No seriously, Wal-Mart is still open so go buy an external drive and start backing up your data if you aren’t already. Once that backup is done, verify that it worked.

I dunno about you but I value a good portion of the data I keep tucked away on my computers. I have documents, old college work, contacts, music and most importantly, pictures and videos of my kids. To lose any of it because I didn’t take the time to make copies of it would be devastating. Especially when you consider just how many options are available today and how easy they are to use. There really is no excuse not to be backing up your important data.

Before I get into just how you backup your data, lets take a look at a few of the reasons why you should:

  • Hard drives fail. They all will eventually. This cannot be stressed enough. You should always consider your hard drive to be on the verge of failure and be delighted that it hasn’t yet.
  • Mistakes happen. Ever deleted something you didn’t mean to delete?
  • Corruption happens. Maybe you’re a huge iTunes fan but somehow you’ve lost all of your ratings
  • Acts of God like fire, flood and lightening are always well tolerated by computers
  • Theft. Laptops especially are a target for theft. Unlike your data, the laptop can be replaced readily

The latest versions of the two major operating systems*, Mac OS X 10.5+ and Windows 7, include backup tools right out of the box are simple to setup and require nothing more than an external hard drive be attached to the computer. If you want to get more advanced or want a second method of backup rest assured there is no shortage of available backup solutions available on the market. Many of them will cost some amount of money but there are a good number of free ones as well. I’m only going to touch on what Mac OS X and Windows 7 provides as well as one other alternative.

Mac OS X since 10.5 (Leopard) includes Apple’s approach to backup called Time Machine. There simply is not a product out there on any other platform that is as integrated and easy to use as Time Machine. To use Time Machine you attach an new external hard drive and when prompted by OS X if you’d like to use the drive as a Time Machine drive, click yes. OS X will then format the drive, if needed, and begin the initial backup. From there OS X will perform a backup every hour that your computer is on. If you ever need to restore a file you can do so using the Time Machine interface available right off the menu bar. If you ever need to restore your entire system you boot off your install CD and use the “Restore from Time Machine” function. Done deal.

Windows has long included a backup tool but it was never as well thought out as the one in Windows 7. If your computer is running Windows Vista it is well worth your money to upgrade to Windows 7. To enable backups on Windows 7 click the start menu and search for backup. You will see an entry for Backup and Restore. Click it and follow the resulting Wizard. Windows 7 will create a system restore image that you burn to disc and then creates backups from that point on. Windows 7 isn’t my primary operating system and I really can’t comment on how or how well the restore system works.

If you don’t like the baked in solutions in either operating system, don’t have a newer version of Mac OS X or Windows, run Linux or simply want a different solution than what is provided, have a serious look at CrashPlan. I’m in no way affiliated with the folks at CrashPlan but I can confirm with first hand experience that CrashPlan just works. CrashPlan allows you to backup certain portions of your computer running any version of Windows since XP, Linux and Mac to multiple different locations. These locations include another computer, a friends computer using a special code, a folder on an external drive and if you want to keep your data at an off-site location on the internet, you can do so for a small fee. All other destinations are completely free.

For my Mac systems I use Time Machine and on top of that CrashPlan for the pictures and videos of my children. At any given moment there are four copies of the pictures and videos, one copy on my MacBook, one in the Time Machine backup, one on my work computer and one more copy on my home Linux server. My work computer acts as my off-site backup in the event some disaster strikes our home.

I hope this post strikes a cord with at least a few people who might read it. I’ve helped a number of people repair their computer after an OS or hard drive crash where something important was lost. I hate seeing the look on the person’s face when I tell them their data is simply gone, or possibly recoverable at a hefty price.

Questions? Leave a comment.

I know someone who just picked up a new Mac and it got me to thinking, I bet people new to the Mac platform don’t know about all of the great software you can find for the Mac. I thought I’d write up a post on some of my favorite free and paid apps.

