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It's 10 A.M. Do You Know Where Your Backups Are?

I thought I could go at least a year between writing "remember to back up your data" blog posts after a friend or family member loses their files in a computer crash, but I couldn't manage that.

Last October, it was my mother-in-law; this time around, it's her daughter, who just had her MacBook's hard drive die.

I blame Apple first: No hard drive should suffer a complete failure less than 11 months into its service life. It's fitting that this company will have to eat the cost of a drive replacement under its warranty.

But... you can't assume that things will work as they should. Like Lou Reed sings: "You can depend on the worst always happening / You need a busload of faith to get by."

That was my sister-in-law's mistake. She bought her MacBook just in time to have it ship with Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard -- which features the easiest, most effective, automatic backup software I've seen, Time Machine. All she needed to do was plug in an extra hard drive to have every single file, setting and application safeguarded.

But Time Machine can't buy that hard drive or connect it for you. If you don't take those steps, it's nothing more than a pretty icon in the Dock.

(Got an older Mac? Try the free iBackup.)

With Windows machines, you're in worse shape. The backup utility in some copies of Windows XP is a joke, and Windows Vista's backup tool is little better (in some respects, like the ability to select particular files, it's worse).

In last year's post, I noted a couple of Windows alternatives I'd suggested in a tip-of-the-week e-mail written for PostPoints members:

If you use rewritable CDs or DVDs and use only Microsoft's Internet software, the free RightBackup Lite ( comes preset to safeguard all your important files and settings.

Otherwise, try SyncBack Freeware (, but remember to tell this program to copy all your data, not just what's in your My Documents folder. Click the folder icon at the end of the "Source" line, then navigate to the folder inside the C: drive's "Documents and Settings" folder that's either named after you or, if not that, called "Administrator."

I need to revisit this category of Windows software. I want to be able to suggest an application that, by default, backs up your entire Documents and Settings (in XP) or Users (in Vista) folder to ensure that you can't lose things like browser bookmarks or e-mail messages saved in sub-folders that Windows keeps invisible. (Hiding some of the user's most important data this way has to rank as one of Microsoft's stupidest design decisions of all time.)

If the backup tool can't do that, it should at least protect all the visible folders in your Documents and Settings or Users directory -- My Documents, My Pictures, My Music and so on -- and then offer applications-specific presets to cover particular programs' data and settings. These presets would have to include all major non-Microsoft applications, like Mozilla Firefox and iTunes.

(I'm not sold on utilities that duplicate your entire hard drive, like Norton Ghost. That approach vastly increases the size of the required backup volume and also copies a lot of stuff you don't need backed up, like programs you can reinstall. Or viruses you don't want to reinstall.)

This ideal application would allow a choice of backup media -- CDs, DVDs, hard drives, flash drives, maybe even online (though for many users, the math argues against uploading gigabytes upon gigabytes of data). Oh, and I'd like this application to be free, so people can't whine about the startup cost.

Unfortunately, all of the tools that I've tried, from the freebies mentioned earlier to such commercial alternatives as the backup utilities in system-security suites like Norton 360, McAfee Total Protection and Microsoft's Windows Live OneCare, fall short.

So help me out here: Does such a program exist in the Windows universe? If not, can you please write one? Say, by Monday?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  October 3, 2008; 9:41 AM ET
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Acronis ( makes an excellent backup program. You can do a total mirror, selected directories, data alone, system files. It has saved my bacon more than once. They also make a fine good disk utility.

Posted by: Fred Powledge | October 3, 2008 12:41 PM | Report abuse

My 2002 HP desktop computer is still running on it's original hard drive. It hasn't required any other repairs either.

I curently use plain old Windows Copy/Paste to backup my data, to external hard drives. I will probably get a fancy backup program when I get a new computer. I used to use an Iomega backup utility, but it quit working. It probably wouldn't be able to Restore to a future Vista computer anyway.

