The Trouble-Free PC
Backing Up To Happiness
Most PC users avoid thinking about, let alone preparing for, computer disasters, so backing up isn't a high priority. As a result, when a hard disk fails, a laptop disappears, or a client's project gets zapped accidentally, few victims are ready.
However, backing up is no longer hard to do, thanks to the rewritable DVD drives that ship with the majority of new systems, as well as to the latest backup programs that work with them. For this article, we evaluated four such utilities: Dantz Retrospect Professional ($90), Iomega Automatic Backup ($40), NTI Backup Now Deluxe ($65), and Stomp BackUp MyPC 5 ($70).
All of them let you recover from the unthinkable when it becomes the inevitable, but Dantz Retrospect--although it's the priciest--earns our Best Buy award because it will back up every system on your network, while you sleep, faster than its competitors.
But wait, you say, doesn't Windows have a backup program already? Windows XP Professional's Backup program has many good features, including full, incremental (only files that have changed), and scheduled backups. Unfortunately, it lacks space-saving file compression and can't back up to rewritable DVDs. Windows XP Home Edition users get a limited version of XP Professional's backup; it's located on your Home Edition installation CD in the \valueadd\msft\ntbackup folder.
Backed Up In Full
The most common backup technique is to make a full backup of all drives and partitions on your computer at regular intervals--weekly, for example--and incremental backups of just the files that have changed at shorter intervals (even daily isn't too often). All of the programs we reviewed except Iomega Automatic Backup allow you to perform both kinds of backups, and can schedule them to occur while you're snoozing. If you have a rewritable DVD drive or a second hard disk, this means you can create a full backup at regular intervals, leave a rewritable CD or DVD in the drive each night, and be sure (target drive or disc capacity permitting) that you have a current backup every day.
Iomega Automatic Backup takes a different approach: It creates backup copies of your choice of key data files on your system, as you modify them. The program can also store multiple copies of your files created over time, allowing you to revert to an earlier version. Rather than a full-strength backup tool, Iomega Automatic Backup is more of a digital safety net.
The PC World Test Center tested the backup speed of the programs and found that Dantz Retrospect Professional was noticeably faster than the others: It took just under 25 minutes to back up about 9GB of data to the Maxtor OneTouch USB 2.0 hard drive we used in our tests. A version of the Dantz program is bundled with the Maxtor OneTouch external hard drive, and it was nearly as fast as the retail version. The slowest program was Stomp BackUp MyPC, which took 42 minutes to back up the same amount of data. If you plan to schedule your backups to happen during the wee hours, this might not matter much; but if you schedule backups during your workday, speed becomes more important.
When backing up to a hard drive using the FAT32 file system, all of the programs we looked at had to break the data into multiple files to avoid the 4GB file size limit. All of the programs took care of the details automatically, except for Stomp BackUp MyPC, which asks you to confirm the name for each new file. Unfortunately, this approach makes unattended large backups impossible. So if you plan to do such backups, you should select one of the other backup programs or choose the NTFS or CDFS file system.
Dantz Retrospect also includes client software for remote computers that gives the clients some control over when backups occur. And if you have several different copies of the same file on your PC, Retrospect saves only one copy, speeding up incremental backups.
Recover From Disasters
All of the programs let you restore either the entire backup or individual files. However, disaster recovery is where a backup program shows its true value. If your hard disk should fail catastrophically, you can always buy a new disk, reinstall Windows and the backup program, and then reinstall your full backup to re-create your system. Dantz Retrospect, NTI Backup Now, and Stomp BackUp MyPC simplify this by creating bootable disaster-recovery discs that restore your full backup directly to an empty drive.
There are some caveats. To create a set of disaster-recovery discs for Windows, you need a full Windows XP install CD--the disk-image restore CDs that accompany many computers won't work. NTI Backup Now's disaster-recovery feature is a little different: To use it, you must create a separate copy of your entire drive using the included DriveBackup disk-imaging program; you can't use the backup created by Backup Now itself. However, you can create and restore your DriveBackup image whether you have a Windows XP installation disc or not.