My computer has been prompting me to install Windows Service Pack 3. When I start the installation process, I'm also reminded that as a precaution (which doesn't inspire much confidence!) I should back up all files before proceeding. I'm a computer novice, but I'm assuming this means I should back up all program files in...

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Q: My computer has been prompting me to install Windows Service Pack 3. When I start the installation process, I’m also reminded that as a precaution (which doesn’t inspire much confidence!) I should back up all files before proceeding. I’m a computer novice, but I’m assuming this means I should back up all program files in addition to things like Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, etc.

Should I really heed this warning and do a full backup before proceeding? If so, how does one go about backing an entire computer? If possible, please couch recommendations/processes in “computers for dummies” terms!

Karen Knoller

A: Good question.

The only critical things to back up are your data files. Everything else can be reinstalled. Unfortunately, your data files can be scattered all around. Which is why I recommend that users configure Windows and Windows applications to store data files in a single directory labeled “Data” or something else you choose.

A “full” backup would, yes, include all your applications, including Windows configuration, and would mean that if you need to restore, you wouldn’t have to separately install all applications. The downside is that the full backup takes up a whole lot of disk space.

Most backup programs — including the ones built into Windows — give you options about what kind of backup you want to do. But you’ll always face that trade-off.

For my part, all I really care about is my own data. Just make sure that you’ve got everything you care about backed up to external media. That means your e-mails, favorites on your Web browsers, as well as any documents and other data you may have.

Q: I have a desktop with two operating systems — Windows XP and Windows 98 SE — and a laptop running Windows XP. I back up the data on the XP systems regularly onto a flash drive. I use the Windows 98 SE system about once a month to access data that can’t be moved to XP.

I would like to copy the hard drives to an external drive — if possible, to one that is partitioned. I was told that’s not possible with a USB external drive. Each hard drive uses only about 10 GB.

What options do I have, and what software would be required?

Arthur Dietrich

A: First, I’m not sure why you’d want to back up to an external drive that has multiple partitions. Software is available to accomplish this end with external drives, but why pay for it if you don’t need it? And most USB flash drives are not capable of being repartitioned.

The simplest solution would be to use different flash drives or, even better, to attach an external USB hard drive that offers even more storage. No special software required.

Q: Can you tell me how to retrieve photos from an SD card once they have (accidentally) been deleted?

Adrian James

A: I wish I could figure out a way to make myself look good answering this one. But all I can do is tell you to search the Internet for “recover deleted files from SD card.” You’ll find a number of products that could do the trick. SD cards are, in this respect at least, just like hard drives. When you delete the data, it actually remains on the drive … or card. These programs should help you retrieve it.

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.