Some tips on preparing for a PC or laptop disaster – just in case. Part 1: Basic precautions

Preparing for disaster1

There may be trouble ahead. Sooner or later your PC or laptop may die and if you rely on it to earn a living you could be in some immediate trouble. If you have a second PC or laptop with all your essential apps and your data is safely backed up regularly, this won’t be too much of an urgent problem but if you rely on that one PC to bring in the bacon, then this post is aimed at you. So what happens one day when you boot your machine and nothing happens, or you’re working away and suddenly it just stops, no LEDs lit, no hard disk spinning, no fans, nothing. Or your hard disk suddenly starts making an ominous clicking sound. Or you open that dodgy email attachment and realise instantly that you’ve done the wrong thing. What would you do? Have you thought about it? Would you panic, or have you anything in place to help you out of this potential PC disaster.

Obviously, depending on your computer experience and your willingness to roll up your sleeves and sort it out, you may be able to recover your PC on your own. But if it’s your only machine you’re still going to lose some time and you mightn’t have that. So what should you do so you’re best prepared for this type of PC emergency? Let me say straight off, I’m not a PC repair guy so I’m not an expert on PC troubleshooting and recovery but I’ve read around enough to know the precautions you should take – just in case disaster strikes.

I’m going to tackle this subject in two parts. This first post is for those who don’t really want to open up their PC and change a hard drive or power supply, but who want to have everything at hand so they can be back up and running as quickly as possible. For brevity, I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of each aspect. There’s enough out there on the internet that I’d just be duplicating stuff. No, it’s going to be essentially just a quick checklist but I’ll try and point you in the direction of some good posts to help you on your way. And it’s a bit belt and braces –  you won’t have to do everything on the list. You’ll need an old fashioned folder, notepad or notebook for some of the notes you’ll need in an emergency – you obviously mightn’t be able to refer to notes on your PC! A couple of screwdrivers would be useful and a digital camera. And you’ll need a safe place for rescue CDs/DVDs.

Backup your system now

Backup your data now – Yes, yes you’ve heard it all before probably until you’re sick of hearing it but it’s simply the single most important thing you can do to prepare for a PC disaster. Backup your data to an external drive, and/or to the cloud. There are lots of free and paid imaging tools out there to do the job including the free Easeus Todo Backup and Macrium Reflect, and the paid Acronis True Image. Windows 7 also has a good backup facility to image to an external hard drive. Here’s a good article on Windows 7 backup. You could even backup your data to say a 16GB USB stick and an external hard drive for good measure. It’s always a good idea to try and keep one backup drive off site – just in case. There are lots of paid and free online backup services but if you do choose one make sure your data is encrypted there for security.

Better still, clone your hard drive – this is essentially making a mirror image of your hard disk onto a new replacement drive and backing up your data to it regularly. I’ve blogged about it before in my post about Preventing a hard disk disaster. In my opinion, this is the ultimate way  to achieve peace of mind knowing that if your hard drive dies, you (or someone capable) can replace the old drive and be up and running again in no time with an exact copy of your old drive. Easeus Todo Backup or Acronis True Image will also clone your drive for you.

Backup your drivers. It’s always a good idea to backup your drivers just in case some day you get a missing device driver warning or you do a driver update which doesn’t work out. Here’s an article on backing up and restoring drivers with DriverMax. You can restore individual drivers from DriverMax.

Backup all your browser bookmarks to the cloud using XMarks. In the event you have to reinstall your browser after a PC disaster, all your precious bookmarks can be safely restored.

Safely store all your passwords in a secure password manager such as LastPass. Don’t rely on your browser to store your passwords. If you ever have to reinstall your browser after PC meltdown, all you’ll have to remember is your LastPass master password to access all the others. Oh, and don’t use dictionary words as passwords. Use mixtures of letters, numbers and symbols if possible. Here’s a great tip from Lifehacker: Shift your fingers one key to the right for easy-to-remember but awesome passwords.

If you have one, make sure your second machine is up to date and ready to take over. If you’re lucky enough to have a second PC or laptop, make sure that it’s always ready to take over with all software you need already installed and data synced to it with, for example, DropBox.

General disaster precautions

Make sure system restore is turned on and is making regular restore points just in case you have to roll back your system files in the event of a malware attack. Here’s a post on Using system restore to recover your Windows 7 computer.

Know the key to press to access the BIOS when booting. You may need to access the BIOS to set your PC’s boot order. Your PC should be set to boot first from a DVD if this is inserted when booting. Try booting with your Windows DVD in place. If it doesn’t boot from the DVD you will have to go into the BIOS to change the boot order. Unfortunately, PC and laptop manufacturers use different keys to access the BIOS. Here’s a good guide at Tech Geek and More. Make a note of this key in your folder.

Know the key to press to boot into Safe Mode. When you boot into Safe Mode the operating system only loads the minimum software that is required for the operating system to work. Often the PC will boot into Safe Mode when normal mode is impossible. Generally it’s the F8 key for Windows systems but here’s a great guide at Bleeping Computer. Make a note of this key in your folder.

Make a Windows Recovery Disk. Here’s some instructions for making a Windows 7 recovery disk. If Windows won’t boot, this may help you to repair your Windows install. It’s obviously important to do this before you run into problems because you can’t burn a rescue disk or Live CD if your PC won’t boot!

Make a Linux rescue disk. If your system won’t boot into Windows, and you can’t find your Windows install disk (and you haven’t made recovery disks) and you haven’t backed up your data, you may be able to access your drive and data by booting up with a Linux disk in your DVD drive. As before, make the Linux rescue disk before you run into problems. There are lots of helpful posts out there but here’s a good one on backing up data from a computer that won’t boot. And here’s a great one from Lifehacker on using a thumb drive to recover your system.

