Computers are like cars. We replace them every five years, they both take us places, they are fast and they crash.
Yes, even the best quad core multi-megahertz system will eventually fail. It's not a matter of if, but rather when. Keeping that in mind, the best thing to do is have a plan for when it happens, because it will.
If your computer fails, first try to access System Restore. It is one of the best, yet little-used applications incorporated in Windows. It will return your system back to a time when all was well. You don't lose data you created, but you will lose recently installed programs. The restoration can be undone and takes only minutes.
Another built-in tool is Safe Mode. With it you can fix your system with only a bare minimum of components running. Go into Safe Mode and run some tools or try to delete the culprit program that's wreaking havoc with your computer.
Access the Safe Mode by pressing the F8 function key during the boot process. Tap it once per second until it beeps or you see a screen with choices. Scroll with your cursor keys to Safe Mode (or Safe Mode with Networking if you need the Internet) and hit Enter. When done, all you need to do is reboot.
If you still have a problem after you've worked on the system, the last resort is to (deep breath) reinstall the operating system.
Many people shudder at the thought of that, but it sometimes is your only option. It will take a few hours, but when done your system will be rid of all of the junk files it had accumulated. It will also be rid of any problems.
You need to remember to back up any data you want to keep because all will be lost. You will also have to reinstall any programs that did not come with the operating system. It is a trade-off, but well worth it in my opinion.
Most computers either come with a set of recovery discs or have a rescue partition on the hard drive. To use the latter it's a matter of simply pressing another function key during the boot process. On my HP, it is F11. To use the discs, boot your system with the disc in the drive. From there it is just a matter of following the prompts for either method.
When you get your new computer, you're not thinking of what you'll do when it won't boot. You take those CDs that came with it and toss them aside. But it's prudent to remember where you put them because you will need them eventually.
If you have a recovery partition then you won't need the discs, and vice versa. If you have neither, then it's a good idea to create a set. Many systems will also allow you to create your own rescue discs. I erased my rescue partition just because I needed the space. But I already created a set of recovery CDs prior to the erasure.
As an alternative, there are applications that will back up your system. There are as many ways to accomplish this task as programs to do it. Programs like Norton Ghost create an image of your hard drive, compressed with data, settings and all. All you have to do is boot with it when your system fails.
Acronis (www.acronis.com) and Paragon (www.paragon-software.com) have products that will back up your system using various methods. There are also services that will backup your system online for a small fee.
Many external hard drives come with built-in applications. Instead of putting your backup on a CD or DVD, you'll use the external drive. The thing to remember is that you'll need at least as much room on your destination drive as your source has. If you want to copy a 15 GB hard drive, even with compression, you will need a dozen or more CDs, three DVDs or an external hard drive with some extra space on it. With today's devices, most come with 180GB or more, so that's not a problem.
Short of having a system completely backed up or replaced, you could always keep an emergency boot disk on hand that will get you into your computer when all else fails. You can make your own, download a free one (www.bootdisk.com) or purchase a factory original (www.restoredisks.com). It will at least provide another option to allow you access to your system to repair it.
Whichever method you choose, be sure you know where your disk is. You will be in panic mode when you look for it.
Arthur Glazer is a freelance writer and computer technician who lives in Gainesville. First published May 17, 2008.