Refreshing versus Non-Refreshing Computers

The machines in Weitz 134 (Advanced Edit) and 138 (Media Lab) are refreshing computers. That means when you log out, any files you wrote to the machine are erased (with one important exception–more on that in a minute) and the computer is restored to a base build, or “refreshed.” ITS sends these computers the latest versions of software at the same time as other labs on campus. (See the current versions of Adobe Creative Cloud applications.)

The internal hard drive of a refreshing computer is divided into two partitions, called “Macintosh HD” and “Scratch Disc.” A file you write to Macintosh HD during a session is automatically erased as soon as you log off the machine. A file written to Scratch Disc stays there either until either someone erases it (which could happen at any time), or the whole machine is erased and rebuilt (which usually happens over the summer).

No matter what kind of computer you’re working on, backing up your work is up to you—whether by copying your work to external hard drives, uploading your work to cloud storage, or a combination of both.


1 Terabyte (TB) is a reasonable size. Drives of all kinds need about 30% space free, so that’s about 700 Gigabytes (GB) of working space.

How it connects to computers also deserves consideration. It needs to connect to lab computers, and you might want to connect it to a computer of your own. Make sure it can connect over USB-C.

SanDisk makes a 1 TB, USB-C solid state drive that typically sells for $99, although I’ve seen it on sale for less. It has a USB-C connector and comes with a USB-A adapter (the wide flat kind). Solid state drives (SSDs) are a terrific improvement over storage devices with spinning hard discs inside, because there are no delicate moving parts to go wrong, and prices have come down a lot since SSDs were first introduced.

If you look at an external storage device that does have a spinning hard disc inside (those are the delicate moving parts that go wrong), it needs to spin at 7200, not 5400, revolutions per minute (RPM). LaCie’s rugged hard drives with the iconic orange rubber bumpers on the sides were popular for a long time.

An SSD is still an electronic device–not impervious to liquids, for instance–and it’s still a hard drive. You need to eject/unmount it safely from computers every time you’re done using it and then disconnect the cable. (If you just yank the cable, you risk damage to the drive.) These things are true of any form of external storage. Overall, SSDs are a better way, since they have no moving parts inside. They’re also smaller and lighter.

Backing Up Your Work

You’re expected to have hard drives for production classes, so it’s important to incorporate a vital principle, and a number of related practices, into how you work: Keep files you care about in more than one place.

A few types of hard drive failure are potentially recoverable, although the process takes at least a week (time most projects can’t afford) and a minimum of $1,200 worth of expertise–often substantially more. And often enough a dead hard drive simply can’t be brought back to life at all.

Important practices follow from the redundancy principle:

  1. You are responsible for your data’s redundancy.
  2. Keep physical media in separate locations in case of loss.
  3. Use the cloud.
  4. Every time you shoot, update what you’ve shot in two places so you have two complete records of everything you’ve shot.
  5. Every time you export a version of your project, save it in more than one place. (Scratch Disc on a lab computer doesn’t count.)
  6. Keep all your footage in both places until after your project is final, exported successfully, and turned in.
  7. Take good care of hard drives (see below).

What Makes Hard Drives Fragile?

Gary Adcock of Studio 37 in Chicago quips that there are two kinds of hard drives: those that have died, and those that are going to die.

Hard drives with a spinning disc inside were vulnerable to being dropped or jostled while in use. A tiny arm hovered just above the surface of that disc, spinning at high speed. If that arm touched the disc, called a head strike, it gouged the disc severely, physically destroying all sectors of memory related to that part of the disc. A ruggedized hard drive meant only that its ordinary metal or plastic enclosure had a layer of silicone wrapped around it to absorb some shock from impact. It was certainly worth something, although there was still an ordinary, spinning hard drive inside. Further, since there was a disc inside that had to spin, there had to be ball bearings for it to spin on. The longer this type of drive sat unused, the more likely its bearings were to freeze up causing the drive to be unresponsive the next time someone tried to access it. How long that took to happen varied widely with environmental conditions.

