Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

After a computer crash causes data loss, it's important to take steps so that it doesn't happen again. And you do need to make sure that you're taking the right steps.

My Outlook files/database was eliminated when my computer crashed. What organization do you recommend as an email provider that will not be destroyed when the computer goes "kaput"? I am a travel writer and have stored articles/research/meeting information on Outlook - and now, the information is no longer available.

First, I'm sorry that you lost so much work. And you're right in trying to take action to prevent that from happening again.

But, there are a couple of misunderstandings in your question that I want to clear up. Fundamentally, what I think you're asking isn't actually going to help you the next time that your computer crashes.

Put another way, it wasn't Outlook's fault.

And regular readers will know almost immediately what I'm about to recommend as the solution.

Email Providers and Organizations ... and Outlook

"It doesn't matter what email program you run - a crash can destroy any and all information on your machine."

Outlook is neither an email provider nor an organization. It is simply an email program that you run on your PC. Other examples of programs might include Windows Live Mail, Thunderbird, and hundreds of others.

Desktop email programs send and receive email through a service that you have an account with. Examples of email services include Hotmail, Gmail, perhaps the one that you use at work or school to send and receive email, and most commonly, your ISP.

My point is that they are two different things.

Your email service (or "organization as provider" to use your term) isn't going to help you much when your PC crashes and wipes out the files containing your email. Put bluntly, that's not their responsibility.

Frustration!

Computer Crashes ... and Outlook

When your computer crashes, the best that we can say is that "results are unpredictable". Frequently, nothing is affected - you reboot, perhaps fix a problem, and carry on.

Every once in a while, the results are much more severe. Perhaps a file gets corrupted or completely wiped out.

And yes, it's possible that the file that gets destroyed happens to be your Outlook data file.

Here's the problem with the question as you've posed it: It doesn't matter which email program you run - a crash can destroy any and all information on your machine.

Any and all.

Even if your research was in a completely different email program - or even stored in files outside of any email program at all - they were still at risk.

A computer crash could have destroyed the files just as easily, Outlook or not.

The Solution? Backups

Any information that you have stored in one and only one place - and I don't care what that place is - is not backed up. You run the risk of losing everything if "that place" should ever have a problem.

If that place is your Outlook data file in your computer, then should anything ever happen to that file, it's all gone ... *poof*.

If that one place is anywhere on your computer's hard drive, then should that hard drive ever fail, once again ... *poof*. All gone. Forever.

The solution, of course, is backups - regular backups that squirrel away your most important data files at a minimum and everything on your system at best.Then, should there ever be a catastrophic failure of any sort, you've always got the most recent backup to revert to, minimizing the amount of data lost.

And, in any case, it wouldn't matter if you were using Outlook, Thunderbird, Word or Notepad. Anything that you'd stored on your computer would be vulnerable to a crash and restored by a backup.

Seems ideal.

Is Outlook Less Resilient?

There is one legitimate issue that you raise; that of Outlook's approach to storing your data.

By default, Outlook stores your email, contacts calendar and whatever else in a single .pst file. This file is in a proprietary format and not easily accessible by other programs.

So, yes, a hard-disk problem that might damage only a single file can wreak a lot of havoc if that one file is your Outlook .pst file.

Other email programs typically organize data into folders and files on your hard disk, making them somewhat more resilient to issues that might affect single files - the damage might be more localized.

But, all of this is completely moot if you have a good backup in place.

Besides, a true catastrophic failure could render everything inaccessible. When that happens, it doesn't matter if it's stored in one file or many - they're all gone.

Article C4798 - April 19, 2011 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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16 Comments
Jeff
April 19, 2011 7:34 PM

If you use a service like Gmail, which stores all of your email on line, a PC crash will not affect your data.

That is correct. Instead, you can lose all your email to an account hack or other type of compromise. (I see it all the time.) Online services themselves are not a panacea - you still need to backup. If it's stored in only one place - even if that one place is "the cloud" - it's not backed up.
Leo
20-Apr-2011

Jim H
April 26, 2011 8:40 AM

while not directly related to this story, I think it's still valuable info. There is a free Microsoft Utility that will back up all the folders, files, and data with Outlook. It integrates right into the menu under File and can be set to run both automatically based on a schedule and on command. What's nice about it is that you can save the file to a CD or other media and if you have to reinstall Outlook it restores everything up to the last backup. It makes moving to a new drive or computer a breeze. Installation is simple, too. Just enter "outlook backup" into a search engine and look for the Microsoft link.

Audrey
April 26, 2011 8:46 AM

No one should "store" information in an e-mail program. The back-up files Outlook generates are not easy to access. I've had several computer crashes now and each time, a computer technician retreived all my files from the dead computer, except the data in Outlook. Use the right software tool for the job--you know, you can drive a nail with the handle of a screw driver, but a hammer works better.

Tim
April 26, 2011 9:53 AM

I'll second the comment that your email client is not the best place to store data.

With hard disks so inexpensive these days (a Terabyte is under $100) there's really no reason to NOT have a RAID type disk mirror as a first line of defense to computer disk crashes. This of course is not a backup. An external USB or Firewire hard drive is also inexpensive provides a fairly safe spot for an entire image of your computer every week or so and more frequent backups of your documents, photos, data, etc.

Some items may be really critical. You can protect it from theft or natural disaster by using Dropbox, burning to a DVD and putting it in your safe deposit box, etc.

These things are inexpensive, but of course not free. The question becomes is the money spent on this "insurance" worth more or less than the time you have invested in creating the information you could easily lose?

