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Robert J. Elisberg

Robert J. Elisberg

Posted: August 20, 2009 11:17 AM

The Writers Workbench: Backup Made Easy


One of the most important and least utilized feature of computing is backing up. The mere thought of people who have their systems completely unprotected is bewildering to me -- but when those people are professional writers whose very work depends on their data, it gives me body twitches just thinking about it. While I understand that setting up a backup schedule can be confusing to the technophobes of the world, there are plenty of solutions today to make that process so much easier. And in several cases, bizarrely easy. And that's what we're looking at this month.

There are two types of simplicity here. The first is basic, external drives and software that have eased the process. The second falls into the category akin to using a toaster -- if you can plug it in, you've mastered its operation.

• FreeAgent Go
• FreeAgent Desk
• FreeAgent Xtreme
• Seagate Manager
• Toshiba Portable External Drive
• Clickfree Transformer
• Rebit
• TWW Notes



FREEAGENT GO

Seagate has a trio of external drives that it makes available under the FreeAgent label. All three use the Seagate Manager for back-up -- more on that later.

The FreeAgent Go is the most portable of the lot. Only about half an inch thick, it's 5x3," weighs a touch over just 5-1/2 ounces, and can fit in a coat pocket. It comes in sizes ranging from 250 GB up to 500 GB, and is available for both PC and Mac (though only up to 320 GB for the Mac). It comes with a 2.5-inch internal drive.

It has a "rotational speed" of 5400 RPM, which is normal, though some larger, higher end drives run faster. It has an 8 MB cache. I put drives under three separate tests (none remotely scientific) -- a backup of the My Documents folder on my systems, a larger set backup that includes a wide variety of file types, and a "full" backup of my hard drive that includes large .exe files among other things. (This full backup was 39 GB and encompassed just under 10,000 files.)

The FreeAgent Go handled the backups well. My Documents took 1:05, the set backup went through in 2:10, and the full back was done in 37 minutes.

For those who use the Go on a notebook computer, drawing power from it, there is a nice touch of a Sleep mode, where the drive shuts down at a set time that you can configure.

Like all such small, portable drives I've seen, the Go has a ridiculously short cord for connecting to your USB port. Why this seems standard among these kind of drives is beyond me. If you're connecting to a USB port in the back of a home system, the short cord is much too awkward. To Seagate's credit, they do also sell the FreeAgent GoDock, which has a longer cord and lets you have a more permanent holding stand.

In fact, the company also makes a "family" of FreeAgent products to work with the Go. Not just the aforementioned dock, but also FreeAgent Theater, for moving photos, movies and musical from your PC to your TV. The size of a cigar box, you hook it up to your entertainment center, and then simply slide your Go into it when needed. (You can also connect a digital camera directly to the Theater.)


FREEAGENT DESK

Seagate's FreeAgent Desk is a portable, external drive, as well, though notably larger than the Go and isn't really something you'd carry around. It's about the size of a cigar box. (Around 7x7 inches, and 1.3 inches deep.) It weighs a bit over 2 pounds.

Mainly, this is a drive you set up for your home system and leave it be. It can stand vertically, or laid flat. Rubber feet are provided for the latter, but for the life of me I wasn't able to get them steady. They would wobble and fall off whenever I'd move the drive. I suspect I'm doing something bizarrely wrong, but it's a moot point, since you don't really need the feet. A tiny stand is provided if you want the drive to be vertical.

Though not as portable, the FreeAgent Desk offer larger storage - and faster speed. It runs at 7200 RPM, and its cache is up to 32 MB. And it starts at 500 GB and is available as large as 1.5 Terabyte (TB). The Desk also comes in both PC and Mac flavors.

Its speed in my three tests were all lightning fast. The My Documents folder was backed up in just 55 seconds, and the set back-up only took 1:40. The full backup was done is 32 minutes.

And like the Go, it has a Sleep mode. Unlike the Go, it has a 3.5-inch internal drive.


FREEAGENT XTREME

The Free Agent Xtreme is very similar to the Desk model. It's the same size (though it comes in black, as opposed to silver), and is available in the same 500 MB up to 1.5 TB sizes. It runs at the same 7200 RPM, also comes with up to a 32 cache, and has a 3.5-inch internal drive. It's slightly heavier than the Desk at 3 pounds.

