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Have You Backed Up Today? Part 2

In TidBITS-432 last week, I talked about the importance of backing up and offered some food for thought when considering different methods of safeguarding your important (and not-so-important) data. This week, I’ll look at backup devices and software.


Backup Devices — Any storage device can act as a backup device, but that doesn’t mean that you should rely on just any storage device. Here are the main possibilities for everyday Mac users; I won’t discuss expensive high-end stuff like 8 mm tape, digital linear tape (DLT), or autoloaders. Dantz Development has a Web page of similar information, including a cost-comparison table.

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  • Floppy disk: Get real. Macs come with multi-gigabyte hard disks, making floppy backups extremely unrealistic. If you’re a Minimal Backup zealot, you can back up a few files to floppy, but you’ll spend a long time recovering the rest of your disk when you have problems. Plus, floppies are notoriously unreliable – some may work for years, others may fail while you carry them across the room.

  • Second hard disk: Hard disks are primarily useful as working backups that contain exact duplicates of original data. It’s hard to do historical backups to hard disk, and it’s expensive to create multiple backup sets. Two hard disks are unlikely to fail simultaneously, but both could be damaged by a serious power surge and are vulnerable to theft or disaster. I can’t recommend a second hard disk as a sole backup device.

  • Zip drive: Zip drives are inexpensive, with prices under $150, and cartridges prices around $10. But, Zip cartridges hold only 100 MB, which means you might need 20 or more to back up a 2 GB drive. In addition, Zip media and drive reliability aren’t necessarily great. I see Zip disks as modern-day floppies, and don’t trust them with truly important data.

  • Magneto-optical: Magneto-optical drives come in sizes from 128 MB to 2.6 GB; prices on the current generation of 640 MB and 2.6 GB drives are about $400 and $1,700. Cartridges are fairly inexpensive at about $35 for 640 MB and $70 for 2.6 GB. Reliability reports are good, which places magneto-optical drives above other removable cartridge drives in my mind, although the smaller capacity of the less expensive drives might prove frustrating. They also aren’t as popular as other types of removable media drives, which limits their utility if you want to use the cartridges for file transfer as well.

  • Large removable media drives: Removable cartridge drives such as the Jaz and SyJet are based on the same rigid disk media used in hard disks and can store 1 GB or more per cartridge. These popular backup devices cost from $250 to $600, depending on capacity, but cartridges are expensive, running between $75 and $150. Although the media has the capacity to work well for backup, the cost is higher than I like, and there was a significant disagreement on TidBITS Talk with regard to reliability.


  • Travan tape drive: I’m not particularly familiar with tape drives based on Travan technology – there are several products with different specs, and modern drives can read some older QIC (quarter-inch cartridge) tape formats. The general word is that they’re quite inexpensive ($300 to $600 for a drive, with tapes running about $35 to $40) and capacious, although relatively slow, which isn’t a serious problem for unattended backup. Tapes hold either 4 GB or 10 GB uncompressed, and you can generally assume at least 3:2 compression ratios, depending on your data.

  • DAT tape drive: DAT drives are among the more expensive options, with drive costs ranging from $600 to $1,000. There are a few different DAT (also known as DDS) flavors that provide additional storage capacity, speed, and hardware-based data compression. Tapes are cheap, running between $5 and $15 each, and capacities range from 2.6 GB to 12 GB. Tape reliability is good but not great, but the low prices encourage multiple backup sets and lessen exposure to bad media. Many DAT drives come bundled with Retrospect, whereas most other storage devices don’t include backup software. I’ve used an APS HyperDAT for nightly backups for five years now, and I’ve come to prefer and recommend a tape solution.

  • CD-R: With the cost of CD recorders and recordable CD media dropping, CD-R has become a viable backup option. Drives cost between $350 and $600, depending on speed, and recordable CDs are as low as $2 to $3 each for 650 MB. Some people use a dual-media strategy – DAT tape for daily backups and CD-R for periodic archives. Keep in mind that you need backup software for the CD-R drive – standard CD burning software like Toast wastes space for each backup session. In contrast, true backup software like Retrospect or Retrospect Express can avoid that waste by using a technique called packet-recording. However, Retrospect may not support all older CD-R drives – check Dantz’s Backup Mechanism Compatibility List or a similar list for other programs.


Backup Software — Backups don’t just happen on their own, although some people feel they should. After you’ve purchased and set up a backup device, you must have software to handle the details of copying your files. Since at its heart, all a backup program does is copy files, there are a variety of different programs that you could conceivably use for backup. They fall into three different categories: true backup programs, file copying utilities, and file synchronization utilities.

I don’t consider a program to be a true backup program unless backup is its primary function. It should be able to perform full and incremental (only changed files) backups to a wide variety of media. You should be able to schedule backups, create multiple historical backup sets, and run backups unattended. High-end backup programs can back up over networks and work with different platforms. True backup programs may not a use Finder-readable format for backups, which enables them to compress and encrypt backups as well.

File copying and file synchronization utilities are fairly similar but differ in focus. Utilities like SpeedDoubler, the now-defunct CopyDoubler, and others focus primarily on enhancing the process of copying files in the Finder. These utilities may offer features for copying only changed files and scheduling copies, but they lack the features and the depth of a true backup program. One interesting entry in this category is DeskTape from Optima Technologies, which enables you to mount a DAT tape on the desktop like any other disk, albeit a tremendously slow one.



