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.
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