Everyone, from your dad to your boss to Mama Microsoft, tells you “back up your files.” But what’s the best way to protect your collection of digital music, photos, videos, downloads – and your operating system? To answer that question, we ventured out on a long, test-heavy trail to find the “Ultimate Backup.” Here’s what we found.
What makes a backup program “ultimate?" Well, for starters it has to include basic file backup, an image backup for disaster recovery, both scheduled and automatic backups, the choice of local, network or online storage, and the ability to retrieve files and folders to any PC or mobile device.
Because this type of backup saves what you’ve created, edited, or downloaded-- from your digital photo collection to your family budget to your LOLcat links-- file backup is essential, and extremely important.
Remember, from the moment you install a program on a new computer, your OS, program files, and program settings will begin to change. Backing up an image of your system could save you a ton of time in the long run--recovering data from a crashed hard disk or dead system could take days, even weeks to fully do manually.
Though you could use separate backup programs to perform file and system image backups, it's easier to use the same program to perform both tasks.
If you’re the forgetful type, or you just don’t want to worry about running backup, consider using backup programs that run automatically in the background or run on a fixed schedule. Remember, you'll need to keep your computer on if you want to use a scheduled backup.
Traditional backups have relied on storage devices connected directly to the computer or to a LAN. However, backups stored on-site could be wiped out in the event of a fire, tornado, or earthquake, and might be difficult to access from a remote location. For these reasons, backups that can be restored to a remote computer or a mobile device are important features to consider during our search for the “ultimate backup.”
We’ll use these criteria as we evaluate the backup programs and services discussed in this article.
Remember to take into account all of the different types of items you'll be backing up--documents, photos, digital music, video, and system settings will all need to be managed, safeguarded, and allocated to the proper location.
Let's start with what you'll be backing up.
There is one unalienable truth about backing up your items, whether it's a digital photo collection, albums, videos or business documents: if it's not backed up, it can't be replaced if it goes missing. To that extent, vendors like Western Digital, Seagate, Norton and Carbonite and many more have stepped up to the plate, but which entry protects information best?
Western Digital and Seagate's licensed technology require you to restore lost files one file at a time, and don't support scheduled or incremental backups. The commercial version of Acronis True Image, however, supports scheduling and easy file and folder restoration.
Carbonite features an automatic backup that must be licensed separately for each computer in need of protection, and is paid for on an annual basis. Acronis Online Backup has the ability to protect up to three computers at a time, but limits the backup capacity to 250GB per computer. Windows 7's integrated system and file backup service won't cost you anything, but it also won't work with other iterations of windows (or any other operating systems). Overwhelmed yet?
Let's break it down a bit: With the exception of Windows command-line utilities such as Xcopy and Robocopy, which copy files to other locations, backup solutions create compressed file archives. The content within these archives must then be restored to their original size before they can be used. In most cases, you can restore a backup to either its original location or an alternative one.
It is also crucial to back up Windows itself, in the event that your operating system crashes and burns. This can happen a number of ways, and if it does, you'll want a way to recover your system enough to have it start and run. Backups that have this ability are typically known as image backups or disaster recovery backups. Most image backup programs, like Norton Ghost, also provide file backup and restore capabilities--incorporating image and file backups into a single utility.
Once you've determined which items you'd like to back up, it's time to figure out how to store it safely.
Where can you store a backup? While you can use almost any currently-available storage device to hold a backup, each type of device has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages. With choices ranging from flash drives to the cloud, you should be able to find one or more options that are the right fit for you.
With capacities ranging as high as 256GB (Kingston’s DataTraveler 310), flash memory drives and cards are generally large enough to store file backups.
One big benefit of using a USB flash drive or memory card for individual project backup is the ease of backup: just drag the files or folders to the drive. That’s it! There’s no need to format the media or restore the files before you can use them. If you want to make file transfer even easier (especially if you change some files on your media on a regular basis and want to transfer only changed files), use a sync program such as the free Microsoft SyncToy (discussed later in this article).
When is flash the preferred way to go? For individual projects, like tax papers, photos from your last vacation or work you take home. Flash drives are not cost-effective for storing full system images or full user data backup--their cost per GB is much higher than CD or DVDs. If you need to store greater amounts of information, consider using optical media instead.
