicking / chirping noises

If you are running any computer with important data, you should back up immediately and as often as possible. That way it doesn’t matter if your hard drive fails; just throw in a new drive and reload it from your backup.

Recovering Deleted Data

In the vast majority of cases, deleted data is actually still lurking around on your hard drive. If you put data in the Recycle Bin or Trash, and them empty it, all you are actually doing is telling the system that it can reuse those parts of the disk when it wants. Until you replace those areas with new data, the old data will still be there.

Recovering Deleted Data

The Filing Cabinet

The tried and trusted analogy is of a filing cabinet. When you delete a file, you are removing the index card from the front of the drawer, but the actual file is still in there.

This is why it is really important to switch off your computer as soon as possible if you have accidentally deleted some files. You may not realise but even small actions like checking e-mail or browsing the internet can write cache files to the disk. That is when data could be lost.

Overwritten / Deleted Data

We often hear about the FBI being able to recover overwritten files. While this may have been possible on very old – low capacity hard drives (~100MB), it is unlikely to be possible on modern hard drives. The magnetic material is far too densely packed. Even then, it would only be tiny fragments of data recovered, and not whole files.

The Problem With SSDs

Solid state drives bring a whole new problem of their own. Due to the way the data is distributed around the device, known as wear levelling, you can never be sure of which sector you are writing or overwriting. Wear levelling is necessary to prolong the life of an SSD, but it means the drive could be moving data around behind the scenes, making deleted files much more difficult to track down.


In most cases, we can recover deleted files with the original file names and folders. With deleted Mac data, this is often not possible. In that case we have to use a special type of scan, which finds all files of a given type and saves them to numbered files. This means camera photos may be recovered into a JPG folder, with files named like photo0001.jpg, photo0002.jpg and so on.

If required we can process certain types of these files into more meaningful order. For photos we can arrange into folders by date taken, and for music files we can arrange into Artist / Album order.

The Important Bit

If you accidentally delete some files, they are likely to be recoverable. It’s the actions you take next which can make the recovery difficult – if not impossible.

Apple Mac Time Machine Back Up

I have lost count on the amount of times we have received hard drives for data recovery from Mac customers, who are not aware of the Time Machine back software. Time Machine has been preinstalled in every version of OS X since 10.5. This software is easy to setup, and once the first backup of the internal hard drive is complete, it will then carry on backing up as you create new data.

As a small business or personal user it is ideal for your everyday backup needs.