  • Firefox
  • RipIt: DVD ripping made easy
  • Adium: Multi-protocol chat
  • Growl: Must have notification system
  • NetNewsWire: RSS reader that syncs with Google Reader
  • BootChamp: Simple menu for rebooting directly into your BootCamp OS installation
  • Tweetie: Twitter client
  • iTerm: I can’t let go of this great ssh client.
  • 1Password: Store all of your passwords. LastPass is free alternative that is more cross platform
  • Automator: Built in robot too useful not to mention
  • Caffeine: Sometimes you just don’t want your Mac to dim the display or go to sleep.
  • Colloquy: Decent IRC client
  • Cord: Remote Desktop Client for Mac.
  • CrashPlan: Time Machine is good but I just have to have a second way of backing up all of our photos. CrashPlan really does a good job and has saved me.
  • HandBrake: Very good video encoder and DVD ripper (requires VLC)
  • Loginox: Swap out that ridiculous login screen image.
  • MarcoPolo: Change preferences based on your location or “context.”
  • MacFusion: Mount/Map ssh/sftp servers in Finder allowing any app to directly access remote files
  • smcFanControl: The Mac generally does a good job with the fan but there are times when having it cranked up on high is a good thing, especially for your lap.
  • NTFS-3G: Mount NTFS drives as read/write
  • SmartSleep: Preference pane that allows you to adjust how your Mac sleeps or hibernates

I think that about covers it. There are far more applications in my applications directory but the apps I listed are must haves in my book. If there are any apps you think I missed leave a comment.

I just realized that my new theme broke my pages. This is fixed. I also just realized that some of the pages were pulling images from my old gallery that I’m unable to find good hosting for right now. I’ll fix the images as soon as I can.

A while back I installed Windows 7 on my work laptop so I could give it a real trial. Since installing it I’ve been using it to some capacity almost daily and now after a couple of months I thought I’d write out a few of the things Windows 7 gets right and a few of the things that could use some fixing.

What Windows 7 Gets Right

Windows 7 is a big improvement over Vista. It boots quicker, introduces a remixed taskbar, better window management, fixes a number of interfaces issues that Vista had like managing wireless networks and it makes Windows Explorer much more useful. And, while there are a lot of tests out there that show Windows 7 isn’t actually faster than Vista, Windows 7 certainly feels faster and that is arguably much more important.

Start Up and Shutdown
Improved start up and shutdown speeds have been a selling point of most Windows releases since Windows 95 but no release has ever really delivered on that promise. If anything, better start up and shutdown speeds have been because of hardware improvements over the years, not the OS. Vista promised to bring with it improved start up and shutdown as well but it would seem the engineers had trouble actually delivering on that promise once again. Instead, Vista cheated by using sleep and suspend to mask the amount of time it took the OS to start up and shutdown. So, once Vista had been booted up choosing shutdown would put the computer to sleep or suspend. To truly shutdown or reboot the computer the user had to visit a secondary menu.

Of course, Windows isn’t the only operating system promising better start up and shutdown speeds but it wasn’t until this year that someone was finally able to really deliver on the promise of faster start up and shutdown. When Ubuntu 9.04 arrived, it shattered the status quo delivering start up times that seemed much more inline with the amount of power modern computers offer. While Windows 7 doesn’t seem to quite match Ubuntu’s speed it does seem that Microsoft was able to actually improve things enough that they no longer had to rely on the tricks that they used in Vista. Clicking shutdown now causes the OS to actually shutdown.

The Taskbar
The Windows taskbar isn’t something I’ve felt was an issue. In fact, I’ve always thought it was just fine. I’d typically expand the bar so it was a bit taller and put the quick launch icons under the application buttons. In Windows 7 however Microsoft has dramatically changed how it works and the end result works very well. It is clearly superior to the taskbar model it replaces by offering real time previews of running apps or even Internet Explorer tabs by simply hovering over a running application’s icon. From there you can hover your mouse over a preview and Windows will make all other Windows transparent so you can see the full version where ever it might be on your monitor. You can easily pin new applications to the taskbar by dragging them or right clicking the icon of a running application and choosing “pin to taskbar.”

