Saturday, November 19, 2005

New PC: First Steps

First, clean off the old PC and prep it for its new owner. I'm giving it to my friend Scott, which makes me de facto tech support. Therefore, I want to include some tools and tricks that may make recovery and troubleshooting easier.

Also, there are a few interesting little bits of software and other techniques that I've been wanting to try. No better time like now, when I won't damage anything--I'm reformatting the hard drive and re-installing the OS. So there's nothing to lose. I probably take more time than I should getting things ready, but it's a good learning investment.

LESSON LEARNED: In retrospect, I should have also used a special data-wiping program to overwrite any old data on the disk before going through with the formatting or even after the formatting.

Buy and install UPS replacement battery
I finally bought the replacement backup battery for the APC BackUPS 280 unit and installed it. The battery type I want to search on in Froogle is RBC10, and replacement batteries average about $28. The install instructions are in the "APC" folder in the filing cabinet.

I'd noticed the replace-battery light buzzing red for weeks but shrugged it off. Then we had a brownout. The computer and router--everything--cut out immediately. No time to save any files for a graceful shutdown. After the power came back on, we noticed the network acting flakey--file and printer sharing, which had worked flawlessly before, didn't work at all now. I kicked myself for not replacing the battery sooner.

LESSON LEARNED: For the lack of a battery, a network was lost...

Buy an external USB hard disk and USB hub
I finally bought an external USB hard disk, a 160GB Seagate. I installed and then uninstalled the backup software, BounceBack; it was too insistent on its own settings and intrusive in other ways. Instead, I just copied all the files from C: to E: and listened to it chatter away. I'd been debating with myself to buy an external disk because I knew I'd also need to buy a USB hub, and I've been putting off spending money for most of the last year. Well, it was time to spend. Let's do this right.

Circuit City had a neat USB hub that offered two easy-access ports on the top of the device, making it convenient to plug in a flash drive or my Digisette on the fly. (The Digisette required Windows to register a new driver, though the driver already existed on the hard drive.) Plus, the hub is stackable in case you need to add more. Into the hub I plugged the printer, my Clie stand, and the Seagate. Plus, the new PC will have USB 2.0, whereas the old PC had USB 1.1, so I'm looking forward to faster transfers.

For backing up files, I use Karen's Replicator, a very nice free tool that lets you set up and schedule individual file-replication jobs. I just set Replicator to update any changed file on the disk to the external drive. Simplicity itself and it never ran for long. Every couple of days, I ran the job to make sure all my latest files were up there. I don't really bother with incremental backups or any of that. Just copy them all. I don't have synchronization turned on, so files I delete on C: will remain in place on the external drive. That's fine.

LESSON LEARNED: No lesson, just putting the pieces in place that will support good habits.

Sure you've backed up all the files you'll need later?
Big lesson learned: scan the help files of the programs you use regularly; heck, just go down each program in the Program Files folder. Is it one you use often? How often? Often enough that you'll want to use the data later? Is it as easy as copying the files over to the new PC?

In most cases, yes, it is. AI Roboform, for example, lets you import its data files with no problem. Firefox lets you import all of your bookmarks from another location. The Manager program doesn't export categories you create. It's easy enough to copy the files over from the external drive later, but I'll have to spend an hour or so re-categorizing every bloody file.

Quicken 2003 was also a bugger. I should have read the help and exported the data files to a QIF that I could import into a new install later. I didn't, and there seems to be no way to get all those years of data into the new install. Yeesh. I'll talk about this in a later post. It may be a blessing in disguise.

Create a fresh XP install disk
The HP Pavilion came with a set of Windows ME recovery discs. Great. However, at the HP web site I read that once you upgrade the PC to XP, the recovery discs don't work no more. Great.

At this point, I remember Fred Langa and others talking about creating your own XP recovery disks by taking the original XP disc, slipstreaming the Service Pack 2 release into it, and then burning a new XP install CD that has all the up-to-date security patches. Fred's article focused on a snazzy new flavor, called Bart's PE disk.

I thought it would be good for Scott to have this just in case, and it would be a good exercise for me.
Here's the Langa article, but you can also find lots of links via Google or

Of course, nothing works that easy. All told, I burned away most of a Saturday trying to create Bart's PE disk. What helped was using Autostreamer and reading up on the Bart's PE disk forums; the final disk I wound up creating was by Autostreamer, which worked like a dream. Bart's PE is a good idea but I'll have to revisit it later; I see its value, but its value to me is low right now.

I notated all this fruitless activity, what helped and what didn't, in the big-ass text file I maintain in Notetab Pro.

On Sunday, I reformatted the disk and installed XP with SP2 on the disk. Since I'm on DSL (Scott's still on dial-up), I also downloaded and installed the post-SP2 security patches. I also installed AVF anti-virus software.

Partitioning and imaging
I've been infected by Fred Langa's repeated writings of his backup method. First, partition your disk by the type of files that need to be backed up; there's usually only a small set of files that really need to be backed up regularly. Other types of files only need to be backed up occasionally.

So, he recommends a small partition for the Windows system files that also holds My Documents; these files are the ones you want to replace in a hurry. Then divvy up the drive as you see fit.

Regularly image the C:\ drive, but back up the partitions as often as you think necessary. Now, if you have a system crash, you can use the imaging software to restore the last good working configuration of your system and your files. It shouldn't take long to recover from something disastrous.

Fred recommended BootItNG (BING) as an all-in-one partitioning and imaging. I downloaded it, wrestled with the cold and rather geeky interface over several evenings, setting small goals to be achieved each night. But in the end, it worked great the first time. I partitioned the disk on the fly so that C: was about 8GB, and the rest of the drive remained open. I thought it was best to keep it simple.

If only BING had worked so smoothly for me on the new PC. But that will come in a later post.

Buy those neat power-strip liberator plugs
For myself, I also bought these neat plug extensions that let me use every outlet on my UPS.

Don't throw out those old CDs
I want to find a way to recycle all my old CDs I burned or CDs of old programs I don't want to keep around anymore. There's Greendisk, but I discovered our local hazardous waste recycling facility, in addition to handling batteries (like old dead UPS batteries), monitors, and old PCs, also advertises itself as taking CDs. So I put all the old CDs I didn't need anymore on a spindle and will take them the next time we do a recycling run.