Ultimate Backup Guide
You're as nervous as a diamond cutter on a roller coaster. Your precious gem--your PC's hard disk--has started to make a disturbing chattering sound. That's when it hits you: Your data is probably toast, and your backups are laughably out of date. Never mind how long it will take to reinstall your applications--you also face weeks of laboriously scanning paper documents, reentering your worksheets, rebuilding your customer database, and extracting all of those MP3s from your CDs.
For many people, backing up is an unpleasant chore. We make lots of
excuses not to do it: It takes too much time, it's too much hassle, it costs
too much. But we at
Back when hard drives were measured in megabytes, savvy users and businesses relied on the only automated backup option of the time: a tape drive. Everyone else used the humble floppy disk; prayed that they wouldn't accidentally corrupt or delete essential files; or hoped against hope that their hard drives wouldn't die.
Today's jumbo hard drives can store many gigabytes of data that you'll want to back up. For this review we ran ten storage devices through a series of tests overseen by the PC World Test Center. The drives we looked at represent a wide range of technologies both new (like rewritable DVD) and established (like tape)--and all of them are suitable for backup tasks.
We grouped products according to the size and type of backup that users normally need to perform: smaller backups of under 2GB; medium-size backups of 2GB to 20GB; and complete backups that often exceed 20GB and reproduce the entire contents of the hard drive, including its OS, applications, and data.
In the under-2GB category, we examined three drives, none of which are designed for backing up huge data sets: the Fujitsu DynaMO 1300U2 ($299), a 1.3GB magneto-optical USB 2.0 drive; the Iomega Zip 250MB USB-Powered Drive ($149); and the Plextor PlexWriter 40/12/ 40A internal CD-RW drive ($140).
For the 2GB-to-20GB category, we tested several types of rewritable DVD drives: the $500 Hewlett-Packard Dvd200i DVD+RW drive, the $460 Pioneer DVR-A04 DVD-RW drive, and the $380 QPS DVDBurner DVD-RAM/R drive. In addition, we evaluated Iomega's $229 HDD 20GB Portable Hard Drive, an external FireWire (IEEE 1394) hard disk drive.
The final category covers backups exceeding 20GB. Here we focused on big drives that are great for handling fully automated backups: CMS Peripherals' $399 ABSplus for Desktops, an 80GB external hard drive with built-in software that automatically backs up your system; Interactive Media's $290 80GB KanguruDisk, a removable hard drive that docks in a desktop's internal drive bay; Quantum's $849 Snap Server 1100, a NAS device for small networks; and Exabyte's $798 VXA-1 Tape Drive. VXA tape has a very high capacity and works extremely well for full-system, automated backups.
These drives differ substantially in technology, but it's useful to compare them on measures of speed and usability. The chores: doing a full backup of 10GB, performing an incremental backup (in which we backed up only the 500MB of new files previously added to our system's hard disk), and copying 500MB of files from a PC to a backup drive (the exception here was the tape drive, which does not work with software that lets you copy files via a drag-and-drop interface).
We tested CMS's ABSplus, Interactive Media's KanguruDisk, Iomega's
HDD Portable Hard Drive, and Quantum's Snap Server using the default settings
of their bundled backup software; for all of the remaining drives, we used
The results didn't surprise us: Backup hard drives zoomed, tape storage dragged, and optical storage generally ranged between those extremes. As you might expect, low-capacity removable media drives demand a lot of babysitting during large backups. In our tests, we had to use 13 discs with the Plextor CD-RW drive to complete a full backup, and we had to insert each disc twice--once for the backup and once for data verification.
Still, for smaller backups, the affordable CD-RW drive gets our nod. For medium-size backups of 20GB or less, a DVD+RW drive will serve you well. And for very large volumes of data, you'll appreciate the convenience of an external hard drive.
Of course, no single backup solution fits every environment. A CD-RW drive isn't viable for backing up several systems over a network; NAS is overkill for a single desktop. Our evaluations take speed and cost into account, but you should also consider the drive's portability (a must for backing up systems at multiple work sites); the media's capacity (which determines how many passes it will take to complete your backup); and the suitability of the media for off-site storage.
You have one or several folders that need backing up--but you don't need to protect every byte on your hard drive (for example, applications, which you can reinstall easily). The three drives in this category--Zip, CD-RW, and magneto-optical--have maximum storage capacities of 250MB, 700MB, or 1.3GB per disc, so you can back up less than 2GB of data without having to swap an inordinate number of discs. But CD-RW drives make the most sense, thanks to their low cost, their speed, and their use of inexpensive, portable media.