Although writeable Blu-Ray media (BD-R and BD-RE) can hold 25GB (single-layer) and 50GB (dual-layer), compared to 4.7GB for a single layer DVD and 8.5GB for a dual-layer DVD, DVD media hits the “sweet spot” in terms of cost per GB and widespread compatibility. With Windows Vista and Windows 7 incorporating UDF capabilities, you can now use rewriteable DVD media between systems with little fear of incompatibility. With some backup programs such as Acronis True Image, Norton Ghost, and Retrospect Express, you can specify that backup files being written to a hard disk be sized for eventual transfer to DVD for archiving.
Although many image backup programs also support optical media, be prepared for lots of disc swapping if you are creating a file or image backup that will take more than two or three DVDs or Blu-ray discs. If you format the media using UDF instead of mastered, you can use drag-and-drop file copying to transfer files to the media instead of a backup program.
To save yourself time and media space, use a "high" compression rate as opposed to a "standard" rate, but avoid using a "maximum" compression rate, as that usually takes up much more time.
However, before you decide to use optical media for backup, make sure your backup program supports media spanning (which enables you to have a backup stored on multiple discs). Check discs periodically for areas of discoloration on the media side; discoloration is a sign of so-called “disc rot,” which is the deterioration of the reflective layer. If you see discoloration, transfer the files on the disc to another disc immediately. Be sure to protect the media from excessive heat or from breakage threats; a cracked optical disc is useless.
Best use: backups of individual projects and long-term storage. High-quality media can be stored for many years, especially if you use recordable (CD-R, DVD+R, DVD-R, or BD-R) instead of rewriteable media. If you create backups to an external hard disk and use the option to size the backup files to fit on a DVD, you can periodically transfer older backup files from hard disk to DVD or Blu-ray.
External hard drives represent the best balance between cost per GB and backup performance for users looking for local backup. External hard disks can be divided into two categories: desktop external drives are based on 3.5-inch hard disks and require an AC adapter for power. Portable external drives use 1.8-inch or 2.5-inch drive mechanisms, so they can be powered by the USB bus (a few might require a two-headed USB cable, depending upon the design of the host computer’s USB ports). However, portable drives are slower and more expensive per GB than desktop drives. In terms of capacity, desktop drives win out, with capacities up to 3TB. However, some portable drives now have capacities as high as 1.5TB.
Seagate’s new 1.5TB GoFlex UltraPortable hard disk has interchangeable interfaces.
To back up information to an external hard disk, you can use drag-and-drop file copying, Windows command-line utilities such as Xcopy or Robocopy, or file and/or image backup programs.
Because of the capacity of portable and desktop external drives, you can use them for any size backup, from an individual project to a system image or file backup with virtually all backup programs. To avoid data loss, don’t drop a backup drive and, if you have identical models of drives you use for backup and for other tasks, identify the drives with different labels using the drive properties sheet in Windows as well as stick-on labels or custom LED labels built into certain hard disk models.
Western Digital’s new My Book Essential USB 3.0 is available in capacities up to 3TB and also works in USB 2.0 mode
What interface should you use? From the standpoint of speed, the new USB 3.0 standard blows away USB 2.0, and is currently comparable to eSATA. eSATA never showed up on a lot of external hard drives anyways, and with the rise of USB 3.0, eSATA is likely to fade away.
Western Digital, Seagate and many others now offer USB 3.0 versions of both portable and desktop drives , and if you don’t already have USB 3.0 ports, there are lots of vendors offering PCIe cards for desktop PCs and ExpressCard cards for portable PCs. These cards enable you to connect USB 3.0 drives to your PC so you can connect USB 3.0 hard disks. By using USB 3.0 for backup instead of USB 2.0 backup, you can perform backups about five times faster. Thus, instead of waiting overnight for a backup, you might be able to complete it in just a few hours. Before using a USB 3.0 drive for backup, check with your backup vendor to determine if USB 3.0 is supported. For example, users of Acronis True Image Home need to upgrade to the 2011 version to have USB 3.0 support.
A typical dual-port USB 3.0 add-on card from EVGA
The term “cloud computing” goes back to 1997, but the idea of storing backups in the cloud is a lot more recent. As mobile devices become more popular and users spend more time away from their desks, the idea of using the “cloud” as a backup destination is catching on. Cloud-based backup wouldn’t be possible without the convergence of several trends, including fast processors able to run background processes without bogging down, fast broadband Internet connections for computers and mobile devices, and powerful end-to-end encryption to assure that nobody but you can view your backups or restore them.
