Save Your Data With One of These Top Backup Programs

Saving files on your hard drive is the easy part; choosing how to back up those files can be more difficult.

Why do you need backup software? If you ever have a hard drive fail, or are hit with an impossible-to-remove virus, a complete backup of your files, drives, and operating system is the simplest way to return things to normal. Not having backups is like flying in a combat zone without a parachute.

Traditional backup programs help you organize, schedule, and maintain your backups, and their newest versions make doing so easier than ever. However, tradition is quickly accommodating new realities. Two of the products we tested for this story--EMC Retrospect Professional and NovaStor NovaBackup--recognize the increasing role of online backup in users' backup strategies.

Online backup is easy and secure, and it's safer than local backup by virtue of being off-site and stored on drives that are themselves backed up regularly by your online storage provider. It isn't appropriate for everyone; most users' broadband connections offer relatively slow upload speeds, so backing up to an online service can be considerably slower than doing so to a local or ethernet-connected hard disk. With a large collection of digital photos or multimedia, you're looking at a processing time of several days.

Ideally, all backup programs would offer seamless access to all online backup services, but most don't. In addition to their software, both EMC and NovaStor provide separate online backup services, which makes tighter integration between the software and the companies' respective online services a natural progression (NovaStor does a much better job at this than EMC, whose solution is tacked on).

Though online backup undoubtedly is the wave of the future, you may not need such services yet. Even so, don't wait indefinitely to add a backup utility to your list of must-have applications. Putting it off can be one of the costliest mistakes you'll make in your computing life.

The backup programs discussed on these pages are all available as downloads--see the link at the end of each review. Or see the complete collection of all of these files.

Online and on Your Hard Drive

NovaStor NovaBackup 10 Professional

NovaStor's NovaBackup 10 Professional offers an infinitely friendlier user interface than earlier versions.
If you're wondering what happened to NovaBackup 9, so am I: The company, oddly, went straight from version 8 to version 10. However, if my hands-on testing is any indication, the program simply may have been that much improved.

While the $50 NovaBackup 10 (price as of 7/15/08) has many major changes under the hood, the most obvious improvement to this package is its infinitely friendlier user interface. This interface mimics the design of one of the best, Microsoft Office 2007, with its big-button file menu. Perhaps even more important, NovaBackup's layout and workflow are immaculate--a rarity among the comprehensive backup applications that NovaBackup competes against.

Another huge improvement is the addition of disk imaging, the backing up of drives and partitions in their entirety. I was expecting the feature to be primitive; but NovaBackup's implementation, courtesy of Farstone, is more than adequate for most users and will likely satisfy many professional users. My one complaint: I found the imaging module slow at recognizing drives.

You can back up and restore entire drives or single partitions, restore individual files and folders, and even perform searches within individual images once you mount them as a Windows drive letter.

I enjoyed my hands-on trials with NovaBackup 10 tremendously--especially the seamless integration of online backup storage. If you have an Amazon S3 or NovaStor's Digistor, you can simply add the service as a device, enter your user info, and then select it as the destination for any of your backups. Not that the backup clients for other online services are bad, but using NovaBackup's advanced options and GUI simply make it that much easier. It also allows you to apply the same settings to your local backups so that you're always sure you have everything backed up to each location.

NovaBackup comes with a free, one-year, 2GB DigiStor account that is customized to mesh with NovaBackup, though you need to provide credit card information to use it; if you don't want to keep it, however, the account will be canceled, not automatically renewed.

NovaStor claims that it has reworked many of NovaBackup's internal routines so that backups transpire faster. In my hands-on testing, backups of every kind were as quick as, or quicker than, the competition's, but the program itself was a bit slow to boot, and the disaster recovery (imaging) module was especially slothful enumerating drives--it took up to 30 seconds to recognize them all. Because no progress bar appears during the enumeration, the first time it occurred I was nearly convinced that the program was locked up. Blinking drive lights told me it wasn't, but the experience is just that slow.

As improved as NovaBackup's interface may be, the software still has a few rough spots. Darned if I could figure out a way to save a script that I created using the backup wizard, which actually says 'Create a script to backup your data' (using 'backup'--one word--as a verb is their mistake, not mine). And when I used the disaster recovery module on my system with XP SP2 set to 'Large size (120 DPI)' display mode, the interface suffered glitches; until I switched to 'Normal size (96 DPI)', the module was unusable.

