Sometimes I feel like I’m cursed. Computers hate me. I don’t think I’m particularly rough on them — I don’t toss them around or poke at the screen or douse them in water (though, on occasion, I do forget to close my window here at the office, and my printer gets rained on) — but for whatever reason, my Macs all seem to die after a couple of years.

Maybe this is because I use the machines heavily. I’m almost constantly on a computer of some sort. (This isn’t a good thing, but it’s a fact.) I have a desktop computer at my office and a laptop computer for home and the road. If web browsing and text editing and Amazing Race watching can kill computers, well, then I’m guilty of datacide.

Over the weekend, my office computer (a 21″ iMac from early 2008) gave up the ghost. The motherboard has had issues for a while (with one USB port after another failing), and over the past few months, the hard drive has shown signs that it was about to go. It finally went. I came in Monday morning ready to write, only discover a computer that wouldn’t boot.

I used to be unprepared for computer catastrophes. Long-time readers will remember the last time my laptop died in October 2008: I had no backups, and had made no preparations of any kind. I lost dozens of half-finished blog entries, two years of digital photos, and a bunch of electronic Stuff.

Fortunately, I learned from that mistake. Over the past eighteen months, I’ve tried to take steps to protect my data.

  • I’ve migrated some of my info to web-based apps. My contacts and calendar are all web-based. After losing two years of e-mail in 2008, I switched to Gmail, and haven’t looked back.
  • I’m not keen on Google Docs, though, so I still do most of my writing in my beloved text editor, BBedit. However, I’ve become a convert of Dropbox, which lets my files live “in the cloud”. I save a text file to Dropbox, and it’s not only backed up, but it’s also available from any other computer I happen to be on. Very slick.
  • Based on reader suggestions, I started using Time Machine, which is Apple’s automatic backup software. Every hour, Time Machine backs up my office computer to an external hard drive. (I back up my laptop every couple of weeks.)

It’s this last step that saved my bacon this week. As my existing iMac died, I was able to retrieve some of the data, but the hard drive would only work for 5-10 minutes at a time, so I had to do it in chunks. Fortunately, when I hooked up my new iMac (which has a glorious 27″ screen — wow!), I was able to restore my files and user settings from the Time Machine backup drive. In a matter of hours, my new machine had effectively become a mirror of my old machine. Happy days.

Though I’m glad to have recovered from this crash so quickly, the money I spent on the new computer causes me great pain. I have to keep reminding myself, “It’s a business expense. It’s a business expense.” (By which I mean that a portion of the money is a tax write-off.) Plus, if I don’t have my computers, I can’t do my work. It’s also some comfort to realize that once I repair the broken computer, I can sell it to recuperate some of the costs of the new machine.

In any event, I’m glad to be up and running again. It’s been almost an entire week since I’ve been able to write anything (I took a long weekend with no writing, too), and I’ve been scrambling to patch the holes here on the blog. I made it work, but it wasn’t fun. Now, however, I’m ready to get back to work on my lovely new 27″ iMac…which is probably doomed for failure in two years. Because I’m cursed.

Note: I’ve started buying the extended warranty when I purchase a new computer. Yes, I know that I’ve written several articles arguing against extended warranties, but I’m now willing to make an exception for my computers, especially since they’re the source of my livelihood. Unfortunately, I hadn’t instituted that policy when I picked up my old iMac. I should be able to replace the hard drive myself, but the motherboard issues are another matter.

Though I’ve made great strides in making backups and moving to “the cloud”, I’d love to hear more tips and suggestions. Are there other (free?) products I should try? What can you tell me about Mozy? How does it compare to Dropbox? How do you prepare for and prevent computer catastrophes.

This article is about Administration, Odds and Ends, Real-Life