The speed of online backup is affected by several factors, including the upload speed of your Internet connection and the priority you assign to the backup task. With typical home DSL or cable Internet services, your upload speed is a small fraction of your download speed. For example, with a 10Mbps (download) cable Internet service, your upload speed is typically about 1Mbps. A 3Mbps DSL service typically offers a 512Kbps upload speed. While cloud-based backup provides secure offline backup, finishing your first backup can literally take days.
The initial backup of the author’s laptop on Carbonite takes several days.
While cloud-based backup solves the problem of safeguarding your backup, if you use local storage, you need a way to safeguard your backups.
Ideally, a backup should be stored off-site, away from the home or office where the backed-up computers are found. Some possible options for storage include safe deposit boxes or data rated safes.
If you use external 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch backup drives, CDs, or DVDs, you can use data safe-rated safes to protect your information off-site or on-site. Be sure to check interior capacity and ETL fire and water ratings. The larger the capacity and the higher the fire and water protection ratings, the more expensive the safe. Some companies offering these safes include Sentry Safe, FireKing, and SafetyFile.
The Sentry Safe 1710 Fire Data Storage Chest.
File copy programs don’t compress or encrypt your information, but they do permit immediate access from the backup drive. For example, if you copy files from your system drive (C:) to a DVD (D:), you can take the DVD to another computer and use Windows Explorer to access and use those files. One major disadvantage of file copying versus backup is that file copies use the same space as the original files unless the destination drive is configured to compress files. Also, file copies cannot be password-protected or encrypted the way that most file or system backups can be.
Another advantage is that they’re free. Microsoft offers several different file copy programs for Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7.
If you’re looking for a combination of “free, fast, flexible,” it’s hard to do better than Microsoft’s SyncToy 2.1. Originally developed as part of Windows XP PowerToys, SyncToy is no toy. It works by pairing two locations (drives, folders, network shares) and specifying the type of file sync to perform. The default Synchronize action will delete files that are outdated or have been replaced by newer versions. To transfer only new and updated files between the source (left location) and destination (right location), choose the Contribute action.
SyncToy is available in both 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) editions, and runs on Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7. It requires .NET Framework 2.0, so if your system lacks it, you will be prompted to install it during the setup process. When launched , SyncToy displays a preview of the changes it will make, enabling you to disable any changes you don’t want. Best of all, SyncToy creates files that are ready-to-use. SyncToy also includes a command-line version, SyncToyCmd.exe, which can be used for scheduled synchronization.
Using SyncToy 2.1.
In its day, MS-DOS’s Xcopy (also available in Windows) was a powerful alternative to Copy. Xcopy enables you to copy entire folder trees, including empty folders. However, although it’s still found in Windows 7, Xcopy’s not really designed for today’s large files or for the pauses that can take place when copying files and folders to or from a network location.
Enter RoboCopy (short for Robust File Copy). Introduced as part of Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit Tools (but also compatible with Windows XP SP1 and higher), RoboCopy is included in Windows Vista and Windows 7’s Recovery Environments, so you can use it to recue your information from a system that won’t boot; you can also use it from a regular command line environment after Windows starts. Windows XP users can download the Windows Server 2003 Resource Kit tools.
RoboCopy offers an amazing range of options, including preservation of file security settings, creating empty directory trees, mirroring source and destination, multithreaded copying, excluding files by age, adjustments for time differences, retry and resume options, logging options, and support for JOB files (which define the parameters to use for backup). See examples.
Making RoboCopy Easier
Because RoboCopy’s syntax can be daunting, a number of individuals have developed graphical front ends (also known as GUI shells) for RoboCopy. The Microsoft TechNet website offers one - and also offers a replacement for RoboCopy called RichCopy.
Robocopy GUI v3.1 provides a multi-tabbed interface with access to every Robocopy option and the ability to save a script based on your choices.
RoboCopy Quick Take:
File-based backup helps protect the information you create by storing it in compressed form (with an encryption option in most instances), but in the event of an operating system or hard drive failure, spending a day or two reinstalling Windows, your apps, and your data is a huge drag . Backup programs that can restore your system as well as your files provide two solutions in one, making it easier to get back to work in a hurry. The main drawback of backup programs in general is the need to restore your information or system image before it can be used. To make this as easy as possible with system (image) backup programs, be sure to create a bootable CD or DVD that can be used to start your system and prepare a new or empty hard disk for restoration.
