Backup remains the focus this week, with Adam’s review of the first Macintosh Internet backup service, BackJack, plus a look at shareware backup programs, offsite backup services, and data recovery services. Also this week, Jerry Kindall reviews ACTION Files, a worthy replacement for the venerable Super Boomerang. News items include reports of Norton AntiVirus damaging disks, plus the first party announcements for Macworld Expo in New York.
Norton AntiVirus Damaging to Mac OS 8.1 Disks — Symantec Technical Support has confirmed reports of intermittent disk corruption relating to using Norton AntiVirus for Macintosh, though only under Mac OS 8.1 and only with normal HFS-formatted volumes. Symantec believes the problem relates to Norton AntiVirus Auto-Protect and SafeZone scanning and recommends that Mac OS 8.1 users disable SafeZone scanning until Symantec can come up with a solution. John Christopher, Data Recovery Engineer at DriveSavers, commented that the problem results in the disk catalog, extents, and a portion of the disk (from 25 MB to 100 MB) being overwritten with a pattern of F’s. His suggestion for data recovery is to try the UnErase utility with Norton Utilities for Macintosh and scan for file types associated with applications you use. If that fails and you have no recent backup, John noted that DriveSavers has proprietary utilities that can often recover data when commercial utilities fail. [ACE]
Macworld Expo NY Events List Online — Ilene Hoffman has once again posted the Robert Hess Memorial Macworld Expo Events List. If you plan to attend Macworld Expo in New York City from 07-Jul-98 through 10-Jul-98, check the list for public events. If you are hosting an event at Macworld Expo, make sure to fill out the Event Submission Form. Also, we strongly encourage anyone planning an event to read "Macworld Geek Party Guide" from TidBITS-415 for tips on how to throw a successful trade show party, something that’s done all too infrequently. [ACE]
Macworld Expo NY Netter’s Dinner — After attending this year’s Netter’s Dinner at Macworld Expo in San Francisco, Al Tucker volunteered to organize a Netter’s Dinner for Macworld New York. The Web page below will contain more information once the final plans (hopefully including registration via Kagi) are set in stone. For now, mark your calendar for meeting in the lobby of the Jacob Javits Center on Wednesday 08-Jul-98 at 6:00 PM. The dinner will cost $30 per person and will be held at a small restaurant within walking distance from the show. To sign up, send email to Al at <[email protected]> noting the number of people in your group so he can work up a head count. [ACE]
Long ago, Boomerang featured prominently on many Macintosh users’ lists of favorite shareware extensions. Authored by Hiro Yamamato, Boomerang added a wealth of features to the Mac OS, most notably a frequently used folder list in Open and Save dialogs. It may not have been the first such utility, but it quickly became recognized as the best. Boomerang spawned Super Boomerang – which became a component of Now Utilities – as well as a host of imitators, including Norton Directory Assistance, Aladdin Desktop Shortcut, and the shareware Default Folder (formerly DfaultD) from St. Clair Software. There was a even a similar utility for the late lamented Apple IIGS, called Kangaroo.
Though undeniably useful, Now Utilities acquired a bit of a reputation for adding general flakiness to a Mac. Worse, Now Software did not update several components of Now Utilities for Mac OS 8 compatibility. As such, the hunt began for a suitable replacement for Super Boomerang. Qualcomm, the makers of Eudora, acquired Now Software and made noises about updating Now Utilities, but we haven’t seen anything yet. Of the others, only Default Folder has survived, evolving into a worthy solution in its own right.
Power On Software saw the opening and drove straight for the goal. Its recently released ACTION Files package, the first in a proposed line of ACTION Utilities, aims directly at Super Boomerang’s niche. In many ways the utility out-boomerangs Super Boomerang, although in other ways it falls a bit short. Its foundation seems solid, and it will be interesting to see what Power On adds in future revisions – and how ACTION Files compares to Apple’s forthcoming Navigation Services, which will be introduced with Mac OS 8.5 but will require support from applications.
