Saving files on your hard drive is the easy part; choosing how to back up those files can be more difficult.
And why do you need backup software? If you ever have a hard drive fail, or get hit with an impossible-to-remove virus, you'll find that a complete backup--including your files, drives, and operating system--is the simplest way to get things back to normal. Not having backups is like flying in a combat zone without a parachute.
Traditional backup programs help you organize, schedule, and maintain your backups, and their newest versions make doing so easier than ever. However, tradition is quickly accommodating new realities. Two of the products we tested--NovaStor NovaBackup and EMC Retrospect Professional--recognize the increasing role of online backup in users' backup strategies.
Online backup is easy, secure, and safer than local backup (by virtue of being off-site, and being stored on drives that are themselves backed up regularly by your online service provider). Nevertheless, it isn't appropriate for everyone; most users have relatively slow upload speeds over their online connection, so online backup can be considerably slower than backing up to a local or ethernet hard disk. With a large collection of digital photos or multimedia, you're talking several days, literally.
Ideally, all backup programs would offer seamless access to all online backup services, but most don't. In the case of NovaStor and EMC, both companies also offer separate online backup services (NovaNet-Web and Mozy, respectively), which made tighter integration between the software and the online service a natural progression (NovaStor does a much better job at this than EMC, which offers basically a band-aid solution).
And while online backup is clearly the wave of the future, don't wait for the future to add a backup utility to your list of must-have applications now. A delay could be one of the costliest mistakes you'll ever make in your computing life.
The backup programs discussed on these pages are all available as downloads--see the link at the end of each review.
Online and On Your Hard Drive
NovaStor NovaBackup 10 Professional
If you're wondering what happened to NovaBackup 9, so am I: The company, oddly, went straight from version 8 to version 10. However, if my hands-on testing is any indication, the program simply may have been that much improved.
While the US$50 NovaBackup 10 (price as of 7/15/2008) has many major changes under the hood, the obvious improvement to this package is its infinitely friendlier user interface. This interface mimics one of the best, Microsoft Office 2007, and its big-button file menu. Perhaps even more important, NovaBackup's layout and workflow are immaculate--a rarity among the comprehensive backup applications that NovaBackup competes against.
Another huge improvement is the addition of disk imaging--backing up drives and partitions in their entirety. Since version 10 marks NovaStor's initial attempt at a disk imaging capability, I expected a primitive first-time solution; but NovaBackup's implementation, courtesy of Farstone, is more than adequate for most users, and will likely satisfy many professional users.
You can back up and restore entire drives or single partitions, restore individual files and folders, and even search within individual images--a feature lacking in the top dedicated disk-imaging solution, Acronis True Image Home 11.
I enjoyed my hands-on trials with NovaBackup 10 tremendously--especially the seamless integration of online backup storage. If you have an Amazon S3 or NovaStor's Digistor, you can simply add the service as a device, enter your user info, and then select it as the destination for any of your backups. Not that the backup clients for other online services are bad, but using NovaBackup's advanced options and GUI simply make it that much easier. It also allows you to apply the same settings to your local backups so that you're always sure you have everything backed up to each location.
NovaBackup includes a free, one-year, 2GB DigiStor account, though you need to provide credit card information to use it; the account will be cancelled, not automatically renewed, if you don't want to keep it.
NovaStor claims that it's reworked many of NovaBackup's internal routines so that backups transpire faster. In my hands-on testing, backups of every kind were as quick as, or quicker than, the competition's, but the program itself was a bit slow to boot, and the disaster recovery (imaging) module was especially slothful enumerating drives--it took up to 30 seconds to recognize them all. Because no progress bar appears during the enumeration, the first time it occurred I was nearly convinced that the program was locked up. Blinking drive lights told me it wasn't, but the experience is just that slow.
As improved as NovaBackup's interface may be, the software still has few rough spots. I was darned if I could figure out a way to save a script that I created using the backup wizard, which actually says "Create a script to backup your data" (using "backup"--one word--as a verb is their mistake, not mine). Secondly, interface glitches came up when I used the disaster recovery module on my system with XP SP2 set to Large Size (120 DPI) display mode. Until I switched to Normal Size (96 DPI), the module was unusable.