Jeff Burns
April 26, 2011 10:51 AM

Has anyone considered the possibility that the writer simply may not know how to locate the .pst file? Microsoft treats it like a national security secret by making it a hidden file stored about a mile deep in the path. It would be easy for a non-techie to conclude that the file has been lost.

Kara
April 26, 2011 11:01 AM

Sadly, I've also been in this situation where I lost 3 years worth of archived emails, calendar entries, etc. related to my business. My fatal flaw was assuming my daily backup service was actually backing up the Outlook .PST file. It turned out that it was NOT if the backup took place while Outlook was still open on my PC. This was the case when I did the final full backup of my PC before I personally wiped the machine clean hoping to solve my problem (turned out to be a fatal hardware issue). Imagine my horror when I imported that PST onto my new machine! Empty! I thought I'd be physically ill!

I now use a completely anal retentive triplicate redundancy system to backup my PST. First, I use the free utility Jim H. mentioned to automatically back up the PST to an external hard drive every time I close Outlook. Next, my Eazy Backup daily and weekly procedures save it again (not the same program as before--EZ gets the PST even if it's open!). Since the EZ backup goes onto that same external drive, I also use Carbonite for online backup of that vital PST (along with all my other docs, photos, etc.).

Burned once, never again. And, the best part is, all of these procedures are set up to run automatically, so there's nothing time-consuming about it. The only "manual" process is the Outlook backup utility prompts you to confirm the backup location each time. One click, and I'm done.

John H
April 26, 2011 2:25 PM

Back during the days of Windows 95, I lost a large portion of my life once due to Outlook crashing. Since then I purchased my own domain name and email services through GoDaddy. The price I pay is pocket change and well worth the cost considering how important email is. I keep all my email on Godaddys servers. Of course I could download all this through Thunderbird or Outlook but prefer the security Godaddy offers. Plus I maybe get no more than 1 or 2 spam emails a year. Unlike Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail, I can always speak with customer service people from America. I could go on.

Thalib
April 26, 2011 4:48 PM

It is a wrong concept to use email program like Outlook as a place to store you important data. If it is important than you should consider SERIOUSLY about backup or recovery plan if anything goes wrong. No matter how expensive your PC/Laptop hardware/software but if you don't have backup/recovery plan than you put your self in trouble. So for me always have backup/recovery plan if the data is important for you.

Carol Putman
April 26, 2011 5:50 PM

A cheap and easy solution is to obtain a gmail address
and in the settings check the box which says "leave a
copy on the server." You can still use Outlook to obtain
your email, but it will be backedup on the gmail server
for you if you should need it. You can setup folders to
store and organize your information just as you would
a file cabinet or even as you do now on Outlook.

David
April 26, 2011 5:56 PM

Jeff Burnes is correct. Chances are that there's a perfectly good .pst file waiting to be 'imported' (makes it sound like it's in a foreign format - crazy old Microsoft).
However, I recently tried to do a restore for a new client who had a very similar experience but had backed up what seems to be a corrupted .pst file. I found an archive one from a few months ago but naturally, it doesn't have all their new stuff. Let's just say they're very unhappy.
For me, I have a Gmail account linked to my domain as my primary client PLUS all my mail gets forwarded to a Yahoo account as the backup. If both Google's and Yahoo's servers go up in the same nuclear war, I'll have other things to worry about than my old emails.

sVen
April 27, 2011 7:58 AM

I'd really be in a bad spot if I lost my email.
I use a simple Gmail account, set to retain emails on the server. I read the email through Thunderbird. I back up orders, and anything else important, to CDs.
For non-business stuff, I backup to CDs. I don't use an external hard-drive, because I'm not tech-savvy enough, and because it hasn't yet become important enough for me to learn.

cappidad
April 27, 2011 8:29 AM

As a service to humanity, and especially to slack-jawed people like me, you should send out weekly a notice in bright colors at the top of your letters......"BACK UP YOUR STUFF--NOW!" Of course, within a short time, folks like me would simply allow our glazed expressions to flit right on by and probably ignore it. That's life......

NewDimTech
April 27, 2011 7:00 PM

Jim H is absolutely correct. The .pst backup utility from Microsoft is a great tool. I have my Outlook set to back up my .pst file to a folder created in the My Docs folder and perform a regular backup onto a flash drive. Very simple, very easy, very effective. One additional step to take would be to create a text file of your account settings (inbound/outbound servers, etc.) since the .pst file does not restore these settings.

James
April 28, 2011 12:38 AM

I keep my Thunderbird profile in my Dropbox folder.

What could be simpler?

If my email was desperately confidential, I'd keep in the TrueCrypt volume in my Dropbox folder.

What could be more secure?

Robin Clay
May 1, 2011 12:00 PM

Using Outlook Express, I recently had a crash that seems to have lost, for just some of my most recent e-mails (i.e. not backed up !), the message itself, but not the headers.

How does this happen ? I thought each file and its headers were kept in the same .dbx file.

If it happens again, is there any simple way to recover the message bodies ? - Apart, obviously, from (what I actually did) writing to the senders asking for a re-send...

Reinier
June 28, 2011 5:12 AM

What if the pst file is still intact?
Can I copy it on my new drive, install Outlook and open the file?
My PC was backed-up but the Acronis file appeared corrupted ! Help!

An intact PST file can be copied to any machine and opened with Outlook on that machine. Use the File - Open Data File option.
Leo
29-Jun-2011

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