The one notable different is its connectivity. While the FreeAgent Desk is USB 2.0 only, the FreeAgent Xtreme has USB 2.0, eSATA and FireWire-400 interfaces, which allow for even faster data transfer, if you have connections for them.

But even with USB, its speed is seriously impressive. In fact, it's essentially the same as the Desk. The My Documents folder was backed up in 54 seconds, the set back-up took just 1:38, and the full backup was 32 minutes.

And like all three Seagate models, it too has Sleep mode.


SEAGATE MANAGER

Although it's the drives themselves which clearly are the heart of any backup -- it's probably the backup software that will distinguish one choice from the other. Especially since some of the options are the Rebit and Clickfree, where no configuration is necessary, that makes backup software all the more noteworthy when making comparisons.

For the FreeAgent series, all their external drives all come with Seagate Manager built in. So, no CD installation is necessary. The software installs automatically when you plug in the drive. By default, Seagate Manager loads upon system start-up and runs in memory. So, you only have to click on its icon in your System Tray to run it. This is convenient if you keep your external drive plugged in all the time, but for those who want to run manual backups (more on this in a bit), you have to launch the software yourself, if you've removed it from automatic Windows Start Up.

Before getting into the software, I must note that I had a major issue with installing Seagate Manager -- though it's not necessarily something most people will face, and it was easily resolved. I was unable to update the software, and it wouldn't perform a backup. I was informed that this "updating" problem was largely because -- on Seagate's end -- their download servers often time out, and I was using a dial-up account. Most of the human race will be using broadband, so that won't be an issue. Tech support sent me to a direct download, and it came through fine. Everything was updated, and the backups worked perfectly.

On to the software...

Seagate Manager offers quite a lot of configuration options -- which is good if you're reasonably savvy, though less so if you're one of those who hates backing up, in part because you hate configuring. To the program's credit however, it provides the option to just select "My Documents" and that folder will be backed up. Or "Desktop" or "My Favorites." That's great and easy -- though it doesn't give you the most comprehensive backup. For that, you have to select the "C:/ drive" and pick and choose.

One thing that Seagate Manager does which simplifies things, though I'm not crazy about, is that it doesn't let you back up a single file in a folder. You can only back up the full folder. Given the likely huge capacity of a drive, that's not necessarily a big issue -- but if you only want to back up a single file, you should be able to do so. There's no reason you should have to back up everything in a folder if it's full of files you don't care about.

An option the software provides is that you can choose file types you want backed-up. Also, you can encrypt your back up, though this can only be set when you create a back up plan, and not added after the fact. (Of course, it's hardly a problem to create a new back up plan, should you decide later to encrypt your files.) Also, there is a separate Security feature, where you can drag files to encrypt them.

As mentioned above, there are also two ways you can use Seagate Manager -- if you have your external drives plugged in all the time, the software lets you choose the day and time you want a backup done. Or, you can disable automatic back up if you manually plug your external drive in and therefore do manual back ups.

When backing up, one quibble I had is that it would be nice if the software determined how many files to be backed up first, so you would know the progress. But backups went smoothly.

Once you have your backup plan set, the Seagate Manager can be configured to use it with any FreeAgent drive you have. So, if you use several FreeAgent drives, there's no need to create a separate plan for each one. Just select a box with the name of each recognized drive.

If you choose to change the default settings and do manual backups, the program doesn't force you to do a full backup each time. Rather, it will only backup new and changed files, which is a convince. (If you want to do a full backup, you can, but it's more convoluted. Basically, you have to start from scratch and create a new backup.)

Another feature of Seagate Manager is a nice touch called Sync, whereby you don't have to do full backups, but just incremental additions to previous backups, which keeps the latest versions of files synched between computers.

For simplicity's sake, you can do a Simple Sync, which syncs your My Documents folder) or a custom sync of multiple folders. Also, if you always have your external drive plugged in, there is an "Auto sync" option that will sync a file every time its changed. It's important to note that syncing files doesn't add them to the existing backup, but creates a folder named, "Seagate Sync."

Note that Seagate Manager is proprietary and can only be used with Seagate drives. It's a very good, configurable piece of software, though I have a few issues with it. Notably that it only backs up full folders, doesn't show back-up progress and is proprietary. Also, while not at all difficult to use, it's a bit more complex than if one is looking for brain-dead easy. That said, if you use FreeAgent drives, and if you plan to keep your drive attached full time for automatic backups, then once you've configured Seagate Manager that first time, there's no need to even concern yourself much with it again.


