Patrick Marshall answers readers' questions. This week: solutions for backing up computer files and malfunctioning USB ports.

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Q: I am concerned that I might not be using the most reliable and effective methods available to back up files on my home network. It is somewhat daunting when I look at the options from DVDs to NAS to Windows Home Servers to whatever else may be available on the near horizon. I am a fairly technically savvy do-it-yourselfer, although clearly not an IT professional.

I am currently backing up the PCs with DVDs using an internal DVD burner on the Vista PC, and I use a portable DVD burner on the other PCs. There are times that I put off the monthly backups, and I have this nagging concern and fear that if I do lose a file or a hard drive on one of the PCs, my DVD backups will not work and I will have lost things that can’t be replaced.

I know that I could attach an external hard drive to each PC that would offer more simplicity to my backups (and take less time), but I am not sure that this is the right integrated network-based solution. A lowest-cost solution is best, provided it is a reasonably effective solution. What are your recommendations?

— Tom Wage

A: The first thing I notice is that all of the solutions you are considering would result in the data you backed up being in the same location as the original data — your house. What happens if your house is destroyed by fire or some other calamity?

If your data are really critical to you, I strongly recommend that your backup solution has two features: It must be automatic, and it must store a copy of your data off-site. As you note, if you have to manually initiate a backup, it’s all too easy to put it off. Yes, you could configure Windows to make an automatic backup to a tape drive, an external drive or some other device, but if you have to remember to move the stored data to another location after the backup, you’ve got the same problem.

My suggestion for home users with critical data is to use an automatic backup solution such as an external USB drive and to ensure that an off-site copy of data is kept. If you don’t have a storage solution in another location, subscribe to an online backup service. Search the Internet for “online backup” for a wide selection of service providers.

Q: I have a problem with my Acer Aspire 5100 laptop. It is about 1 ½ years old and runs Windows XP. Recently, all three of my USB ports stopped working. When I plug in my USB mouse, the computer does not recognize it and says that my new device has failed. The mouse works in other computers. When I plug in my USB printer or USB camera connections, the cursor seizes up and I cannot move it. Also, the Control-Alt-Delete will not turn off the computer, so I have to force a shutdown. I have downloaded updates for Windows XP, gone to the Acer Web site for downloads and uninstalled and reinstalled the USB drivers — all to no avail. Is there anything else to do short of buying a new computer or somehow taking this one apart?

— Jerry L. Justice

A: I’m afraid this could be anything from a virus to hardware failure on your motherboard to conflicting software that may have been installed.

If you have up-to-date anti-virus software running, you can skip worrying about that. (Yes, a new virus may have afflicted your system. But there’s no point in worrying about it until you’ve tried everything else.)

Rather than trying to track down what caused the problem — which can be very tedious and time-consuming — I’d be tempted to just see if I could get things cleaned up. In short, I’d reformat the hard drive and reinstall a fresh version of Windows. Then add back in only those applications and drivers that you are currently using. If you still have the problem, it’s likely to be a hardware problem on your motherboard.

Questions for Patrick Marshall may be sent by e-mail to pmarshall@seattletimes.com or pgmarshall@pgmarshall.net, or by mail at Q&A/Technology, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.