automatic back-up solution for someone who doesn't understand computers
August 18, 2008 6:11 AM   Subscribe

I'm helping out an elderly lady who is using a laptop with XP which is showing signs of unreliability. It is now permanently sat on a table so it doesn't get moved around. She is especially concerned about a failure leading to a loss of outlook express e-mails. This person is easily confused by all things computer related so it has to work with minimum intervention and be as simple as possible. I was thinking of using an external drive and Acronis true image 11 home. I would set up True image to mirror on to the external drive. I was also thinking of automatically forwarding all outlook express mails to a web mail account - yahoo mail - as she has a yahoo account already. Being able to read from a webmail account would allow uninteruped service should anything go wrong. Is there anything wrong with this?
posted by conrad101 to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

I like your idea about forwarding to a web-based mail account. I think that's the right idea.

As for backups - I think backing up to an external drive is also a good idea, but I don't know that the best solution is to just image the whole damn disk on a set schedule. There are a ton of PC backup programs that will do incremental backups (maybe Acronis does this, I don't know), so, for example, only files that have changed will be grabbed between one backup and the next. This conserves space and allows for more flexibility in what files are retrieved.

That's just my two cents.
posted by kbanas at 6:19 AM on August 18, 2008

Be aware that Yahoo mail is very confusing for easily-confused people. I don't think there's anything better, but if you're used to outlook it does seem very different. I teach email to old ladies all the time. Here are some other suggestions that I would recommend if you do that.

- set her up with Firefox - remove all extra bookmarks and make one bookmark to Yahoo mail
- install greasemonkey and a few scripts "yahoo mail welcome skipper" and some ad-remover scripts maybe "yahoo mail cleaner". Less blinky crap to be confusing and going straight to inbox is HUGE
- put a shortcut to Yahoo mail on her desktop and make Yahoo mail her home page on the browser
- log her in the first time and click "remember me" both on Yahoo and on Firefox
- help her -- if you guys have this level of relationship -- to filter mailing list email into folders so she's not swamped all the time
- import her address book into Yahoo mail
- go through the settings with her to make sure she knows how to read an attachment and send an attachment [diff. from outlook] if she's doing that sort of thing
- show her how to mark messages as spam

I can't think of much else off the top of my head, but 20 minutes spent setting up Yahoo mail for someone can really be the difference between them getting totally flummoxed by it and them having a modicum of control over things. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 6:55 AM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

I think you'd pay less for S3 storage via Jungle Disk than you would for an external drive. Drive imaging is dandy and all, but if what you're after is the ability to recover mails and photos and documents, it's overkill. Best use for drive imaging is to provide an alternative to System Restore that actually, you know, works.

I wouldn't use Yahoo Mail for the web mail account. I'd set her up with a Gmail account, add her existing email address to that Gmail account as a second address so she doesn't have to use the new Gmail address unless she wants to, then disconnect Outlook Express from her existing mail provider, then tell the Gmail account to pull mails from that provider using POP3 (essentially, this replaces her Outlook Express with an equivalent running somewhere in Google's cloud). Then I'd make her Outlook Express connect to her Gmail account via IMAP. Then I'd drag and drop all her existing Outlook Express mails into a Gmail IMAP folder to back them up.

I'd do it this way because (a) Gmail offers IMAP access and Yahoo Mail doesn't (b) I'm sure Gmail is less likely to go wrong than Outlook Express and (c) when her computer goes belly-up, she will still have access to all her existing mails via the Gmail web interface.
posted by flabdablet at 7:00 AM on August 18, 2008

Those sound fine. Also, if the instability is recent (the summer) consider getting some ventilation under the laptop with a DIY stand. Can't you use imap on YM now so that messages retain all the right information?
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:06 AM on August 18, 2008

Seconding flabdablet - gmail offers pop3 retrieval of 3rd party email accounts into the gmail account for free, and yahoo didn't last I checked. I do this exactly as described to combine 3 old email accounts and my gmail account into one big one, then view them through IMAP or the web interface. Bonus tip - all the email gets run through gmail's spam filter, which is head and shoulders over the rest of the freebie mail providers.
posted by ArkhanJG at 9:15 AM on August 18, 2008

She is especially concerned about a failure leading to a loss of outlook express e-mails.

If she's anything like my grandparents were, the old e-mails are very, very important to them. I know you're planning on backing the whole system up, but I just wanted to ensure this was something you took into consideration when dealing with the e-mail, as it's not necessarily something I'd worry as much about for my own e-mail. (flabdablet's suggestions about GMail sounds like a good way to do this, though. Yahoo Mail might do something similar too, I don't know.)

jessamyn gives excellent advice, but one thing I want to caution you about...

log her in the first time and click "remember me" both on Yahoo and on Firefox

Make sure she's involved in the process, or this will lead to you getting phone calls any time she gets logged out. (At least, if she's anything like my mom.) Maybe you should have her log in, "to make sure it works," and tell her about the "Remember me" option. My mom's very tech-savvy, and highly intelligent, but when I set up her GMail account, I clicked "Remember me" (browser + Google), set her login info to be the same as the user/password pair she uses elsewhere on a daily basis, told her as much, wrote it down for her, and told her that every now and then she might need to re-enter it...

