Better backups

To help you choose your backup hardware and software wisely, we analyzed five of the most common backup scenarios, and evaluated eight all-in-one backup products in the PC World Test Center to identify the ones best suited for each task.

Whether you have a gargantuan hard drive, a laptop that needs backing up on the road, photos you want to preserve, multiple PCs to be backed up over a network, or just protection against a system catastrophe, these products and strategies can get you on the path to regular backups.

We also examined ten backup applications you can use with that storage device on your desk, and found that some are better suited to certain tasks than others.

My PC has a huge hard drive. How do I protect all that data?

With desktop hard drives now reaching 400GB, backing one up might seem like a herculean labor. But your most crucial data probably doesn't fill the entire drive--and even if it does, there are still ways to back it up.

Use an external hard drive: If you want to back up your entire system in one fell swoop, the easiest and cheapest-per-gigabyte approach is a capacious external USB 2.0 or FireWire hard drive. Such drives cost about US$1 per gigabyte, depending on the interface (dual-interface drives tend to cost a bit more than USB 2.0-only drives).

At the time we did our tests, Maxtor Corp. offered the largest-capacity external hard drive, the 300GB, $300 Maxtor OneTouch . Pressing a button on the front of the drive launches Dantz Development Corp.'s Retrospect Express 6.0 backup software on your PC. Once you've run the OneTouch setup wizard, the drive will back up anything you want at the touch of that button.

The default Retrospect script uses native file copying (without compression), which is convenient because you can browse and restore them using nothing more than Windows' Explorer. However, they require up to twice as much space as methods that employ compression.

To conserve space, you can set Retrospect to do a full traditional backup, compressing your data into a single proprietary file that you can restore only via Retrospect. The amount of space such compression saves depends on the type of files involved (for example, JPEG and MP3 files are already compressed, so they can't compress much further). Expect anywhere from 1.2:1 to 1.4:1 compression in most typical desktop file mixes.

With either native file copying or traditional backing up, you can arrange for a full backup of all your data; or, if the software supports it, an incremental backup of only the files that have changed between backups (full or previous incremental backups), or a differential backup of all changed files since your last full backup. The difference between the last two: To restore from incremental backups, you must first copy back the initial full backup, and then restore each subsequent incremental backup. With the differential approach you restore just the full backup and the latest differential backup.

Most backup software--including the Retrospect software that came with our Maxtor drive--supports data verification. Verifying takes time, but it's essential: This is your confirmation that a backup contains an accurate copy of your data. During verification, the software typically reads the original and the copy, and compares the two. If they don't match, you'll have to redo your backup.

Using the traditional backup method, the OneTouch drive copied and verified 44.3GB of data in 2 hours, 18 minutes (for all tests, we used the default software settings). If you start your backup at the end of the day, you can even set Retrospect to shut down your PC automatically when the process is complete.

External hard drives have other conveniences, as well. For example, you can easily detach an external model from your system and store it separately, safe from power surges and viruses.

Better Backups

Tip: Rotate your backups between two drives. This way you have different restore points, so you can retrieve a file after an accidental deletion.

Use a removable-cartridge hard drive: Iomega Corp.'s $400 Rev 35GB/90GB Removable Hard Disk Drive uses removable hard-drive cartridges that are easier to store off-site than an external hard drive. But even though the software's compression can pack up to 90GB on a disk, be prepared to buy multiple disks if you're backing up a huge, full hard drive. Although well-funded businesses might not mind spending $400 on the first drive and cartridge, and $60 on each additional cartridge, those costs could be a deal-killer for a self-employed worker.

Rather than buying a stack of Rev disks, you could use a single Rev disk exclusively for backing up critical files--such as your data, e-mail, and bookmarks--thereby minimizing how many discs you need.

Our backup of 44.3GB of data using Iomega's Automatic Backup Pro software required two discs. Using light compression (the software lacks data verification), the Rev backed up our data set in 1 hour, 49 minutes--29 minutes faster than the Maxtor drive (which did have verification enabled). The Automatic Backup Pro sits in the background and updates your backup as changes occur or at scheduled intervals. Another perk: You can make a Rev disc bootable, which is handy for recovering from a system disaster.