There are however a couple of issues worth pointing out, both of which could probably be fixed in an update or service pack. Installing an updated version of an application will break the icon on the taskbar. It simply won’t work until you remove the old icon and place it there again. The other problem is that using the taskbar beyond it’s obvious functions is difficult to discover. Clicking the application icon always displays the running application, but what if you want a new window? The secret is to hold down the shift key while clicking the application icon. This will cause a new instance or window of the application to launch instead of simply showing the running version. If you want to launch an application and run it as Administrator, hold control and shift while clicking the application icon. Microsoft would do well by providing some way to educate the user on how to use the new taskbar.

Window Management
Microsoft is always being accused of stealing features and ideas from Apple and sometimes I believe they do. The new taskbar for instance is very dock like but does add an innovative new twist to the idea. But in the case of window management Microsoft has, for once, truly one upped Apple and Apple should really consider implementing a similar if not exactly the same set of features.

Windows 7 introduces several new ways of sizing windows automatically. A user has always been able to resize a window by dragging it bigger on any corner or side of the application window. Windows 7 however now allows you to simply drag the entire window to a sort of hot spot to resize it. Drag a window to the top of the screen and Windows 7 will maximize the window. Drag it to the left or right and Windows will resize it to the full height of the screen but only 50% of the width. This makes it extremely easy get two applications side by side on a single monitor.

Interface Tweaks
One of the things I simply couldn’t get over in Windows Vista was how poorly implemented the wireless network interface was. In fact, the entire networking interface was overly complicated. While most of the networking interface is just complicated as it was in Vista, the part that you’ll use the most is much improved and now works exactly as it does under OS X or Linux. You simply click the icon and choose an available wireless network.

The Explorer was another item in Vista I found awful. It was cluttered and confusing. Windows 7 again seems to have taken one from the Apple playbook and Explorer is now much more usable. A number of sensible default shortcuts are available on the left side and you can easily add more. Over all, Explorer feels much less confusing and cluttered.

What Windows 7 Gets Wrong
Despite all of the things Windows 7 gets right, there are a few things that simply don’t work or just aren’t useful. Below I’ve listed a couple of my biggest Windows 7 gripes.

Aero Peek and Show Desktop
Of all the new features of Windows 7, Aero Peek is arguably the most pointless. Placing the mouse in the lower right corner causes Windows to make all of the windows translucent so that you can see through them and see the desktop. This is great, except now that I can see the desktop I want to be able to access what is there. Moving your mouse away from the bottom right causes all of the windows to become opaque again. In order to actually access what is on the desktop you have to click the bottom right corner. This causes all application windows to simply go away, as if they’re minimized. Why bother with Aero Peek at all?

Also, show desktop is still a broken feature when compared to Exposé on OS X. Clicking show desktop causes all application windows to go away. If you click it again all application windows will, usually, appear back where they were with the right application in focus. If you click an application icon before clicking show desktop again, the whole “set” is lost. You can’t return your desktop they way it was unless you now manually click each application icon.

Aero Shake
Another new feature is Aero Shake. Aero Shake mimics an OS X feature that allows you to hide all other Applications. The problem with Aero Shake is that it is an awkward gesture. You activate Aero Shake by clicking and holding on the Window you want and then shaking it for a bit. In theory it seems sound and simple, in practice it feels awkward.

Another issue with Aero Shake is that it reveals a key difference between Windows and OS X. Under OS X, an application is NOT the same as the window. It’s entirely possible (and very useful) for an application to be running but not have any visible windows. When an application has focus in OS X you can hide that application by pressing command+H or by choosing “Hide ApplicationName” from the application menu where ApplicationName is the name of the application. The opposite of that is similar to Aero Shake does. From the same menu you have the option to hide all other applications, leaving any windows that belong to that application still visible.

Windows however doesn’t differentiate between a window and an application because in Windows, the window IS the application. This makes Aero Shake, aside from the goofy gesture, less useful in my opinion.