And yet, every single time she gets logged out (cookie expires, external IP changes, etc.), I get a call. Telling her, "Oh, that's no big deal. You just need to re-enter your login information. It's the same as you use everywhere else... This will happen maybe about once a month" doesn't help for some reason, and leads to painfully nonsensical conversations every single time. ("But it says, 'Log into your Google Account'" ... "You set this up, so I don't know what to do" ... "I don't normally see this page" ... "I don't know my username" ... "My password didn't work" ... "Do I use GMail?")

In short, make sure she can log in on her own. Having the info remembered can be a big help, but should really only be used as a time-saver for her: she'll inevitably have to enter it again at some point.

Sorry I can't touch on backups in particular (it seems like you're a lot better with the options out there than I am), but thought I'd throw in my little bit of advice in the hopes of saving you a headache.
posted by fogster at 9:23 AM on August 18, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice everyone!

I will do the forwarding to gmail option. I don't think Yahoo has this facility, or if it does, you pay for it.

What exactly are the advantages of IMAP over pop3? I've only ever used pop3.
posted by conrad101 at 3:41 PM on August 18, 2008

POP was designed to let your local email client (Outlook Express, Thunderbird or whatever) pull mails from a mail server into your local mailbox. The original model was that the mails would then only exist in your local mailbox, POP having removed them from the mail server after downloading them. Later on, POP3 added support for leaving the mails on the server as well. The mechanism underlying that extension is rather fragile; Yahoo, in particular, breaks it regularly by changing the way it generates unique message ID's, resulting in large redundant downloads and lots of duplicate messages in the Inbox. POP3 is fine for the use case that POP originally covered (moving mails from server to local client) but it's not very good at letting you get at the same mails from several places.

IMAP was designed to give an email client (like Outlook Express) a live view into the mailbox on the IMAP server, rather than primarily to move them from that server into the local client (though it can do that as well, if you want). It's designed to maintain loose synchronization between what you see in an email client and what's available on the server. If you mark a mail as read in your IMAP-connected client, it gets marked read on the server; drag a mail into a folder on your IMAP-connected client and it goes into a folder on the server (Gmail simulates folders using its labels feature). This last feature also means that you can use IMAP to put mails onto a server that did not originate there. Drag any message available to your local email client into an IMAP folder, and it gets uploaded to the server.

With Gmail, all of that means that stuff like the read/unread status of mails, or the folders they're filed under, becomes accessible via the web interface in much the same way as it is in (for example) Outlook Express.

The main user-visible difference between using a mail client connected via POP3 and one connected via IMAP is that with IMAP, mails are most usually fetched from the server on demand (when you open them) rather than all being downloaded in a batch before you start. Which means that when people send your elderly lady the ten megabyte joke of the day, she won't need to wait for that to finish downloading before being able to see and read the mails she actually wants.

If that's too much of a change for her comfort, you can just tell OE to cache the Inbox, which will make it start downloading anything it hasn't already got as soon as you fire it up.

With a Gmail account, you don't actually need to forward the mails from other providers to Gmail. Instead, you can tell Gmail to pull them in from those other providers using POP3. From the other providers' point of view, they may as well be talking to Outlook Express; there's no need to change any settings at all on their end. You can do the whole thing through the Gmail settings page.
posted by flabdablet at 4:12 PM on August 18, 2008

To summarize - POP3 stores email on the client hard-drive, IMAP stores it on the server permanently (until you delete it). Many providers don't offer IMAP because the mail takes up space on their servers, and they need more bandwidth. With POP3, you only download it once, with IMAP you potentially download it every time you view it (though in reality, most IMAP clients cache it locally, so you still only download it once)

The advantage in your case is that as the mailstore stays on gmail, it doesn't matter if the local machine goes bang; the email never leaves gmail. Plus gmail can pretend to be a POP3 client, and retrieve mail from the other providers to stick in the gmail inbox automagically, with a tag if you wish to distinguish them.

In effect, it doesn't matter whether you view your gmail inbox with IMAP, or using the web interface - it's the same mailbox, in the same place, just with different front ends. Since she's familiar with OE, you can setup OE to access gmail IMAP, and it'll appear as if it's local email - but if it all goes pear shaped, her mail is automatically safe.
posted by ArkhanJG at 12:49 AM on August 19, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the invaluable advice everyone! I've set up her gmail so that future e-mails will be automatically forwarded to gmail and enabled IMAP. I'm not entirely clear though of the simplest method for importing all her old outlook express e-mails to her gmail account. What would you suggest?
posted by conrad101 at 8:05 AM on August 20, 2008

Open the IMAP-connected Gmail account in Outlook Express. Create a new folder under that account's root (same level as its Inbox etc.) called "Old Inbox". Open the old OE Inbox that contains all her old mails. Select them all (I think OE allows you to hit ctrl-A for this). Drag and drop into Old Inbox. Watch in awe as IMAP pushes her entire mail archive to the Gmail server. Verify that you can use the Gmail web interface to read some of those mails. Repeat for any other old mail folders (Sent etc).

If you haven't done so already, it's worth telling OE not to copy sent mails to any Sent folder (since Gmail will automatically all make mails sent via its SMTP server available to the user account that sent them under [Gmail]/Sent) and to delete deleted mails immediately instead of moving them to a local Trash folder (since Gmail manages [Gmail]/Trash for you appropriately anyway).

Even better is to kick Outlook Express in the head after migrating the old mails, and install Thunderbird, which will let you do both the above and use [Gmail]/Drafts to store drafts in, which means you end up using the same Drafts folder for both IMAP and web interfaces.
posted by flabdablet at 7:43 PM on August 25, 2008

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