It’ll never happen.
Just about every Mac user will say those famous last words at one time or anotheroften right before some event causes irretrievable data loss. Maybe you’ll accidentally delete a folder containing an important file, or perhaps your hard disk will bite the dust. Data can disappear in a myriad of ways: fire, earthquake, a broken water pipe in the apartment upstairs, or even theft.
Be assured, you will lose data at some time or other. A few months back, my wife and I returned from a weekend with friends to find a broken window and an empty spot where our PowerBook 5300 once sat. All the files on that PowerBook were suddenly and irretrievably gone. Or rather, they would have been but for the fact that we back up regularly. That backup saved hours of work on one document, along with records we keep for tax purposes that would have been impossible to re-create.
So consider me the little voice in your head that tries to prevent you from doing really stupid things like attaching weather balloons to your deck chair to see if you can fly. Backups are important, and you will need them one day. If you don’t believe me, ask a friend to take a copy of a random folder on your hard disk and then delete the original.
Although it’s possible to back up individual files by copying them onto a disk by hand, I strongly encourage you to use a real backup program. Sure, you could use the Finder, file-synchronization utilities, or custom AppleScripts for backup. But these approaches require extra effort that’s simply not worth it, given how easy it is to use automated backup software.
When you’re choosing backup software, stick to commercial applications from reputable companies. You’ll never want tech support more than when you drop your PowerBook down a staircase and you need to retrieve a vital piece of work. Shareware is great, but you should entrust your backups only to a program from a company you can hold accountable.
When it comes to Mac backup software, the leader these days is the Retrospect family, from Dantz Development (
). Although the lack of choice when it comes to Mac backup software is unfortunate, the good news is that Retrospect is both powerful and flexible. (See the table “Backup Bonanza: 5 Backup Programs Compared.”)
The $175 Retrospect 4.1 does it all. It backs up to any storage device you can mount on your desktop, essentially all varieties of tape drives, CD-Recordable (CD-R) drives, and even FTP servers on the Internet. You can select precisely which files to back up; create sophisticated backup schedules; and back up files over networks, from traveling PowerBooks when they return to your network, from networked Windows PCs, and much more. Although Retrospect is easy to use, its power makes it ideal for people with multiple Macs (and PCs) on a network.
The $50 Retrospect Express 4.0, in contrast, is meant for use on a single Mac. It lacks Retrospect’s flexible file selection and support for tape drives and network backup but makes up for it with a much lower price and simplified interface. Home users with removable-cartridge drives will find Retrospect Express a perfect fit.
The only real alternative to Retrospect is CharisMac’s $130 Backup Mastery 1.05 (
), which can write to any storage device on your desktop, tape drives, and CD-R drives. It offers scheduled unattended backups and backup scripts but doesn’t offer much flexibility when selecting files or scheduling backups.
There is an alternative for those people for whom even Retrospect Express is overkill.
ASD Software’s $49 Personal Backup 1.2.3 (
), a control panel that works with desktop storage devices. Personal Backup offers basic backup features along with timed backup, hot-key-initiated backup, and a user-specified number of backup copies. Personal Backup can also synchronize files between folders and record your keystrokes.
What to Back Up
No matter which program you choose, your next step is to choose exactly what files you want to back up. Will you back up all your files or just the important ones? What about your System Folder? Is it worth it to back up your applications?
Saving It All
The simplest choice when backing up is to save everything. If you back up every file you’ve got, you won’t need to spend much time configuring your backup softwarejust aim it at your hard drive and you’re set. If you need to restore your entire hard disk, you can be up and running quickly since you won’t have to piece together a new System Folder, reinstall all your software, and adjust all your preferences.
However, backing up every file you’ve got means you need a whole lot of backup storage space–a;real pain if you’re trying to back up 1GB or more of data to a collection of 100MB Iomega Zip disks.
Even if you decide to back up everything, don’t take everything too literally. There’s no reason to waste space in your backup on a Web browser’s cache files, invisible files, the contents of the Trash, or your deleted e-mail.
