Seagate Replica (500GB)
The Seagate Replica external hard drive has a slim design, a nifty docking base (only with the $200 500GB multi-PC version; the 250GB drive costs $130; prices are as of August 31, 2009), and simple software for performing continuous system backups. In most scenarios, the Replica handles backups with ease, with hardly any intervention.
The premise underlying the Replica--and the Rebit 500GB Appliance, whose software it uses--is straightforward: Attach the Replica drive to your PC, and the Replica will install some software on your PC and then automatically replicate your drive's contents, including all system files. If you want to use the Replica for system recovery, you may need to configure the system that will accept the restored data to match the one that the Replica is tied to. After it completes its initial backup (which may take a long time, depending on how much content your have), the Replica drive will continue to protect your data in real time, as long as the drive remains connected. (For a detailed discussion of different approaches to data and system backups, see "7 Backup Strategies for Your Data, Multimedia, and System Files.")
The Replica operates in the background, backing up your files invisibly and using its own subtle interface within Windows Explorer to give you access to your files. That said, the Replica is no PC answer to Apple's Time Machine/Time Capsule one-two punch.
The hardware has no buttons and requires little babysitting. An inch-plus blue LED status light flashes to indicate that the drive is in use, and the back panel includes a mini-USB port (the USB port plugs into the dock so the unit can stand vertically; however, the dock requires two USB ports instead of just one for power). You don't have to launch software or a menu to view the Replica or to see the drive's status; instead, you right-click the drive's icon in the System Tray to view the handful of available options (Open, Safely Disconnect, Help, Select Password, Remove a PC, Select Drives to Backup, Properties, Check for Update). A pop-up window hovers over the System Tray icon when you mouse over the area, so you can check the drive's status.
If you're looking for a hands-off, thoughts-off backup process, then Seagate's Replica may be a good match. You don't have to select files in advance; the Replica simply backs up your entire system (space allowing), and then tracks and saves subsequent changes.
We were generally impressed with the low profile of the Replica software, which installs itself on your system when you first plug the drive in, and then (with your permission) remains in place on every PC you load it onto. The only signs of it are a shortcut on the desktop (deletable, since the drive also appears as a removable drive under Explorer) and an unobtrusive system tray icon. Alas, Seagate undermines this clean effect by peppering you with tiresome pop-up reminders from the system tray app, informing you that the Replica isn't present (which you already know if you've removed it for safekeeping).
Though the Replica software is barely visible, four processes run in the background--to facilitate auto-play, monitoring files, backing up, and the system tray applet--whether the drive is present or not. We usually don't favor software that uses lots of processes, since their cumulative effect is to slow down the system; but in this case, we noticed no performance degradation. The background apps proved their worth by restarting the initial backup without any user intervention after we deliberately pulled the power plug before Windows had properly shut down.
To restore files, you browse the Replica and copy the desired files. The Replica software must be installed, however, or the data will come out as gobbledygook. You also get a Linux-based disaster recovery CD for restoring your system--a valuable feature that many similar products lack.
The Replica provides password protection, too, assigning passwords on a per computer basis. As a result, if you back up your main machine and assign it a password, you can still use the drive to back up other PCs with or without their own passwords.
Seagate's minimalist approach isn't always successful. For example, because the Replica isn't a stand-alone hard drive, it doesn't appear in Windows Explorer as a drive letter device. Instead, it shows as its name, simply 'Seagate Replica'. Click on that icon, and you'll see icons representing the volume names of each PC you've backed up. But users rarely get to change a system's volume name. For example, the Replica recorded our MSI Wind netbook's name as 'YOUR-DC685EFCD2', and we couldn't rename it something clearer. Within the system volume, you'll see the C: drive, plus shortcuts to your content in Desktop and in My Documents.
The Replica environment is so similar to Explorer that you're likely to expect such Explorer features as the ability to check for file properties. The Replica Explorer view does let you hover over a file and see not just the usual info of file size, but also how many versions are backed up and when the last Replica backup occurred. To open or copy a file, right-click it.
On our system, the status LED seemed to stay on constantly--even when I wasn't using it but was actively creating files I'd have thought needed backing up. Though the incessant flashing annoyed us, we were even more perturbed that the drive's ongoing, no-interference necessary backup had no manual pause, which in turn made disconnecting the Replica problematic (we received messages saying that the device was still in use and couldn't be safely ended at the moment).
The Seagate Replica is a slickly designed product, though it does have some rough spots. All in all, it out-Rebits the Rebit, thanks to support for multiple PCs and a more-attractive design in a smaller package. Because it makes backup so easy, it's our pick for most users looking for automated backup hardware.