Use a blue-laser optical drive: High-capacity blue-laser-based optical drives for use with PCs are just now becoming available. As such, the drives are expensive, but we tested Sony Corp.'s Professional Disc for Data BW-RU101 drive to get a glimpse of the future of optical recording--and backup. Sony's ProData has several advantages: Its sturdy discs come in nearly air-tight cartridges that protect them from wear and from harmful elements like dust and fingerprints; and the slim, removable cartridges are far easier to transport than a high-capacity hard drive.

Blue-laser formats haven't been ironed out yet. Even if the standards were solidified, the $3295 ProData drive and its 23GB recordable and rewritable disc cartridges ($45 each) are pricey for the average user. Its main aim is to replace the magneto-optical (MO) storage still used for business backup and archiving.

Using the bundled NovaStor or NovaBackup 7.1 and Software Architects Disc Drive TuneUp 3.1

Required 4 hours, 10 minutes to back up 44.3GB of data to two discs, using defaults of data compression and verification.

How do I protect the data on my laptop while I'm traveling?

Before starting on a journey, back up your laptop with one of the options discussed above. Once you're on the road, choose a weight-conscious backup option to keep your evolving data safe.

Back up online: If you expect reliable broadband access while traveling, or if you have relatively little data to back up, you can handle the task online. ISP mailboxes generally top out at 25MB or less; but MSN's Hotmail will soon offer 250MB of storage with its free service, and Google's free Gmail gives you 1GB--plenty of room for you to e-mail a copy of a multimedia-laden PowerPoint file to yourself. Online backup services provide utilities for uploading data from your system to their servers, and charge based on capacity. IBackup, for example, charges $15 per month for 4GB.

Back up to a USB flash memory drive: A USB flash memory drive is a handy, extremely robust means of backing up 1GB or less of data. These tiny wonders are becoming increasingly capacious and affordable: The M-Systems Flash Disk Pioneer Ltd. DiskOnKey Classic 512MB costs about $100, half what it cost a year ago; and Memorex Corp.'s 1GB TravelDrive sells for $250.

Use a travel-size hard drive: As with desktop PCs, the quickest way to back up everything on your laptop is to use an external hard drive--albeit a small, bus-powered drive (no AC adapter required), such as CMS Products Inc.'s pocket-size ABSplus Portable USB 2.0 drive. Alas, less weight means more cash: The 80GB version of the drive costs a whopping $350 ($4.37 per GB), versus just $300 for the 300GB Maxtor OneTouch desktop drive.

The ABSplus has some added perks. Its bundled BounceBack Professional software lets you transform the unit into a bootable duplicate of your notebook's hard drive; if your notebook's main drive dies, you can boot from the ABSplus and get back to work (your system BIOS needs to support booting from USB 2.0). Alternatively, if your laptop doesn't support booting from an external drive--and you have a screwdriver handy--you can remove the drive from the ABSplus enclosure and install it in your notebook.

The 4200-rpm ABSplus drive backed up and verified our 15.9GB notebook data set in a little over 37 minutes, without compressing data. By comparison, Maxtor's 7200-rpm OneTouch backed up the same data, but with both data verification and performance-sapping compression, in 43 minutes--just 6 minutes more time.

Better Backups

Tip: Organizing and storing your data in one location--for example, My Documents--makes it easier to manage and back up, especially when you're traveling.

Keep your data in sync: Synchronizing data between your laptop and your desktop PC or a network server ensures you'll always be working on the most recent version of a file, and it provides a quick means of creating a second, off-site copy of those files. Plus, when the desktop or server gets its regularly scheduled backup, so will your notebook data.

Windows' own built-in Briefcase syncing software is useful, but limited. It only recognizes the files that have changed between syncs; it doesn't track file additions or deletions. By contrast, dedicated syncing software monitors additions and deletions as well as updated files. SimpleTech Inc.'s $19 StorageSync Professional 1.4 lets you control only whether or not to overwrite files. VCom's Folder Synchronizer, part of the company's $40 PowerDesk Pro 5 file management software, lets you specify that you want to copy only the newest files between folders. The most impressive features of Michael Thummerer's $25 AllSync Home Edition are its preview function (which lets you see what files are being copied and deleted during a sync) and its preset tasks such as mirroring and copying new files.