TOSHIBA USB 2.0 PORTABLE EXTERNAL HARD DRIVE

Toshiiba's portable, external hard drive comes without a flashy name, but has one of the more elegant designs. Design is not a major concern of mine, though for some people, that might be a selling point for something they carry around with them.

The Toshiba is comparable in size to the FreeAgent Go. Pocket-sized at 5x3" and .65" deep, and weighing 7 oz., it uses 2.5" portable internal drive. It too comes in capacities ranging from 250 GB to 500 GB. And it has an 8 MB buffer. Like pretty much every pocket-portable drive, it has a ridiculously small USB cord.

The Toshiba is also one of the fastest of the pocket-sized drives I've seen. It managed the My Documents test in just 55 seconds, and did the set backup in only 1:50. For the full backup, it took 34:25.

While the drive is particularly fast, however, it's still the included backup software that creates the most notable difference between drives. For the Toshiba, it comes with NTI Shadow that comes on the drive and installs itself when you plug it in for the first time. (Actually, it doesn't install automatically, but you have to browse to the file and manually launch it, an easy -- though minor -- negative.) The software is available for both PC and Mac.

NTI Shadow is also intended to run automatically with your hard drive plugged in all the time, though you can override this and use it manually.

The software lets you select single files to back up, not just folders only. And it shows the progress of your backup as its in operation. However, very long periods of seeming inactivity would go by with no movement -- and then it would just from a few percent completed to 40 percent. This almost defeats the advantage of showing the progress.

There is a Job Wizard that guides you through some basic choices. One of these lets you select specific files type to back up, rather than the default of all files. Also, while you can schedule day and date for backups, if you do run the software automatically with your external drive plugged in all the time, it has a very strong feature that will backup changes every time you save changes to your PC.

Additionally, you have a nice choice of how many previous files versions you want kept. Just the last one, none, or all.

One oddity. The program failed to backup four files. On the positive side, I was made award of this because pop-up window informed me. And none of the files was important to me.

The biggest negatives of NTI Shadow are that it doesn't pop-up its installation automatically, runs a bit slow, and there are no "simple" backup options (like "My Documents" or "Desktop"). You have to choose everything manually, which might not be to the taste of those who hate backing up. But on the positive side, its Job Wizard guides you through choices fairly easily, you can select single files for more control, follow your progress, and chose an auto-backup every time your files change. Plus, the software is not proprietary.

Also, as noted above, while the drive is quite fast, it runs slow -- its full backup takes significantly longer than the Seagate . That's because it backs up everything, not just changed files. Depending on your preference, this is a good thing or a bad thing.

(Side note: Subsequent to writing this review, Toshiba has informed me that they have a new product that was just launched, which has a slightly different look and feel. From a spec sheet, most of the significant changes appear to be with improvements to the backup software, which includes full system backup and restore, password-protected encryption, and customization for either Windows or Mac.)

Those are several choices for easy backup. Next month, we'll look a couple option that give new meaning to easy.


CLICKFREE TRANSFORMER

There's another offbeat option for easy backing up. And this moves us to the category of brain-dead easy. I've mentioned the Clickfree drive, which was reviewed here previously. As then-noted, this is a drive with software built in that pops-up instantly and automatically backs up many hundreds of the most common data file types. All without any intervention on the users behalf, except for plugging it in the USB port. But what if you already have a portable, external drive?

Well, Clickfree now offers the Clickfree Transformer. For $60, you can get a small device that plugs into your external drive on one end, and into your computer's USB port on the other. In essence, this converts your external drive into a Clickfree-like drive. The regularly Clickfree software automatically pops ups and runs by itself, backing up your files without you being required to do anything. If you want to add any file types not included by default, it's easy to do. (The company adds news ones regularly that are come in updates.)

It works just as well as a Clickfree drive. For the most part, its default files that are backed up cover almost everything you'll need, especially if you're a novice who hates backing up. For people who are hands on, under the hood, you'll likely want to add personal file preferences or select a folder, notably if you want to back up programs.