In Retrospect, you can create a series of selectors, or rules, that can exclude all these files. (Other programs are less sophisticated when it comes to specifying what files to back up.) The logic of Retrospect’s selectors can be tricky, though. By default, Retrospect creates OR constructs; to create an AND construct between two criteria, you must drag one next to the other (see the screen shot “Pick and Choose”).
Backing up only certain files is a great way to save space, but be carefulit’s easy to miss vital files. For instance, you might not realize that by default, Qualcomm’s Eudora stores all your mail in a folder hidden in the System Folder. If you use a macro program like WestCode Software’s OneClick or Binary Software’s KeyQuencer, your macros also live in the System Folder.
If you do decide to restrict your backup to specific files, here’s the order in which you should protect them.
Your documents may not seem important, but imagine how long it would take you to re-create them. Remember that e-mail messages you’ve sent and received can be just as important as spreadsheets and databases.
Backing up your preferences will free you from having to dig out all your software registration cards if you’ve got to reinstall an application. Be sure, however, to exclude your Web browser’s cache folders.
Your System Folder is the result of hours of installation and configuration. Sure, you could do it again, but why bother? The folder might also be harboring vital data you don’t know about, like your Eudora mail folder.
No matter what you choose to back up, you must come up with a strategy for performing regular backups. Think about creating multiple backup sets, scheduling automated backups, and verifying the integrity of your backups.
Back Up Your Backup
Too many people simply copy their hard drives to an Iomega Jaz cartridge or burn it on a CD-ROM and assume they’re taken care of. It’s better than nothing, but it still leaves you far too vulnerable. A thief could easily take the backup along with your Mac, or a fire could destroy both. Or you could be hammered by Murphy’s Law and have the backup cartridge go bad just when you need it.
Instead, create multiple backup sets–c;llections of backup disks or tapes–a;d alternate among them. For instance, I have three Retrospect backup sets, which Retrospect calls StorageSets. Each set of digital audiotapes backs up for a week and then is replaced by the next set.
Creating multiple separate backups provides three advantages. You spread out the risk of having your backup fail when you need it (if one dies, the last backup on another is no more than a week old). Second, you can store one of the backups elsewhere to protect against theft and catastrophe (I change tapes every Monday morning, storing the one I’ve just removed off-site). Finally, you gain increased protection: what if you accidentally delete a file and then make a backup? At that point, you’ve destroyed your chance to retrieve that file–b;t not if it still exists on one of your alternate backups.
Timing Your Backups
Particularly when working with multiple backup sets, you shouldn’t have to worry about keeping track of when to back up to each set. All the backup programs provide scheduling capabilities of some sort. Use them to create a regular backup schedule. For instance, I back up all my desktop Macs’ hard disks every day starting at 1 a.m.
Test Your Backups
Even worse than the sob stories from people who didn’t back up are those from people who did but found that their backups were worthless after a crash. A false sense of security is more dangerous than having no backups at all. Every so often, restore some files from each of your backup sets. Disks do go bad, and once they have, you shouldn’t use them for anything important. Just throw out bad tapesthere’s no safe way to reuse a suspect tape.
The Right Hardware
Choosing the right backup software and learning how to use it effectively does you little good if you haven’t picked an appropriate storage device to house your backups. There are numerous choices when it comes to picking a backup device, ranging from the (almost) ubiquitous floppy-disk drive up to dedicated tape drives. You can even back up to someone else’s hard drive via the Internet (see the sidebar “Backup by Modem”). Which is best for you depends on your specific situation. Remember that the price of the drive is only part of the overall costmake sure to factor in the cost and convenience of media as well.
For most backup situations, 1.4MB floppy disks don’t hold enough data, and they’re not particularly reliable. Floppies are fine for making yet another backup of that file you’d just die if you lost, but that’s it.
