Better Backups

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 $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 offered the largest-capacity external hard drive, the 300GB, $300 Maxtor OneTouch. Pressing a button on the front of the drive launches Dantz'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.

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'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'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 Nova-Backup 7.1 software, the Sony ProData compressed, wrote, and verified our 44.3GB data set in 4 hours, 10 minutes--including one disc swap. That's slower than the Iomega and Maxtor hard drives, and worse than we were hoping for in view of the drive's 9-megabytes-per-second write rating, but still on a par with 4X DVD± RW, with far fewer disc swaps.

Maxtor OneTouch

  • $300
  • 300GB, 7200-rpm hard drive
  • USB 2.0 and FireWire interfaces
  • Dantz Retrospect Express 6.0
  • Required 2 hours, 18 minutes to back up 44.3GB of data using software default settings of data compression and verification.
  • Current prices (if available)

Iomega Rev 35GB/90GB Removable Hard Disk Drive

  • $400
  • 35GB cartridges (one in box; $60 each)
  • USB 2.0 interface
  • Iomega Automatic Backup Pro and Symantec Norton Ghost 2003 for Rev
  • Required 1 hour, 49 minutes to back up 44.3GB of data to two discs, using defaults of light data compression and no verification.
  • Current prices (if available)

Sony Professional Disc for Data BW-RU101

  • $3295
  • 23GB rewritable and write-once cartridges (one rewritable disc in box; $45 apiece)
  • USB 2.0 interface
  • NovaStor 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.
  • Current prices (if available)

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