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Computer backup systems

Computer backup system buying guide

Last updated: April 2013

Getting started

When choosing a backup solution, consider the amount of data you have, whether you have multiple computers on your home network, the amount of hands-on involvement required, backup speed, the sensitivity of your data, your level of computer expertise, and the physical size of the drive (if you need portability).

How much storage?

You could spend $100 to $200 on a 2 terabyte drive, or closer to $300 for a 4TB model, but do you really need that much space? A 500GB to 750GB drive might accommodate your needs well into the future. You'll save relatively little by buying less capacity than that so get as large a drive as you can afford--at least as much capacity as your computer's internal hard drive. Physical size is another consideration. If you need to take your backup with you, you'll want a drive that's small enough to carry around.

How fast?

Online storage services sound great until you realize how slow they are. After the first full backup, which could take two or more days to complete, things go faster, but if you create a lot of music, video, or image files each day, you should consider a faster solution. An extra internal hard drive would be the fastest solution, but installation requires some technical know-how. A network or external drive is a reasonable alternative.

How many computers?

If you have several computers running on a home network, consider a network drive, which you can share. Installation takes a little more computer knowledge than using an external drive. If your computer is near the router, consider connecting it via Ethernet cable to improve speed. A wired connection is 5 to 50 times faster than a typical wireless connection.

How computer savvy are you?

Setting up a backup is relatively easy, but if you're not tech savvy, you might want to choose a simpler solution. Just keep in mind that the handiest options--a thumb drive or optical disc--might require multiple discs or devices for a complete backup. An external hard drive that runs without software installation, or performs a backup with the push of a button, is a good alternative.

Supplement your software

Some low-priced drives come with no software or with backup software that's short on features and flexibility. Even software bundled with some drives can have limitations, such as the inability to back up onto CDs, DVDs, or networked drives.

Third-party backup software can cost $20 to $60, but could be well worth it, if only for peace of mind. Another option is to use the backup software included with your operating system. Max OS X 10.5 (Leopard) or later includes Time Machine, which automatically backs up everything on your hard drive and lets you restore anything from a single file to the entire drive. You can restore the most recent version of a file that has been modified over time. Time Machine's slick interface makes it easy to use.

Windows XP, Vista, and 7 have built-in backup capability. There's an option to let Windows select the files to back up, or you can select them yourself. The interface is simple, though it might take some effort to learn how to set backup time and frequency. Windows 8 includes the same backup as Windows 7 but adds a feature called "File History" that backs up copies of files similar to the way Mac OS X's Time Machine does.

Double your protection

If your backup hard drive and your computers live side by side, your data is vulnerable to burglary, fire, flood, or other calamities. For irreplaceable content, consider supplementary backup at a second location. See Offsite data storage for some possibilities.

Types

Backup solutions include internal, external, and network drives, online services, thumb drives, CD or DVD backups, or even photo-sharing sites. An internal drive provides the speediest large-scale backups, but installation isn't for novices. It's also susceptible to any malware that infects your primary drive, and to the theft of, or damage to, your computer. Optical discs are simple, but you need a lot of them, and the discs themselves could be subject to degradation and obsolescence (remember the floppy?). Thumb drives offer higher capacities than optical discs, but they're easy to lose and have nowhere near the capacity of hard drives. Here are the types of backup systems to consider.

External hard drives


While not as convenient to use as, say, a thumb drive or an optical disc, an external backup is a relatively simple solution. Connecting the drive, usually via USB, and installing and configuring the software takes about a half hour. Most external drives come with backup software; you can also use the backup utility that came with your operating system. The initial backup can take hours, but after that backing up typically demands only a few keystrokes and a minute or two just before shutting down. You can also schedule automatic backups at preset times, such as when your computer is idle.

Pros:

The drives are easy to set up and backup is relatively quick.

Cons:

You lose the added protection of an off-site solution.

USB flash drives


Flash drives are finally large enough to serve as computer-backup devices. Now, some manufacturers are making it even easier to use these tiny devices for backup by including the software you need to do so right on the device.

Handy is the name of the game. You can back up all of your data and carry it with you wherever you go. But there's a downside to that portability. Small USB flash drives are easy to leave behind, lose, or have stolen; if you drop it, the drive might break. But for a simple, plug-it-in-and-back-up solution, these drives could be just right. Those we tested start backing up with just a click or two and can do continuous backups when you insert the drive or push a button.

Pros:

Easy to set up. You can carry your files with you.

Cons:

Expensive. Easy to leave behind, lose, or have stolen; might break when dropped.

Network drives


These are similar to external hard drives in form and function, but connect to your router, providing backup and file-sharing access to all the computers on your home network. The drives we tested let you use gaming consoles, media set-top boxes and devices with built-in networking to access pictures, videos, and music stored on the network drive. That comes in handy for playback on a large-screen TV and home-theater system.

Setting up a network drive can be difficult if you're not comfortable with terms like WAP, IP address, MAC address, and workgroup. Consider having someone else set up the drive or look for another solution, such as online backup.

Pros:

If you have a network of multiple computers, they all can use the drive for backups and file sharing.

Cons:

Setup requires some networking know-how.

