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Baby Got Backup

Today's column is not going to curb my reputation for grumpiness. I set out to find one cheap (or free), simple and reliable Windows backup application that I could enthusiastically recommend to all the readers who keep asking for advice on what to do, but I couldn't do it. Only two, out of the 10 backup utilites that I tried, earned a half-hearted recommendation.

Here's what I wanted to see in such a program:
* Default settings that gather all your files;
* Application-specific backup and restore options, so you don't need to remember which hidden folder your e-mail archives or browser bookmarks occupy;
* Automatic, scheduled backup cycles;
* A choice of backup destinations: hard drive, flash drive, CD/DVD, online;
* The lowest possible price

The applications I tested included Acronis True Image Home 2009, Carbonite, Storage Appliance Corp.'s Clickfree, Siber Systems' GoodSync, Microsoft's SyncToy and Windows Vista Backup and Restore Center, Mozy, NTI's BackupNow 5, 2BrightSparks' SyncBack Freeware, WebRoot's Secure Backup. Moost, however, were followed in my notes by the four-letter, all-caps critique "FAIL." Today's column describes what I liked in Mozy and Clickfree; after the jump, you can read more about what I saw in the other eight contenders.

It's fair to say that I'm holding these programs to a tough standard. But I've heard too many stories from friends, family, co-workers and readers who lost the stuff of their lives--photos, music, e-mail, a book in progress--when a faithless hard drive expired on them.

Hearing these stories may be the single worst part of my job. I review a decent number of products that provide little to no enjoyment (tax-prep software would be at the top of that list), but at least in those cases, I can rant constructively about the problem. When a colleague sees years of photos vanish, there's nothing constructive I can do. All I can say is "sorry to hear that."

True, you can't let the user off the hook. Even a mediocre backup utility would have sufficed to keep a folders' worth of pictures safe. In one of the cases I alluded to in the column, the user in question had a Mac running OS X Leopard--plugging in a cheap hard drive would have allowed Leopard's Time Machine software to safeguard every byte of data on that doomed hard drive, but that purchase never happened.

However, if people had a better selection of cheap, simple and reliable backup programs--ones that did the job without extensive post-install tweaking--I'd wager that fewer people would wake up to discover their digital memories had vanished into the ether. You can help in this: In the comments--or in today's 2 p.m. Web chat--tell me which Windows backup tools get this job done with the least fuss.

(P.S.: Sorry about the headline, and don't forget to continue reading this post if you want my thoughts on the eight programs that didn't pass my tests.)


* Acronis True Image Home 2009: Windows XP/Vista, $49.99
This application had a lot of promise, since it combined the ability to make a bit-for-bit copy of your entire hard drive with more flexible data-backup options. But its attempts at application-specific backup and restore options showed a dismaying lack of attention: "My Application Settings" ignored installed copies of iTunes, Mozilla Thunderbird and Picasa.

Carbonite: Windows XP/Vista, $49.95/year unlimited use
This seemed a lot like Mozy at first, until its setup screens left me guessing what was backed up, after which this program's restore interface tossed me to the same folder-tree dialog as every other backup program. Carbonite also lost some points for not providing a free, limited backup option. Mac users, make a note on your calendars: The company says it will provide an OS X version of its software in two to three months.

GoodSync Pro 7.5: Windows 2000/XP/Vista, $29.95
This program suffered from having to combine backup and file-synchronization functions, which led to a cluttered interface (hint, start by clicking the first "Browse..." button). I liked its choice of backup destinations--external hard drive, CD, DVD and online--but its even busier file-restore screen ate away at its appeal.

SyncToy: Windows XP/Vista, free
Microsoft's SyncToy utility had the right price, free, and an extremely clean interface. And that's about as good as things got here. It lacked any application-specific presets and could not schedule backups on its own (its help file explains how to use Windows' Task Scheduler to set up the same thing). And like GoodSync, its usability took a hit from combining sync and backup functions.

Windows Vista Backup and Restore Center
: Windows Vista, free
If your computer came with a copy of Vista Home Premium edition, you've got a free copy of this backup utility. And if you only ever use Microsoft's applications, it can work well for you. Otherwise, its choice of backup destinations--external drives, CDs and DVDS, and network drives--doesn't square with its inflexible restrictions on what files and folders you can back up.

Backup Now 5 Advanced Edition: Windows 2000/XP/Vista, $69.99
This program introduced itself with a series of odd error messages ("Unable to create ShadowSvc.JobController instance [hr=-2147221005] Invalid class string"), but even if it had worked properly it would have disqualified itself with a constrained default selection that excluded such common files as iTunes Store downloads, PNG image files and Rich Text Format documents.

SyncBack Freeware: Windows 98/ME/XP/Vista, free
If you know your way around your Documents and Settings or Users folder (depending on your version of Windows), you can do well with this program--the only one tested to support pre-2000 releases of Windows. That backwards compatibility makes it a strong third choice, but a weak option for XP and Vista users who can employ simpler software.