What You See – With ACTION Files installed, every application’s Open and Save dialogs become movable modal dialogs. Like Super Boomerang, ACTION Files adds a menu bar within the Open or Save dialog to access Finder commands as well as its own features. There’s also a grow box beneath the file list for resizing the dialog. (You could use the shareware Dialog View to achieve the same end, but with Dialog View you set the size of the dialog in a control panel, not while you used the dialog.) ACTION Files resizes the dialog from its center, keeping it in the middle of your screen automatically, though you can change this behavior to a more standard grow method using the ACTION Files List tab within the ACTION Utilities control panel.
You’ll want to make the dialog not just taller, but wider too. Why? Because ACTION Files can display not only the name, but also the size, kind, Finder label, and modification date of every file listed. If you don’t make the dialog wide enough to view all the columns you’ve selected, you can scroll the file list horizontally. You can resize, but not reorder, the columns. You can change the order in which the files are listed by clicking the column headers, just like in the Finder. There’s even a pyramid-like control button (like the Mac OS 8.1 Finder) to reverse the sorting order, which can include three different criteria by default. You can turn the column headers off entirely, too – when you do, the dialog’s View menu still lets you choose sort order. You can change the display font and size and determine whether ACTION Files uses custom icons or faster generic icons.
Because ACTION Files uses a movable modal dialog, you can’t switch to another application or bring another window to the front without closing the dialog. However, you can navigate the dialog to any open Finder window by clicking the desired window (or the Desktop) in the background. Given this feature, it would be nice if the dialog included a Mac OS 8-style collapse box, so you could see and click windows hidden by the dialog (especially if you’ve expanded its dimensions). However, you can open Finder windows from the dialog’s Finder menu to access them in the future.
Finder Functionality — The File menu within the ACTION Files dialog enables you to perform many Finder tasks without exiting the Open or Save dialog. You can view a file’s basic information (though you can’t edit attributes such as type and creator codes), create a new folder, or change a file’s Finder label. You can rename, duplicate, or make aliases of files (if the selected file is an alias, you can reveal its original). You can move items to the Trash or reveal them in the Finder. One nice touch is the capability to copy the full path name of a selected file to the clipboard for pasting elsewhere. ACTION Files handles these chores more transparently than Super Boomerang, which used a separate editing dialog to delete or rename files. All the ACTION Files utilities work in the main dialog.
ACTION Files sports a Find File command that is almost a dead ringer for the Finder’s own, except that the results appear in the Open dialog itself. The ACTION Files Find File command uses the same toolbox call as the Finder’s Find File utility, and thus inherits its limitation of not being able to search for multiple criteria on the same file property, like a name or modification date. You can’t search file contents, as you could in Super Boomerang, but you can search for Finder comments, plus esoteric attributes such as backup date, the presence of a custom icon, and whether an item is a folder. [Using the Finder’s Find File utility, you can search the contents of files by pressing Option when accessing the first search attribute menu. -Jeff]
Like Super Boomerang, ACTION Files modifies the File menu of most applications to display a hierarchical submenu on the Open menu item, so you can access recently used files or folders without using the Open dialog. Save As menu items also gain a hierarchical menu listing recently used folders for quick access. Frequently used files and folders are listed in the Folders and Documents menus in the enhanced Open and Save dialogs. The program distinguishes between recent items (a user-selectable number) and favorite items (manually added items that remain on the menus).
Plays Well with Others — ACTION Files seems solid – I haven’t noticed an increased number of crashes since I installed it – but some users have experienced more problems and glitches. One trivial example is the keystroke Command-Shift-Up Arrow, which normally displays the desktop in unenhanced dialogs; instead, you must press Command-Shift-Option-Up Arrow, or Command-D.