Synchronization utilities alert you to conflicts and give you ways to resolve them, but you have to be careful not to delete data accidentally. Before syncing, confirm that each system's date and time are set identically, so you don't accidentally overwrite the wrong file. Also, choose files for syncing carefully: With some application files, such as a Microsoft Outlook .pst mail database, you could end up overwriting your most current data file.

CMS Products ASBSplus Portable


80GB, 4200-rpm hard drive

USB 2.0 interface

CMS BounceBack Professional 5.5

Required 37 minutes to back up 15.9GB of data, with the software's default settings of data verification and no compression.

I'm a packrat with tons of photos and documents. What's best for long-term storage?

To preserve your files for posterity, archive them on removable media that you can store off site, away from your home or office. DVD media is perfect for this job: It's cheap enough to permit you to make multiple copies of your backups, and both the write-once and rewritable flavors of DVD media retain their integrity better than magnetic media, such as tape and hard-drive platters that are constantly accessed.

Archive to write-once DVD: Inexpensive, easy-to-store recordable DVD-R or DVD+R is your best bet for archiving. Disc manufacturers claim that write-once media has a shelf life of about 60 years, based on simulated, accelerated-life tests; that's far longer than magnetic media. Nonetheless, if you're archiving irreplaceable data, we recommend backing up your data to two discs, keeping the copies in different locations, and checking them periodically to confirm that the content is intact.

If your data fits on a single DVD, using standard DVD mastering software to back up is fine. Otherwise, use backup software, which can span discs and perform incremental or differential backups.

In our tests, the $180 Sony DRU-700A took 1 hour, 34 minutes to write and verify 8GB of data to two 8X DVD+R discs, and 2 hours, 9 minutes to back the data up to one 2.4X DVD+R Double Layer disc. Ahead's Nero BackItUp spent 22 minutes compressing the data before mastering it (other packages, such as Retrospect, use packet writing), and it spent about an hour on verification. Actual write times were about 15 minutes and 45 minutes, respectively.

We recommend that you skip compression when using backup software with optical media. Native file copying is faster, and it ensures that any application in the future, including Windows' Explorer, can read your archive discs--an important consideration if you're putting the discs into deep storage. We also suggest enabling data verification to confirm that the data transferred to the disc safely, with no errors caused during the burn process.

Use rewritable DVD: If you constantly update your data--for example, by frequently adding new scans to a family photo album--rewritable DVD is among the safer ways to store it. Surprisingly, the most suitable media for this task is DVD-RAM, which has a higher reliability specification (up to 100,000 rewrites) than DVD ± RW (rated for up to 1000 rewrites); all three rewritable formats have a lower longevity rating (about 30 years) than write-once DVD. DVD-RAM has superior defect management, too, so the media can better compensate for errors or scratches on the disc. Also, DVD-RAM discs have a scratch-resistant coating that you rarely find in other DVD formats.

Our tests show LG Electronics Inc.'s $200, 5X-rated Super-Multi GSA-4120B is the fastest DVD-RAM drive yet, but with compression and verification enabled on Nero BackItUp (a $50 upgrade to the bundled version of Nero), it took 2 hours, 25 minutes to back up 8GB of data. That's 43 minutes slower than the time we recorded for 4X DVD+RW--a difference caused in part by DVD-RAM's hardware read-after-write verification to ensure that the data wrote to the disc correctly.

Better Backups

Tip: Some backup programs, including those from Stomp and Dantz, maintain catalogs to help you organize multidisc backups. This makes it easier to find and restore data.

LG Electronics Inc. Super-Multi GSA-4120B


12 DVD+R, 4X DVD+RW, 2.4X DVD+R Double Layer; 8X DVD-R, 4X DVD-RW; 5X DVD-RAM

Internal IDE drive

Ahead Nero Express 6.3

Required 2 hours, 25 minutes to back up 8GB of data to two 5X DVD-RAM discs, using defaults of compression and verification.

