postheadericon TECH TALK: Autosave Your Butt This Winter!

With the approaching loadshedding season looming close, now is the time to start thinking about how you will survive another winter in the dark, with barely enough power to light your workroom.

I was shocked into thinking of this just this morning, as an unscheduled outage surged through my home office and with the inverter / UPS bypassed, shutting down my computer with no warning whatsoever. As it would happen, I was right in the middle of a super long email that I had been crafting for well over 20 minutes or so.

I groaned with nothing but a black screen in front of me, instead of my painstakingly written text. There goes another ½ hour of my life down the drain.

Usually, when I work in Microsoft Word, I am constantly hitting “ctrl-s” when I remember that everything is impermanent, including a working computer. However, when writing an email, I rarely remember to do “Save as Draft” as I am drafting.

However, today I was pleasantly surprised.

As an Apple Lion user, there is now system-wide protection from crashes such as this called “autosave,” which is an operating system feature that is always saving whatever you type, regardless of what Apple application that you are using. In this case, I was using Apple Mail and had not bothered to manually save a draft, but low and behold, on powering up my machine again I found that I had not lost a single word!

For PC users, Windows 7 does not have a system-wide autosave feature, and it does not look like Windows 8 will have either (rumoured to be released in 2012). However, Microsoft will probably come up with something like Apple autosave, as they always seem to want to compete with what the geniuses at Apple.

However, outside of having a system-wide autosave system in place for this year’s season of unpredictable power outages, PC users can arm themselves with some tools that will protect them while they work, and that are software-dependent instead of hardware dependent like a UPS box that may or may not work when you really need it.

My favourite syncing tool for Windows, Linux, and Mac systems is Super Flexible File Synchronizer from the German company of the same name. But before I tell you how it works, it’s important to note the difference between synchronizing vs. backing up files. The difference is, well, like splitting hairs: synchronizing is the process of ensuring that two or more locations contain the same up-to-date files. If you add, change, or delete a file from one location, the synchronization process will add, change, or delete the same file at the other location. Backup refers to copying the data from one location to another, say from your PC to an online cloud service.

Confused? Well join the club! The reason I suggest that PC users get a system-wide syncing solution before this winter brings on the darkness is that backups (which are also essential) take up a lot of your computer’s resources while you are working (i.e. slow). Sync tools are “lighter” and tend to be easier on your CPU. That means that they do the deed quickly and will not disrupt you while working.

Here is how you can turn a sync tool (like Super Flexible) into an autosave system that works a bit like Apple’s autosave does in Lion. You would set up a sync between My Documents and a new folder on your machine called My Documents Synced, and set the sync tool to run every few minutes or so.

Then, when disaster strikes, you just go to the same file in the My Documents Synced folder, and there you will have the most recent synchronization, which will save your butt if say a power outage crashed your desktop, or perhaps you corrupted your working file somehow along the way.

This method works regardless of what application you are using, or what type of file that you are editing, and is not dependent on you remembering to hit ctrl-s, or to set your application’s own auto recovery system to “on and working.” However, that is a good idea as well. For example, MS Office applications such as Word and Excel, do have an “AutoRecover” option in preferences that is supposed to save your butt down to any increment of 1 minute or more.

Nevertheless, my experience over the years proves to me that Microsoft AutoRecover cannot be trusted. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s not good enough for me, how about you?

Published in "The Week" - A Herald Tribune International partner - on 8/25/2011.

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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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