However, ACTION Files provides a method of avoiding problems with applications that balk at dialog box enhancements: the Compatibility tab of the ACTION Utilities control panel offers the option to turn off either all of the utility’s features or just the resizable dialogs in specified applications. You can even specify which dialogs aren’t compatible, such as the Install Dictionaries dialog in FileMaker Pro 2.1. A handful of exceptions are predefined and cannot be changed; I did not encounter any other incompatible applications.
Room to Grow — Although ACTION Files 1.0 is an auspicious debut, there’s plenty of room for future feature enhancement, plus performance improvements. It would be nice to have an Open Any File feature like Default Folder’s (press Option while choosing Open), and it would be handy to be able to select different fonts or styles for folders and aliases, as you can in Dialog View. Being able to double-click a grayed-out filename in a Save dialog to enter it automatically as the name for the new document would be handy. A menu for mounting recently used servers would be a boon. And it would be nice if the program would automatically offer to Put Away a document (or move it to the desktop) when you try to open it from the Trash – something you can’t do at all from the standard Open dialog. Finally, Super Boomerang added an item to the Apple menu that provide quick access to recently used files and folders – it was a fast way to open the window for a deeply nested folder, and I’d like to see something similar in ACTION Files.
Although some users dislike hierarchical menus, I feel they’re underemployed in this program, as they can offer faster access to files. Any folder in an ACTION Files menu should have a submenu displaying the folder’s contents. Documents should have submenus that list the contents of the folder that contains them, as well as the enclosing folder. The submenus that ACTION Files adds to the Open and Save menu items in the application should be hierarchical. It would also be nice to see pop-up folder menus when you click and hold a folder icon in the dialog (as in PopupFolder), although the free FinderPop, which adds this feature when you use modifier keys, is compatible with ACTION Files, so this isn’t a priority. Of course, implementing these features while retaining usable performance might be difficult.
As long as I’m wishing, it would be nice to view (and better yet, edit) the Finder comments for displayed files. Perhaps help balloons could be used to display comments. Support for peeking into and opening files in StuffIt archives, as provided by Aladdin’s Desktop Shortcut, would be welcome, but now I’m starting to propose a monster!
Can’t Beat It — In short, ACTION Files stands out an attractive and elegant program with excellent functionality, plus a few inventive features that have not yet appeared in similar utilities. It falls somewhat short of being the ultimate Open/Save enhancement by leaving out specific features we’ve become accustomed to in its ancestors, notably Super Boomerang. Still, I have no difficulty declaring ACTION Files the best utility of its type on the market today.
A downloadable version of ACTION Files costs $39.95; a full package including the disk, case, and an electronic version of the manual on disk is $49.95, plus shipping and handling. A 30-day, free trial version is available as a 1.7 MB download.
In the previous installments of this series on backup, I looked at issues surrounding backup as well as at backup hardware and software that you might want to use. We’re nearing the end of this topic, but a few important points remain to be made. Also, be sure to read this issue’s review of BackJack, the first Macintosh Internet backup service.
Backup Shareware — You may have noticed that last week I discussed only commercial software. I’m normally a huge supporter of freeware and shareware software, but in this case, I have to come down on the side of sticking with commercial software. Here’s why.
First, if you go to the effort of backing up your data, you should be assured that you’ll be able to access your data in case of problems with the backup, the software, or even your backup device. You need someone to call in case technical support is the key to recovering files essential to your project. Although many shareware authors offer great support via email, it’s unusual for them to provide telephone support, which could prove necessary.
Second, the entire point of backups is that they be accessible at some random point in the future. That means you need to know that your backup program will be updated to work under future versions of the Mac OS. Even if the backup program stores files in normal Finder-readable format (so recovery shouldn’t be a problem), being forced to switch backup programs just as you’re upgrading to a new version of the operating system can be nerve-wracking – that’s one of the times you’re most likely to need good backups.
Third and finally, all the freeware and shareware programs I’ve seen fall into either the file copying or file synchronization categories outlined in the second part of this article, with all the related advantages and disadvantages mentioned there.