The stylish blue, external Iomega Zip 250MB USB-Powered Drive handles limited amounts of data but does it well. Installation is a snap: You can connect this USB 1.1 device to a PC without powering down; and because the drive doesn't require an external power supply, it's very portable. But when it comes to speed and capacity, the Zip 250MB cannot match competing technologies--which is why we didn't subject it to the same battery of lab tests as the other drives in this review. In our informal tests, copying 247MB with Windows Explorer took more than 9 minutes--just about three times as long as a comparably priced CD-RW drive. Furthermore, a 2GB backup could require as many as eight 250MB Zip cartridges (at a cost of roughly $15 per cartridge). The drive includes QuikSync LE, a scaled-down version of Iomega's software for doing scheduled and on-the-fly backups.
Plextor's PlexWriter 40/12/40A is only slightly cheaper than the Iomega Zip 250MB drive, but the 700MB CD-R and CD-RW media that it uses holds more data and costs far less (50 cents for a CD-R, 80 cents for a CD-RW). The drive was fast, too, taking 1 hour, 43 minutes to back up 10GB of data in our tests.
The illustrated setup guide for our test drive was out of date, but installation was still easy--and typical for an internal drive. We slid the drive into a free bay and connected the power and data cables; upon rebooting, Windows XP recognized the drive on the spot.
The 40/12/40A's biggest selling point is the compatibility of its media: Burn your files to CD-R, and just about any computer-based CD- or DVD-media drive around should be able to read them.
The same can't be said for the media that Fujitsu's external 1.3GB DynaMO 1300U2 uses. The drive is one of a handful of magneto-optical drives on the market, and only other 1.3GB magneto-optical drives can read the $20 discs.
MO has one benefit: Its 3.5-inch media is ensconced in a rugged
cartridge that protects the disc from damage and makes it suitable for
long-term storage. The discs are small, easy to transport and store, and have a
high enough capacity that MO uses two-thirds as many discs as CD-RW to complete
the same full backup. Plus, the media's reputation is sound (see "
The model that we tested had a USB 2.0 interface, which permits hot-swapping of the drive among multiple PCs. And if you already use a 3.5-inch MO drive, you'll appreciate the DynaMO 1300U2's compatibility with earlier generations of ISO 3.5-inch MO discs. But at $299, the drive itself costs more than twice as much as the Plextor CD-RW drive. Furthermore, in our tests, it's slower than the CD-RW drive for full backups and folder copying.
You certainly can use a rewritable DVD drive or an external hard drive for similar backup tasks. For small backups, however, an inexpensive, low-capacity drive with removable media costs far less.
You have a lot of data to back up--too much to fit on a couple of CD-Rs--and you also want to move around some big files. That's where the four drives in this category--three variations of rewritable DVD and a portable hard drive--come into play. All four of these drives have a large enough capacity to store all the data on a typical business user's hard disk, or to transport a slew of medium-length video files; and all of them use removable media well suited for off-site storage. Of the four rewritable DVD units we looked at, the DVD+RW drive was the fastest.
Currently, there are three competing, incompatible rewritable DVD formats: DVD-RAM, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW. When the dust settles on the standards battle, two of these formats may die, and you could be stuck with the losing format.
The oldest of the three, DVD-RAM, is also the least compatible. Current DVD-RAM drives can write to $15 single-sided 4.7GB DVD-RAM cartridge media as well as to $25 double-sided 9.4GB cartridge media. (The drive also writes to bare DVD-RAM discs, but one of DVD-RAM's main advantages is the cartridge's protection for the disc.) Unfortunately, only a DVD-RAM drive can read cartridge media, and even bare discs are incompatible with most DVD-ROM readers. The latest generation of DVD-RAM drives, such as the one we tested, can also record to write-once DVD-R media, which is compatible with most current DVD-ROM drives. Finally, unlike their competitors, DVD-RAM drives can't double as a CD-RW drive.
DVD-RW and DVD+RW drives have a bit more in common. Both use 4.7GB write-once or rewritable discs--about $6 apiece for DVD-R and DVD+R, and about $10 for DVD-RW and DVD+RW. And both formats can act as CD-RW drives. DVD discs written in either drive will play back in many--but not all--DVD-ROM readers; however, the write-once media is generally more compatible with existing DVD-ROM drives.