File synchronization utilities like Qdea’s Synchronize Pro are designed to synchronize files between hard disks, often a desktop Mac and a PowerBook, but they usually claim backup capabilities as well. They can copy only changed files and can sometimes be automated. Unfortunately, they too lack the depth of true backup programs, generally being unable to use multiple backup sets, keep historical backups, or compress data.


Both types of utilities work well for creating simple working backups, but to my mind, relying on working backups to a single device is asking for trouble. To make such a strategy safe, you should back up regularly to multiple disks, include all appropriate files, and rotate backup sets manually such that you have some level of historical backup. It’s not impossible to do this by hand, but it requires thought and regular effort.

Several mainstream true backup programs are available, though many others, such as Redux and FastBack, have disappeared over time.

  • Retrospect: Dantz Development is one of the oldest Mac developers, which is impressive considering that the company has only ever had a few products, all devoted to backup. Their flagship program, the powerful Retrospect 4.0, offers automation, compression, support for most backup devices, speedy network backup via Retrospect Clients (even over TCP/IP), support for Windows 95 and NT clients (PC Week even recommended using Retrospect on a Mac to back up Windows machines), flexibility for multiple backup sets on different automated schedules, a backup server that watches for the appearance of PowerBooks, and archiving features. Although Retrospect provides an EasyScript feature that walks you through creating backup scripts to automate backups, I’ve found that you’re better off thinking carefully and crafting a custom backup strategy. I won’t pretend that’s easy – Retrospect’s flexibility can make its interface rather abstract – but it has worked better for me than the generic strategy and schedule provided by EasyScript. I’ve used Retrospect for years, and once you understand its mindset, it’s a great tool. It’s also bundled with many tape drives, making it the easiest option for many people. If you must buy it, Retrospect 4.0 costs about $150 and a 5-user pack of Retrospect Clients is about $100.


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  • Retrospect Express: Retrospect Express is a new product from Dantz that’s aimed at individual users, rather than people backing up multiple Macs over a network. Retrospect Express includes most of Retrospect’s feature set, but with the notable exception of tape drive support – Retrospect Express assumes you’ll use removable media drives, including CD-R. If you must buy a backup program and you plan to back up to removable media, the $49.95 Retrospect Express represents an excellent value. It lacks a paper manual, but Dantz did an excellent job on the PDF version on the CD-ROM. Interestingly, the Retrospect Express CD-ROM contains English, French, and German versions of the software and the manual.


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  • DiskFit Direct/DiskFit Pro: These programs were Dantz’s personal backup entries before Retrospect Express. They’re very simple, lack flexibility, and don’t support volumes with more than 32,000 files. They are compatible with Mac OS 8.1 otherwise, with the exception of the DiskFit Reminder utility. Although you can still find them, Dantz has said that they will be retired in July – after ten years. If you use either, they’ll probably work for some time yet, but I can’t recommend buying them.



  • NovaMac: NovaStor’s NovaMac claims a large feature set, including support for a variety of networks, unattended backup, support for numerous tape drives, and password protection. Comments I received indicated that early versions may have been difficult to figure out, possibly because NovaMac comes from NovaStor, a PC company for whom NovaMac is their sole Mac product. One reader said that although he didn’t consider NovaMac quite up to Retrospect, he felt it was a good program, especially for people in cross-platform environments who – for whatever reason – didn’t want to use Retrospect. NovaMac may be bundled with some tape drives. Otherwise, it appears to cost $49.50, although it’s difficult to separate it from the PC versions on either NovaStor’s site or in other online stores.

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  • CharisMac Backup Mastery: CharisMac’s Backup Mastery claims to support CD-R, most SCSI tape drives, and removable media. It offers backup of selected files, unattended backup, scheduled backup, and more. It costs $129.95 and has a competitive upgrade offer of $39.95. For those interested in backing up to tape drives, Backup Mastery is one of only three choices, along with Retrospect and NovaMac.


  • DataSaver — Software Architects’ $79.95 DataSaver 1.1 is a simple backup program for use with removable media. It provides filters for selecting specific types of files; supports multiple disk backups when using removable media; and estimates the required number of disks, total backup time, and the time before the next disk swap will be necessary.

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  • Personal Backup: Highware’s $49 Personal Backup is also a basic backup utility for use with removable media. It can perform incremental backups, operate in the background and backup on a schedule. Interestingly, Personal Backup is implemented as a control panel, and includes file synchronization and keystroke recording features. A two-week demo, in English or French, is available from the Highware Web site (275K download).


  • A few backup programs for other platforms, such as Windows NT, can back up Mac clients, including Cheyenne ARCserve, Seagate BackupExec, and IBM’s ADSTAR Distributed Storage Manager. I mention these primarily in case anyone needs to convince a Windows NT-specific network administrator to back up a Mac on the network.

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More Backup Thoughts — The third part of this series will talk briefly about shareware backup programs, plus look at a new Internet backup service for the Mac and services you can turn to in case of disaster.

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