Make a note of where you’ve stored your Windows install disk and all your rescue and recovery disks in your folder and a PC organizer like OneNote (if you have MS Office) or Evernote.

Take a photo of the back of your PC in case you ever have to open it or take it to a repair shop. You may need to reconnect everything again afterwards and a photo is a great way to capture the layout of all the cables. Again, store it in Evernote and your folder.

Label your cables and the back of your PC to make it easier to reconnect them.

Find a screwdriver which opens the back of your PC – you may have to reseat/replace memory sticks or reseat your video card if your PC won’t boot.

Clean out dust to avoid future overheating. Now you have a photo of the back of the PC and you can open it up, if any dust has built up around the fans, etc, clean it out using a can of compressed air. Dust can clog up your fans and reduce air circulation in your box leading to overheating, so hopefully this will ward off any future overheating problems which can stop a PC from booting.

Make an inventory of your PC’s hardware and software. If you do have to do a reinstall it’s nice to have an inventory of your system before disaster strikes. Run SIW or LookInMyPC for a complete PC audit including hardware specs, installed software, licence info and Windows product key; print out to your folder. Here’s some info on LookInMyPC.

Be prepared to recover accidentally deleted files. Install Recuva for file recovery.

Check your hard drive for possible problems with CrystalDiskInfo or SeaTools.

Monitor the temperature inside your box. Get advanced warning if your machine is running hot with HWMonitor.

PC security

Install a good security package. I’ve used AVG Free for years but switched to Microsoft Security Essentials when I upgraded to Windows 7. Looks like they’ve finally produced a top notch security package to protect their OS. If you want an extra level of security then install ThreatFire. You really shouldn’t have to pay for a good security package.

Keep software up to date: Install JavRa to keep Java up to date; Install and run Secunia to patch vulnerabilities in old versions of software by installing newer versions.

Prepare for a malware attack. Install software to help you to recover from any future malware attacks. This will save time later and you mightn’t have an internet connection after a PC disaster. I would recommend: SuperAntiSpyware and MalwareBytes Anti-Malware.

Install a website security advisor plug-in in your browser. Get advanced warning if you’re going to a dodgy website. Web of Trust and McAfee SiteAdvisor are two possibilities. I use McAfee and it doesn’t seem to slow down browsing appreciably.

Bookmark Bleeping Computer – a great site for instructions on malware removal. Bookmark it now, just in case.

PC won’t boot at all

It may seem obvious but if your PC isn’t booting at all, no LEDs are lit and no fans are spinning, check your power cable is connected and power is on. Check for a poor or loose connection. Try a spare power cable if you have one or check the fuse in the plug.

If your machine was working, suddenly stopped and won’t reboot, is the case hot? You could check for dust build up inside the case. If this is the cause of the problem, take your PC outside and blow out all the dust with a can of compressed air. If dust build up wasn’t the problem, check your video card and memory sticks are properly seated.

Router problems

Know your router IP address so you can access the router set-up screen. To get this Click Start, Run, type cmd and click okay. Type ipconfig at the command prompt and press enter. Look for the Default Gateway, it’s probably something like Then type exit to leave the command prompt. If you type this number after http:// in your browser address bar you will reach your router set-up screen (after entering your router username and password). If you can’t remember your router username and password, try the default username and password which the router was supplied with. You’ll find it here. If that doesn’t work because you changed these details, you can reset it back to the factory default values. Here’s a good post about resting your router password. But be sure to choose your own router username and password again later. Make a note of the router IP address and your router username and password in your folder for future reference.

Take a photo or screen shot of the router set-up screen. Store it in Evernote and your folder. Also do this before you upgrade your router, if the old one still works. Keep hold of the old router as a backup in case you need it again. You’ve now captured the router set-up details and can reset the information if you run into router problems.

Use WPA encryption. Now that you are in router set-up, check that you are using WPA and not WEP encryption for added security.

Further help

Identify a good PC repair shop in your area – Do this before you run into problems. Perhaps a friend can recommend a good shop in your area. Find out their rates, turnaround time, etc.

Sign up to some tech forums ahead of any problems so you are ready to ask advice to help you recover from your disaster. Podnutz and Tech Support Guy are good.

Additional disaster precautions for a laptop

Make a note of your laptop serial number in your folder in case of theft.

Install Prey to help track down your stolen laptop in case of theft.

Further reading

How to survive the worst PC disasters

Prepare for disaster – assembling a PC first-aid kit

Hopefully I’ve covered all the bases here at the basic precautions level. If you follow these tips and you don’t feel able to recover your own machine, your repair tech will love you as you walk in with a driver backup disk, backup external hard drive or cloned hard drive and PC inventory. Hopefully this will make his job easier and cut your repair bill.

The next part of this look at preparing for PC recovery will be slightly more roll your sleeves up, but again from the point of view of a non-PC repair technician. If I’ve I missed anything important at the basic level drop a comment below. What steps do you take to prepare for a PC disaster?

Some tips on preparing for a PC disaster is a post from Tech and Life. If you’re reading it in full elsewhere, it’s been copied without consent. Please go to Tech and Life to read the original post and many others in the archive.

Image credit: M.V. Jantzen

One Response

  1. Mike CJ Says:

    Some great tips here, and very in depth.

    My solution has been to move everything to a Dropbox, which I now use as my inbox, so everything is backed up and synched automatically.

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