Solid state drives (SSDs) are a significant improvement, because they have no moving parts inside. There can’t be a head strike in an SSD and there are no bearings to freeze up. SSDs aren’t indestructible, however. They’re still vulnerable to liquids, theft/loss, electric shock, fall from a great height, and having their data cable disconnected without first being ejected/unmounted from a computer.

Taking Good Care of Hard Drives

It’s an expensive annoyance when a hard drive fails–and a catastrophe when a hard drive with no backup fails. So it’s important to take good care of hard drives in these ways:

  1. Let any storage device go through its whole power-down routine before physically removing it from the system. With an external hard drive, jump drive, or SD card connected to a computer, this means using the computer’s Eject command and waiting for the computer to tell you it has finished unmounting the drive. (With a camera this means turning off the camera before removing, or inserting, a memory card.)
  2. Maintain at least 30% free space on any drive–not only external storage devices but the boot drive on a computer.
  3. Practice cable-awareness. Make a quick analysis of where you need the gear need to be, where you and others need to walk and put their feet, then plug things in and route cables accordingly. Doing this is worth a great deal, both on-set and while editing, and would have prevented catastrophic data loss in several cases here at Carleton.
  4. Touch external drives as little as necessary when running. If there’s a lot of motion going on, reinforce data cables with gaffer tape to reduce the chance of the drive suddenly coming disconnected, which can corrupt data and damage a drive.
  5. Don’t let a drive get really cold. Water damages all kinds of electronics, and that includes condensation when a cold thing encounters warm, humid air. If a drive gets cold, seal it in an airtight container such as a plastic bin or Ziploc bag before coming indoors. Leave it sealed while the hard drive comes up to indoor ambient temperature. Then take the drive out of the bag. Same thing works for cameras and audio recorders which is why, in winter, we supply every camera bag with an enormous Ziploc bag.
  6. I’ve heard of people working on the road who keep a working drive with them and stash a backup drive (updated nightly) in their hotel safe, and backup to the cloud. Depending on weather conditions and other factors where a person is, this is not necessarily overkill.

More About the Cloud

Any way of storing your information relies on objects in this world that can be damaged or lost, but a proper server lives in a special room with well-maintained fire suppression and a host of other practical precautions, and has administrators monitoring its performance and backing up its data to servers in different locations. A person starts to feel confident about their data when it’s stored this way. “The cloud” is just such a thing: a network of many such servers in facilities around the world.

Every Carleton student, staff, and faculty member has space on Google Drive. It’s not unlimited–we all need to delete our raw footage from Carleton’s Google Drive as soon as we’ve turned in a final project–but it can be accessed from anywhere with data service. Local bandwidth in the field might be slow, but this is an extremely useful way to back up your work.

Just How Big is Video?

Digital video takes up more space on disc than any other kind of computer file commonly used by individuals: around 22 gigabytes (GB) for an hour of footage shot on a Sony NX100, for instance. That uses MPEG, which is an efficiently-compressed video codec. Different codecs run at different data rates. An hour of video encoded as ProRes 422 LT, for instance, would take up about 66 GB of space on disc.

Formatting Your Drives

“Format” means completely delete everything that’s on it and establish a new file system.

The first time you use a brand-new hard drive, you should format it to eliminate any pre-installed manufacturer’s settings. We use Macs for in-class exercises and in our labs, so your drive needs to be formatted for use with Macs.

With the new hard drive connected to a Mac:

  1. Open the Disc Utility (found in the Utilities folder),
  2. Select the new drive,
  3. Select the Erase button at the top,
  4. Select Mac OS Extended*,
  5. Select the Erase… button at the bottom

* Hard drives formatted for Mac OS Extended can only be read by the Mac operating system.
 Hard drives formatted for NTFS can be read by both the Mac and Windows operating systems, but can be written to by Windows only. Hard drives formatted for FAT 32 (MS-DOS) can be read and written to by both Mac and Windows operating systems, but is limited to a maximum file size of 4GB.