Second Hard Drive
A second hard drive is the fastest backup device you’ll find, which makes it good for frequent backups to protect against damage to your main hard disk. If you run RAID software, such as CharisMac’s RAID 2.0, you can mirror your main hard disk to another constantly. If something bad happens to one drive, the other can be put to work almost immediately. However, additional hard disks won’t save you if a burglar or disaster strikes, so it’s best to stick with removable-media drives (see “Gigs to Go,” November 1998).
) Zip drive is too low-capacity for complete backups of today’s multigigabyte hard disks, but it works well for home users with relatively little important data to back up. Plus, Zip disks are inexpensive, so you can afford to make multiple backup sets–ex;ra important because Zip disks aren’t incredibly reliable. Another entry in this category is the 120MB SuperDisk, from Imation, although it’s quite slow. Avoid the Zip or SuperDisk for serious backup situations.
Iomega’s Jaz 2GB drive uses the same rigid disk media found in hard drives–e;cased in a removable cartridge. While the drive’s price is reasonable, its cartridges are pricey at $100 each. The main downside to this drive is mediocre reliability. It will work fine for individual Macs with large hard drives, but it’s too expensive and unreliable for serious backup situations, particularly with multiple Macs.
Modern magneto-optical (MO) drives hold either 640MB or 2.6GB, which puts them in competition with both low- and high-capacity removable drives. MO drives are incredibly reliable, and although they’re more expensive than comparably sized Jaz drives, the media costs are lower. If you don’t need to share disks with a service bureau, a large MO drive makes a good backup solution for one or two Macs.
CD-R, CD-RW Drives
Now that blank recordable CDs cost about $2 each for 650MB of storage, burning CDs for backup is a reasonable proposition (see “Burn, Baby, Burn,” September 1998). Unlike with the drives mentioned above (but as with tape drives), writing CD-Recordable (CD-R) and CD-Rewritable (CD-RW) discs requires special software, such as Retrospect or Retrospect Express.
CD-R and CD-RW drives are great for users with only a few Macs. The capacity of a single disc isn’t great, but the price per megabyte and overall reliability are good. And CD-R drives can also have other uses, like making audio CDs.
QIC Tape Drives
Depending on the tape and drive, Quarter-Inch Cartridge (QIC) capacities range from 4GB up to 20GB. QIC tape drives cost less than comparable digital-audiotape (DAT) drives, generally, but cartridges are three to five times more expensive and the drives are also slower than DAT drives. QIC drives are ideal for networks of fewer than 20 Macs.
Over the last few years, DAT drives have become the standard for backup situations that require medium to large capacities, inexpensive media, and fast backup speed. DAT drives use Digital Data Standard (DDS) tapes that provide capacities from 2GB to 24GB and cost as little as $6 per tape. Small and medium-size businesses shouldn’t settle for anything less than a DAT-based backup system.
8mm-Tape and DLT Drives
For the most part, if you need an 8mm tape or digital-linear-tape (DLT) drive, you already know it. DLT and 8mm-tape drives lead the field in capacity, speed, and price. Tapes can hold between 7GB and 80GB of data, speeds range up to 6MB per second, and prices hover between $2,000 and $6,000. Frankly, these drives are overkill for all but the most serious backup situations in large organizations.
Whatever your needs, be sure to buy commonly available devices from reputable manufacturers. If you buy a cheapo tape drive that uses a weird format, what do you do if your drive dies and the vendor has gone under?
If you have serious backup needs, such as multiple Macs on a network or truly important business files, be sure to buy a dedicated device for backup, like a tape drive. Removable-cartridge drives that do double duty are acceptable only if regular backups of all your data are less important.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
When it comes to software, you won’t go wrong with either Retrospect or Retrospect Express, from Dantz Development. Both are packed with features, and deciding between the two is easy. If you need to back up to a tape drive, perform regular network backups, or back up a Windows machine as well as Macs, go for Retrospect. Otherwise, if you’re primarily backing up a single Macintosh to a removable-cartridge drive, Retrospect Express has all the power you’ll likely need.