Also, it's important to remember that transferring files between computers can be tricky--make sure that both the source and destination computers use the same (or compatible) backup programs. Test test this by creating a file backup on one computer and try to restore that info to another computer.
One of the best-kept secrets for owners of Seagate, Maxtor, or Western Digital internal hard drive is that your hard drive setup software doubles as a very effective image backup program. The most recent version of Seagate Disc Wizard and Maxtor MaxBlast version include an OEM versions of Acronis TrueImage image backup and disaster recovery software. Western Digital offers a similar version in the Acronis True Image WD Edition.
With OEM versions of TrueImage, you can perform full image backups, restore specific files and folders and use the included Backup Explorer to view and recover individual files. However, every time you make an image backup, you must back up the entire drive again; there is no provision for incremental or differential image backups. And, if you use your drives in a RAID array, these programs will not recognize your drives as being Seagate/Maxtor or Western Digital and will not run.
However, what these trimmed-down versions of Acronis TrueImage can do, they do well. You will, however, want to upgrade to a commercial version of Acronis True Image to gain better file and image backup features and optional cloud-based storage, or use a separate file backup program altogether.
Preparing to back up a Windows 7 laptop using Acronis True Image WD Edition.
All editions of Windows 7 include system image and file backup using a single backup program. With Windows 7 Starter, Home Basic, and Home Premium, you can back up only to local hard drives and DVDs, but Windows 7 Business, Ultimate, and Enterprise add the ability to back up to network locations. To create scheduled backups, you must use an external hard drive formatted with (or converted to) the NTFS file system or a network location. After completing a backup, you can manage the space used by the system image and data files.
You can restore a system image to an empty hard disk with Windows 7’s Recovery Environment. The empty (replacement) hard drive must be the same size or larger than the original hard disk.
Managing Windows 7 backup space.
Windows 7 Backup and Restore Quick Take:
External hard drives can be grouped into two categories: those that include backup software, and those that do not. How good is the backup software bundled with many external hard disk drives? The quick answer is “it depends.”
External hard drives can be grouped into two categories: those that include backup software, and those that do not. This begs the question: are backup programs bundled with external hard drives any good? Well, it depends.
Seagate’s Replica drives include automatic backup that supports both file and image restorations. However, Seagate’s current GoFlex drives offer a wider variety of backup options.
All GoFlex drives include Memeo Instant Backup for basic file backup, though only select models include Memeo Backup Premium, which supports multiple backup destinations and the ability to restore older versions of files. The Premium package is also available as an optional upgrade, if you've got Instant Backup. The biggest issue with both versions, however, is that they don't back up system files, Windows, or even program settings.
All GoFlex drives include Memeo Instant Backup for basic file backup with some models including Memeo Backup Premium which has support for multiple backup destinations and can restore older versions of files (Backup Premium is also available as an optional upgrade for Instant Backup). The biggest issue with both Memeo versions is that they are file backup programs (they don’t backup system files, Windows, or even program settings). If you want a bare-metal disaster recovery backup with GoFlex drives, and use the optional Auto Backup cable for Replica. See Seagate Knowledge Base article 216431 (Comparison of GoFlex software features) for more details.
Backing up files with Memeo Instant Backup.
Seagate backup and restore programs Quick Take:
WD SmartWare software is included with a number of current My Book and My Passport drives. SmartWare provides automatic file backup with visual “gas gauge” indications of what’s been backed up in different categories. As with Seagate’s Memeo backup, SmartWare is designed to back up data files. However, unlike other file backup programs, SmartWare displays the amount of space used by various types of data files. Click here for more information.
Backing up files with WD SmartWare
Western Digital SmartWare Quick Take:
Toshiba’s Canvio Portable and Canvio 3.0 portable hard drives are bundled with NTI Backup Now EZ, which offers file and disaster recovery backup. It features a simple, uncluttered interface, and you can learn more here. Be sure to download the appropriate update from the Portable Drive Support page.
Backup Now EZ is very easy to use, but some Windows users have reported problems using it with Windows Vista. The update listed above supports Windows XP, Vista, and 7, and should solve many of the problems listed.
Backing up files and the system with Backup Now EZ.