Though the actual write speeds between the two formats are largely comparable (DVD+RW is slightly faster than DVD-RW in this regard), the most prominent difference between the two involves the formatting times (preformatted media isn't available). With DVD+RW drives such as the HP Dvd200i, formatting is independent of the software you're using; the drive itself formats a disc as you write to it. With DVD-RW drives such as the Pioneer DVR-A04, though, formatting is more a function of the software than of the hardware (at this time, only software maker VOB offers a package that supports DVD-RW's Quick Format); the software we used in testing does only a full format, which accounts in large part for the Pioneer's slower performance in our tests. Whereas the HP took just a minute to initiate its format and start writing a 4.7GB DVD+RW, the Pioneer required over an hour just to format a DVD-RW.
Aside from offering superior performance, HP's Dvd200i DVD+RW drive distinguishes itself with its lucid manuals and smooth software setup. Of the three rewritable DVD drives we tested, it's the only one whose manual provides useful information (such as instructions for creating a DVD movie). HP also includes a basic backup package, HP Simple Backup, that can perform full backups but not incremental ones. The one thing that irked us: Deleting files on a DVD+RW disc can take a long time.
In our backup tests, both the QPS DVDBurner DVD-RAM/R drive and the Pioneer DVR-A04 DVD-RW drive--in that order--lagged behind the HP DVD+RW. Even the Plextor CD-RW drive beat these products on our three backup tasks. Installation for both the Pioneer drive and the QPS drive was standard-issue for an internal drive, but neither's documentation could come close to the HP's. For instance, the Pioneer's short hardware manual complicates some tasks (such as explaining setting the jumpers, which you may need to do during installation).
The sleek HDD 20GB Portable Hard Drive from Iomega wins out as the fastest drive in this category and is a close runner-up to the HP Dvd200i. Among all drives, it came in second on our 500MB folder copy test, and third on our full 10GB backup test.
But the Iomega uses a 4200-rpm 2.5-inch hard drive, which helps explain why it finished last among the hard-disk-based products in this review--behind the ABSplus and the KanguruDisk, which use faster, 3.5-inch hard drives. Iomega's HDD External Drive line uses higher-capacity 3.5-inch hard drives, too, but those models are physically larger and bulkier than the Portable Hard Drive units.
The HDD 20GB Portable Hard Drive is one of the easiest products in this review to install: Just snap on the included module, and connect it to a FireWire port (assuming your PC has one) without powering down your system. If you want to use the drive with USB 2.0, you can remove the FireWire module and add a USB 2.0 one for under $50; or you can buy the USB 2.0 version of the drive for $30 less. The lightweight drive is easy to take with you, since there's no bulky power adapter (power is drawn from the FireWire port).
The software bundle includes Iomega's Backup--a capable program for doing full and incremental backups--and QuikSync, which lets you select the folders that you want to back up and monitor, and automatically keeps your backups up-to-date. QuikSync also preserves multiple versions of files, so you can recoup if you later mistakenly overwrite a specific file.
If you can't afford downtime, and everything on your PC--from data to programs to custom settings--is vital, you need a big, fast, dedicated backup drive to safeguard your PC's content and get you up and running as quickly as possible. Speed is a major consideration here, as are capacity and removability. We looked at external hard drives, a tape drive, and a NAS device in this group--and our nod goes to external hard drives, which deliver the best performance at a very attractive price. But hard disks make storing critical data off-site difficult. In circumstances where time isn't an issue, you can opt instead for a tape drive that uses compact, high-capacity media large enough to hold the entire contents of your hard drive. A tape drive's two advantages--easy automation and its use of removable media (allowing for the storage of redundant backups off-site)--generally make up for the shortcomings inherent in its pedestrian performance.
Exabyte's VXA-1 Tape Drive, an external SCSI model, stores 33GB of data per tape cartridge (and up to 66GB of compressed data, depending on the type of files involved); a single tape costs about $67. The VXA-1 stores data in packets rather than as a continuous stream; according to Exabyte, this makes for greater reliability of the data on the tape.
Setting up the drive can be difficult, however. The documentation is slim, and the VXA-1 comes without a SCSI cable or adapter. Unlike the other drives in this review, the Exabyte includes only software drivers, and it can't be used without a third-party backup package like the one we tested with. If you don't already have backup software, you'll need to buy it separately in order to use this drive. (A FireWire version includes Dantz Retrospect Desktop Backup, but it costs $848, $50 more than the SCSI drive.)
Like most tape drives, the Exabyte drive is relatively slow: In our tests, it required 3.5 hours to complete a 10GB backup. But tape offers reliability and simplicity (see "The Foibles and Fortitude of Media," below). For a full backup, just start the application, pop in a tape, and that's it--no further intervention is necessary.
