Back up important preferences files

When an application isn’t quite working right, sometimes the cause is a preferences file that’s gotten corrupted, so a common troubleshooting step is to delete an application’s preferences file. That’s easy to do, but with many of today’s more complex software programs, preferences are key to your workflow, and when you lose your preferences, the program may no longer do what you expect it to because it’s reverted to the factory defaults. If you’re trying to get jobs out fast, reset preferences can slow you down until you get all of them back to the way they were.

Let’s take Photoshop, for example. The preferences control everything from how keyboard shortcuts work to which disks are used for scratch files. If you’ve changed 24 preference settings and then one day you have to delete the preferences file to solve a problem, it’s hard to remember all of the options you changed. Keyboard shortcuts, units of measure, tool defaults, printer profile choices, and scratch disk locations can all be changed to settings you aren’t used to.

Here’s an easy way to restore your preferences easily in case you have to delete your preferences. After you get preferences set up the way you want, and before a problem happens, just create a .zip archive of your preferences. Whether you use Mac OS X or Windows this is easy and just takes a second.

First, find the preferences file you want to preserve.
Then, on Mac OS X, select the file and choose File > Create Archive Of (the filename).
On Windows, right-click the file and choose Send to > Compressed (Zipped) Folder.

You can just leave the zip archive next to the original preferences file because the program that uses that file will ignore it if it has the .zip filename extension instead of its normal one. Because the zip archive is created in the same location with a nearly identical filename, you don’t have to fish it out of a backup somewhere; it’s already in the right place.

When you have a problem that requires deleting preferences, delete the actual preferences file and then simply extract the backup preferences from the zip archive by double-clicking it. On Mac OS X, the file appears in the same place you zipped it, which should already be the right place if you zipped it in its proper folder location. On Windows, you may have to go through the extra step of dragging it out of the containing folder that the Extraction Wizard creates and then deleting that extraction folder. On either OS, the zip archive remains in place so you can easily extract the backup again in case you have another problem in the future.

Some applications have entire folders of preferences, or additional folders in the Application Support folder on Mac OS X or the Common Files folder in Windows. If those folders contain presets or other files that can’t be reinstalled from the original disks because they’re unique to you, it can be a good idea to back those up in place too.

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