These glitches are easily fixed, and NovaStor has promised to make them quickly. Overall, the program is easy to use and highly capable, with file-based backup, support for tape drives, open-file backup, plain backup and restore of files, seamless online backup, integrated antivirus scanning, and disk imaging--all for just $50, undercutting much of the competition by more than half.
Download NovaStor NovaBackup 10 Professional (Price: $50, 15-day free trial)
EMC Retrospect 7.6 Professional with Continuous Data Protection Professional Add-in
Though I'd love to say that for version 7.6, EMC has revamped Retrospect's rather obtuse interface, such an overhaul hasn't actually occurred. I can report only that the most feature-packed file-based backup program on the planet is now even more powerful, albeit just slightly.
EMC Retrospect 7.6 Professional with Continuous Data Protection Professional Add-in ($129 plus $29 for continuous data module; price as of 7/15/2008) can't be matched for breadth of file-based features: super-flexible scheduling; disaster recovery; plain file copy; support for remote clients, tape drives, the Mac, and PCs...you name it. If it fits the traditional, file-based backup role, it's in here.
Version 7.6 has two additions: support for Mozy online backup and the company's $29 Continuous Data Protection (CDP) add-in. Alas, while they sound notable, neither is truly integrated; they can only roughly be categorized as new Retrospect features. You can launch CDP from within Retrospect, but it's otherwise a separate entity complete with its own system tray app sitting alongside Retrospect's monitor/scheduler.
Lack of integration aside, Retrospect CDP works well. It differs, however, from many of its competitors (including Memeo Autobackup and NTI Backup 5 Advanced, which is reviewed on the next page) by not allowing you to select a directory such as My Documents for backup. Instead, CDP selects files via what are referred to as protection policies, more commonly known as filters. For instance, select a filter (policy) to back up all Word documents (*.doc, *.docx) and another to back up all JPEG images. It's an easy-to-understand approach for less technical users, but I found it restrictive in practice.
What's decidedly not restrictive is CDP's ability to back up to several different locations. For instance, you can keep constantly updated copies of your data on a thumb drive, in a network folder, and on an external hard drive. You also have the option to back up only when a file is saved or periodically even when open files have not yet been saved.
Online backup integration isn't nearly as seamless. I was hoping that I could simply specify my Mozy online backup account as the destination for a backup job, but for now, Retrospect can only launch the Mozy client or, for first-time users, whisk you to a Web page where you can sign up. (The first 2GB at Mozy are free; you get unlimited personal storage for $5.) I use and recommend the service, but it's not truly a feature of Retrospect itself.
Other Retrospect 7.6 improvements include a Mac client that now runs in native mode (not emulated) on both Power PC and Intel-based Macs; better support for 64-bit operating systems; and the ability to back up a Microsoft Exchange Server 2007 operating in a two-node Windows Server 2008 Cluster environment.
Retrospect 7.6 Professional is $129, which includes two client licenses for backing up other PCs or Macs over a network. Additional client licenses are $39. The upgrade to version 7.6 is free for registered 7.5 users.
Download Retrospect for Windows 7.6 and CDP (Price: $129 for Retrospect, $29 for CDP; 30-day trial)
NTI Backup 5 Advanced
NTI Backup 5 Advanced (price $100 as of 7/15/2008) is by far the most complete backup solution NTI has ever released. It brings continuous data protection (CDP), file-based backup, and what the company calls drive-based backup (otherwise known as disk imaging), all under one extremely friendly roof. It also solves a long-standing problem for NTI--the inability to back up open files.
Backup 5 Advanced uses the same impressively intuitive interface that has been its trademark for several years, with the more polished look that was introduced last year. The step-by-step buttons on the left and the relevant options and selectors on the right are the perfect blend of easy-to-learn and easy-to-use. Many wizardlike interfaces get in the way once you know them, but this one doesn't.
The imaging module includes adjustments for compression level, encryption, and verification. You can get more granular with your tweaks for Backup 5 Advanced's file-based and CDP backup. For CDP, you can back up by filter or location (choose a directory), as well as back up your "profile" (e-mail, desktop settings, address book, Outlook .pst file, and the like). All three types of backup can be scheduled at any time, and you may instruct the PC to go into standby, hibernation, or power-down modes after a job completes. You can also have the program notify you by e-mail upon the completion (or failure) of a job, though it lacks a provision for running programs before and after a job.