WebRoot Secure Backup 5: Windows XP/Vista, $29.95/year
This application got off to a bad start, asking me to download and install Microsoft's .Net framework on its first run. In its favor, it offers both local and online backup (the $29.95 annual fee buys 2 gigabytes of Web backup, with more storage available at a higher price). Against its favor, its "common files and folders" preset excludes Vista's important AppData directory, where your e-mail and a great deal of other important data lives.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 30, 2008; 10:40 AM ET
Categories:  Gripes , Mac , Windows  
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So because you have to click one extra check box in Windows Vista Backup and Restore Center, it is no good? If someone is going to take the time to read this article and select a solution accordingly, they have time to click one extra check box. It works fine and I have successfully retrieved files from it (the acid test of any backup mechanism).

Posted by: slar | October 30, 2008 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I'm with you, Rob. Setting up backup software should not have to be the job of the family's computer wiz at holiday gatherings, it should be something a consumer just buys, connects/installs, then it works.

Why don't these programs just back up the entire Documents & Settings folder? The only things that could possibly be worth excluding are Outlook .ost's, cache directories, and the All Users/Default User folders--those are easy to write rules for.

I don't see it as being a terribly big deal if the restore is more difficult since you can always find a computer-savvy person to do that for you, though it would be preferable if that were easy.

Posted by: divestoclimb | October 30, 2008 1:54 PM | Report abuse

The backup problem has always baffled me. I never get clear what the heck Widows backup backsup...apart from it does not backup the OS, drivers, etc.

What non tech users want is a program that simply asks " click here to back up your hard disk to your external drive". Then in an emergency, lets you boot from a CD followed by "restore my hard disk." Back up and restore the whole darned thing in one fell swoop. What is so hard about that? That Microsoft might sue you for backing up the OS? 99.99% of users just want a one step recovery for a badly crashed (but useable) hard disk, or for a new disk to replace an unuseable one. I think think the Acronis Imaging program is on its way to doing all this if you can get through the user manual. I am missing something here?

Posted by: lakeforest1 | October 30, 2008 6:14 PM | Report abuse

Nicely done on that headline. I used to use and appreciate Acronis for Windows install/disk imaging. Now I'm mostly Mac.

Posted by: davezatz | October 30, 2008 7:23 PM | Report abuse

One critical aspect you failed to mention is whether backup apps copy files in their original format, or convert them to a proprietary format archive file. If you need to recover files because your original computer died, your backups could easily be rendered useless because you also lost that backup software and can't re-install it on a new system. I started using Syncback because that was the first freeware app I found that leaves files in their original format. I agree that Syncback won't win ease of use points for everybody because you have to decide what to back up on your own. I did, however, find it ideal for backing up a large music collection by showing me which files are new or changed, then letting me decide which ones to copy or replace. Anyone looking to manage large music, photo, or video collections should definitely try Syncback.

Posted by: annanemas | October 30, 2008 9:21 PM | Report abuse

Have you ever tried the "Rescue and Recovery" backup program that comes with ThinkPads? It strikes me as pretty good but I have only used it for a short time. It is proprietary, but then again, so is Time Machine.

Posted by: bokamba | October 31, 2008 2:42 AM | Report abuse

When I bought a Buffalo Mini Station, it came with a preinstalled backup software (Memeo). You can pick what files or folders you want to backup and after the initial run, will perform incremental backups. The only draw back is you cannot schedule your backups.

Posted by: docchari | October 31, 2008 9:58 AM | Report abuse


In addition to Time Machine, I'd also like to throw am endorsement to Shirt Pocket's Super Duper. SD will create a bootable back-up of your drive (something that Time Machine won't do), and for straight backing up is Free. If you would like scheduled back-ups or incremental back-ups, you can upgrade. But as another free option for the Mac, it is hard to beat.

Posted by: chuckiep | October 31, 2008 10:28 AM | Report abuse

I have a Buffalo Terasation, one terabyte, RADE 5, hard drive backup with the memeo backup software. When a falling tree took out the power the Buffalo went dead. On power restoration the Buffalo stayed off but the memeo software kept building files to be downloaded to the Buffalo. As a busy person I did not notice the dead Buffalo but did notice that my C drive was getting filled up with who knows what files. Long story short, the resulting mess caused a lot of hair pulling before the true cause was recognized and fixed. It would have helped if memeo had alerted that it could not download the files before it overfilled my C drive.
The previous Buffalo had a failed power supply and Buffalo sent me a new terastation replacement that I was going to swap drives with. Seems however that they changed drive suppliers and the new drives would not fit in the old case. I said to hell with it and backed up my system with my CD and DVD backups. Thank glod I had those backups. It was painful as I do a lot of photography and video.

