This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2013-01-30 at 3:52 p.m.
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Do Bulletproof Backups Require a Disaster-proof Drive?

by Joe Kissell

A reader of “Take Control of Backing Up Your Mac [1]” wrote to ask my opinion of ioSafe [2] hard drives for backups. I’d been fleetingly aware of the brand but didn’t know much about it, so I went to the company’s Web site, where I learned that ioSafe specializes in fireproof, waterproof, theft-resistant hard drives — drives designed to survive just about any disaster. For this extra protection, you naturally pay a premium. For example, a 1 TB USB 3.0 ioSafe drive retails for $299.99; a quick search on Amazon turned up tons of conventional 1 TB USB 3.0 drives for well under $100. So I wrote back to give my opinion: “Meh.” For the price, I could buy two regular drives, keep one offsite to protect it from those fires and floods, and have enough left over to pay for a year’s worth of cloud storage for all my data too. The economics just didn’t make sense to me.

Then, following an article [3] I wrote about backups for Macworld, a representative from ioSafe wrote to ask if I’d heard of the company’s products. I said as a matter of fact I had, and told him that although the drives are undoubtedly great, I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm about them because of the cost. But he asked if he could send me a drive to try out, and I said sure. Now that I’ve been using the drive for a while, I want to offer a more nuanced opinion.

The review unit I got was the 1 TB ioSafe Solo G3 [4], which has only a USB 3.0 connection. The company makes drives with many combinations of capacity, interface, and features, so keep in mind that some of my comments apply only to this model, not to the brand as a whole.

My first impression was that this is an absolutely gigantic object. The drive weighs 15 pounds and takes up a significant amount of desk space. It can be bolted to a desk or floor (you supply the hardware) or locked with a Kensington security cable, but because the USB cable is fairly short, you don’t have much flexibility with placement. On the other hand, the drive’s size and weight alone, even without being physically fastened down, is undoubtedly a theft deterrent.

A sticker on top of the drive reminds you that you must “activate” (that is, register) it within 10 days by visiting the ioSafe Web site. The drive functions fine if you don’t do this; what you’re activating is a data recovery service warranty. If the drive is damaged (for example, by fire or flood), you can ship your drive back to ioSafe. They will attempt to recover your data (at no cost to you), and if they can’t do it, they’ll pay up to $5,000, depending on the drive model, for an outside data recovery service to try. Either way, you’ll get a replacement drive containing your recovered data.

That’s a nice warranty, but during the registration process the site urges you to “upgrade” your data recovery service warranty from the standard 1 year to 3 years (for $50) or 5 years (for $100), with 5 years being the default choice. That upsell bothered me; if I’ve already spent three times as much on a hard drive as I might have, the last thing I want to do is make that four times as much.

Those details aside, the drive works perfectly well. Since I happen to have a newer Mac with USB 3.0 ports, I was able to take advantage of the interface’s zippy transfer speeds. I didn’t perform benchmark tests, but my subjective impression was that it was extremely speedy — certainly way faster than FireWire 800 or USB 2.0. (The company doesn’t currently sell any drives with Thunderbolt connections, which would likely be yet another notch zippier.)

What I noticed most, however, was that I never heard the drive in operation — it’s freakishly quiet. Largely this is because the device has no fan, but all the insulation that protects the drive from fire and water also blocks sound, and even when it was going full-bore I practically had to put my ear on the drive to hear even a faint whirr. I appreciated that, especially when doing audio and video recording in my home office.

Tempted as I was to set the drive on fire and then drop it in a bathtub, I observed the drive’s operation only on the comfort of my desk. I therefore can’t comment from experience on its robustness in protecting my data; I’ll have to take the company’s word on that.

But therein lies the whole problem for me — the one and only reason I would buy such an expensive or physically large drive would be for its data protection features, which I most likely will never need and whose effectiveness I have no way to judge unless disaster strikes. In other words, it’s simply an expensive insurance policy. Of course, what you’re insuring isn’t the drive itself — it would be silly to spend $200 to insure a $100 device — but rather your data. You’re gambling that you might at some point find yourself in a situation where crucial data is only on that drive, the drive is physically damaged, and the data on it is worth more to you than what the insurance cost.

If you have no backups at all, then sure, an ioSafe drive is a better choice as primary storage than your Mac’s built-in drive. But my well-known viewpoint is that good backups are a must. I already have multiple local backups (on media stored in different parts of my house) as well as multiple cloud backups. If a meteorite leveled my house and I didn’t happen to have a laptop with me somewhere else, I could still get all my data back. It might take a couple of days to collect the necessary hardware and restore a complete system to approximately its previous state, but it wouldn’t fundamentally be a problem. On the other hand, if I used only an ioSafe drive and my house were destroyed, I might have to wait weeks for that data recovery service to get my data back — if indeed it even succeeded at all. Spending that extra money on a more expensive drive wouldn’t benefit me, and it might even give me a false sense of security.

The ioSafe representative told me that their target customers include people who know they should have offsite backups but are unwilling to deal with the hassle of physically rotating backups offsite on a regular basis and don’t want to use the cloud (for whatever reason). Fair enough. I can imagine people for whom a drive like this would be ideal — for example, someone who lives in an area where broadband is unavailable or unreasonably expensive, and where there’s no logical place to store backups offsite. But I think most people would be better served by a combination of inexpensive hard drives and cloud backups.

The incongruity, then, is that ioSafe hard drives may in fact be among the most reliable destinations you can buy for local backups, not to mention fast and quiet — and yet I have no interest in owning one myself and wouldn’t recommend them for most people. Your mileage, needless to say, may vary, and I look forward to reading dissenting opinions in the comments.