In terms of hardware, the choice depends on how many Macs you plan to back up. Individual users with one or two Macs should go for a CD-RW or magneto-optical drive. If you already have a Jaz or Zip drive for sharing files, it’ll work for backups as well, but beware of media costs and unreliability. If you’re backing up an entire network, stick with a DAT drive unless you need the high performance and capacity of an 8mm-tape or DLT drive. Also think about periodically archiving files to a CD-R.
But however you choose to do it, be sure to back up. Take a moment to consider the relative importance of your files, and then use the advice in this article to craft your ideal backup strategy. Otherwise, be prepared to kiss your files good-bye.
ADAM C. ENGST is the publisher of the online newsletter Tidbits (
) and backs up religiously ever since that time a drunk driver took out a power pole and caused a surge that toasted his 105MB hard drive.
Backup by Modem
Don’t want to buy special backup hardware? There is another option: backing up over the Internet. Using the Internet for backup is great because your backed-up data is physically separate from your Mac in case of theft or disaster. But given the slow throughput of the average modem-based Internet connection, Internet backup services are primarily useful for backing up a small set of important files, not your entire hard disk.
When you’re evaluating any Internet backup service, make sure your files will be compressed and encrypted. Compression can reduce overall transmission time significantly. Using encryption is the only way you can be sure that your data remains private as it travels across the Internet and is stored on remote servers. Finally, make sure that your Internet backup service also does backupsyour backup strategy is only as good as theirs.
There are two ways of backing up over the Internet: using either Retrospect or the integrated BackJack Internet backup service, from Synectics Business Solutions (519/986-4574,
Retrospect Version 4.1 of Retrospect and Retrospect Express (which should be available by the time you read this) let you store your backed-up data on an Internet FTP server. If you use Retrospect to back up a network of Macs, an Internet backup would be an excellent secondary, off-site backup of your most important files. If you had relatively few important files, you could rely entirely on Retrospect Express and Internet backups to avoid purchasing an expensive backup device.
Retrospect treats an Internet FTP server as another type of media, just like a disk or tape. You create a StorageSet in Retrospect or Retrospect Express; choose Internet for the storage type; and then enter your user ID, password, and FTP server. You can also enter a directory on the FTP server; if you don’t know what to type, click on the Directories button.
Since other people may have access to your FTP backups, be sure to turn on Retrospect’s encryption when you create Internet backup sets. Also turn on Retrospect’s software data compression in the Options tab when you’re setting up a backup.
Most Internet accounts come with several megabytes of space on a remote FTP server (ask your service provider for details), and you may be able to purchase more space if you need it.
If you need to back up more data than your ISP’s server is willing to accept, consider a service that offers FTP space specifically for backup. Dantz is certifying Internet backup services based on the companies’ commitment to security, reliability, and customer service. Right now there are two of these services: Digital Forest’s Recover-It (
) and Committed To Memory’s MacBackup.com (
). Both companies charge based on the amount of data you store with them each month.
BackJack BackJack is an all-in-one service that uses the proprietary BackJack software and space on the BackJack server. All you have to provide is the Internet connection.
BackJack provides a simple application for backing up and restoring files over the Internet (see the screen shot “Hit the Road, Jack”). It’s nowhere near as flexible as even Retrospect Express but compares to Personal Backup. You can select specific folders, save several versions of backed-up files, and schedule backups; you can’t exclude certain files from a folder, search for files to restore, or automatically restore just the latest versions of files.
One advantage BackJack has over Retrospect is that because BackJack can automatically save only a few versions of files, deleting older versions, you won’t need to prune your backup set manually. Plus, BackJack always compresses files using Aladdin Systems’ StuffIt Engine and encrypts them before sending them to the BackJack server.
The Skinny Both Retrospect and BackJack properly backed up and restored files over the Internet. There’s no question that Retrospect and Retrospect Express are much better backup programs, but they aren’t free, like the BackJack software. Usage fees are comparable: both BackJack and the FTP services charge based on how much data you store on their servers. Backing up 75MB initially and then 1MB per day would cost less than $25 per month, and restoring is always free.