These issues are easily addressed, and NovaStor has promised quick fixes. Overall, the program is simple to use and highly capable, offering file-based backup, support for tape drives, open-file backup, plain backup and file restore, seamless online backup, integrated antivirus scanning, and disk imaging--all for just $50, undercutting much of the competition by more than half.

Download NovaStor NovaBackup 10 Professional (Price: $50, 15-day free trial)

EMC Retrospect 7.6 Professional with Continuous Data Protection Professional Add-in

EMC Retrospect 7.6 Professional is the most feature-packed file-based backup program.
I wish I could say that EMC has revamped Retrospect's rather obtuse interface for version 7.6, but such an overhaul hasn't occurred. I can report that the most feature-packed file-based backup program on the planet is now even more powerful, albeit just slightly.

I tested EMC Retrospect 7.6 Professional for this story with the Continuous Data Protection professional add-in ($129 plus $29 for the CDP module; prices as of 7/15/08), which adds heretofore missing capabilities to Retrospect.

This latest version of Retrospect is unmatched in the breadth of its file-based backup features: It has superflexible scheduling, disaster recovery, and plain file copy, along with support for remote clients, tape drives, Macs and name it. If it fits the traditional, file-based backup role, it's in there.

For version 7.6, EMC offers two primary additions: support for Mozy online backup (first 2GB free) and the $29 Continuous Data Protection (CDP) add-in. Alas, though they sound notable, neither is truly integrated; they can be only roughly categorized as new Retrospect features. You can launch CDP from within Retrospect, but otherwise it's a separate entity complete with its own system-tray app sitting alongside Retrospect's monitor/scheduler.

Lack of integration aside, Retrospect CDP works well. It differs, however, from many of its competitors (including Memeo Autobackup and NTI Backup 5 Advanced, reviewed on the next page) in that it doesn't allow you to select a directory, such as My Documents, for backup. Instead, CDP selects files according to what it calls "protection policies," more commonly known as filters. For instance, you select a filter (policy) to back up all Word documents (*.doc, *.docx) and another to back up all JPEG images. It's an easy-to-understand approach for less-technical users, but I found it restrictive in practice.

What's decidedly not restrictive is CDP's ability to back up to several different locations. You can keep constantly updated copies of your data on a thumb drive, in a network folder, and on an external hard drive, for example. You also have the option either to back up only when a file is saved or to do so periodically (even when open files have not yet been saved).

Online-backup integration is close to nonexistent. I was hoping that I could simply specify my existing Mozy online backup account as the destination for a backup job--but for now, Retrospect can only launch the Mozy client or, for first-time users, whisk you to a Web page for signing up. The first 2GB at Mozy are free; you get unlimited personal storage for $5. I use and recommend the service, but it isn't an actual component of Retrospect.

Other Retrospect 7.6 improvements include a Mac client that now runs in native mode (not emulated) on both Power PC and Intel-based Macs; better support for 64-bit operating systems; and the ability to back up a Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 operating in a two-node Windows Server 2008 Cluster environment.

Retrospect 7.6 Professional is $129, which includes two client licenses for backing up other PCs or Macs over a network. Additional client licenses are $39. The upgrade to version 7.6 is free for registered 7.5 users.

Download Retrospect for Windows 7.6 and CDP (Price: $129 for Retrospect, $29 for CDP; 30-day trial)

The Traditionalists

NTI Backup 5 Advanced

NTI's Backup 5 Advanced is the most complete backup program the company has released.
NTI Backup 5 Advanced (price $70 as of 7/23/2008) is by far the most complete backup application that NTI has ever released. It brings continuous data protection, file-based backup, and what the company calls "drive-based backup" (otherwise known as disk imaging), all inside a single extremely friendly package. This version introduces the ability to back up open files, too--a long-standing omission.

Backup 5 Advanced uses the same impressively intuitive interface that has been the program's trademark for several years, with the more-polished look that was introduced last year. The step-by-step buttons located on the left and the relevant options and selectors on the right are the perfect blend of easy to learn and easy to use. Many wizardlike interfaces get in the way once you know them; this one doesn't.

The software's imaging module includes adjustments for compression level, encryption, and verification. You can get more granular with your tweaks for Backup 5 Advanced's file-based backup and continuous data backup. For the latter, you can back up by filter or location (choose a directory), as well as back up your "profile," consisting of your e-mail, desktop settings, address book, Outlook .pst file, and the like. You can schedule all three types of backup at any time, and you may instruct the PC to enter standby, hibernation, or power-down mode after a job completes. You can also have the application notify you by e-mail upon the completion (or failure) of a job, though it lacks a provision for running other programs before and after a job.