Windows 7 is what Windows Vista should have been. If you’re Windows fan then Windows 7 is something to truly be excited about. If you’re an XP user and you’ve been hanging on to it because of all the bad things you heard about Vista, wait no more. Especially if you bought a Vista “capable” or “ready” machine and then downgraded to XP. If you truly need XP for compatibility be sure to pick up at least the professional version and then download the XP mode package from Microsoft. XP mode is a preconfigured Windows XP system running in Microsofts VirtualPC and the end result is fantastic. You can upgrade to a modern Windows system and still run apps or hardware that will only work under XP.

I decided to download the Windows 7 Beta and I’ve gotten it installed on my laptop. I don’t have a lot of time into it but so far some of the things I’ve seen are big improvements to the disaster that is Vista. Along the way I’ve also unearthed some very obvious Apple envy, most of which is poorly implemented or thought out at this point.

One of my biggest gripes about Vista was the way you interacted with the networking hardware, specifically joining a wireless network. It seems like such a small thing but on a laptop it is something a person deals with on a nearly daily basis. Under Vista the process was overly complicated, convoluted even. The process required far more clicks than should be necessary to join a wireless network. Windows 7 actually copies OS X and provides a simple button near the click that when clicked, reveals a list of available wireless networks.

Windows 7 also sports a controversial new task bar. The new task bar strongly mimics the Dock from OS X in that it houses both running and non-running applications at the same time. Windows deviates from the OS X formula by intermixing application shortcuts with folder and document short cuts. I really haven’t spent enough time with the new task bar to really decide if I like it or not. I can say however that I like being able to hover over an icon and see all open windows complete with screen shot. This is actually a pretty nice feature.

So really, that about sums up what I really like so far. There are however a few things that don’t seem fully thought out.

One new feature is the ability to see through any open windows so you can see what is on the desktop. This is fine and all but typically a person doesn’t just want to see what is on the desktop, but probably wants to use something from the desktop as well. They also force you to place the shortcut in the lower right, or where ever you have your task bar positioned.

Another odd choice in Windows 7 is the decision to not include some very basic functionality by today’s standards. Windows 7 doesn’t provide, out of the box, any email or instant messaging clients. Even more bizarre is that Windows 7 doesn’t include Windows Movie Maker, but it does include Windows DVD Maker. Email, IM and Windows Movie Maker (among others) are available as part of an “essentials” package. If they’re so essential why not include them. As some might point out, Microsoft has gotten into some anti-trust trouble in the past for including these functions. Despite that, not including such basic functionality in today’s world seems inexcusable. Obviously OEM’s will most likely provide these functions for end users.

Despite my critical take on Windows 7 thus far, I actually like it much better than Vista. As I spend more time with it I’ll get a feel for some of the others things I didn’t like in Vista like Windows Explorer and UAC.

If you’ve spent any time at all on this site then you know that VIM is my preferred text editor. Even though I’ve been using it for years I still learn something new about the editor from time to time. Here is something that I just figured out a couple of weeks ago. It turns out VIM provides a simple way to repeat exactly what you last did. By simply pressing the period key, VIM will repeat whatever command -or- text you last entered.

For example, lets say you’re editing an HTML file that has a list of links. Before each link you want to add a generic image. You could do this a few ways; type in the text each time, use a search and replace or copy and paste. Using period is just one more method to add to your toolbox. To use this trick, enter INSERT mode by pressing i. Enter in the text you want to enter before each link (or whatever it is you need to repeat a few times) and when you’re done press ESC. Move to the next line and press the period key. Whatever you typed previously will be inserted to the right of the cursor. You can do this as often as you like but as soon as you delete a letter, line, insert different text or whatever the “period key” shortcut will begin to do that action instead.

Another way to use this is if you’re deleting lines of text over and over. Say you want to delete 10 rows of text at a time until you’ve deleted what ever it is you need to delete. You could press d 10 down arrow and then each time you press the period key you’ll repeat the same action.