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Originally published Friday, January 21, 2011 at 12:00 PM

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Q&A

Patrick Marshall: Data-storage options will keep you guessing

Q: Over the past several decades we have seen home movie recording go from VHS to VHS-C to 8 mm to mini-DV to DVD to now Blu-ray. What do you think...

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Q: Over the past several decades we have seen home movie recording go from VHS to VHS-C to 8 mm to mini-DV to DVD to now Blu-ray. What do you think would be the best long-term storage medium, for not only movies, but digital photos, that won't degrade over time and will always have future compatibility for generations to come?

— Grover Bosley, Bainbridge Island

A: I'd opt for holographic data storage. The only problem is that it's not on the market yet. Seriously, though, it does seem to be not far off. IBM has demonstrated a system that uses two lasers to create light patterns in a crystal cube. A terabyte of data — that's 1,000 gigabytes — was stored in a crystal the size of a sugar cube.

What's more, the system offers extremely fast data-access rates. I haven't heard yet what the life span of such storage is expected to be, but I would imagine it to be very, very good since there are no moving parts involved in the storage and there's no wear and tear involved in accessing it.

For now, however, the realistic choice is between optical discs and flash memory. Optical discs can last from 10 to 100 years, with the difference being primarily the quality of the protective coating on the disc. But — and this is a big but — this life span applies only to discs that have been cut rather than "burned." The life span of burned CDs may be as short as two years, depending upon the quality of materials in the disc and storage conditions.

For home users, flash memory is a more reliable choice. Flash memory devices have life spans for 50 to 100 years. That's if you just leave the data on the device. If you're continually accessing it, the life span will be shorter, since flash memory wears out with use. Another drawback: Flash memory is relatively expensive.

For digital data that can't be replaced, I make several copies using high-quality DVD discs and I store the copies in different locations, with one being a safe-deposit box. If you really want to be sure about the data, you should copy it to new discs every three years until a more stable form of storage hits the market.

Whatever technology you choose, you're always going to be guessing about the format being readable in the future. If you're only looking at the next 20 years or so, that's not a major issue. It's likely specialty shops will be around that will be able to convert recent data formats. But it's more a guessing game if you're looking to store data for 100 years.

Q: After a recent installation of Windows Vista, I discovered that certain icons added (pinned) to the Start menu with the right-click context menu do not launch the program. Also, some icons that come up in the Start menu history will not launch the program either. It is possible to pin a program shortcut that will work by going directly to the program's folder and using the right-click directly on the *.exe program. How can I get the Start menu working correctly again?

— Jim Riley

A: The problem could be a corrupt Windows registry or possibly a virus. Before cleaning the drive and reinstalling Windows, however, there is one thing you can try. Remove the problematic shortcuts from the Start menu by right-clicking on them and selecting "Remove from this list." Next, as you have done, locate the actual program file using Windows Explorer. Right-click on it and select "Pin to Start menu."

If this doesn't work, or if newly installed programs don't work properly with the Start menu, you'll need to re-create the Windows registry by reinstalling Windows. And make sure you're got up-to-date anti-virus software running.

Questions for Patrick Marshall may be sent by e-mail to pmarshall@seattletimes.com or pgmarshall@pgmarshall.net, or by mail at Q&A/Technology, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/

columnists.

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