As I mentioned in my free
weekly newsletter, I recently suffered a catastrophic hard drive
failure in my Dell Latitude D620 laptop. Fortunately, my data was all
backed up so there was no serious loss, but when the replacement drive
arrived it did mean it was time for me to do what I frequently end up
advising my readers: reformat and reinstall everything.
I thought it might be interesting to some to enumerate exactly what
“everything” means on my machine.
On installing the new drive and seeing that it was working, my first step was actually not to install anything at all, but rather run SpinRite. The intent was to identify and remove from use any bad sectors on this new drive before I began to rely on it.
Windows Vista: Installing Windows Vista was a multi-step process that boiled down to:
Boot from the DVD installation media, tell it to use the entire disk, format it as NTFS, and install a clean copy of Windows Vista.
Visit Windows Update repeatedly and take all available updates until no more were shown as available/necessary.
Note that, yes, that requires connecting to the internet with a machine that’s not fully patched in order to become fully patched. The safest way to connect to the internet before you’re fully patched is through a router. If that’s not available, then make sure that the Windows Firewall is on (not to worry, Windows Vista is very insistent as you install it that you do so – a good thing in my book).
Drivers: The copy of Windows Vista, although supplied by Dell, didn’t have drivers for every possible device that Dell includes on all their computers, and included instructions to visit their web site for the latest and greatest. As it turns out I needed to do so for only one device: the trackpad.
A word of caution: make sure you download and install the drivers for the correct version of the operating system you have. I initially made a mistake and downloaded the Windows XP drivers, which installed and appeared to work. The only problem is that I began to experience the “wandering pointer” symptom – the mouse pointer would move at random times and mouse buttons would “click” without being pushed. Once I determined that I’d made that mistake downloading and installing the Windows Vista drivers cleared the problem right up.
TrueCrypt: This is a laptop, a portable device I travel with all the time, and keeping my data encrypted is a key part of my security strategy. That, of course, means installing TrueCrypt.
Stuff: This is where things get a little geeky and I wave my hands a little and just say that there’s are a number of small tools and utilities and scripts and other “stuff” that I simply copy to the machine. As I said, it’s pretty geeky (those who recognize will understand when I say that there’s a “/usr/bin” folder on the machine). This includes perhaps a hundred or more small tools – Process Explorer is one good example. I also install Perl (a scripting language) at this time, since most of the “batch files” I write are actually written in Perl.
FireFox: I run FireFox as my primary web browser and since I’m about to embark a bit of downloading of other programs, FireFox is the next thing to be installed.
Roboform: Once FireFox is installed it’s time for RoboForm. I also copy over my (encrypted) personal information TrueCrypt container, and instantly have all passwords for all sites I have accounts on.
Thunderbird: one of the things I love about Thunderbird is the ease with which you can move from machine to machine. In a nutshell, I:
Copied the entire tree of email folders from my desktop machine, where I’d been temporarily managing my email
Made a tweak to Thunderbird’s profile to point at my custom location for those folders
Fired up Thunderbird and began dealing with email.
And that “tweak” step isn’t necessary if you use Thunderbird’s default location for email folders.
At this point, I had a working machine. By that I mean that my laptop had been restored to a state where I could use it for my day-to-day operations, and so I did. My laptop was “back in business”.
Naturally, there was more to install, over time, as I came across other things for which I’d been using the laptop.
Microsoft Money: I manage my finances using Microsoft Money, and the data files were already on the laptop by virtue of having copied over the encrypted container.
Adobe Acrobat: while I often recommend FoxIt, I elected to try the latest version of Acrobat to read PDFs.
TightVNC Server: while I can and do use the built in Remote Desktop functionality built into Windows, I also occasionally use TightVNC.
Microsoft Office: Word, Excel, Powerpoint – I use ’em. I installed the latest 2007 version.
7-zip: while it’s actually part of the “stuff” I copied over earlier, 7-zip is slightly more functional if you take the time to actually run its installation program.
TopStyle: TopStyle is my HTML/CSS editor. I’m writing this article using it.
VIM: VIM, or GVim, is my text editor. Older than dirt, perhaps, but it’s reliably present on every platform I can ever imagine using.
That’s about the point I stopped keeping track. As with all computer geeks, I’m sure there’s stuff that I’ve installed since, and some of that has even already been uninstalled, but that’s the way of computers. Someday, due to replacement, hard disk failure or just software rot I’m sure I’ll repeat the exercise.
There are a couple of interesting things I didn’t mention above that are worth noting:
I haven’t yet installed anti-virus software. Don’t be like me: install something right after making sure Windows is fully up to date. (Windows Defender was automatically installed as anti-spyware with Vista). Besides being extremely internet savvy and able to avoid viruses on my own, I’m considering which package to install and perhaps evaluate as part of that process.
I didn’t talk much about data. First, I have to reiterate that I did not lose any significant data due to having a well thought out backup strategy. Restoring data that I cared about was as simple as copying the files or entire folder trees back over from my desktop, as needed.
Time: all in all, it probably took maybe 4 hours of my time over the course of a couple of days to get my laptop back into its fully usable state once again. Many of the operations, like installing Windows itself, are “start it and walk away for a while” kind of things.