Since my computer is ancient, I have two backups; one is an always-connected USB external hard drive, and one is a portable USB hard drive. If the always-connected drive fails, is cooked by a power surge, or gets a virus, the portable drive backup is available.

These days, I think most external hard drives come with basic backup software.

PC Magazine Online has reviews for numerous backup programs.

As for Norton Ghost, I think (???) the current version can be configured to do data-only backups.

I suppose a person with a broadband connection could also use PkWare's SecureZIP to make an encrypted data backup file, and e-mail it to themselves.

Posted by: JohnJ | October 3, 2008 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of hidden files, I copy my outlook.pst and IE Favorite Places files to folders in My Documents. That way, they get included in my Windows Copy/Paste backup.

Posted by: JohnJ | October 3, 2008 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Synctoy and Karen's Backup are 2 easy to use programs that also have the advantage of not compressing and encrypting your backup. That way, if you need a file, just navigate over to your drive and grab it, it's easy to find.

Both are free.

Question: If you back up your entire Doc and Settings folder, aren't you getting a TON of temp files every single time it runs?

Posted by: JkR | October 3, 2008 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I'm surprised you dismiss the online approach so quickly. It's easy. It's offsite, so if your computer (or backup drive) is stolen or destroyed in a fire/flood/act of FSM, you still have your data. And for laptop users, it's one of the best approaches, because it works no matter where you are if you have an Internet connection.

Mozy is $5/month for unlimited storage, and works on PCs and Macs. It's true that it takes a long time to do the initial upload (mine took two months). But so what? It runs in the background. Once it's done, incremental backups are much quicker. And the feeling of having all of your info securely stored offsite can't be beat.

Posted by: moose | October 3, 2008 2:09 PM | Report abuse

The backup software on my new Maxtor external HD works fine. But I only use it to back up my personal files (music, photos, documents, etc). I haven't set up a system restore point yet - I'm willing to reinstall the OS and application programs if a crash occurs.

I also use my computer to keep track of all possible baby names, as Lou Reed suggests. This "baby thing" is going too far.

Posted by: SSMD | October 3, 2008 2:17 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Bryan | October 3, 2008 2:28 PM | Report abuse

I've been happy with FileFort. It's free and it allows me to select the files I want to backup and schedule backups. I do a daily "full" backup that overwrites itself onto a backup hard drive. The backup goes at 3:00AM and lasts 30 minutes for 55 GB. I could do incremental as well but I need a larger hard drive.

Restoration is easy as well. It's a Window's Explorer type of interface and all I have to do is select the files and location restore.

Posted by: kwsdurango | October 3, 2008 2:38 PM | Report abuse

I don't like the incremental thing ghost does now, that said, getting an old fashion ghost *full* backup first off before you start making documents makes life way easier if you ever need to reinstall, you just drop the full image back onto the system and restore your latest backup of your personal files.

Posted by: Jason S | October 3, 2008 2:41 PM | Report abuse


To an extent, I agree with you on the downsides of a disk image backup. But... reinstalling the OS, and all the apps, and get all the settings back to where you want them (some are stored in the registry after all)... That's a huge problem too.

My preferred solution is to do the image backup perhaps once a month and then data only on a daily basis. This way you have an easy restore path, but the flexibility of only restoring the stuff you actually want (e.g. Skipping that virus.)

Pre-Vista, I was using Ghost for an image backup with incremental changes. For now, I'm doing manual backups of just selected files and looking for a new automated tool that will give me the extra flexibility.

Posted by: Blair | October 3, 2008 4:33 PM | Report abuse

On my WinXP machine, I don’t store any files in the "My XXX" folders, even though I realize that some things land there by default. But that minimizes the backup chore. I have all of my data/image/music/video/graphics files in a folder (and subfolders) called "Data". I just drag the "Data" folder onto my external USB hard drive and wait for it to finish while I am watching the evening news. Then the USB drive goes into a fireproof safe until the next backup. Worse things can happen to your computer and data than just simple device failure.