For reasons I don't quite understand, the initial backup took interminably long. Something like 3-1/2 hours. It's not a problem, because it's running in the background, but boy, that was long. Also, I was informed by Clickfree that this is not common, and they were bewildered by my experience. On the other hand, one of the great things about Clickfree is that after that initial backup, it only backs up changes from the last time. So subsequent system backups may only last a couple minutes - or even less. (Also, there is an indicator which allows you to know how far you are in the progress.) It searches your hard drive and then backs up whatever has changed since last time.

Unlike drives that you might plug in once and leave installed, the Clickfree Transformer is intended to back up and be unplugged. So, you have to remember to plug it in when you want to do a backup. Hardly a challenge, but that does differentiate it from the "plug-in-once and leave it" devices.

One other thing to note related to this: when using Clickfree Transformer, it may seem like you only have one USB device plugged in, but in reality it's two (Transformer and your backup drive). As a result, you have to remember to uninstall both when removing the drive. I didn't the first time, and my system wouldn't recognize either when I next plugged them. I had to reboot, but then all was subsequently fine.


REBIT MULTI-PC APPLIANCE

Of all the drives tested here, the two that are closest are the Clickfree and Rebit. (In fairness, only the Clickfree Transformer was tested, though its software is the exact same as on the Clickfree drive.) The similarity is that these two are the products most-designed for people who don't like to backup. Brain-dead easy. That said, there are differences, and they'll be addressed.

With the Rebit, all you do is plug the device into a USB port. That's it. There's no software to install, and no settings to configure. Once plugged in, its internal software does the rest. Whenever you change a file or create a new one, Rebit backs it up. And it backs everything. Applications, drivers, password settings, license codes, Windows OS settings -- along with all data, photos, music and more.

Rebit includes another interesting feature: it also backs up older versions of your documents, creating archives, in case you save over a draft you want to refer to, or see something your wrote weeks earlier. As long as the capacity of your Rebit drive is larger than your hard disk's (ie, you have a 320 gigabyte Rebit drive, and a 250 gigabyte hard disk), numerous back up files can be saved. As a drive becomes filled up, the Rebit deletes the oldest archived data (it never deletes current files), to free up space.

The Rebit is pretty the same size as most external portables. A touch longer at 6x3" and about.5" deep, it uses 2.5" portable internal drive. The version tested was the 320 GB multi-PC. (Rebit comes in two flavors, a single PC device, and a multi-PC drive that allows you to back up six computers on the same Rebit.)

Setting up the Rebit is as simple as plugging it in, and entering your code. You are literally done at that point. An icon in the System Tray tells you progress -- that it's scanning the hard drive, creating a Recovery Point, copying data and how many files are remaining. (In my case, there were 140,910.)

Once everything is backed up, the Rebit will continually monitor your system. (If you're familiar with "ghosting" your system, that's basically what's going on here.) It seemed to take about 30 seconds to a minute after saving a file for it to show up on the Rebit.

Hovering your mouse over the icon in your System Tray will give you updated information on your backup status. Right-clicking the icon gives you added functions. You can disconnect the Rebit, of course, and when you reconnect, it will catch up and start updating all the files since it was last connected. If it's been a while, Rebit recommends you wait to work until it's caught up, so that you're synced when you start, but it's not a requirement.

To restore files, you use Windows Explorer. Right click on any file, and a "My Rebit" option will appear in the context menu list. This will jump you to the backup versions of that specific file in My Rebit folder. (They call it the My Rebit Browser, and you can think of it that way, but it actually appears as a folder in Windows Explorer.

You can also go to the My Rebit folder directly, by right-clicking on the Rebit icon in the System Tray and selecting "Open." This is where all backup files are located. So that you will never confuse backup files from the originals, the background is dimmed, and you'll see the Rebit "frog logo" watermarked all over.

Once you're here in the My Rebit folder, clicking on a backup file expands the listing to show all the archived versions of that file, with time-date stamps clearly marked. Simply choose the version you want. You can drag-and-drop, or copy/paste these backup files back to restore them. It's all manual, though: there's no way to automatically send a file to its original location.

By the way, you can use Rebit to transfer files to another computer, even if it doesn't have Rebit installed. When you plug your Rebit drive in to this new computer, you'll be asked what you want to do, choose "Browse." (Otherwise, you may find Rebit backing up the new computer.)

