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Retrospect Desktop 6.1

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Retrospect Desktop 6.1, from EMC Insignia, is one of four editions of the software available for Macs. The Workgroup and Server editions add features to handle large networks and computers running OS X Server; the Express edition, bundled free with numerous hard drives and optical drives, omits network backups and tape drive support. Retrospect’s design caters to the needs of network administrators, who must grapple with backing up numerous computers (both Mac and Windows). For the average home or small business user, though, Retrospect can be intimidating.

In an attempt to bypass most of its complexity, Retrospect offers a feature called the EasyScript Wizard, which builds a basic backup system by walking you through a series of questions. You can customize the plan it creates relatively easily. But if you want to color outside the lines even further, you must dig into the 256-page manual; the learning curve is steep.

Retrospect Desktop can perform immediate, unscheduled backup, duplication, and restore actions. For automated use, you must create a script. A script is simply a collection of settings—backup type, source, destination, schedule, and other options—all shown in a single window. Script types include Backup (which creates archives, in a proprietary file format, incrementally adding new files on each run without deleting old ones); Duplicate (for making exact, bootable duplicates); Archive (to copy files and optionally delete the originals), and Restore (for the rare task of automated restorations). Retrospect Desktop’s options for selecting or excluding files, scheduling backups, and fiddling with every conceivable detail of a backup’s execution are outstandingly versatile—and correspondingly confusing.

Although Retrospect Desktop works perfectly well for backing up a single machine, it can also function to back up two additional computers (Mac or Windows) on your network, via an included Retrospect Client program. (Additional licenses for this application are available.) Using an external hard drive, Retrospect Desktop can even create a bootable duplicate of your disk over a network connection, a rare feat among backup programs. All backups and restorations are managed centrally on the computer running Retrospect Desktop.

Retrospect Desktop has unparalleled capabilities when it comes to working with optical media. Not only can it record to CDs and DVDs directly, it can record incrementally—adding to a disc on successive backup runs until it fills. No other Mac backup application can do this. On the other hand, Retrospect Desktop has historically been slow to add support for new devices as they appear in the market; if you buy the latest optical wonder, you may have to wait months before an update gives Retrospect the capability to write to it.

Thanks in large part to its use of snapshots—lists of all the files in the source as they appeared at each time a backup runs, whether copied on that run or not—Retrospect Desktop has an extremely powerful Restore feature. You can restore an entire disk (or selected files) from any date to the original location or to an alternate location; you can also search a single backup set or across multiple backup sets for a particular file. Unfortunately, the interface for restoring files is somewhat confusing. You must choose a destination before even searching for files to restore, and the program does a poor job of guiding you through some of the steps.

Although Retrospect Desktop was reasonably stable in my tests, I did find that it sometimes taxes the computer’s processor while it runs, in some cases making it difficult to use the computer for other tasks at the same time. For this reason, scheduling backups to run overnight or when your computer(s) are otherwise unused is best.

Macworld’s buying advice

If measured purely in terms of the number and depth of features, no other Mac backup program can hold a candle to Retrospect 6.1. If you want to back up a small network, it’s the best choice, by far. As nice as the bells and whistles are, though, the application is wanting when it comes to ease of use and performance—at least for individual users.

[ Joe Kissell is senior editor of TidBITS and author of Real World Mac Maintenance and Backups (Peachpit, 2007). ]

A script window in Retrospect summarizes all the options for a given backup procedure. Changing any of the settings, though (by clicking its corresponding button), opens one or more additional windows.
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