Online storage services

These services store your data on the service provider's drives. You access your data over the Internet. For increased security, they typically store your data at multiple locations. The services generally provide software for file encryption to keep your data secure, and for scheduling automated, incremental backups. Most offer remote file sharing. Because your data isn't on your premises, it's safe from burglary or natural disaster such as fire or flood. And there's nothing to break or lose, you can add or subtract storage space as needed (sometimes at extra cost), and your backups are available anywhere over the Internet. But you must be comfortable entrusting your data to a third party.

Initial online backups are excruciatingly slow. In our tests it took more than 24 hours to upload 9GB of test data. With 25GB of data, an initial backup can take several days. Consider leaving your computer powered on for the entire initial backup. Subsequent backups are much quicker, because they involve only files that have changed. Factors that affect backup speed include file type (for example, photos typically take longer than text documents), computer, connection speed, your computer's other activities during the backup, and network traffic on your end and at the online service.

If you have lots of digital images, consider a photo-sharing service, which lets people you invite view and print photos. Uploading will still be slow, though. And be aware that some sites, including Kodak Gallery and HP Snapfish, now delete your images unless you make a purchase within a certain timeframe. One service that has promised not to do this is Shutterfly. Make sure you read any site's terms and conditions before you sign on.

Pros:

Your data is safe from burglary and natural disasters, and you can access it from any Internet connection. And there's no hardware to lose or break.

Cons:

Backups can be glacially slow, and you'll be entrusting your data to strangers. Photo-sharing sites might delete your images if you don't make purchases.

Features


Home computers hold a lot that we care about, from pictures to music to letters. Yet most of us are surprisingly cavalier about copying that often-irreplaceable material to another location for safekeeping. To make sure you back up regularly, choose the backup system that is easiest for you to use and has the capacity you need. Here are the features to consider.

Ease of use

The easier a backup is to perform, the more likely you are to actually do it. Most drives and online services incorporate features aimed at convenience, but some do a better job than others. The ones that don't require any software installation are the simplest; just plug them in and after a few clicks, the backup begins.

Multiple computers

If you want to use your external drive to back up more than one computer, make sure it allows for that. Some software that comes with external drives works for only one computer and some requires you to reformat the drive if you move between a Mac and a PC, which means you'd lose your data.

Drive imaging

Some external drives let you create an exact duplicate of everything on your hard drive. (Others save time and space by backing up only critical data files.) That could be a lifesaver in the event your primary hard drive crashes, because it saves an exact copy of your hard drive, including application software.

Streaming media

Most network drives enable you to send movies, photos, and music to your A/V and gaming devices. Two standards--UPnP and DLNA--allow media devices such as connected TVs, DVRs, cameras, camcorders, routers, electronic picture frames, set-top boxes, computers, external hard drives, gaming systems, and MP3 players to connect to one another for browsing, editing, copying, deleting, and most important, playing files among them all. As with all standards, when there's more than one, you must make sure that your devices adhere to the same standard. Otherwise, they won't necessarily interoperate. To be sure that the photos or videos on your network drive are viewable on your networked TV, make sure both devices support the same standard.

Remote file access

The ability to view your files from any computer over an Internet connection can be useful when you're traveling. Most network drives have this ability, and it's a given with online services. Keep in mind that you'll need the associated application on the computer you're using to open the files, which could be a problem in an Internet cafe.

Portability

Backing up gives you another copy of your data; in some cases you can take it with you. Some external hard drives are the same type used in laptop computers. They're small enough to carry in a handbag, backpack, or briefcase, and low-powered enough that they run on the power provided by a typical USB port on your computer. Even easier to tote: USB flash drives, which fit into any pocket.

Connections

External and network drives may come with one or more connections. Ethernet has the edge in speed as long the computer is wired to a Gigabit router. The eSATA is the next fastest, edging out Firewire 800. Firewire 400 and USB perform similarly and are the slowest of all the listed connections.

USB

Universal Serial Bus is the most common port. All current computers have at least one such connection. USB 3.0 is significantly faster than 2.0. Both your computer and the external drive would have to support this standard for you to benefit from that added speed.

Firewire 400 or 800

Sometimes called IEEE 1394 or iLink. These are more prevalent on Macs than PCs, so check to see whether your computer has one.

eSATA

External SATA is simply the internal drive connection that is accessible externally. This is the newest type of connection and is still rare on computers, so before buying this type of backup drive, check to see whether your computer has this type of connection.

Ethernet

This is the common connection for networked drives. You connect it to your router, not your computer.

Thunderbolt

Thie newest type of connection is also the fastest. It's currently found only on Macs and a few PCs. Make sure your computer supports this standard before you purchase a drive with it.

Disaster recovery

This means more than just having all your files backed up. If your hard drive were to fail and need replacing, you'd have a lot to do to get your computer up and running again. A hard drive disaster recovery tool typically includes a boot disk (since your new drive doesn't have an operating system installed on it) and the ability to backup all the contents of your drive including the operating system, applications, files, settings, and customizations.

Continuous backup

With this, you can set backups to begin on different date and time intervals with the backup always running. If you change any file by editing, or create a new file, it's immediately backed up. Also, successive versions of a file are kept (usually with some limit as to how many old versions), so that you can recover a version from a previous time, such as before you accidentally deleted some critical data.

Open/locked file support

An open file (also called a locked file) is one that you currently have open on your computer. It is "locked" by the application that is accessing it. Some backup programs can back up such files without asking you to close it; some simply skip it and don't back it up. To back up such a file, a backup program makes a "shadow copy" (a read-only copy of an open file) while you're accessing the original.

   

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