That said, if you wish to rely on a freeware or shareware solution, I recommend sticking with a program that’s updated frequently and that stores files in normal Finder-readable format. Also, think carefully about your backup strategy so you have multiple backup sets and some level of historical backup. Here are the main programs I’ve seen that claim to back up files, listed alphabetically with version number, download size, price, and a URL to additional information and download links.
Drag ‘N Back 2.7 (242K, $50)
MacUpdate 4.0b7 (625K, $20)
NetBackup 1.0 (273K, $20)
Onyx 1.0b2 (63K, $10)
SimpleBackup 1.6 (24K, free)
SmartSaver 3.2 (149K, $25)
SwitchBack 2.6 (272K, $30)
Synk 2.4.2 (621K, $10)
Off-site Storage Companies — If you’re concerned about your off-site backup strategy, you might look into a service that stores physical backups off-site. These companies often handle pickup and delivery, providing schedules and materials to simplify an off-site backup strategy. They’re undoubtedly not cheap, but in business situations where data is all-important, they may be worth the cost. You can find several of them in Yahoo’s Disaster Recovery category.
Catastrophic Data Loss — If you find yourself in a catastrophic data loss situation, consider checking out the data recovery services offered by DriveSavers, a company that has developed proprietary software and techniques to recover data even from truly mangled disks that have been in fires, under tires, or at the bottom of the Amazon river. DriveSavers recently noted that they’re now confident of being able to recover Macintosh Extended Format (MEF, or HFS Plus) disks. There are other recovery companies – I recommend making sure they’re experts with Macintosh drive formats before working with them.
Whatever You Do — I realize I’ve come down hard on the side of spending a decent amount of money to put together a coherent backup strategy based on a dedicated backup device, multiple tapes or cartridges, and commercial backup software. That’s because I consider the work I do on my Macs to be important, and I feel that spending money up front is more efficient than wasting time and money when the inevitable data loss happens. I like the peace of mind that comes from knowing I’ve put together a solid backup system.
If you feel that your files aren’t particularly important or that you can afford to spend a few days restoring your Mac to working order, feel free to go with a less expensive and comprehensive backup strategy. Just keep in mind the advice in this series, and whatever you do, remember this: No one ever regrets backing up, only not backing up.
With the growth of the Internet over the last few years, there’s been added interest in backing up data over the Internet. It’s been on my mind for a long time – as far back as 1992, I wrote an April Fools article in TidBITS-114 about a fictional company doing something along these lines.
Fast forward to 1998, and several companies have products that enable computer users to back up files over an Internet connection. They don’t back up everything, only selected files, and files are encrypted for security reasons. Restoration happens over the Internet, or, if the amount of data is too large, via a CD-R sent to you overnight. Internet-based backup is perfect for a few important files, especially if you aren’t comfortable with your offsite backup situation. On the downside, many people on TidBITS Talk said they were uncomfortable relying solely on encryption for security, and to my mind, an Internet backup strategy falls into the Minimal Backup camp, making it most useful as an off-site adjunct to a more comprehensive backup strategy.
One-Eyed Jacks — The only Internet backup service currently available for Macintosh users is the just-released BackJack from Synectics, although I’ve heard rumblings about several other services that might appear soon. I’ve been playing with BackJack for a while now, and it has proved easy to set up and reliable so far.
BackJack’s interface provides simple backup and recovery capabilities, which contributes to its ease-of-use, but the first version of the software lacks flexibility. It’s clearly a first effort, albeit a functional one, and leaves room for future enhancement. For instance, to back up files, you select the folder that contains them, but there’s no way to exclude specific files in that folder, and if you create a folder of aliases, BackJack doesn’t resolve them and back up their originals. The company said it plans to address these issues soon in revisions to the free software.