Toshiba NTI Backup Now EZ Quick Take:
Hitachi Backup, currently available on Hitachi LifeStudio drives (available soon for Windows XP SP2, Vista, and 7) combines local and cloud-based automatic file backups. It can automatically archive up to 100 versions of a file, and includes up to 3GB of free online storage. Up to 250GB of cloud storage will run you $49.00 per year. A touted advantage: online storage can be accessed by multiple computers because it’s stored on the cloud. Note that the local version of Hitachi Backup can back up files as large as 5GB, but the cloud version is limited to 50MB per file. Hitachi Backup can also be used as an online virtual drive.
Hitachi Backup Quick Take:
Iomega, now part of EMC, includes three backup solutions with some of its current hard drives. Drives that include the Iomega Protection Suite include Iomega QuikProtect, an automatic file copying solution that runs continuously.
Also included are Retrospect HD Express and Retrospect Express (formerly EMC, now Roxio) for file backup and disaster recovery. Another option is MozyHome for online backup which provides you with 2GB free, or unlimited for $4.95/month.
Configuring MozyHome local drive backup.
Iomega Hard Disk Backup Software Quick Take:
With so many backup programs bundled with hardware, why buy a separate backup program? Flexibility, speed, and additional features of course! And some of the leading commercial backup programs include the aforementioned Acronis TrueImage, and popular favorite Norton Ghost.
Norton Ghost 15.0 can restore a disk image to a smaller drive than the one it came from, as long as the new drive has sufficient capacity to accommodate it. It also supports storage of recovery points (system images) to an FTP site, supports Windows 7 BitLocker disk encryption, works with Blu-Ray writeable media, and can be used to restore specific files and folders. For best results when backing up large drives, enable the option to create backup files that can fit on a DVD.
Setting up the schedule for a new Recovery Point set (backup).
Acronis TrueImage Home 2011 combines disaster recovery and the ability to restore selected files and folders. Home 2011 also includes Nonstop Backup for incremental backups every five minutes, support for incremental and differential backups, Try&Decide protected environment for testing software, and optional Acronis Online Backup and Plus Pack (restore to dissimilar hardware or a VM). While earlier versions of Acronis True Image have worked well, a number of users reported problems with the 2010 version. The 2011 version was recently released; to find out if it will work with your system, try the 30-day trial.
Acronis Online Backup supports up to a total of 250GB backup for $4.95/month or $49.95 a year, and the total backup capacity can be shared by up to five PCs. Two potential drawbacks: when reviewed in March 2010 by DaniWeb, it did not work with Google Chrome and restores are downloaded as Zip archives, leaving it to the user to determine where the files should be restored to.
Preparing to enable Nonstop Backup with Acronis TrueImage.
Cloud-based backup programs such as Carbonite, MozyHome and Acronis Online Backup are valuable additions to a local drive backup strategy. However, they do not support system image (disaster recovery) backups. They’re best used to provide secure off-site storage of your backups and to enable access to your backed-up files from any PC via the Internet.
If you use a mobile device such as an iPhone, BlackBerry, or Android smartphone, Carbonite is your best choice. MozyHome version 2.0 for Windows also performs backups to a local drive while it performs online backups. Acronis Online Backup lets you share its 250GB backup among up to five PCs.
If you don’t need a lot of storage online, but want easy and secure access that’s free, take a look at Windows Live SkyDrive. Available free to all users with Windows Live IDs (such as an @hotmail.com or @live.com email address), SkyDrive provides up to 25GB of secure storage that you can use yourself or share as read-only or read-write storage with specified users. It doesn’t require a proprietary client, as it works through your web browser. You decide what to store on SkyDrive, where to store it (it has a simple folder structure you can modify), and when you need to get it back.
Configuring Carbonite online backup.
While it would be great if the “ultimate” backup could be achieved with a single product, none of the many products we examined for this article provide the ideal combination of system image, local and online file backup and restore.
If you don’t need to back up more than 250GB of data and want an integrated solution, we’d suggest taking a look at the combination of Acronis True Image Home 2011 and Acronis Online Backup.
For users who need greater online backup capacity, consider using Acronis, Norton Ghost, or Windows 7 Backup and Restore for image and file backup with one of the unlimited online backup services such as MozyHome or Carbonite.
For users who need cloud-based file backup with access to backups via mobile devices, the current leader is Carbonite.
If you’re on a budget and don’t need a lot of online backup capacity, consider using the backup programs bundled with hard disks or included with hard disk preparation software and free online storage from a service such as Windows Live SkyDrive (25GB).