Posted by: Stratocaster | October 3, 2008 9:44 PM | Report abuse

Cobian Backup. I've found it very handy for backing up my entire C:\ Drive, and/or just Documents and Settings easily and quickly.
Friendly interface, easy to use, FREE.
I use it to automatically or manually produce backups from my PC to my Seagate external hard drive.

Posted by: Ozyank | October 3, 2008 11:57 PM | Report abuse

I have enjoyed using MS SyncToy to backup my data and picture files to my old desktop which is on my LAN. I also use it to sync my notebook and desktop when traveling. I think it is a great, free software that works with XP and Vista.

Posted by: JWhite | October 4, 2008 11:30 AM | Report abuse

Rob, For non-Leopard Macs I can recommend Déja Vu from Propaganda Prod. It can do mirror or incremental, has a Safety Net for deleted files, can backup across a network, and can repair disk permissions. I found it very useful pre-Leopard. I'm considering going back to it, because I've had a problem with Time Machine losing all of its backed up data. I believe it is less than $40 for a site license.

Posted by: sunbird | October 4, 2008 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Acronis on Windows, for sure. Been relying on it for several years now.

Posted by: Dave Zatz | October 4, 2008 11:55 PM | Report abuse

Moose, with Comcast's 250gb cap Mozy may no longer be a reasonable option. Also, your two months to complete a backup is hardly fail safe (related, Jungle Disk and Carbonite).

Posted by: Dave Zatz | October 4, 2008 11:58 PM | Report abuse

I've been using SyncBack Pro for awhile and I love it. You can specify what files you want, and then it just updates the changes each time it runs. Best of all, it's free. I installed an old hard drive from older computer so I'm running it as a backup drive. It's a great, low cost solution.

Posted by: Woodley Parker | October 5, 2008 9:19 AM | Report abuse

JungleDisk ( is a great program. No, it isn't free, but it is worth every penny. $20 one time fee, and very cheap monthly rates (I pay less than $1 a month)

Posted by: Bernard_Marx | October 5, 2008 6:02 PM | Report abuse

The plus side to Vista's backup is that it doesn't take very long. Besides, my biggest concern if the HD on my laptop failed wouldn't be losing bookmarks. It would be figuring out how to reinstall Windows since microsoft pc manufacturers don't ship a backup copy w/ your new computer anymore.

Posted by: ugh | October 5, 2008 11:34 PM | Report abuse

I use Mozy, too. But instead of the unlimited space for $5/month, I just use the free version of MozyHome. Granted this is only 2 GB free, but for my most important business files, it's enough. For many home users, this is a great option. Unlike Moose, initial upload was done the first day. When my system crashed last year, I was able to easily sign in and recover all files. Couldn't be happier.

Posted by: Jack | October 6, 2008 10:42 AM | Report abuse

I'm a fan of on-line backup; I use Carbonite. Costs $50/year, unlimited backup, set it up and forget it. I have cable modem; the first backup took two weeks, but now the backups are easily kept current.

I have tons of pictures, many irreplaceable. If my computer goes away (theft, damage, etc), if the house burns down, floods, fires, earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes (pick your regional disaster), my data is safe. (How many people in Galveston lost their data along with their house?)

I've tried the backup to DVD, external hard drive, and I just don't have the "round-to-it" to remember to do that. And then those backups would be gone with any disaster.

If the on-line backup company fails, then I am only out the yearly cost, my data is not lost; I still have a local copy. But the automatic off-site copy is done, and I don't have to remember to do it, or drag my backups off-site.

Some people can remember to do backups. I don't have to.

Posted by: Rick | October 6, 2008 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Rob, you did not mention Mac's Backup application (3.1.2) that came with my Ibook G4. Is this a good backup application or should I switch to IBackup. I'm running Tiger 10.4.11.

Posted by: Andrew | October 6, 2008 11:49 AM | Report abuse

For backup, I use:

1. Norton Ghost on an external HD. I'm not REAL fond of Ghost, but it came for free with my three-year-old Dell.
2. MozyHome -- for peace of mind. It's true that the initial back up (now up to 80GB for me) takes a month or so, but it's real easy now.
3. Oh, and I have a RAID1 configuration on my Dell, so if one HD dies, the other one should be OK. I hope.

