New Years is still over a week away, and I have plenty of 2016 recap articles to write. But a typical tech screw-up this past weekend was a nice reminder that it’s time to revisit some fundamental and important topics in 2017. And among them is the need for a bulletproof PC backup strategy.
As always, there’s a story.
A week ago today, I blew away my NUC and reinstalled Windows 10 from scratch. In this particular case, I used Refresh This PC, an online tool you access from Settings, Update & Security, More recovery options. Why use that instead of the USB-based Setup media I always keep handy too? No particular reason: I try to keep up things, so I mix it up. Sometimes things change, and this is one way to find out.
I only had a few things to do to prepare for this procedure because I sync all my important documents and other data to the cloud—in my case OneDrive and Dropbox—and I try to make sure nothing is tied to a single PC.
But no one is perfect, and in my case, I use the desktop as a scratch space that holds that articles I’m currently working on, articles I’ve completed but not yet filed into OneDrive or Dropbox, and so on. In this particular instance, I had more files and folders on the desktop than usual because I had gone through all of the articles I wrote over the past year and created shells of “year in review” articles with links to the relevant source articles.
No problem: I know to backup, and I did so: I filed the completed stuff as usual and copied the remainder to Dropbox. A larger folder (like 35 GB large) of photos scans—as you may recall, I’ve spent much of this year scanning in old photos and destroying the originals, and many haven’t yet been filed to the cloud—was copied to my NAS, and to an external USB drive. I’ve been backing that thing up, and restoring it back to my desktop, each time I do a clean install like this.
Anyway, I reinstalled Windows and went through the usual process afterward of syncing Dropbox and OneDrive, installing the applications I use, and making a few configuration changes. And then it was back to work: The whole thing took just a few hours, and this is a nice reminder that Windows 10, despite so many complaints, is still a friendlier place than its predecessors.
Over the past week, one thing was really nagging at me: Photoshop Elements 15, which you’ll recall I purchased from the Windows Store for its liberal 10-PC install rights, simply would not install. The error number was 0x80072EFD.
So I just installed an old copy of Photoshop Elements 11 and got on with life. But then that 4K UHD display arrived, and I was reminded of the issue with older Photoshop Elements versions: They do not support display scaling. So installing version 15, suddenly, was basically a necessity. (That the first display I purchased didn’t work out is sort of beside the point, but long story short I still intend to figure out a good 4K display sometime soon.)
So I researched error 0x80072EFD, and I tried all of the suggestions I found in Microsoft’s own support forums and elsewhere on the web. Nothing worked. Eventually, I came across the suggestion to clean boot Windows 10 by turning on all the safe boot options in System Configuration (which we all think of as MSConfig because of its executable name) and by disabling everything that auto-started, via the Startup tab in Task Manager.
When I rebooted the PC, I saw something I’d not yet experienced, which is saying something when you consider the past 20+ years I’ve spent writing about and documenting how Windows works: There was no way to sign-in to the PC after you got past the lock screen. It was just a blank screen, with the lock screen background and the power, accessibility, and networking icons in the corner.
I spent an ungodly amount of time Friday afternoon and early Friday evening trying to recover from this. Using various System Recovery drives, I tried virtually everything, from the basics—Startup repair, System Restore, and so on—to more advanced methods involving various command line tools. Eventually, it was time to leave, as my wife and I had plans last night.
This morning, I woke up, plugged that Windows 10 Setup drive into one of the NUC’s USB ports, and nuked the thing from orbit again. I updated Windows 10, synced Dropbox and OneDrive, installed the applications I use—including Photoshop Elements 15, which worked just fine because software is black magic and who knows why really—and made a few configuration changes. And the I started writing this.
But here’s the thing.
As always, I was using my desktop as a scratch space. I had all those end-of-year documents ready to roll, that giant folder of scanned photos, and more. But because I had copied most of that stuff back to my desktop before—and not moved it—after last week’s reinstall, it was all still there waiting for me, in Dropbox (the documents) and on my NAS (those photos scans).
Well, most of it. I did lose a few shell documents for posts I intended to write, but none of them had any content in them for the most part. So my losses were minimal.
That said, I’d like my losses to be non-existent. And in the sense that all processes like this are an exercise in always learning from your mistakes and not repeating past problems, I’m going to think about how I might avoid this issue going forward.
But I know from the email and comments I get about backup/restore and sync that many of you are almost certainly at risk. That you’re maybe using old-fashioned methods or, worse, not taking any steps at all to protect your important data. So in 2017, I’m going to start examining this and other fundamental topics again and update and replace what I’ve written before and, where needed, add to that work with new topics.
What I’m asking of you, I guess, are which fundamental persona technology topics like this are most important to you. I want to make sure that what gets written is useful to the widest range of people possible. You can think of these things, as I do at times, as New Year’s resolutions, though they don’t necessarily need to be tied to a date. They’re universal. And they need to be revisited from time-to-time.
Jerry Pournelle is one of my key influences, and he had a saying I always liked: “I make these mistakes so you don’t have to.” I can only aspire to such a state, and in my case, it really breaks down to “I make these mistakes because I’m a freaking idiot, but at the very least maybe you can learn from my mistakes and we’ll be both be better off for it.”
Happy Holidays, folks. There’s a lot to do, and a lot to write. But I think a few down days are probably in order first.