In addition to backing up files, because the Rebit backs up your entire system, you can use it to perform a full hard disk recovery, with the included CD. But you can only do a full recovery onto your same computer, or one the exact same make and model. If you get a completely different computer, the recovery process won't work. (Though your data will still be saved, and you can manually copy files and folders over.)

This is because of the most notable difference between Rebit and Clickfree. Rebit uses a proprietary hybrid method that combines copying native file formats and mirror "imaging" of the full system, whereas Clickfree makes exact copies of a file in its native format. Imaging allows for this seamless backing up of everything on your computer, which is especially helpful in case of a crash. Native format doesn't tie you to a proprietary system. (Also, with native files you're able to restore them automatically to their original location, rather than have to manually find the location and drag it over, as with imaging.)

For the most part, Rebit worked wonderfully. But a few problems occurred during the initial full system copying. Several times, I received an error message, "Delayed Write Failed. Windows was unable save all the date for the file. The data has been lost." The "Recovery Point" was then re-set, and the files remaining to be copied reverted back to a much larger number. Needless-to-say, this drastically slowed down the initial full backup. Rather than taking 4-5 hours, it ended up about 14 hours. (On the other hand, the fact that it at least backtracks is sort of a "good thing," because what's happening is that the program is going back to re-try and get all the information it missed. And then finally completes everything properly. So, at least it's diligent.)

The company said that this was not a common occurrence, and that it's generally related to a power issue in USB ports, nothing to do with the hard drive or portable drive. That said, I continued to get the error message several times a day. In fairness, this is most likely due to a system problem on my end. Whatever the reason, though, it's annoying to get. To be clear, it's not a problem. Further, it may have been due to bugs in the software, which have been addressed in a later version. I upgraded, and several issues I had have seemingly gone away.

When the full backup was completed, it noted that 69 GB were backed up. However, there are 75 GB on my C:\ drive. Rebit says that this is due to certain temporary files not being backed up.

Since Rebit works best when always connected to a computer, it would seem far better suited for a desktop than a notebook. Having to drag around a connected Rebit (or keep disconnecting it) makes it more cumbersome to use that way.

For a single PC Rebit, there are two sizes - 140 gigabyte, and 320 gigabyte. Since the price difference is only $20, it makes the most sense to go with the larger. At the time of writing, retail price for that was $169. If you need a multi-PC drive, that goes for $219. The drives all come with carrying pouch, and a USB cord that it much longer than most - a nice touch..


SUMMARY

There are two categories covered here. If you don't want automatic software or prefer to create your own backup schedules, then the choice is between the Seagate and Toshiba, both very good. As drives, they're quite similar. The Toshiba is more stylish and fast, but I think I prefer the software for the Seagate, since the topic here is simplicity. I do wish that the software for both were better. (Of course, you can use the Clickfree Transformer with either drive.) Another option is to find a third-party backup software, some of which are free.

But the larger point of this specific column is simplicity, and for that the Rebit and Clickfree Transformer stand out. If you are one of those who just never, ever backs up, they're the only way to fly. For pure simplicity, the Rebit is probably the better option for technophones, since it's set and forget, backs up your full system. But for purely personal reasons, I tend to prefer the Clickfree (reviewed here only for its Transformer, but I include its drive form, reviewed earlier.) Even though Clickfree only backs up data, that's what I'm most interested in, over protecting settings, operating system and a full computer. And ultimately, for all the big advantages of imaging (most notably for crash protection), I prefer to have a backup in non-proprietary, native file format, and (more importantly) don't generally want my external drive always connected, most especially to a notebook. That means, of course, that I have to remember to plug it each day or whenever, but honestly that isn't too hard a concept to master.

I should also note another entry in this gaggle -- Replica, from Seagate which arrived too late to include in the article, but likely deserves a look if you're in the market. It appears to be a very close cousin to the Rebit -- just plug in, and it takes over by itself. When I mentioned this similarity to the company representative, she told me that, in fact, the software was developed with the Rebit people. It uses imaging to back up, and comes in a 250 GB single-PC configuration, or a 500 GB model that can handle up to three PCs.

In the end, the simplicity of both Clickfree and Rebit are seriously impressive, and give no one the slightest excuse not for backing up.

"The Writers Workbench" appears monthly on the website for the Writers Guild of America. To see this entire column, with complete product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," please click here

To see this column with complete product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," visit the WGA website.