While external hard drives as a whole are common and are generally fast for backing up data, backups don't get any faster or more automatic than with CMS Peripherals' ABSplus for Desktops. The ABSplus is an 80GB external, 7200-rpm hard-disk drive that connects via USB 2.0 (a FireWire version costs the same; and a pricier, more portable version is also available). What sets the ABSplus apart from other hard drives is its preconfigured backup software: At first use, the software executes a full system backup; it then performs incremental backups every time you turn the drive on. (You can use an applet installed in Windows' System Tray to run an incremental backup or restore manually.)
The ABSplus was the fastest drive in this roundup, by far. It needed just 18 minutes to complete a full 10GB backup--less than half the time of its nearest competitor, the KanguruDisk. The ABSplus also came in first in the folder copy test, finishing ahead of the Iomega HDD 20GB Portable Hard Drive by 17 seconds. Note, however, that the ABS's times don't include data verification; we tested each unit with its default settings, and on the ABS, you must configure data verification manually.
Speed aside, the ABSplus makes it easy to recover from data disaster: Thanks to the included rescue floppy or CD to boot off the ABSplus, you can access Windows and all your applications and data in the event your PC's hard drive fails. Once you install a new primary hard drive, a one-step restore gets your system back to normal in a flash.
Unfortunately, CMS's manuals make installation harder than it should be, by providing scant illustrations and few port and drive part descriptions. In addition, this relatively heavy, chunky device isn't particularly well suited for transporting.
The other hard drive in this category--Interactive Media's 80MB KanguruDisk --combines some of the benefits and drawbacks of both tape and external hard drives. In our speed tests, the KanguruDisk ranked second in our full backup and incremental backup tests. The internal KanguruDisk consists of a 5400-rpm 80GB hard drive inside an ungainly, beige cartridge the size of a VCR tape, plus a KanguruDock drive bay installation kit for mounting (and locking) the IDE drive in an open 5.25-inch drive bay.
The KanguruDisk's design is interesting, because it couples the portability of removable media with the ability to keep one less item on your computer desk. In addition, it allows you to use the cartridge as an external drive, if you purchase the appropriate interface connectors (including USB 2.0, FireWire, parallel-port, and PC Card). This range of connectivity makes the KanguruDisk very flexible. However, a power adapter (required in order to use the drive externally) costs $60, and additional interface cables and adapters run from $40 to $60 apiece.
Nonetheless, at $290 (which includes the drive, the KanguruDock, and the NovaStor Disk-to-Disk Backup software), this device is a bargain: The drive's cost works out to $3.62 cents per gigabyte, compared with $4.99 per GB for the CMS ABSplus and a hefty $11.45 per GB for Iomega's HDD Portable Hard Drive.
Small businesses looking to back up multiple PCs should consider Quantum's compact, 3.5-pound Snap Server 1100. The Snap Server is an 80GB headless server that you connect to your network via a 100Base-T/10Base-T ethernet port. (You configure headless servers over your network using a Web browser, rather than controlling them via a keyboard and monitor.) Another approach is to base the Snap Server off-site and back up multiple systems over a wide area network (the Snap Server supports SSL version 3 encryption and can work with your network's existing virtual private network or firewall). The Snap Server supports various network protocols and client operating systems, including Microsoft Windows 9x, Macintosh System 7.5 and later, Unix, and Linux.
In our 10GB backup test, the Snap Server was the second slowest drive in this category, and it ranks fifth overall at this task. It took 2 hours, 51 minutes to complete a full backup--only 40 minutes faster than the tape drive.
As with other jumbo-capacity backup drives, the Snap Server doesn't require much attention while it runs. The backups are handled by the unit's bundled PowerQuest DataKeeper software, which executes an initial full backup of Windows clients, and then performs constant incremental backups thereafter (it even saves file versions). The Snap Server administrator can issue read and write permissions for data on the server, so (for example) each user on the network can view his or her backup files and not the CEO's. If sharing backup storage among multiple PCs is your goal, the Snap Server is a worthy contender.
Advice is easy to give, but hard to take--especially if the advice is "Back up your computer!" The nine tips below will help keep your data safe, and keep you calm in the face of a disaster.
We transfer every conceivable type of data over the Internet on a daily basis--so why not our backups, too? Online backup services let you do just that: For a monthly or annual fee, you can upload your data to their servers.
