CDs and DVDs are a pretty clumsy way to make backups now that external drives and online backup services are so readily available. They only hold so much data, they’re subject to scratching, and they tend to pile up. If you keep them in jewel cases the way you’re supposed to, they can take up a quite a lot of room, too. What with all these new netbooks and lightweight laptops being made without optical drives, you might start to wonder whether you actually need to have one at all.
But CDs and DVDs definitely have a place, and this is a good time of year to remember it. (Yes, this is your annual “Back Up Your Taxes” post in disguise.) When you want to send data through the mail or file it with your papers, putting it onto optical media is the simplest and least expensive way to do it. Even brand-name CDs (which last longer than no-name CDs), inkjet-printable CDs (for those who have fancy printers who can handle them), and LightScribe CDs and DVDs generally cost less than $1 apiece. (I do recommend getting the LightScribe CDs or printable CDs if you have the appropriate devices for labeling them, because it’s safer than applying external labels or writing directly on the CD.)
So now that you’ve finished your taxes, copy the PDF of your tax return (if you used tax prep software) onto a CD, along with the end-of-year copy of your financial records from 2008, and store that with the paper printout of the return and all the supporting documentation you need. Remember to use a non-rewritable CD. (They last better over time, and the point of archives is not to overwrite them, as well as to be able to demonstrate that you put the information there on a certain date.)
I also put my client records from the past year onto DVD (one per business entity) while I’m at it, and move any no-longer-current client records down to the archives. Sometimes, if I’m very efficient, I do this before tax time rolls around, but this year I didn’t.
The main reason for the delay was that my optical drive died a painful death in January. It had a seizure right in the middle of burning a CD for an about-to-be-ex client. (I was trying to copy all the files she’d used me to back up over the years, so I could send them to her and she could back them up herself.) The drive just wouldn’t stop spinning, even when I pushed the emergency eject button with an unbent paperclip. I finally had to reboot the machine, and thereafter could only occasionally read CDs and DVDs, and not write them at all. (I ended up putting the client’s files onto a memory stick and mailing that. More expensive, and more trouble, since I had to go out and buy the thing first.)
I contacted HP support (help via text chat is free; help via phone costs money). They gave me some suggestions, none of which helped. It was, as I thought, a hardware problem. The drive was shot.
So what’s the big deal about not having a working CD/DVD drive? After all, computers worked just fine for years before optical drives became standard. But in those days, we had floppy drives, and I defy you to find a laptop built in the last 5 years that has a floppy disk drive, or an operating system you can install from one.
And that, really, is the burning issue. Um, so to speak. I have an external CD/DVD writer, bought during the days when I had a laptop that could read CDs but not write them. It works fine with Enna, so even though my housemate has had custody of it for the past few years, I can go hook my machine up to the FireWire cable and burn data onto optical discs that way. It’s clumsy, but it works in a pinch.
But an external drive is a chancy option when it comes to booting the machine from a CD, which is what you have to do in order to reinstall the operating system. And Enna desperately needs to be reinstalled from the ground up. Too much clutter has accumulated, and it affects the machine’s performance.
So what are the options?
If you’re extremely skilled, you can create a USB stick that mimics a boot CD (notably the famous Bart-PE CD that I use to run Norton Ghost, but other kinds of boot CDs as well.) I am not that skilled, though the Ur-Guru has promised to create a USB version of the rescue DVD that came with my netbook when he visits.
You can go into the BIOS and try to convince your machine to boot from an external device before it looks for the CD, floppy, or hard drive, then use an external CD drive. Laptops that don’t have built-in optical drives are already configured to do this; I remember reinstalling one from its external CD drive, and it worked just fine. When I got the netbook, the salesperson at Best Buy tried to sell me an external DVD drive, but I passed, because I already own one. Only later did I discover that the netbook won’t recognize it. (I’m not sure why. Perhaps there’s something wrong with its USB connector, and the netbook doesn’t have FireWire.)
But even if that works, it’s something else to carry. The reason the Ur-Guru plans to make me a special recovery USB stick is because it will take up a lot less room in a travel case than even a slimline USB DVD drive. The point of getting the netbook was that it hardly weighs anything; adding an external optical drive would nearly double its weight. As for my main laptop. it’s so big that I’d be hard put to find a case I could fit an extra drive into, especially since I already travel with a backup hard drive. (The smallest of the external optical drives aren’t any thicker than my FreeAgent Go drive or my MiniVault, but they are wider.)
So my only real option was to order a replacement for the broken drive. In a desktop PC, this would be a trivial thing. You could get one from almost anywhere, and even buying one from HP, it would only cost $50. But to get a new internal CD/DVD drive for my HP Pavilion DV8040us laptop cost $225.96 plus tax and shipping, which even the HP support guys thought constituted highway robbery. Laptop parts are scandalously overpriced, and you almost always have to get them directly from the manufacturer.
The new drive arrived promptly, but with no installation instructions whatsoever. This resulted in a rather comical, if painful, interlude involving Sallie and a number of tiny screwdrivers, attempting to dismantle far more of my machine than proved necessary. As it happened, only one screw has to be undone in order to slide out the optical drive, but I had to take out 8 other screws before I discovered that, and some of them were stuck, and most of them were in narrow holes that my better-quality, better-leverage screwdriver couldn’t reach. “Oh, look! There are the hard drives! Better put that panel back.” I did eventually find a parts manual and download it. Should have done that to begin with.
Anyway, once I discovered the trick to popping out the old drive and snapping in the new one, I thought I’d be set. But no—the machine got hung up on the “HP Invent” screen and wouldn’t boot. (Did I back up before I started messing with the hardware? You bet.) In fact, I couldn’t even get into the BIOS or the help screen. I shut down, took the new drive out, put the old drive back in. The machine booted normally. A little further discussion with HP resulted in confirmation that my very expensive new drive was defective. Ta ever so.
So they sent me a replacement for a replacement, and this time it worked. I had to reinstall the LightScribe drivers for some reason, but once again I have a functioning optical drive, so I was able to make my tax-time archive CD and DVDs. HP paid for me to return the defective drive to them so they could recycle it, which took care of one piece of electronic waste.
I have no more excuses to postpone reinstalling my computer.