30 September 2007

#39. Get Your Back Up

Today’s meal at the Tool Bar & Grill comes with a lecture from the chef. You know you should back up your important files frequently, right? You brush your teeth every morning, you wear clean underwear, you eat a healthy breakfast (don’t you?) – so why don’t you run regular backups? Is it because your mother didn’t drill the lesson into you in childhood?

Mothers of the world, take note. Today’s children are tomorrow’s disk failure victims, unless you indoctrinate them now. Safe computing habits are as essential as good hygiene. That goes for backing up as well as careful Web surfing and social networking.

Your chef believes in public service, so today I will help you moms teach your kids to protect their data pro bono. I’ll explain what to look for in specialized hard disk backup programs, with some recommendations. In my next post, I will review more choices in local backup software. (For my roundup of Web-hosted backup services, see posts #26 and #27.)

Backup Essentials

To make sure your vital data are safe, you need a backup system, which includes:

  • A storage medium (CD, DVD, flash disk, floppy disk, tape, hard disk, networked computer, or the Internet)
  • Backup software
  • A well-organized scheme, covering backup method, schedule, and medium rotation

When planning your backup scheme, follow Stephen Covey’s advice: begin with the end in mind. In this case, that means plan your backup scheme for easily restoring your data tomorrow, as well as for convenience in backing it up today.

There are various approaches to the mechanics of backing up, and all have their adherents.

  • Some advise frequent mirroring your entire hard disk; if the disk goes kablooey, you can restore its exact, complete image, with operating system, software, data, and all. However, this requires a lot of space on the backup medium, and restoring a disk image is overkill if you only need to recover a few files or folders. Acronis True Image is the recognized leader in commercial disk-imaging software, but the free Runtime DriveImage XML is also quite good.
  • Another approach is continuous backup software, which constantly monitors changes in designated files or folders and copies them to the backup repository in real time. However, this means corrupted files, viruses, and other undesirables also can be backed up (versioning mechanisms can help you find the last good copy, though), as well as a slight drain on your computer’s resources. IBM Tivoli Continuous Data Protection for Files (starter edition for individual PCs) is a prime commercial example of this genre.
  • Most commonly used, however, is local backup software. These utilities create incremental or differential backup files of important data files and folders, after an initial full backup. This results in quicker, smaller backups and relatively easy restoration of individual files or folders. (Differential backup copies all changes since the last full backup; incremental backup copies all changes since the last incremental backup, so you can end up with many incremental files.) If your entire disk is trashed, however, you will have to find and reinstall the operating system and all your software before you restore your backed-up data, and then you’ll have to restore the full backup followed by the last differential backup, or each incremental backup.

Two basic types of software facilitate the latter approach: specialized backup programs (several of which I will review in part 2 of this post, next week) and synchronization programs (such as Allway Sync, reviewed in #27, and followed up in #28).

(See Wikipedia for a fairly thorough, though slightly geeky, explanation of the entire subject of backups.)

For this backup software roundup, I looked for programs with these capabilities (and so should you):

  • Select files, folders, or entire drives for backup.
  • Select or exclude files according to file extension masks (for example, *.doc, *.xls, *.dat, etc.). The built-in mask should already know how to find Outlook, Outlook Express, and other common applications’ data files (for instance, *.pst and *.pab).
  • Support multiple backup “sets” or “profiles.”
  • Either incremental or differential backup or both, in addition to full backup.
  • Set up an automatic schedule for unattended backups.
  • Back up the Windows Registry.
  • Automatically save and close open files so they can be backed up.
  • Copy files as they are, or archive them using ZIP compression. (Use of this universally accepted file format ensures that you can restore your files even without the backup program that created them.)
  • Protect backup files using ZIP encryption.
  • Protect backup files with a stronger encryption method (such as DES, AES, Blowfish, etc.). (Warning: Strong encryption can require the backup program for a restore… and don’t lose that password!)
  • Copy to CD or DVD, hard drive, flash drive, networked computer, or an FTP site on the Internet (even if not secure).
  • Keep a log of backup and restore operations, and send email notifications on completion.

Other desirable features include enabling you to specify other programs to run before or after the backup, excluding already-compressed files (such as *.zip, *.jpg, *.mp3, etc.) from compression, and verifying the integrity of backup files. Some also include synchronization functions, and a few can also create disk mirror images.

Stay Tuned

In my next post, I will review a number of freeware and shareware backup utilities that passed my tests, and recommend my favorites.

Oh, all right. I can hear you moaning. So you don’t like cliffhangers? Here’s a sneak preview of the next post: If you want to get started backing up your files right away, start with the free Simply Safe Backup. For an even smoother experience, try shareware Insofta Document Backup.

Be sure to check back in a few days for details about the great backup utilities I have reviewed, and how I picked my favorites. (By then, I’m not sure Simply Safe and Insofta will still be my favorites.)

xplorer2 Updated

My favorite file manager utility, xplorer2, was recently featured in Lifehacker and Windows Secrets, both wonderful sources of computing information. The paid version of xplorer2 was updated to version 1.7 this summer. Now xplorer2 lite, the free version (for personal use only), has been updated to version 1.7 too. You can try out the paid version at http://www.zabkat.com/, or click the “Learn about the free lite version” link toward the bottom of the page.

Note to readers: Since starting the Tool Bar & Grill, I have usually succeeded in posting a new review every Sunday. But occasionally, real life gets in the way of this labor of love. In the last couple of weeks, due to various personal events, my posts have been less regular. I intend to return to my clockwork schedule very soon. Meanwhile, I ask you to bear with me, and to check back here frequently to catch my reviews whenever I can post them. And bring all your friends!

Please feel free to share your thoughts with me and all my readers by clicking on “comments” below or writing to jonathanstoolbar@gmail.com.


  1. I have a question regarding differential versus incremental backups that I've never been able to find a satisfactory answer to, and I'm hoping you can help. The question is, what are the general guidelines of when to do a differential versus an incremental backup? For example, I use Nero Backitup, and I started with a full backup and have since done 5 incremental backups. At what point, if ever, do I want to do a differential backup? Also, when I do the differential backup, does the software typically delete all the previous incremental backups? Thanks for your help.

  2. First of all, thanks for visiting my blog... And I hope you find those lost 24 real soon. :-)

    If you always make incremental backups, each one will go quickly, but you might have a large number of incremental files to deal with if you need to restore. If you always make differential backups, each backup will take more time but you will have only two files to deal with when restoring. You should choose the method that suits your needs best.

    I don't know how Nero Backitup works, so I can't tell you if a differential backup erases previous incremental backup files. Perhaps it makes sense to do a full backup periodically, with incremental backups in between?

    In either case, you are to be admired for backing up diligently, and I hope you never need those backups.

  3. Incremental backups MAY be dangerous (depands on the files you work on and on the general concept: file or image based...); instead of explaining too much here, I will give you a link: http://www.drivesnapshot.de/en/differential.htm

    BTW: Thank you for your nice and usefull work!!!

  4. Jonathan, take a look at Backup Platinum :)
    Drop me an email at sergey(dot)petrov(at)softlogica(dot)com if you would like to review it on your blog.

  5. Sergey, thank you very much for visiting my blog and for suggesting that I review Backup Platinum. Unfortunately, I am very busy around now and had to take a break from blogging while I catch up on real life. I hope to be able to return to evaluating software like yours soon, so please be patient and stay in touch. Thanks again.