Generally, online backups make the most sense for small and medium-size
companies with high-speed Internet connections. Online backups can be a
practical way to address the compelling need for redundant, off-site storage,
and the needs of companies with users (either in a single location, or
scattered across different locations) who have data--spreadsheets, databases,
and more--that should be backed up. Companies such as Amerivault (
Online backup services have some advantages over the hardware featured in this review. If you store your data off-site and a fire destroys your office, you can retrieve your data almost immediately via an Internet connection from any location. Another advantage: You don't necessarily have to purchase, maintain, or store a backup drive and media--thereby saving space--or keep track of details like which disc you used for your last full backup, and which one you specified for an incremental backup. (Of course, you'll want to keep redundant, local backups of your most essential data, too.)
All of these services provide client software that you use to schedule your backups, and then compress and upload data. They also feature data encryption: Connected and Amerivault use Triple DES encryption; IBackup uses 128-bit SSL encryption; SwapDrive uses both.
Pricing varies depending upon the company, the number of users, and the types of services involved (such as data backup; disaster recovery, including backing up your Registry; and online file storage). IBackup's pricing is $216 a year for 1GB of space, or $30 for 50MB; SwapDrive's corporate pricing starts at $30 per gigabyte per month, or $7.50 per 100MB for individual users. Maximum storage space varies by service; Amerivault, for example, can back up as much as 100GB for its customers.
The biggest drawback to online backups is the time required to perform
an initial backup: It took us nearly 9 hours to transfer 600MB using
Connected's service over a residential-class DSL line. Subsequent, incremental
backups should take less time--but not if you add large multimedia files to the
How safe is your data? That question has been posed since the Babylonians first scribbled on clay tablets. If your backup disc, tape, or hard drive fails, your data goes with it. And unlike clay tablets, digital data can't be glued back together.
How long your data remains intact depends on the type of media you use and how the data is written. For short-term storage, most of the technologies reviewed in this piece are reasonably reliable. Long-term storage is something else altogether.
"Hard drives have incredible, provable reliability," says John Monroe, an analyst with Gartner Research. However, the risks may be greater with higher-capacity drives, according to IDC analyst Dave Reinsel.
The venerable tape drive has long been a backup mainstay. Robert Raymond, manager of tape research and advanced technology at Storage Technology, an enterprise storage systems company, notes that although tape can have a 30-year shelf life, "Tape should be kept in an environmentally controlled area--cool temperatures, moderate humidity, and low particulates," cautions Raymond.
Rewritable magneto-optical media, too, has a history of service in corporate backup. "MO is a good choice if long-term reliability is important. It's a stable medium that can be rewritten almost endlessly," says Wolfgang Schlichting, research manager for removable storage at IDC. Compatibility is a problem though; only MO drives can read the media. And, he says, "DVD and CD technologies are very competitive for desktop backup. They also show good reliability if you get good media and store the discs properly."
For affordable and removable long-term backup, most experts lean toward write-once media--specifically, CD-R. That's because CD-R has a longer track record than DVD media, the media is inexpensive, and drives that can read it are ubiquitous.
"CD-R lasts at least 10 years--and probably a lot longer--if the media is good quality, and you store it with reasonable care," says Katherine Cochrane, founder of CD-Info, a CD technology consulting firm. Cochrane warns, however, that there's no such thing as an error-free disc. A CD's error-correction technology can compensate for errors, but it can't overcome severely scratched media.
Though rewritable DVD is a newer technology, Cochrane says that both
write-once DVD-R and DVD+R media are attractive options for backups and
archiving. Both rewritable and write-once DVD media feature error correction.
In fact, notes Ralph LaBarge, author of
In the case of DVD-RAM, says IDC's Schlichting, the media was designed with data storage in mind; a cartridge protects the media from dust and scratches, and has a lock to keep you from inadvertently overwriting data.
All varieties of rewritable optical media--CD-RW, DVD-RW, DVD+RW, and DVD-RAM--rely on a phase-change technology to allow data to be rewritten to the disc. DVD-RAM can be rewritten up to 100,000 times; CD-RW, DVD-RW, and DVD+RW are rated at 1000 rewrites. Ultimately, however, the disc may give out from repeated erasures; and Cochrane points out that when it does, it will give no warning. As you would with any rewritable media designed for backup use and reuse, you'll have to establish a reasonable retirement schedule for it.
In short, no backup solution is bulletproof. Play it safe and back up
your backups, the experts say--preferably with drives that use different
technologies. And while you're at it, you might want to stock up on clay