Posted by: dilbertdogbert | October 31, 2008 10:40 AM | Report abuse

I like NTI Shadow ($39.99 for Windows, $29.99 for Mac). Easy to set up, flexible scheduling options, and it works well for me with one Vista and two XP computers computers backing up via wireless network to the same external HDD.

Posted by: aspangler | October 31, 2008 10:48 AM | Report abuse

I use System Guardian from, $149.00. This makes a complete, bootable backup of your entire drive, including partitions, while Windows is running. It copies every file, including those open at the time. It can be run on demand, or by schedule. It can backup to multiple drives in removable carriers, allowing both local backup and offsite in my safety deposit box. I perform this backup weekly, to the local backup drive, take it to my safety deposit box, exchange the backup drives, then do the backup again on the previous offsite drive. First time takes a long time, but after that, only changed or added files are updated. Any of the backup drives can be booted, and it even has auto-failover that detects a failed drive and offers to boot the next one. I have tested it and it has never failed to work. The drives must be identical to work both directions. Works with PATA, SATA, SATAII. Major disadvantage is that it is only for Win 2000/XP, not Vista or 64 bit or Mac. I called, and they have no plans to grow. I have used this for several years, and am perfectly happy with it. If I ever go to Vista or 64 bit, I'll be in trouble. Ken610, Salem, Oregon. VOTE!

Posted by: ken610 | October 31, 2008 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I think quite a few people are confused about what really needs to be backed up. On Macs, the User folder is key. It contains your music, video and photo libraries and your preferences. However, backing up the system itself is a bad idea. Installing OS X clean means you are not reinstalling previous problems.

The other unspoken issue I see is consumer stinginess. Many people do not back up because they are too stingy to buy an external hard drive or backup software. The phenomenon is similar to the iPod or laptop owner who will not spring for a case for his expensive device. Backup is not the place to pinch pennies, people.

Posted by: query0 | November 1, 2008 5:20 AM | Report abuse

I had trouble with Windows backup for a long time. My solution was to use WinZip to backup my data files files to one of several flash drive every month. I feel that replacing or reinstalling software is easier than trying to back it up. This solution may not be perfect as I don't have massive amount of files to back up, but it worked for me.

Posted by: DSMITH6068 | November 2, 2008 5:05 AM | Report abuse


My complaint about most software especially including backup software, is that the creators do not take in mind the need for simplicity of the user interface. There needs to be more attention paid to how you can make the user interface intuitive for more of the users. Remember, it is the user that is paying for it.

Dick Simmons

Posted by: scouter60 | November 2, 2008 9:59 AM | Report abuse

I'm a fan of Carbonite. It's automatic, nothing to set up. I've used it to restore the earlier version of a file: after you mistakenly save the file with the original name, you tell Carbonite to suspend backup. You rename the current file, and then restore the original. For this, Rob, you absolutely need to have that file tree! The file tree also provides the size of each folder -- useful info that Windows Explorer does not give. (I use web-based e-mail, so no need to back that up of course.)

Posted by: claresw | November 2, 2008 12:49 PM | Report abuse

For Windows, Mac or Linux, try Jungle Disk. It is like Mozy -- except I stopped using Mozy (on my Mac) when the program stopped working and tech support did not help. Jungle Disk is a $20 program that teams up with Amazon's S3 server-based storage. So even if you don't like Jungle Disk's interface (and I like it), you can try another program as the "front end" to your data that stays with Amazon's S3. Another good thing about Jungle Disk is that -- unlike Mozy -- it is intended not only as backup but also as remote access to data. So it allows you to easily access your server-based data from any computer through a virtual hard drive. Nice program with 30-day free trial. Only downside is that Amazon's server plan is not a flat rate (in contrast to Mozy). However, it's still affordable.

Posted by: aieronimo | November 3, 2008 6:35 PM | Report abuse

For backing up my home computer, I use Nero for DVDs and my external hard drive, Comodo Backup for my spare internal hard drive and Backup4all 3 for DVDs when the files must be compressed to fit. I don't use online backup services as my ISP limits me to 20 Gig per month and my uplink speed is only 128K.

I keep the backups separate from my computer, taking the latest set to the office when I am working or keeping them by the front door when I'm not. The older set goes near the back door. That way, I can grab a set on the way out if there's a fire.

I do all my own backups at work, sending them to computers in another state if possible. This was very useful when I was on vacation and the system administrator wiped my hard drive. He said he thought I had left the company.

Posted by: mrlwp | November 4, 2008 1:49 AM | Report abuse

When analyzing these software packages need to look at how many computers you can use a purchase on. I have three networked home computers and found that most times the backup software company expects me to purchase software separately for all three computers (example $70 cost times 3 = $210) which is very expensive within my income bracket.

Posted by: curious3 | November 4, 2008 10:34 AM | Report abuse

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