Paranoid? MOI?

Posted by: TMU | October 6, 2008 2:03 PM | Report abuse

I have used Genie Backup Manager for several years, when other programs I found did not work or have the features I wanted. I have only needed it once or twice for a couple of files. It seems fully featured, a top choice of at least one computer magazine. Not free.

In my version 6, incremental back to DVD was not reliable, so I back up to a hard drive (reliable), and copy files to DVD+RW with xcopy. "Clone job" to copy the selection of files to backup is not intuitive, but does the job.

Posted by: John | October 6, 2008 3:45 PM | Report abuse

EMC Retrospect? I have been using it for a year now and its great, no issues so far, even though the UI and the tool itself is a little complicated. One big+ , the external HDD with the backed up files will be automatically encrypted - which I think is an ABSOLUTE must in this age of ID theft!

Posted by: Manish | October 6, 2008 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Not so fast....... Simple Copy, SyncToy, GoodSync and the like will choke and stop at the ntuser.dat (.log) files in the Documents and Settings directory and never make it to the registry files which will choke most backup programs too. No, use something that will copy protected files or you won't restore to a useable state. After one of those day-long "put Humpty Dumpty back together" sessions, I back up after starting the machine up from a rescue disk. That way, Windows is not started and protected files can be copied file-by-file. Microsoft has made XP so secure that even the owners are protected from themselves........

Posted by: scott ager | October 7, 2008 10:16 AM | Report abuse

I want to second Carbonite. I got it a week before Hurricane Gustav hit our area and was a little nervous because it took about 4 days to upload 30 gigs, but I was set by the time Ike came our way.
I also use WinZip, which has a job scheduling feature, to create a password-protected Zip folder, which is burned to a DVD at my leisure.

Posted by: Matt | October 8, 2008 3:11 PM | Report abuse

I think it's pretty - no, *extremely* - unfair to blame Apple for the drive's failing. Just as it's unfair to blame HP for the drive that failed in my father's relatively new HP Pavilion. There's a very small group of about five or six companies that make the hard drives that go into all new computers (and their number just dropped by one, as Fujitsu just sold their drive business to Western Digital). Every computer company buys from this small group of drive manufacturers; that failed drive could just as easily ended up in a Dell as in that MacBook.

That said, hard drives fail, and anyone who doesn't plan for that is courting disaster. That's one thing I *do* blame HP for; as reffed earlier in the comments, a number of companies (HP among them) have stopped shipping installation disks with their computers. So when the drive died, I had to replace the drive, and then my father had to wait two weeks for HP to ship him replacement install disks.

Posted by: Travis Butler | October 9, 2008 10:12 PM | Report abuse

I agree. in applications where we aren't generating much new data, there is an image backup about once a month and data on a daily basis.

Posted by: Robert J Loomis III | October 10, 2008 12:14 PM | Report abuse

It's not super easy to set up but it also isn't very difficult to do. I use robocopy scripts. Again though, you will need an external hard drive (I recommend two) and that just doesn't happen by itself.

I have a scheduled task on each PC (windows) in the house run a robocopy script similar to the following (it should be on one line per path/folder):

x:\path\to\robocopy.exe" "X:\path\to\folder\tobackup" "y:\path\to\copyto" /E /NP /FFT /TEE /COPY:DATSOU /R:1 /W:1 /LOG+:"c:\backup.log"

I basically have a line for the documents, favorites, outlook express store location, outlook PST location and any other directories the "main" user of that PC require.

You can even soup this up by having the files copy to another PC on the network and then have that PC run a scheduled task to back up the entire consolodated backups off to an external drive (this is what I do). Then again, if you're going that direction anyway you can just get Windows Home Server and never have to sweat it again.

Posted by: Les | October 10, 2008 12:27 PM | Report abuse

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