Sony DRU-700A


12X DVD+R, 4X DVD+RW, 2.4X DVD+R Double Layer; 8X DVD-R, 4X DVD-RW

Internal IDE drive

Ahead Nero Express 6.3 (version includes Nero BackItUp)

Required 1 hour, 34 minutes to back up 8GB of data to two 8X DVD+R discs; 2 hours, 9 minutes to back up to one 2.4X DVD+R DL disc; and 1 hour, 42 minutes to back up to two 4X DVD+RW discs; all tests used the default settings of data compression and verification.

I have several computers on my small network. How can I back them up?

Ethernet-connected storage is a great way to protect against drive failure or accidental file erasure. We suggest that you supplement it with off-site backups, since any always-connected drive is necessarily vulnerable to power surges and security attacks.

Back up to an ethernet hard drive: A new breed of external drives has an RJ-45 connector, so you can attach the drive directly to your router and share it via the network. Ximeta Inc.'s $230 NetDisk provides 160GB of network storage, at just a small premium ($30) over an ordinary USB 2.0 drive. The NetDisk's included client driver registers the device as a local drive instead of as a network drive, which makes it visible even to backup programs that don't see your network. The drive sped through our tests, backing up 8GB in 15 minutes (using the bundled SureSaver 1.21 full-backup utility).

And if you already own an external USB 2.0 hard drive, Linksys's $99 Network Storage Link lets you attach up to two drives to your router. You configure the NSL via a Web browser, and the drives will show up as network locations.

Better Backups

Tip: If your backup software can't see a network drive, map the desired network location to a drive letter by right-clicking XP's My Computer icon and selecting Map Network Drive.

Use network-attached storage: Conventional network-attached storage, such as Snap Appliance Inc.'s $1750 Snap Server 2200 , appears as a network drive and can be administered via a Web browser.

The full-featured 2200 has dual 250GB hard drives that you may configure with RAID 1 for 250GB of mirrored storage or stripe with RAID 0 for 500GB of storage. Plus, the 2200 supports various operating systems and network protocols, so you can back up data from Mac, Linux, and even ancient Windows systems. The unit ships with Symantec Corp.'s PowerQuest DataKeeper, which performs a full backup (sans system files and settings) of each system, and then back up changes to your hard drive as they occur.

In our tests, the Snap Server 2200 installed easily and took 58 minutes to do an initial full backup of 8GB of data over a 10/100-megabit-per-second ethernet network, using compression and verification.

Snap Appliance Snap Server


500GB total storage (two 250GB, 7200-rpm hard drives)

Gigabit ethernet interface

Symantec Corp. PowerQuest DataKeeper

Required 58 minutes to back up 8GB of data, with the software's default of data compression enabled (no verification).

Ximeta NetDisk


160GB, 7200-rpm hard drive

USB 2.0 and ethernet interfaces

NetDisk SureSaver 1.21

Required 15 minutes to back up 8GB of data (without data compression and verification).

What's the quickest way to get up and running following a catastrophe?

Returning your computer to a precatastrophe state involves replacing the machine's operating system and boot information as well as its other data. Some backup programs, such as those from Dantz and Stomp, create boot discs so that you can then restore your most recent backup. But we found two options that were less tedious.

Make an image of your drive: The easiest and speediest way to recover from a data disaster is to restore your system with a drive image created by a program such as Acronis Inc.'s $50 True Image 7, or Symantec Corp.'s $70 Norton Ghost 9, due out soon. Image files contain everything in a single convenient package: boot information, the operating system, and all of your programs, settings, and data. The catch: You must image an entire drive.

Once you have a disc image, the recovery process is simple: Boot with the rescue floppy, CD, or DVD created by the imaging program; restore the image; and reboot.

Create a bootable drive. CMS Product's $79 BounceBack Professional 5.5 software can create a bootable backup on a hard drive, so you can skip over restoring a backup. In the event of a meltdown, you just plug the drive in and start your PC--but only if your system's BIOS supports booting from USB or FireWire devices.

Better Backups

Tip: Create an image file after you've installed Windows and your core applications; this makes recovery a snap.

Choose the Right Software for Your Backup Strategy

We recommend a two-part approach to system backup. In the first phase, create an image file of your boot drive so you can recover from catastrophe. In the second phase, protect your data regularly using traditional backups or native file copying.