BackJack does sport many basic backup features. You can create multiple sets of folders to back up, and each set can contain multiple folders. Each backup set can have a different automatic backup schedule, and BackJack has successfully kicked in every night and backed up my changed files. BackJack logs everything it does, plus it sends you an email report after each session. You can set how large the log grows, and other options enable you to determine how many revisions of a document are kept online and how long backed up files are kept online after being deleted locally. This functionality is tremendously important, since it enables you to revert to earlier versions of files and to recover if you delete a file without realizing.
The actual backup process is a bit slow, in part because of the transmission over the Internet (I have a 56K frame relay connection; those people with dialup Internet connections will obviously see somewhat slower transmission performance, plus they’ll have to let BackJack dial out automatically). Speed isn’t much of an issue though, since backups will usually take place unattended in the middle of the night. Another performance hit comes from the fact that BackJack compresses files using a built-in version of Aladdin’s StuffIt technology and then encrypts them using a 128-bit key that you generate during setup. No one has broken the 128-bit encryption scheme BackJack uses, so security is high. However, be careful to store the extra copy of your encryption key off-site on a floppy; in case of a disaster that wipes out your computer, you won’t be able to retrieve and decrypt your files without a copy of that key. The BackJack folks are investigating ways of avoiding that situation without compromising the security of the system.
Restoring a file from your backup over the Internet is easy – the Recover window provides a hierarchical view of your stored files, including any earlier revisions. The same interface enables you to enter dates for specific files to be deleted if you want to remove them from your backup. Although BackJack enables you to mark and unmark all the files, it lacks any way to retrieve just the latest versions of files or to find and mark specific ones through a search mechanism. If you back up a relatively small number of files that won’t prove problematic, but it might with hundreds of files. The company has plans to offer a service that sends you all files on CD-R if necessary to avoid downloading all your data in the event of a complete recovery.
BackJack’s documentation is available online and can be downloaded in HTML format. It’s quite well done, although relatively basic, if mainly because the BackJack application doesn’t have much depth. The documentation is good about answering the "Why" questions that always arise.
Ante Up — Pricing is a little complicated, since BackJack charges based on the amount of data you back up, the time of day you send it, and how much storage space you use on the BackJack servers. There’s a $17.50 one-time setup fee, a $3.50 monthly administration fee, plus data transfer and storage fees. BackJack’s transfer fees are 14 cents per megabyte from 11 PM to 9 AM and 35 cents per megabyte from 9 AM to 11 PM. (Times are always your local time.) In addition, BackJack charges less than half a cent ($.0035) per megabyte per day for storage. Recovering data is always free, and you can use BackJack on multiple computers with same account for no additional charge.
You’ll usually want to schedule BackJack to back up in the middle of the night, and you should be careful with what you choose to back up, avoiding applications and system files and, for instance, Web browser cache files if you plan to back up your Preferences folder.
In a sample situation where a user backs up 75 MB initially and then about 1 MB per day afterwards, the first month (including the setup fee) would cost about $45 and each subsequent month about $17. That pricing is in line with two popular PC Internet backup services: Atrieva charges $14.95 per month for up to two computers, and Connected Online Backup charges $19.95 per month per computer for up to 10 machines. Neither charges transfer or storage fees. They’re probably betting that most people don’t have the bandwidth to back up large quantities of data, plus they’re counting on the fact most people won’t back up Windows system files or applications because it’s so difficult to restore them to a working state without doing a clean install.
In response to my comments about pricing, the BackJack folks noted that they felt uncomfortable using a flat rate pricing model that would in essence charge low-end users more to subsidize the high-end users who use far more of the system’s capacity. That’s a laudable goal, and I hope the pricing model doesn’t dissuade people who are uncomfortable not knowing precisely how much they’d be paying.
These concerns aside, I’m quite impressed with BackJack as a first effort, and it’s well worth a look for anyone interested in Internet backup, particularly those people planning on buying standalone iMacs immediately when they’re released.