As poet Robert Burns famously put it, the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley - that is, they often go awry. I'm thinking of those lines as I struggle to clean up a backup and subsequent hard drive replacement that went seriously wrong.

I'm not exactly an idiot when it comes to hands-on work with a PC; I'm very diligent about backing up my work; I hold on to installation disks of programs I've purchased and keep an eye on the health of my system. So I was surprised, and yes, a bit embarrassed, when it looked like I'd lost some 4,000 emails (including archives), most of the playlists in my iTunes library and the use of the fairly expensive Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Ultimately, I managed to solve nearly all of the problems I created for myself. Here are five essential tips to keep your well-planned backup from going astray. Remember, the best backup in the world is useless if you don't have a logical way to restore that data.

  • Be sure you really understand the backup procedures that are part of many programs, particularly email, password managers and iTunes.
  • Test your backup/recovery every now and then to be sure it actually works the way you want it to. That includes backups to the cloud.
  • Don't make the mistake of installing recovery software on a drive that may become inaccessible.
  • If you've purchased software, you've got to keep more than the original install disks; make note of the security key that many publishers annoyingly put on the package, not the disks. If you've downloaded the software, be sure you keep a copy of the key on an external drive. And although it's annoying, fill out those registrations forms you get on install and send them in.
  • If you're replacing a hard drive that still works (maybe it's simply too small), keep it in a USB enclosure so you can pull data off it in a pinch.

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