Broadly speaking, NTI Backup 5 Advanced worked extremely well for me. Its backups were flawless; however, I had a couple of minor operational gripes. To back up to a network location, I had to first map the destination as a drive within Windows Explorer--a rather odd approach considering the program allows you to select an FTP site as your backup destination. Also, while you can schedule daily backups, you can't set them to run on alternate weeks to different media as you can with Retrospect. I discovered a very minor bug where the drive-based backup wouldn't show the drives on my system while an internal 100MB IDE Zip drive was attached. This was most like a conflict with the ASPI layer used by NTI for low-level drive access.
Backup 5 Advanced is the first NTI backup product I can wholeheartedly recommend: It's a solid, reliable performer, its file-based backup is more than adequate for typical use, and it offers CDP and imaging as well. Alas, at $100 it's twice the price of NovaBackup 10, a product that's nearly as friendly--and more powerful.
Download NTI Backup 5 Advanced (Price: $100; 30-day free trial)
Paragon Drive Backup 9.0 Personal
Paragon's disk-imaging application, Drive Backup 9.0 Personal (price $40, as of 7/15/2008), may still be a feature or two shy of competitor Acronis True Image Home 11, but you probably don't need whatever is be missing. DB9's newfound ability to back up and restore individual files and folders, in addition to imaging whole drives and partitions, makes the two programs nearly equal. If the restore implementation were a little simpler, you could throw out the "nearly"; still, Drive Backup 9's friendlier, configurable GUI and its $10 price advantage make it a difficult choice between the two.
While Paragon makes selecting individual files and folders for backup easy, selecting them for restore is harder. When you browse, instead of seeing a separate window with the files listed, you have to navigate a tree in the same browser you used to select the archive. If you're restoring from a long-path network location, this approach becomes unwieldy. The other, more serious problem is that you can restore a file only to its original location. This is a pain when you want to recover an older version of a file without overwriting the newer one.
The other major new feature in this version is the rescue media builder's ability to write its recovery image to a thumb drive as well as to CD. Flash USB drives boot much faster (on newer PCs whose BIOS supports booting from a USB device), and they're easier to carry around. Also, as always, if you own the company's Partition Manager the abilities of that program are added automatically to the recovery media. That makes for a very nice all-around emergency toolkit/boot disc.
The other changes to Drive Backup 9.0 Personal are minor: bug fixes, more drivers, and better support for various operating systems, including Apple's dual-boot Boot Camp for both Mac and PC support. In the end, for straight disk imaging, DB9 is as good as it gets. But the company needs to make restoring individual files and folders easier; and in light of NovaBackup 10, which has imaging as well as a host of other backup features, Paragon should also lower the price.
Download Paragon Drive Backup 9.0 Personal (Price: $40; 30-day free trial)
Having reviewed literally dozens of backup programs, I'm not easy to impress. But I was impressed with Titan Backup (price $40 as of 7/15/2008). Though it lacks the ability to back up open files and has no imaging capability, it has just about everything else you could wish for in a backup program. The interface is also one of the best I've seen--an intuitive combination of tabbed dialog and step-by-step wizard that I have only minor quibbles with.
Titan Backup's performance and abilities were pretty much on a par with other second-tier backup programs. You can opt for plain file backup, backup to a zip file, or backup to an executable zip (with a 4GB size limit--a zip limitation). Options include 256-bit AES encryption, the ability to run other programs before and after the backup, and user-name or password entry for backing up to protected network locations. The password didn't work with my Synology DS508 NAS box when the destination was a password-protected folder, but I'm inclined to blame this on the NAS box, which has a somewhat odd security implementation. There were no problems backing up to public folders, hard drives, a flash drive, CD/DVD, or via FTP.
Other features include e-mail notifications (with account settings), syncing of folders, a comprehensive scheduler, command-line execution, and some very nicely written help files. There's no support for tape, but on the consumer level, this is a not an issue these days.
As to those GUI quibbles, they were as petty as wishing the company had put the "Edit Task" button on the upper toolbar with "Delete" and "Import Task" configuration buttons instead of with the primary operational "Start" and "Restore" buttons on the side panel.
Download Titan Backup (Price: $40; 15-day free trial)