Broadly speaking, NTI Backup 5 Advanced worked extremely well for me--its backups were flawless. I did have a couple of minor operational issues with the software, however. To back up to a network location, I first had to map the destination as a drive within Windows Explorer--a rather odd approach considering that the program allows you to select an FTP site as your backup destination. Also, though you can arrange for daily backups, you can't have them run in alternate weeks. Nor can you set the program to write to different media, as you can Retrospect. And I discovered a very minor bug where the drive-based backup wouldn't show the drives on my system while an internal 100MB IDE Zip drive was attached. This was most likely a conflict with the ASPI layer used by NTI for low-level drive access.

Regardless, Backup 5 Advanced is the first NTI backup product I can wholeheartedly recommend: It's a solid and reliable performer, its file-based backup is more than adequate for typical use, and it offers continuous data protection and imaging as well. Alas, at $100 it's twice the price of NovaBackup 10, a product that's nearly as friendly--and more powerful.

Download NTI Backup 5 Advanced (Price: $70; 30-day free trial)

Paragon Drive Backup 9.0 Personal

Paragon's Drive Backup 9.0 Personal is a disk-imaging application that can now back up and restore individual files and folders, as well.
Paragon's disk-imaging application, Drive Backup 9.0 Personal (price $40, as of 7/15/08), may still be a feature or two shy of competitor Acronis True Image Home 11, but you probably don't need whatever is missing. Drive Backup 9.0's newfound ability to back up and restore individual files and folders, in addition to imaging whole drives and partitions, makes the two programs nearly equal. If the restore implementation were a little friendlier, you could throw out the "nearly"; at any rate, considering Drive Backup 9's friendlier, configurable GUI and its $10 price advantage over Acronis True Image, choosing between the two is difficult.

While Paragon makes selecting individual files and folders for backup easy, selecting them for restore is harder. When you browse, instead of seeing a separate window with the files listed, you have to navigate a tree in the same browser you used to select the archive. If you're restoring from a long-path network location, this approach becomes unwieldy. The other, more serious problem is that you can restore a file only to its original location. This is a pain when you want to recover an older version of a file without overwriting the newer one.

The other major new feature in this version is the rescue-media builder's ability to write its recovery image to a thumb drive as well as to CD. Flash USB drives boot much faster (on newer PCs whose BIOS supports booting from a USB device), and they're easier to carry around. Also, as always, if you own the company's Partition Manager, the abilities of that program are added automatically to the recovery media, making for a very nice all-around emergency tool kit and boot disc.

The other changes to the program are minor: bug fixes, more drivers, and better support for various operating systems, including Apple's Boot Camp for both Mac and PC support. In the end, for straight disk imaging, Drive Backup 9 is as good as it gets. But Paragon needs to make restoring individual files and folders easier, and--in light of NovaBackup 10, which has imaging as well as a host of other backup features--it must lower the price.

Download Paragon Drive Backup 9.0 Personal (Price: $40; 30-day free trial)

Titan Backup

Titan Backup has almost everything you could wish for in a backup program.
Having reviewed literally dozens of backup programs, I'm not easy to impress. But I was impressed with Titan Backup (price $40 as of 7/15/2008). Though it lacks the ability to back up open files and has no imaging capability, it has just about everything else you could wish for in a backup program. The interface is also one of the best I've seen--an intuitive combination of tabbed dialog and step-by-step wizard that I have only minor quibbles with.

Titan Backup's performance and abilities were pretty much on a par with other second-tier backup programs. You can opt for plain file backup, backup to a zip file, or backup to an executable zip (with a 4GB size limit--a zip limitation). Options include 256-bit AES encryption, the ability to run other programs before and after the backup, and user-name or password entry for backing up to protected network locations. The password didn't work with my Synology DS508 NAS box when the destination was a password-protected folder, but I'm inclined to blame this on the NAS box, which has a somewhat odd security implementation. There were no problems backing up to public folders, hard drives, a flash drive, CD/DVD, or via FTP.

Other features include e-mail notifications (with account settings), syncing of folders, a comprehensive scheduler, command-line execution, and some very nicely written help files. There's no support for tape, but on the consumer level, this is a not an issue these days.

As to those GUI quibbles, they were as petty as wishing the company had put the "Edit Task" button on the upper toolbar with "Delete" and "Import Task" configuration buttons instead of with the primary operational "Start" and "Restore" buttons on the side panel.

Download Titan Backup (Price: $40; 15-day free trial)

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