At a Glance
If you're like most Mac users, you know backups are important, but you've never been able to determine the best backup program and media for your needs. Backing up to CD-R feels wasteful, tape drives are too expensive, and backup programs seem way too complicated to set up. Worse still, you can't imagine remembering to back up regularly.
If you're nodding your head in agreement, you should check out CMS Peripherals' ABSplus (Automatic Backup System), a FireWire hard drive with custom software. The ABSplus isn't perfect--but it is an integrated hardware-and-software solution, so it's faster and easier to get started with than most other combination backup programs and storage devices.
What You Get
The ABSplus comes in portable and desktop models. The sleek, portable, 2.5-inch hard drive is available with a 20GB, 30GB, 40GB, or 60GB capacity (we used the 60GB for our tests) and gets its power via a FireWire connection. The larger, less expensive, 3.5-inch model, on the other hand, requires an additional power source and is available with a capacity of 40GB, 80GB, 120GB, or 160GB.
CMS claims that the ABSplus can withstand a g-force as high as 1,400; although we couldn't simulate these conditions, we did drop the drive from various elevations. It shrugged off drops from three feet high onto carpeted and tile floor and from six feet onto carpeted floor. The drive managed to survive its first 11-foot tumble to a tile floor, but a bad bounce the second time around rendered it useless.
The other part of the package is CMS's suite of four small applications. (We tested the OS X 10.1 versions of the software in OS X 10.1.5 and 10.2; the company's recently released software specifically for OS X 10.2 wasn't available for evaluation at the time of this writing.)
ABSSettings lets you configure backup options, ABSLauncher watches for the drive to mount and then launches ABSBackup to back up changed files, and ABSReminder reminds you when you haven't backed up within your set number of days. However, if you leave the ABSplus drive plugged into your Mac, you'll have to launch ABSBackup manually to initiate backups. CMS plans to include scheduled-backup functionality in a future release, which should be available by the time you read this.
Installing and using the ABS software is simple--a boon for people overwhelmed by the prospect of backing up. After installation, and whenever you connect the ABSplus to your Mac from then on, ABSBackup launches, scans your drive, and copies new or changed files to the ABSplus--you don't have to configure anything to back up your entire hard disk. A primitively laid-out feedback window displays backup progress, and a dialog at the end summarizes the session.
ABSBackup stores files in their native format, in a folder structure that matches the structure of the source disk. Assuming you've done a full backup, you can boot your (or any) Mac from the ABSplus in either OS 9 or OS X and use it just as you would any other external hard drive.
ABSBackup properly adds new files to the ABSplus and replaces modified files, but it doesn't delete files from the ABSplus if you've deleted, renamed or moved them on the source disk--as FWB Software's comparable, $50 Backup Toolkit (mmm; Reviews, May 2002) can. Aside from possibly filling up the ABSplus drive well before the Mac's internal hard drive is full, this flaw means that restoring the entire hard disk would require weeding out duplicate files you had long ago deleted or filed elsewhere. CMS is aware of this problem and is working toward fixing it in a future release.
Restoring Your Data
Backup isn't even half the game; all your efforts will be in vain if you can't properly restore from your backup when one of the following four basic disaster scenarios occurs:
1. You accidentally delete a file or folder. No problem--just find the backed-up file or folder on the ABSplus and copy it to your hard drive, as you normally would in the Finder. This worked perfectly for us.
2. You discover a corrupted file. If you've backed up since the corruption happened, you're out of luck, since the ABSplus will have replaced the last good version with the corrupted file. Unlike both Backup Toolkit and Dantz's more powerful $49 Retrospect Express Backup (mmmm; "60 Mac Software Bargains," July 2002), the ABSplus currently offers no way to save multiple versions of the same file, apart from backing up to multiple ABSplus drives on a regular rotation. But then you'd have to factor additional drives into your backup strategy and your budget.
3. You need to restore everything to an empty drive. The ABSplus works acceptably in this situation, but the process for OS X users is awkward. You have to boot from the ABSplus and run a backup in reverse--from the ABSplus to the internal hard drive. (CMS promises a one-button restore process in an ABSBackup update that should be available by the time you read this.)
4. You lose your Mac in a fire or robbery. The only thing that protects your data from such a situation is an off-site backup--you can easily transport the ABSplus portable models to another location.
The ABSplus's accompanying documentation is problematic--it omits information that could be helpful. For instance, to restore a Mac that was running OS X, you must boot into OS X when restoring, something the documentation never mentions.
You can use the ABSplus to back up multiple Macs, such as a desktop and a laptop, but CMS's suggested method (backing up each Mac to a different folder on the ABSplus) isn't the best way, because you won't be able to boot from the separate folders. A better solution is to use Apple's Drive Setup or Disk Utility to create two partitions on the ABSplus, one per Mac. That way, you can boot from either partition.
Macworld's Buying Advice
The ABSplus generally worked well for us, and overall it compares favorably with other backup programs used in concert with a FireWire hard drive. If you don't already have a solid backup solution, it's an excellent way to start protecting yourself against data loss.