For imaging software, two worthy choices are Acronis's $50 True Image 7 and Symantec's upcoming $70 Norton Ghost 9 (we looked at a beta of this program, and found it borrows heavily from Drive Image 7, which Symantec gained during its recent acquisition of PowerQuest). Both programs offer intuitive Windows interfaces, excellent graphical user interfaces for use during recovery when your system won't boot, plus full and incremental images.

The software you use during the second phase of your backup strategy depends entirely on what you're backing up to and what features you need. Despite its high $129 price , Dantz's Retrospect Professional 6.5 garnered a Best Buy because it does virtually everything you'd expect from a backup program. Our pick for the budget Best Buy is Argentum's $25 Backup 2.1, due to its ease of use.

The steal of the review, though, is the free standard edition of SimpleTech's StorageSync, a slick-looking app that simplifies selecting, backing up, restoring, and syncing files (graduate to the $19 Pro 1.4 version to get compression and password protection). But Argentum Backup 2.1 impressed us more, thanks to its clean design, use of standard .zip compression, and ability to keep multiple versions of each backup. Both programs work only with hard drives (Argentum works with optical drives as long as third-party packet-writing software is installed).

If you want features like encryption and the ability to back up to optical media, you'll have to spend a few more bucks. LI Utilities' $50 WinBackup 1.85 supports optical drives, and it offers superstrong 256-bit AES encryption, too. Ahead Software AG's Nero BackItUp 1.2 (part of the $100 Nero 6 Ultra Edition CD/DVD suite) and NTI's $80 BackupNow 3 each offer encryption and frequent driver updates to support new optical drives. BackItUp is powerful, but sometimes counterintuitive to use; NTI's easygoing step-by-step wizard is more straightforward, but it lacks native file copying.

Uniquely, CMS Products' $79 BounceBack Professional 5.5 software can create a bootable copy of your hard drive without imaging. Regrettably, however, the program needs an interface overhaul--separate modules handle the backup and restore chores. Also, with no compression, encryption, or support for tape, its price tag is too steep.

NovaStor's $80 NovaBackup 7.1 has a friendly, wizard-driven interface and wide device support (including the Sony Professional Disc for Data drive), but it's pricey considering it can't create disaster recovery boot discs.

A much better value is Stomp Inc.'s $60 BackUp MyPC 5 Deluxe--which handles tape drives as well as optical and hard drives. With its disaster recovery features and superclean, intuitive interface, BackUp MyPC is a great program, but it has a few limitations. It lacks native file copying, and it can't shut down your PC after an end-of-day or overnight backup, a few of the features offered by our second Best Buy, Dantz's Retrospect Professional 6.5.

Retrospect's interface is inelegant yet functional. We liked how it automates restoring an incremental backup (unlike other programs, which might require you to restore several incremental backups before you revert to the date you want). It's also the only program to include two clients, for backing up two other computers that reside on the same network.

Optical Discs: Recover Unreadable CDs and DVDs

You pop a backup CD or DVD into your drive, looking for two-year-old tax data, but Windows stalls before finally replying that it can't read the disc. Don't panic: You may still be able to rescue the data on it.

The trouble might be due to an incompatibility between the drive and the disc. Try upgrading your drive's firmware, or reading the disc in another drive. Older, slower drives can sometimes read damaged discs that newer models can't, so if you have one lying around, cherish it, don't toss it.

If your disc is scratched or has suffered other minor damage, you can try using a recovery application such as InfinaDyne's $50 CD/DVD Diagnostic, or a physical repair product such as Memorex's $30 OptiFix Pro or Digital Innovations Inc.'s $50 Skip Dr. But InfinaDyne's software won't help if the disc's multiple tables of contents in the inner portion of the disc are too damaged, and OptiFix Pro and Skip Dr. can correct only minor scuffs (and clean discs). Another option: Use TDK's specially coated Armor Plated DVD-Rs, which can withstand light scratches and abrasions, but cost three times as much as regular discs.

The last-ditch solution is a data recovery service such as CBL Data Recovery Technologies Inc. or OnTrack Data Recovery. Both will recover data from optical discs, but prices start at $500 per disc.

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Jon L. Jacobi

PC World
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